Iain Banks – Interview

Greg Lowe

A disturbed teenager slaughtering rabbits and torturing wasps; A futuristic religious leader decapitating his nemesis, keeping the head alive as he uses it daily as a punch bag; A serial killer intent on murdering those who represent the excesses of Thatcher’s Britain.

Just a few examples of the dark, warped and, often perversely funny themes that run through the works of Iain Banks.

Now a member of Caledonia’s resplendent trinity of contemporary authors, alongside Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh, Banks speaks with a soft East Coast Scottish brogue. He’s a rapid talker, a man not averse to making fun of himself whose conversation often breaks into laughter.

Conversation drifts from science fiction and technology to music and his new found love of flying. Banks discusses how his disgust with Margaret Thatcher and her greed-driven transformation of Britain inspired his novel Complicity, and adds in his personal view of Tony Blair.

“He’s a war criminal. He’s got to go… I think he’s bonkers. ”

Despite being an international bestselling author who rakes in a basic of £250,000 per year, he remains loyal to his “chums” from school and often slips across the river for a “wee dram of whiskey” with his pal Ken McCloud.

Writing for Banks started at an early age. After attempting spy fiction age 14, he later tried his hand at a near-future fable influenced by Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22. A decade on, with his attempts at getting his sci-fi published continuously drawing blanks, he had an “internal debate”. It was time for a “pragmatic change in strategy”, and as his 20s drew to a close Banks tried his hand at mainstream fiction.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it with science fiction, so I decided to widen my circle of rejection, ” he laughs.

The Wasp Factory was the result. Published on Banks’ 30th birthday (Valentine’s Day 1984), it was a huge word-of-mouth success, even if a host of high-brow reviewers thumbed their noses at it. “That was great. I was completely unknown, a Joe Nobody. I was delighted to get reviewed, even if they were bad reviews, ” he says, adding the fact the book was a black comedy went over the heads of most critics. “They took it too seriously and didn’t see the humour. They couldn’t see past the animal torturing. ”

After soiling his hands with mainstream fiction it was time for him to embark on his real passion, science fiction, and adopting the name “Iain M Banks” (the “M” stands for Menzies) he brought the ‘Culture’, his futuristic technological utopia, to life.

He first conceived the Culture in the late 60s, and has developed it ever since. “It’s basically a lot of wish fulfilment, I write about all the things I would like to have, ” he says.

“I’d had enough of the right-wing US science fiction, so I decided to take it to the left. It’s based around my belief that we can live in a better way, that we have to. So I created my own leftist/liberal world. ”

“It’s different with mainstream fiction, where you’re stuck in reality. In science fiction you can ask ‘wouldn’t it be good to have this? ’”

Whether sci-fi or mainstream, Banks is happy to antagonise both his own and his reader’s ideas and values, and the disturbing, often violent twists he employs are not without a point – Banks seeks to jolt readers into taking a realistic warts-and-all look at the world.

“It’s partly to acknowledge how the world really is. Things can be fun and full of beauty, but you’re lying if you don’t admit to the fact that life has its really horrible sides, ” he explains. “Though I’ve never really intended to explore any particular psychological morass. ”

Whether his books are your cup of tea or not, it’s hard to deny that Iain Banks is a writing machine. In the 21 years since The Wasp Factory was published Banks has bashed out 21 novels – his personal favourite being the mainstream title The Bridge. Typically he starts writing each year in October and on average takes three or four months to produce his final draft. He says the trick is to first write the novel in your head.

“Once you have your characters speaking to you in your head you can turn it in on itself and essentially the book writes itself. ”

While Banks enjoys nine months or so off every year, you’d be hard-pressed to say he was idle with his time.

At 40 he learnt to ride motorbikes, and last year for his 50th birthday he took up flying. So is Mr Banks baulking at the onset of old age?

“No not really, it’s more about the challenge of learning new skills than anything else really. I am an old dog waiting to be taught new tricks. ”

Music also plays a big part in his life. He’s a rocker at heart, although he namedrops his newest CD acquisitions as country types Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash as well as up and coming Canadian indie band Arcade Fire.

When not listening to music on his 60 gig iPod, or using the music device as a prop to convert his friends into Mac users, drawing them away “from the dark side of Microsoft”, he whiles away time making his own music on his G5 iMac.

So surrounded with planes, bikes, tech toys, music, malt whiskey, racing cars – everything a boy could want – has writing’s allure become tarnished?

“I do still enjoy it but not as much as before, ” he admits. “It is a job and people are expecting something good, so I’m not as carefree and lah, lah, lah as I was before.

“I’ve got used to the idea that I can do it and my powers have not deserted me yet – they will. ”

Let’s hope not Iain.

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