banksint04.htmlTEXTMSIE+,,mBIN Interview Edinburgh May 1995

Great Scot

"You banned from Brodie's then?"

"Don't think so. It aw happened in the cludgie; nobody saw."

"Jesus, you left this guy lying in the toilet?"

"Whit wiz Ah supposed tae dae? Say sorry? Stupit wanker. 
Hope it knocked some sense into him. Ah mean, Christ. 
I coulda been a real bastard and swiped his white stick as well."

"What?  He was..." I shouted, then saw McCann's grin. He winked. 

		- From Iain Banks' Espedair Street

Iain Banks is widely regarded as Britain's best living author - as he might say, that's no mean feat for a Scot. Over thirteen novels (seven of which have been Science-Fiction) he's earned a reputation not only for excellence, but for warmth, humour and a uniquely Scottish charm.

He came to the attention of the world in 1984 with the stunning debut The Wasp Factory, a morbid and hilarious tale of a teenage triple-murderer who writes off his killings as "a phase I was going through". This morbidity - call it VERY black humour - has been a constant in Banks' novels; the only common trait among them is that someone usually seems to die an untimely death. "Yeah," Banks laughs. "I suppose death's such an easy thing to control - you are God, after all. You have complete control over your characters, so you can do things in fiction that are never as timely in real life. Killing somebody off is by far the easiest one to do, and it's good and dramatic. It engages the attention... "I don't think I'm particularly obsessed with death or anything, I think it's more of a stylistic device. I'm lazy, I'll happily go for a cheap effect if it gets the job done."

There's plenty of evidence through his work that suggests anything but cheap effects. Banks followed The Wasp Factory with the bizarre tale of incest, paranoia and three-dimensional chess (on an infinite board) that was Walking On Glass, and then with the lengthy and intricate The Bridge, an investigation of the other universe a man in a coma has gone to. Then, under the name Iain M. Banks, he published his first Science-Fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, followed by Espedair Street, the charming (and not very morbid) contemporary tale of a fictitious rock superstar from the Seventies living in Glasgow. "In a way Espedair Street was a reaction to The Bridge, because The Bridge is incredibly complicated," Banks explains. "There was a need for some sort of relief from all that complexity - if I'd continued on the same some sort of curve, from The Wasp Factory to Walking On Glass to The Bridge, I'd either have disappeared up my own arsehole or lapsed into self-parody. For the next non-SF book after The Bridge, I wanted to go back to something a bit more linear. "Also, I like using the fantastic, fantasy-type settings or whatever, but I can't take Fantasy seriously. I can't take the supernatural seriously either. So I have a lot of self-imposed problems in that regard, and I've got to work around it. In The Bridge it's done by having the guy in the coma imagining everything, but in Espedair Street it's imagining a way in which working-class kids can get to have vast amounts of money at a disgustingly early age and far too much sex and drugs as well... obviously, they become rock stars. You actually get to live out your fantasies, so that gives you a lot of leeway there as well."

Banks thinks his least successful novel is Canal Dreams, the violent story of Hisako Onada, a Japanese cellist caught in a virtual war zone. "I think it was probably a bit ambitious," he says. "At the time I wasn't middle-aged, and I certainly wasn't a middle-aged Japanese lady cello player." Canal Dreams was also the hardest of Banks' books to actually write, and he'd end up hitting the whisky after utterly unproductive stints at the computer. "I was basically drunk," he chuckles. "It's the only book I've ever successfully written under the influence of any drug or whatever. I've tried writing smashed, stoned, whatever; it tends not to work. You think you're producing a work of utter genius, guaranteed to win the Nobel Prize for literature - and probably chemistry as well - the following year. And this weird thing happens: you go to bed, and you wake up the next day and discover that somebody has broken in during the night, and without leaving any signs has managed to get into your computer, started up the program and subtly but horribly altered this work of a genius that you wrote the previous night. It still vaguely sounds or reads like you remember it reading before, but it's total crap. I worked out that there was no way around this; these strange people were always going to break into the flat if I'd been smoking or ingesting anything. So I gave that up."

Since the rather sensational (and somewhat controversial) debut that was The Wasp Factory, Banks' mainstream novels have been the source of his fame and income. However, Science-Fiction always has been and always will be his main interest. "I was nearly 30 and hadn't had a book published, so I thought I'd write something that wasn't Science-Fiction," he explains. "I had to go through a big internal battle with myself, because the hard-line part of me didn't want to give up Science-Fiction. The pragmatist part of me was saying, `Oh no, write something that's got a better chance of being published', because there are just more publishers you can send mainstream stuff to. The mainstream book that resulted was The Wasp Factory. It wasn't quite as mainstream as I meant it to be, but that's alright. "But yeah, to some extent I still feel like an SF writer who happens to write mainstream, rather than the other way around. It's my first love. You know, if there were a gun to my head it's the one I'd choose over mainstream."

Iain (M.) Banks' latest Science-Fiction novel, Feersum Endjinn, has just been released in paperback in Australia. His next mainstream novel, Whit, will be released in hardback before the end of the year.

This was originally published by Simon McKenzie, May 1995.
Thanks to Simon McKenzie for the interview.

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by: Simon McKenzie