banksint06.htmlTEXTMSIE,,mBINT Interview The Telegraph November, 1996

Bard of Scottish Mayhem


ONE EVENING this summer, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Irvine Welsh, the ultra-fashionable author of Trainspotting, forsook his usual nightclub readings and held a "talk" to promote his new novel, Ecstasy. Afterwards, fashionably dressed young people queued for autographs, jostling and complaining that their hero had skimmed through the session and hardly bothered to answer questions.

Next door at the National Theatre, his fellow Scot Iain Banks had been promoting his latest science-fiction novel, Excession, published under his sci-fi nom de plume Iain M Banks (the M stands for Menzies, an old family name). He had just finished an hour-long question-and-answer session, signed countless books and was still chatting with fans - an intriguing mixture of suits, students, oddballs and, unusually for a sci-fi writer, several women. Almost without exception, they left with a smile on their face.

Banks, 42, neither hangs out in clubs nor does drugs any more, and has always looked more like a genial sociology prof than a raver, but he was Scotland's enfant terrible before Welsh ever plugged in his laptop. And 12 years after his controversial debut, The Wasp Factory - which features the 16-year-old narrator slaughtering wasps in a variety of horrific ways - he is still, according to the Scottish Sunday Times, "the bard of Scottish depravity, madness and mayhem".

American science-fiction critic David E Cortesi has applauded Banks for using "the conventions of SF the way Robin Williams uses the voices and slogans of pop culture". Martin Amis and Fay Weldon speak highly of him. Critics ponder why his books have never made the Booker shortlist. All his books share a fascination with the breakdown of belief systems, violence, landscape, familial relationships and dreamlike states.

'I'll record it when it comes out, but I won't watch it'

Now, for the first time, an Iain Banks book has been filmed. The Crow Road, adapted from his 1992 mainstream novel, is a four-part BBC2 serial, starting tonight. It stars Joseph McFadden as the protagonist, Prentice McHoan, alongside Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi. A set insider predicts that The Crow Road is so good it will turn Banks into "the Roddy Doyle of the Lowlands".

The book opens with the words: "It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanch." It is a family saga of sorts, and probably the most popular and accessible novel of the 15 Banks has written, with sales exceeding 200,000 even before the new special edition to tie in with the television adaptation.

The hero is striving to understand the big issues in life - God, morality, love and sex. He is also looking for his long-lost Uncle Rory (Capaldi), who disappeared seven years ago, leaving a computer disk containing notes for a novel, a murder-mystery called, yes, you guessed it, The Crow Road.

Is the book based on his own background, I ask when we meet in an Edinburgh bar. "There is a family feeling in The Crow Road that reflects on my family," he says. "But as for the rest of it: no. The very first image came from a 'strange-but-true' story I heard on the radio. It was about this old chap in the Midwest of America who was being cremated. The doctor had forgotten to remove his pacemaker, and his batteries or whatever exploded. As a writer, you collect these things."

Banks has not been involved in adapting the book for television, and couldn't even bring himself to visit the set. "I was invited, and I thought about going, but I was actually too shy." He won't even be watching the programme when it goes out tonight. He instructed his press officer at Little, Brown to go along to the London preview and report back.

"I'll record it when it comes out, but I won't watch it," he says. "I'll find out from people I trust if it's any good. If they say, 'I wouldn't bother, Banksy', then I won't. But if they say, 'It's brilliant, it's much better than the book', then I'll watch it. I'll grit my teeth but I'll watch it."

Banks says that, like many writers, he is still a kid at heart. "You keep on seeing the world without some of the filters and blinkers that are put in place by the act of growing up, becoming mature and getting a proper job. It's been a blessing I haven't had children actually. I haven't been forced to grow up." For this reason, his first love will always be sci-fi. In creating intergalactic worlds and fantastic space battles he can get away with anything.

His next novel will be, "deeply horrible," he says. "Seriously back to grim."

Banks cites pop music, television and James Bond films as greater influences than any literary role model. He does, however, mention Joseph Heller and Hunter S Thompson, and professes a surprising admiration for Jane Austen. "It is a mark of pure genius to universalise something so particular, so elegantly," he explains.

Banks now lives in a large modern house by the Forth Bridge with his Anglo-German wife, Annie. Success has brought him a Porsche 911 and a succession of increasingly flash BMWs, but it hasn't mellowed him. He remains an anti-Tory with the fierceness only a Scotsman can muster, despises the "Hampstead novel" and calls himself an "evangelical atheist". He talks of wanting "to proselytise about the badness of religion, and to say that faith is wrong, belief without reason and question is just evil".

Surely, I say, people will always need something spiritual to believe in? He cocks a doubtful eyebrow and, assuming an avuncular, professorial air, says that within "the next two or three generations, everything will be explicable in scientific terms. What's left for mysticism or superstition?"

As for his own future, screenplays of his book Complicity and the science-fiction novel Player of Games are already written, and the films are in the pipeline. He is currently in litigation with an American company to reclaim the film rights to the The Wasp Factory.

And the novels? His latest mainstream book, Whit, a disturbing story about a girl brought up in a religious cult, was considered by some devotees to be rather low on the horror count. Banks promises that the next, scheduled for 1997, will return to familiar territory. "It is going to be deeply horrible," he says. "Seriously back to grim."

This was originally published in The Telegraph on November 9th 1996.

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