Iain Banks interview

Book and Magazine Collector, January 2005

Just over twenty years ago, the novelist Iain Banks finally broke into print after years of trying. Rescued from the so-called ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited manuscripts, The Wasp Factory achieved both commercial success and notoriety. One reviewer even went so far as to describe Banks’s depiction of adolescent alienation, filtered through the Gothic horror genre, as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’. Since then, Banks has alternated between producing mainstream novels and science fiction, the latter published under the name of ‘Iain M. Banks’. He is on the second evening of a marathon promotional tour for his new science fiction novel, The Alegbraist, when I meet him. Dressed in an open-neck maroon shirt and jeans, the fifty-year-old Banks is one of those friendly, immediately engaging people who appears untainted by the adulation of his numerous fans. Never far from a self-deprecating wisecrack or an exuberant comic digression, he speaks in a lilting Scottish accent. I start by asking whether he’s a collector of books, and also whether he’s aware of the high prices commanded by first-editions of The Wasp Factory

I’m a bit of a hoarder of CDs and LPs, but I don’t collect books. Though I can see why people do it, I can’t help thinking that later editions of books are better than earlier ones because they’re more accurate. No matter how carefully a book is edited, there are always a few mistakes that get through. The first edition of The Wasp Factory was really 5,000, though the publisher claimed it was 10,000. The subsequent reprints were 1,500 each time. In theory, that should make the reprints more valuable because they’re scarcer. 

From where do you think you got your interest in literature? 

It was a combination of school, my parents and good libraries. There were always books in our house. I remember being baffled when I went round to other peoples’ homes and there were none there. 

Which books made the biggest impression on you when you were an adolescent?

I read Catch-22 at just the right time moment in my life. I read it about half-a-dozen times in only a few years. I think the only other book that made such an impact on me was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the Blessed St Hunter of Thompson. 

I presume you were also reading a lot of science fiction at that time. 

Yes, stacks of Brian Aldiss and Isaac Asimov, though I always preferred Aldiss. There were also lots of others whose books I used to read without ever remembering who wrote them. I’d read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. Science fiction was the type of thing I was most drawn to. In the local library, I would — like a lot of people of my age — always look for the yellow spines of the Gollancz sc-fi series. 

Are you still a keen reader of science fiction? 

I feel a professional obligation to read as much of it as I can. I read Ken McLeod, who wrote Stone Canal, because Ken and I have been friends for a long time. Other than that, I go for all the usual suspects. In a way, I feel I have to keep up with what’s happening. Take The Algebraist, for example: my first idea for it goes back about two years. I went down the pub with Ken. I mentioned to him that I had this really good idea about wormholes, but he listed all these other novels about that subject, so I had to come up with a different idea. 

At what stage did you start to think that you could make the transition from being a reader of science fiction to being a writer of it?

It was a very gradual process. There was no sudden Damescene Conversion. I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was eleven. I still have the documentary evidence. The teacher said, ‘Draw what you want to be when you grow up.’ I didn’t know how to draw a writer, so I drew an actor instead. Do you still possess mountains of embarrassing juvenilia? Oh, yes. There’s loads of that. Some of it’s even been published. Only kidding… I still have the spy novel I wrote when I was sixteen, snappily titled The Hungarian Lift Jet. That’ll never see the light of day. Nor will my second novel. That first book was influenced by Alastair MacLean, not to mention The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. It was absolutely packed with sex and violence. Of course I had no experience of either — sadly in the case of sex, and happily in the case of violence. T.T.R., my second novel, was a 4,000-word pastiche of both Catch-22 and a science fiction novel called Sands of Zanzibar by John Brunner. It was an immensely long, supposed satire, full of excruciating puns. Then my next few novels were all science fiction. But I couldn’t any of them published, so I thought I’d try my hand at something mainstream, partly because I knew there were more publishers interested in mainstream fiction. And that’s how The Wasp Factory came about. Even then, people who didn’t know anything about my background were able to guess I was a science fiction fan. 

Before you became a full-time writer, how did you make a living?

My day job was as a lawyer’s clerk or a Law Cost Draughtsmen, to use its proper, grandiose title. I did that for about three years, which was easily the longest-standing job I ever had.

Was it something you enjoyed, or were you only there out of necessity?

I did like it. I learned a lot. Given that I was working in a lawyer’s office, I was allowed a great deal of freedom. For about the first two years, I even got away without wearing a suit and tie. But it wasn’t very well paid, so I didn’t have much difficulty making up my mind whether or not to leave when I received the advance for my first book. Well, that’s not strictly true. The advance for my first book was about £2,500, which you’d have struggled to live on in London, even back in 1983. When the paperback rights to The Wasp Factory were sold, netting me around £11,500, I immediately handed in my notice. 

Reading The Wasp Factory at the time it was published, I remember thinking that it must have been influenced by the early Ian McEwan stories. 

Yes, I was influenced by him. He helped me in the sense that he showed me just what you could get away with. He showed me how dark you could make your books. Of those early McEwan books, I think my favourite must be In Between The Sheets

How did you react to all the vitriolic criticism provoked by The Wasp Factory

I thought it was absolutely hilarious. I just didn’t care. My editor got extremely upset about some of it, though. Being a total unknown, I felt that any publicity was good publicity. Some of those bad reviews were used to extremely good effect. I keep meeting people who say they only bought The Wasp Factory because they read that it was supposed to be a sick book.

Do you try and insulate yourself from reviews?

Even if my publisher sends me them, I don’t usually read them. When you start to read your reviews, you can get into trouble. If they’re positive, you can get the idea that you can’t do anything wrong. And if they’re bad, you can think that you’re talentless and you don’t want to carry on writing. As I see it, reviews aren’t for writers. They’re for readers. In my other life as a reader, I use them a lot.

Are you annoyed by the patronising attitude with which most critics still regard genre fiction?  

It comes back to that whole idea of the Two Cultures in British society. Without being nationalistic about it, I think it’s more of an English than a Scottish problem. North of the border, there isn’t that sort of contempt for scientific and technological education which prevails in England. Here, so many of the cultural elite are very snide about people who are interested in anything remotely scientific. The extent that this effects the reception of science fiction is, of course, one of the least important aspects of it.

Following the success of The Wasp Factory, did you have any problems adjusting to the world of agents and long-term contracts?

I used to have quite a purist attitute. I didn’t have an agent for a long time, for about the first seven novels. After The Wasp Factory had been accepted by Macmillan, I became very good friends with the editor and the person who was dealing with the rights. Obviously they had divided loyalties because they were supposed to look after the interests of the company. But they were friends and they made sure I didn’t get ripped off. Having said that, when I finally got an agent, my earnings increased by about three-hundred-percent, even after the agent had deducted the usual ten-percent commission. For a long time I wouldn’t sign contracts for more than about a book ahead, because I felt that I had to have the next book idea ready before I could agree to write it. I was worried that as soon as I signed a book contract I’d just run out of ideas and I’d end up having to hand the money back. 

At one point I had a mainstream and a science fiction novel planned. Well, the sci-fi one was really a re-draft of an old novel I’d written before The Wasp Factory. Anyway, that gave me some confidence and I went ahead and signed a two-book deal. After that I was prepared to commit to four-book contracts. For a while I’d been writing a book-a-year. Towards the end of the second four-book deal, I started to feel a bit frazzled. To be perfectly honest, the routine was just getting a bit much. It was mainly to do with the intellectual hassle and strenuousness of plotting a book, of getting the words on paper or, rather, on screen. I just can’t keep up that pace anymore. Well, I could if I took large quantities of drugs, but then that’d take its own toll. 

These days, I know that I’ll be okay if I commit to long-term contracts, so I don’t really worry. I have people who worry for me, namely my wife and my agent. Mind you, at the end of the last contract I had a bit of a crisis of confidence. I just wasn’t sure whether I could do my next book. Actually it was more a question of whether I could keep going with science fiction. Looking back on it, I guess that’s a little perverse because I’ve always said that if I was forced to choose between writing mainstream or science fiction I’d choose sci-fi. The fact is I enjoy it more. But its genre in which you have to keep devising fresh ideas. In contrast, you can write a brilliant mainstream novel without a single original idea. All you have to do is present a very sympathetic or realistic character and put him or her in an interesting situation. In science fiction you can’t really get away with that. You have to have fresh ideas, or it else it won’t wash.

Did you put a lot of work into planning your latest novel? 

When I was thinking about writing The Algebraist, I knew it was going to be very complicated, very baroque. It has loads of back-story. Basically, I had to write the entire history of the galaxy in which it’s set. Ten million years. That took all of one Tuesday, as I recall. Because science fiction involves scientific principals, the assumption is that I have to do more research. But that isn’t really the case. The kind of science fiction that I write is set in the far future, where society has got to a point where, as Arthur C. Clarke has pointed out, the science has become so advanced that anyone who doesn’t understand it will think that it looks like magic. Of course our science would appear magical to someone from two thousand years ago. As long as you’re internally consistent, as long as you have some sort of logic on which to hang your ideas, you can more or less make up the whole thing. 

Maybe I have a bad association with research. The book I researched most closely also happens to be the one I’m most disappointed by. It’s called Canal Dreams. In some ways I’m proud of it, but in others I don’t think it’s all that good. Whenever I say this at readings, you can see this one disappointed face with a thought bubble over it saying, ‘But that’s my favourite…’ Anyway, each to their own. For me, it’s the weakest of the lot. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I’ll probably get people coming up to me wanting their money back. By my standards, The Algebraist generated enormous quantities of notes. I spent about three months just planning the book and putting together all this background detail. Then I spent another three months writing the thing. In the course of doing that, I came up with easily enough material for a trilogy. But that’s not going to happen because I’m committed to doing a different science fiction book next year. I’ve already worked out the plot in my head and I’ve come up with this great beginning.

Have you worked out the ending, too? 

If you do your job right, the end should be quite easy. It should suggest itself. The way I write, I like to have the whole thing planned out. As I’ve got older, though, I do give myself a bit more leeway. I hate reading novels where you get about three-quarters of the way through and you realise that the author doesn’t know where the book’s going. I also dislike novels that just stop and don’t provide you with a proper conclusion. Authors can dress it up in fancy language such as all that stuff about ‘resisting closure’, but to my mind it’s just incompetence. The important rule is that you’ve got to try to make your mistakes at the planning stage, not on the screen. That way, you’re not wasting time and energy. If you find yourself going up blind-alleys when you’re writing a book, you can fritter away entire years.

Which part of the writing process do you most enjoy? 

I could be glib and say, ‘When the cheque comes in.’ But, truthfully, I enjoy most of it. Sometimes the best part is the planning stage, when you’ve come up with a basic chassis on which to construct a book, on which to hang little character traits and lines of dialogue. It can be a magical feeling when a book starts to coalesce, particularly because there’s no real hard work involved. When you have to sit down and write the blighter, it isn’t so much fun. Still, it can be very satisfying when you’ve approached a certain scene and it goes better than expected. 

I also have fun thinking up the names of some of the spaceships in my sci-fi books. When I heard that NASA had called one of their landing control systems ‘The Attitude Adjuster’, I thought that was a brilliant name. I had to borrow it for the name of one of my warships. That’s the thing about being a writer. You hear the same stuff that everyone else hears, but you use it in a different way. 

My theory is that everyone has ideas. The ideas may be very crude. They may just be sexual fantasies. Even so, they’re still plotlines. They even have a climax! It’s the same when a bloke imagines himself resigning from his job if he won the lottery. That parting line he dreams of saying to the boss is really a line of dialogue.

Did you enjoy writing Raw Spirit, your recent excursion into non-fiction? 

 It was great fun because I’m a big fan of whisky and I love driving and I also love Scotland. I’m deeply ashamed that I didn’t think of the idea myself. It was suggested by the publisher. For me, it didn’t really feel like writing a book because there was nothing I had to make up. I just had to describe what happened, almost like a journal. That helped to create a very releaxed feel. When you’re writing a novel, there’s always a certain amount of tension. You think it’s going to work, but you’re not entirely sure. With this book, I knew there’d be no problem. 

Have you ever fancied trying your hand at screenwriting as well?

Not really. One of the good things about being a novelist is that you get to do things your own way. You’ve got editors and people who give you their opinions, but very little of what you write usually ends up being changed. When you write a film script, however, it’s just the start of the process. Then the director comes in and they want to do rewrites and then the producers want to change it and then the actors want to change it, too. I couldn’t cope with that. I suspect it boils down to the fact that I’m an only child, used to getting my own way. But my opinions were changed when I found out that all the bad lines in Star Wars were written by George Lucas, the writer-director. The funniest lines all turned out to have been improvised by the actors. There’s a wonderful story about Harrison Ford telling George Lucas that ‘You can type this shit but you sure can’t speak it.’ 

What did you think of the film adaptations of The Crow Road and Complicity

I thought The Crow Road made great TV, but Complicity wasn’t so good. The most honest criticism of it came from a guy in my home village. I bumped into him in our local papershop. He said, ‘Oh, Banksy, I went into Edinburgh last night and saw Complicity.’ And I asked him what he thought of it. And he replied, ‘It was okay, but it was a bit like a long episode of Taggart.’ That wasn’t quite what I expected. 

If your house was on fire and you had to rescue a single book, what would it be?

I recently bought the new Oxford English Dictionary. If I could carry it, that’s the one I’d take. Generally, though, I don’t have a sentimental attachment to my books. 

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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