Iain M. Banks interviewed
Iain Menzies Banks was born in 1954 and raised for the greater part in the Scottish village of North Queensferry. He lives there today with his wife. The only child of a professional ice skater and an Admiralty officer, he describes his childhood as ‘very loving’ and ‘rather peaceful’ – despite a predilection for dam building and constructing home-made explosives (‘some electrically detonated, I’ll have you know’). His first novel The Wasp Factory – published to coincide with his 30th birthday – brought him equal amounts of critical acclaim (‘a minor masterpiece’) and controversy (‘a work of unparalleled depravity’).
Stating that he always wanted to be a writer, he alternates between writing science fiction and mainstream novels, producing one a year. ‘It’s been that way for the last ten years. It’s a fairly sort of settled sequence.’
He studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology at Stirling University (‘A monumental hubris, now I think about it’) to help him in his chosen vocation.
After undertaking ‘lots of daft wee jobs’ he eventually moved to London and became a costing clerk for a firm of lawyers. He was still involved in this form of ‘creative writing’ when Macmillan accepted The Wasp Factory.
One of the most popular and best selling authors of the last fifteen years, he has been listed among the top ten writers of the Millennium in the BBC News website poll, rubbing shoulders with Shakespeare, Cervantes and Joyce.
When A Song of Stone was initially published, you did receive some negative press. Does that bother you?
IMB: I have always had negative press, right from the start with The Wasp Factory, so it honestly doesn’t bother me. Water off a duck’s bottom, quite frankly.
You don’t consider this to be incompetence on the part of the reviewer? The book does after all use a complex narrative address.
No. I think everyone’s entitled to their opinion, it is as simple as that. I mean, I have had reviews that I’ve regarded as incompetent – I’ve also had the occasional good review that’s incompetent too – where the reviewer’s said ‘Aah! That book’s really brilliant!’ and obviously has not understood it.
So, I don’t think that just because a review is bad the reviewer doesn’t know what they’re doing. They may understand the book very well, just object to it in some way.
Equally, someone can really not understand the book but enjoy it regardless, and I might think ‘Well you haven’t understood it, but still like it.’ So these things don’t always go together. As I’ve said, it doesn’t bother me – you have to have reviews and you have to have reviewers.
In some ways, the person to whom the reviews are of the least utility is the writer – these are for readers, and a negative one can maybe press you to read a book if you know that a certain critic is one that you disagree with! As long as they’re consistent, that’s all you’re looking for.
How do you feel about the accusation that you’re apparently trying to get into the literary highbrow realms? Is this a fair comment?
IMB: Well, not really. No. To the extent I’m writing a novel that uses a certain extended use of language, then certainly, and if that’s trying to get into the literary highbrow market then guilty as charged! There’s no absolute guarantee that it won’t happen – but anyway I can’t be, because one of the ways you have to do that properly is to take yourself fairly seriously. You have to cultivate a certain sort of image and a certain persona – you certainly don’t go about writing your next novel as a science fiction space opera – which is exactly what I intend to do!
You’ve consistently experimented with your writing styles. In A Song of Stone, the narration is in the present tense and addressed to a narratee – Morgan, the castle, the reader – there were elements of narrative play back in Complicity. Is this a deliberate device, or does it just come into place as you write?
IMB: Ha, the use of the second person. Oh yes, it’s quite deliberate, I just like mucking around with that sort of thing. It’s good fun. You try to make it mean something – you don’t do it gratuitously for a laugh – you do something to the narrative that has some sort of bearing on what the book – the story’s – actually about. It’s something that I enjoy doing. It’s just in this case I decided to go for a very ornate, linguistic structure, use lots of long words and stuff and have odd sentence structures and all the rest of it. That’s mainly to do with the character of Abel himself, and the way he uses language. With his rarefied vision and sensibilities, his use of language is the only weapon he’s got. What I suppose the book is saying is that in some circumstances the sword is mightier than the pen. Tough shit, basically.
A Song of Stone does seem to contain elements of the gothic, in the traditional sense. Would you agree with this?
Yes, I suppose so. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a single book of proper gothic literature in my life, from what I know of the genre. I suppose so, although it’s not a deliberate influence. I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a gothic book’. I suppose what I consider gothic are things that I read when I was young like Titus Groan, and Kafka – that’s as far as I take in the gothic. Apart from that, Frankenstein, but I don’t think that’s a gothic book as far as I’m aware. Obviously it’s such a paradigm that there will be unconscious aspects of it in the background and in characters, that sort of thing.
At the end of A Song of Stone, there seems to be an almost Shakespearean soliloquy by the character Abel. Would this be a fair comment?
IMB: Yes. I was trying to do a classical tragedy amongst other things. You know, if you’re going to ape somebody, ape the best! That’s what I say! Make yourselves Shakespearean! Well, I’ve often said that I deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare . . . ! Aah. There’s no comparison.
How far – if at all – were you consulted in the production of Crow Road? What did you think of the end result?
IMB: I thought it was very good, actually. I wasn’t sure what it’d be like, so I decided to get drunk and watch it after putting it off for a while – and glory be!
No, I wasn’t involved with the production at all – despite the vicious rumour going around that I had a walk on part, where I’m wearing a baseball cap! So, I left them to it, and I did the right thing by having nothing to do whatsoever with the production.
From that, it’s interesting how the novelistic imagination works – in a sense has to work – and how the visual imagination works. In the novel it takes half a chapter or more to cover Prentice’s decline: not eating properly, shoplifting books – a heinous crime! – he’s not getting on with his family, he’s fallen out with his father, he’s got no money, his best pal’s sleeping with his aunt – who he slept with first . . . in the television version it takes about ten seconds, right? Prentice is dressed in a slightly down at the heel long black coat thing, walking down the street, when he stops to pat a wee dog. As he sits, squatting there, someone puts some money in his hand. It dawns on him at the same time as the viewer that ‘They think he’s a tramp!’ He looks like a tramp! All in ten seconds – it took me half a chapter. Now that’s ability, to be able to capture that sort of thing visually. That’s genius at work.
Did you mind the various changes made in the television version – The idea of introducing Rory as a ‘ghost’, for example?
IMB: Yeah, that worked quite well, in fact – I don’t think I’d have thought of using the supernatural – write about what you know! I also had to get used to Ashley having short dark hair and Darren Watt killing himself, but these are minor moans. As I’ve said, I thought it was very good indeed.
In the novel, Kenneth McHoan is portrayed – amongst other things – as a progressive educator and a storyteller, firing the imagination of his own children as well as their friends. These aspects of his character seem to have been captured perfectly by Bill Paterson in the television version. With all the references to Magmites and Mythosaurs – have you ever considered writing a children’s book?
Aah! No! Certainly not! I think it was not long after The Wasp Factory was published that someone contacted me saying that they’d just read it and asked me if I’d consider writing a children’s book for them! In a word, no.
Are any other adaptations of your novels likely?
IMB: Well, funnily enough, Brian Elsley – the screenwriter for Crow Road - is working on the third draft of Complicity, not for television but as a feature film. It’s hopefully going to be directed by Gavin Millar, the same director, but we’ll have to see. It’s been optioned, so I guess there’s a one in fifty chance of selection. But if it is made, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be an eighteen certificate! Other than that, The Player of Games has been optioned . . . there was even some mention of Luc Besson being approached to direct it – no doubt he’ll say ‘Non!’ The Wasp Factory of course is still in litigation.
The Wasp Factory was recently repeated on Radio 4, read by Joseph McFadden. Even at the late hour of its broadcast, it still carried a caveat for the listener – do you think that after fifteen years it deserves this notoriety?
IMB: Absolutely! Yes! And so it should! Seriously though, I never expected it to be so successful, and certainly didn’t anticipate all the interest that surrounded it. I’d hoped for maybe one or two half-decent reviews, you know – be allowed to write another book – build up a small readership over a few years and then be able to give up work and live in reasonable comfort. The rest, as they say is history!
In Excession you offered some interesting developments in The Culture for your readership. Suddenly this all-encompassing Utopia of post-scarcity technological superiority is revealed to be in a complacent state of centuries old stagnation, and that the arrival of the Excession itself heralds the advent of a technologically superior civilisation which is regarded as a potential threat. Why?
IMB: Well, it stands to reason really. Just because The Culture has reached some form of social and technological sophistication doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be the be all and end all. Okay, so they’re certainly more advanced than a lot of the other civilisations encountered in the previous novels, but you do get told (in Excession) that some civilisations have become so advanced that they’ve sort of sublimed into a higher plane of existence. So, being an onwards and upwards sort of fellow it’s easy to see that somewhere along the line there’s going to be something that’s potentially a lot smarter and more sophisticated than yourself.
As the various threads of the story converge in Excession, you get a sense of an almost fairy-tale ending – the dead are returned to life, a baby is born as Genar-Hofoen and Dajeil’s relationship is healed, the Affront are dealt with and the ‘Outside Context Problem’ has been resolved – would you say this was a fair comment?
IMB: I think so, yes, although I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that – people did die after all – and even for a little while, being dead is being dead. Also there were all the complexities involving the Minds conspiracy that needed concluding. Obviously heads will roll . . .
Although The Culture’s post-scarcity Utopian society provides a huge background framework for the various plots – giving you narrative flexibility, pace and action – would you ever consider narrowing your focus and writing an overtly critical Utopia in the Le Guin/Russ mould, or would you find this form of science fiction too constraining?
IMB: I don’t think I would, no. Having said that, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was certainly one of the finest SF Utopias I’d ever read, although that was a long time ago. Yes, it’d be interesting – challenging even – but being a bit of a slacker at heart I don’t think I’d have the patience – unless of course I change my mind in the future.
There seems to be a renaissance of SF in the cinema at the moment, and although The Player of Games has been optioned, is your preferred choice for a film adaptation of one of your novels still Consider Phlebas?
IMB: Ah yes. I’d love to see Consider Phlebas given the big budget Hollywood treatment. It’s the sort of thing they do very well – pure space opera with very big ships and lots of violent action in it and stuff. They could even change the ending if they wanted – I wouldn’t mind.
What works of science fiction have influenced your writing, and are there any contemporary authors that you rate highly?
IMB: Which works of science fiction have influenced me? A hell of a lot – off the top of my head, early Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke – and out of the new wave, as it were, personally I’d single out M. John Harrison. He’s a stunning writer, the In Viriconium series are some of the best science fiction stories that I’ve read. Brian Aldiss – I think Aldiss is probably the best British science fiction writer and I’ve got a lot of time for his stuff, it’s so good. My pal Ken Mcleod and Jeff Noon. Actually, as a voracious science fiction reader, everyone gets the blame – there’s nobody specific – but Delany was a big influence.
Contemporary music and innovations have often featured in many of your mainstream novels – perhaps to such an extent that you’ve even been referred to in a song by The Divine Comedy. Do you still maintain your keen interest in both current music and gadgetry?
IMB: Ah, yeah, I suppose I do. I tend to listen to whatever happens to be around. Of course, taking a close look at some of my mainstream novels (Complicity, Crow Road) will give you a fairly good indication of what I like, that sort of stuff I like. Yes, I still like using cultural references – laptops, computer games, mobile phones – these sort of feature a lot in my stories.
Do you still consider The Bridge to be your finest novel to date?
IMB: Yes, it’s still The Bridge – still the best, which is almost quite depressing, as it’s thirteen years old. I think it’s the best because it’s so complicated. Funnily enough, the same company that produced Crow Road on the television have optioned The Bridge and also Whit, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens there.
What was the hardest novel that you’ve ever had to write?
IMB: Canal Dreams. I think it kind of shows, and it’s certainly the one that I’m the least satisfied with. I did use soft drugs, actually, to write it – whiskey! I’d get up in the morning – well 2 O’ Clock in the afternoon, and try to put the writing of it off and find distractions: ‘oh, there’s the news’ and ‘there’s some more news’, ‘I haven’t done the washing up, better do the washing up’ - on and on avoiding the issue ’til about midnight. Then I’d go back over what I’d written the day before, revise, add and keep going ’til 6 in the morning – and I’d be very drunk indeed! So I’d then get up the next morning – sorry, afternoon – and it was a case of ‘Hmm. More vacuuming . . .’. The whole novel was written with whiskey. I also did a lot of research for Canal Dreams. This is known as ‘The ‘R’ Word’ in our house – you don’t mention it! So an awful lot of research was involved, and it kind of shows . . . perhaps not helped by the fact that (a) I’m not female and (b) I’m not a Japanese cello player!
I had also set it in Panama – just at the time the Americans were trying to destabilise ‘Old Pineapple Face’, General Noriega – which was . . . interesting.
I still stand by it as a work of fiction, but it’s definitely at the other end of the spectrum from The Bridge.