The working day of most artists is probably something of a mystery to many of us, but if John Banville's daily routine is representative, then we should probably think twice before encouraging our sons and daughters to pick up a pen, brush or instrument. The award-winning author told Brendan O’Connor that his working day, well, it leaves a lot to be desired. Here's how he describes it:

"I go into my workroom and I shut the door and there’s total silence for hour after hour after hour. I always think of my workroom as the black hole, you know, not even light escapes from it. It must be very eerie. And then, you know, I stumble out at the end of the day, looking for someone to kill because I’ve had such a horrible day and then I have my first glass of wine and then I learn to pretend to be human again."

Banville was in studio to talk about his latest book, The Singularities, which, he says, took him 5 or 6 years to write and will almost definitely be his last literary novel:

"It’ll certainly be the last of this kind. As I say, five, six years to write a book, I just couldn’t take that on again. I’ll keep writing my crime books and I’ll do some other things, but I couldn’t do this again. It's too much hard work, you know, it’s grinding labour, day after day after day after day. There are great joys in it, but mostly it’s just hard, hard work and I’m too old for it now."

Having already described his working day as something that renders him murderous, Banville went into more detail, telling Brendan how he starts at panic, before eventually getting to the point where he doesn’t even know who’s doing the work anymore:

"Every morning when I sit down, I look at the page and I think, 'I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how I did it yesterday or the day before. What am I going to do?’ I get into a panic and then I put down a few words and then I push them around and then I add a few more words and after an hour or two I realise that I’m lost, I’ve sunk past myself, I’m no longer myself. The person who’s writing at that stage is not me. I don’t know who he is, but he’s not me."

The Singularities is set in an alternative universe, one where cars are powered by salt water and the Dutch have re-conquered New York. Banville describes it as having lots of jokes:

"I hope it’s entertaining. It’s meant to be. The purpose of art – one of the purposes of art is to delight the reader or the viewer or the listener. It is playful. It takes place in a sort of alternative universe that’s very like our universe. But then I always think of this universe as alternative."

Banville is notoriously unhappy with all his literary novels, saying that they never reach the heights that he expects of them. Maybe he’s happy with this latest one? Brendan asks:

"Oh no. I’m happy with the crime books because they’re good, well-crafted work. You know, I give them all my craftsmanship. I’m quite proud of them. But the other ones, ones like this, all I see are the faults and the flaws and the failures. And that’s as it should be. If I was satisfied, I’d give up writing."

Given that he has a hard time – to say the least – writing his literary novels, Brendan asks him why he torments himself. His answer seemed to suggest he’s not entirely sure himself:

"That is a very good question. I think every artist asks himself and herself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ At least three times a week I look up from my desk and say, ‘I’m supposed to be a grown-up person and here I am, day after day elaborating these transcendent lies. Why am I doing it?’"

As a writer, Banville does get to work with sentences though, and that evidently that, at least, brings him some degree of pleasure:

"The sentence is our greatest invention as a species. There have been civilisations that could do without the wheel, but they had to have the sentence or they wouldn’t have been a civilisation. And it’s a great privilege to me to have spent my life working with this basic, profound invention of human beings."

The twenty-first century has seen a lot of literature, cinema and visual art dealing with multiverses, metaverses and dystopian futures, but Banville, although he enjoyed creating his alternative universe, doesn’t have any time for dystopias:

"It’s not dystopian. I mean, it’s just the same as our world. I don’t believe in dystopias. The world is as it is. You know, it’s a horrible place and it’s an absolutely glorious place."

The new novel has some not-so-nice people in it, and even though Brendan claims the current bogue is for everyone to pretend to be nice these days, Banville insists that his characters are properly representative:

"The world doesn’t change. People don’t change. We are as we are, we are as we were when we were in the caves. I always say, my friend the philosopher John Gray and I agree that the only real progress we’ve made is the invention of the flush lavatory and dentistry."

But are there actually good and bad people? Is evil a thing? Or does everything we do stem from choice and circumstance?

"If I had my way, I would banish the word evil and the word good from the dictionary. I would replace [them] with the word circumstance. In certain circumstances, we will be good, we’ll do our best. If circumstances turn bad, we’ll turn bad along with them. We’ve seen throughout history that perfectly... sound, decent people will do almost anything. There is no depth of evil that we won’t sink to, given the circumstances."

What about him, Brendan wondered, has Banville himself ever had murderous thoughts? The answer is delivered in typically deadpan Banville style:

"Oh, of course. Haven’t you?"

You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with John Banville by going here.

The Singularities by John Banville is published by Knopf.