bankfeat.htmlTEXTMSIEz,,mBINO Interview Oxford Union February 1996

Iain Banks at the Oxford Union


On Tuesday, 6th February, author Iain Banks, acknowledged in 1993 as one of the Best of Young British Writers, spoke about his life and works at the Oxford Union. In 1984, Iain Banks exploded into public and critical notice with his first published novel, The Wasp Factory. The Daily Express challenged its readers with the injunction: "Read it if you dare."

This weird and macabre story tells of a maladjusted adolescent who visits unspeakable horrors on his young relatives. Its grotesque plot and tactile prose captivated and disgusted his nascent readership and established his enduring reputation as having a disturbing imagination. Since then, he has gone on to produce a novel every year, thereby satisfying his addicts who have grown in proportion to his output. He is also the author of numerous sci-fi novels under the shockingly unusual nom-de-plume, 'Iain M Banks'.

Mr Banks, or as he admitted he preferred being called, "Banksie", was endearingly genuine and devoid of the pretensions that so often plague many contemporary writers. He spent only ten minutes speaking about himself, regaling us with anecdotes about his childhood, juvenilia and hatred of the 'R' word: "research". He displayed a boyish awkwardness until he was responding to questions, speaking in an almost unintelligible Scottish brogue[1] and frequently commenting on his last 'good meal' that generated quite a few suppressed belches.

Banks revealed that his inspiration came from an immature obsession with creating big things and then devising the most outrageous way to destroy them. He expressed reservations about the growing trend of making high-tech products as small as possible, saying he was an avowed 'technophile'.

The medium of literature allows him the ultimate freedom creating large-scale destruction, without the limitations of a film or TV budget. He explained his frequent use of explicit violence and obscure characterisation as symptomatic of his own 'sick imagination'. He confessed to being a torturer of insects as a child and to having shot a number of innocent sparrows, but that his conscience had forced him to resort to unperformed gruesome fantasies to purge his mind of its latent viciousness.

Describing his development as a writer since his early adjective-infested days when he judged the quality of his work by a high pun-to-word ratio, his current more 'structuralist' approach, Banks displayed great perspicacity about the nature of writers. He described his first novel, The Hungarian Liftjet, written when he was 16, as embarrassingly bad, and vowed that the only extant copy will be clutched to his breast when he is cremated.

In responding to a question about what one quality was most necessary for an aspiring author, he said "an absolute over-weaning sense of brilliance", "ruthless naked ambition" and, hopefully, "a love of writing" were essential. He believed that although the most brilliant could be capable of writing novels without a plan, he himself did not see them as an organic growth, since such an approach had led his earlier works to become "cancerous". More driven by plot and idea than characterisation, Banks said that he always wrote with the denouement in mind, and was often ruthlessly cruel to his own creations.

Like Will Self, Banks admitted to writing under the influence of various substances.[2] He justified his youthful experimentation as the only kind of 'research' he was capable of enjoying. Canal Dreams, his least favourite work, in which the 'heroine' is a female Japanese cellist cum mass-murderer, proved only to materialise in a state of severe inebriation between the hours of three and eight in the morning.

Now happily married and earning a substantial amount of pocket-money, he said he no longer felt the need to take drugs as they made him feel 'different' and that in his current reality, such a fictive state would necessarily be inferior.[3]

Banks noted that a "central theme" of his writing was a "crisis of conscious or identity", the surprise ending of The Wasp Factory and the infinitely mutable main character in Consider Phlebas cited as examples.

There is also a strong anti-religious theme in his works - Banks is a third generation atheist - which reaches a climax in The Crow Road when we are told, "All the gods are false. Faith is idolatry". Banks believes that an evangelical body of door-to-door atheists should be established to spread the truth about the lie which is the 'word'.

Despite the fact that he is still most widely known for his first published work, Banks is not dismayed as he is proud of its classical 12 chapter symbolism and lucid brevity. Although he was extremely pleased with Malcolm Sutherland's stage adaptation of the book, he is extremely anxious about the Hollywood film version that is currently being filmed. He believes that his best novel to date is The Bridge[4], a study of a quasi-reality free from the constraints of time and space, drifting between dream and actuality. His most recent novel, Whit, described as a modern Pilgrim's Progress, explores the eerie realm of religious cults and the cruelty and betrayal they foster. Currently available in hardback, it is priced at UKP15.99.

Iain Banks' talk was a reassuring example of an unaffected and inspiring attitude to writing, and the long queue of fans waiting for autographs for stacks of at least three books proved that his popularity was only heightened by an opportunity to meet him in person.


Neale Grant's notes:

[1] Nonsense. The man was a paragon of clarity.

[2] However, he made it quite clear that it always turned out crap when he did, and that Canal Dreams was the only published fiction that was created while in an altered state of mind.

[3] Makes you sick, doesn't it?

[4] Good man.


Text by Sevil Delin. HTML markup by Neale Grant.

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