banksint19.htmlTEXTMSIE!,g,gmBINM Interview Edinburgh Student Newspaper February 1997

Great Uncle Iain


If Irvine Welsh is the founding father of the Scottish literary renaissance then Iain Banks is surely the great uncle. First published in 1984 and writing on average a book a year, Banks's output level may be said to be prolific. Yet he has not fallen into the trap of rushing a book out only for it to be a major disappointment (cf. Ecstasy). As well as having written about religious cults (Whit), the music industry (Espedair Street) and sexually perverted fathers with mutilation fetishes (The Wasp Factory), he is also a prominent science fiction writer under the name Iain M. Banks. Yet, he explains, he never really researches his material before writing.

"My theory is that the best sort of research is the stuff that you realise you've already done when you come to write the book, because you can say 'Great! I already know all that!' As for Espedair Street, about the music industry, I didn't know anyone in the rock music industry. All I'd done was listen to rock and pop music for most of my life and read all these anecdotes about rock stars getting attacked by hotel bedrooms. In the same way with Whit, I'm an atheist and have derived an interest in cults, and they do fascinate me."

Whit was Banks' last mainstream book and is the story of a teenage sect member who is sent to London to search for a former member who has strayed from the faith. Although the cult is not really painted in sinister colours Banks is much more wary of the phenomenon in real life.

"It's fascinating the way people can be so stupid. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong, but what has struck me time and time again about cults is that it's a male-run thing. It's a man who comes up with the idea that says you've got to be faithful and all that, and I can fuck you and your wives, or your daughters or your mothers and you've all got to be totally absent so that I can sit there and get pissed every night and smoke loads of dope." He carries on to compare David Koresh to a wannabe rock singer: "Now what do you do when you're a rock singer? You're worshipped in pretty well exactly the same way. You take all the drugs you want and have sex with as many people of the gender of your choice as you want. This guy's just done it in a different direction. And I've got a sneaking suspicion that a lot of these people who claim to be religious leaders actually aren't religious at all; they just want copious amounts of sex, drugs and success. It's about manipulating people."

Iain Banks's mainstream books are undoubtedly aimed at a younger, 20-something market. The protagonist of The Crow Road, Prentice McHoan, is a convincing portrait of an intelligent student coming to terms with adult life. As a growing youth icon, Banks must surely have a view on British drug culture. "Yeah, it's 'Just Say Yes'. I'm of that generation who did all that stuff before you guys. I gasp at the unbelievable hypocrisy of a society which is approaching the next millennium and is writing all this shit about drugs. I've never taken ecstasy, never been to a rave, I don't even like dancing. But there was an editorial in the New Scientist today which said that six people have died from taking ecstasy and it's six people too many, but half a million people have tried it and it's a much safer thing to do than going off to the wine-bar and getting totally rat-arsed. It's just not rational that a society says 'if it's dangerous it's legal, if it's not too dangerous it's illegal'."

Then there is rock'n'roll. Pop music is frequently referred to in order to transport the reader to the particular time or setting of his novel. "It gets the idea of a time over really quickly. You can spend pages describing the socio-political situation of a country and all sorts of background detail, or you can just mention one song which was maybe number one. It's just a quick way of fixing the reader's mind." Music is obviously very important to Iain Banks and he does mention that he may want to write music at some point in the future. Does he have a secret desire to become a popular icon?

"Absolutely not. No way. That's the wrong sort of fame, the sort of fame you get in the pop industry where you're walking down the street and someone comes up to you and says 'You're, erm...' and they know you're famous but they've no idea who the hell you are at all. It's like you're famous for fifteen minutes. That's an intrusive sort of fame. It's much better to have a decent lifestyle where no-one knows who you are. I get embarrassed easily. I know it's hard to imagine but I do, and the thing about being shy is that you always think people are watching you anyway, so if you're famous then people really are watching."

The thing about Banks is people aren't watching; they're listening. His charismatic style of speech reminds you of the quality of his books and prompts me to ask for a small insight into what the next one is about. "It's a vague book, it's vaguely set in northern Europe, vaguely set in the latter half of the twentieth century, and that's about it. It's set post-war; not exactly post-apocalypse, but some heavy shit has gone down, man. Not nuclearshit, but it's not exactly a nice book. I do get a bit tired about writing happier endings, and after the comparative niceness of Whit I wanted to go back to something nasty again. There is a pretty high body-count and it all ends in tears."

What continually strikes you about Banks is his total lack of pretension and genuine interest in his readers. Although it would be quite naive to claim that fame hasn't gone to his head, he deals with his elevated literary status with some panache. Whether it's wondering where all the people who now buy him pints were in his university days, or singling out his favourite Spice Girl (the one who didn't vote Tory), Iain Banks does it with sincerity.

It seems that this is a man happy to write about any subject that happens to enter his head. He is not someone who has to wait for inspiration from Above and he channels his obviously explosive energy into print in an understated way. This is why he is different, and also why he is one of Britains finest authors. And there are not many of those who would be prepared to go and have a pint with a bunch of students.

This was originally published in Edinburgh Student Newspaper, February 6th 1997.
Thanks to Chris Fleming for the interview.

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