In 1984, the Scottish writer Iain Banks published his first novel, The Wasp Factory, which made an immediate splash. The New York Times ("Brilliant....Irresistible.... Compelling") and the Independent ("One of the top 100 novels of the century") loved it; the Times of London ("Rubbish!") and the Times Literary Supplement ("A literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquency") thought otherwise. Banks, a controversial and formidable talent, had arrived on the literary scene.
Iain Banks is an unusual writer. He writes mainstream, literary fiction under the name Iain Banks and science fiction under Iain M. Banks; his two distinct and fervent sets of fans don't always overlap. He may be better known for his science fiction in the United States, and his Culture novels, in which Banks explores the nature of what it means to be a "civilization," are widely acclaimed as some of the best in the field. The Guardian says his most recent Culture novel, Matter, "confirms Banks as the standard by which the rest of SF is judged." And William Gibson has raved, "Banks is a phenomenon....Wildly successful, fearlessly creative."
In the UK, he has long had plenty of voracious admirers; in a BBC poll, he was voted the fifth greatest writer in the world, ever (losing out to Shakespeare in the top spot). He is also prolific, publishing 22 more books in the 24 years since The Wasp Factory. Lately, thanks to MacAdam/Cage, more of his literary fiction is becoming available on this side of the pond.
Banks first published The Crow Road in the UK in 1992, and it is one of his best-loved books. Time Out called it, "Riveting....exhilarating...its pace, development, intensity and, above all, its hip and sexy humour never allow it to flag." The Crow Road is a philosophical saga and a romantic coming-of-age story, a mystery and a comedy, and a raucous, moving, and deeply human look at relationships and family. As Publishers Weekly says, "Readers unfamiliar with Banks's prodigious output have a great starting point here."
Jill Owens: The first sentence of The Crow Road is striking: ''It was the day my grandmother exploded.'' Did it originally begin with that sentence?
Iain Banks: It didn't begin with that sentence, no. The original idea was to write a family saga; I thought that would be interesting, and from my point of view, it would be something different. I've always liked taking previously existing genres or types of books and twisting them for the sheer heck of it. For whatever reason, this time it was the family saga.
I've always been conscious of being part of a very small immediate family. I'm an only child, so it's just my mum and dad. But I'm part of a much larger extended family, since both my parents come from very large families. They had about a half-dozen siblings each. Especially on my dad's side, we've always been really close, so I had the best of both worlds. Family has always meant a lot, so a family saga was going to be something I wrote about eventually. I wanted to make it not too sentimental and not too boring from my point of view, so it was always going to be a bit edgier.
The first sentence came from one of these things, I think it was on the radio, about somebody who'd been cremated but they hadn't thought to take the pacemaker out, so the body had exploded in the crematorium. Not that there was a mushroom cloud or anything, but a distinct noise was heard. I was tickled by the idea. It sounds like a piece of absurdist theater to have this happening, but in the end, there's a rational explanation for it. In a way, that's a kind of overture to the whole first chapter, which itself acts as a kind of overture to the whole of the novel. I was trying to encapsulate something about the novel as a whole. Also, frankly, I was just playing to the gallery, trying to get a really arresting opening sentence so the reader would think, ''What the f— is he talking about?'' and want to read on.
Jill: The title could be seen as that kind of overture to the book, too. "Away the crow road" refers to death, which is very much a focus of the book. Was that an intentional subject you were looking to explore?
Banks: It depends. By the time I was ready to start writing it, I knew that there was a lot of death in it. Initially, not really. Sometimes there's a gradual accretion of similar incidents or thematically linked ideas that end up coalescing around the initial idea for a novel. In this case, that happened with death.
I think it probably was also in the cards, because I wanted it to be a family saga with a twist, and making it involve more funerals than marriages seemed like a good way of doing that. It wasn't at first the most important idea for the novel, but it was something that gradually came to make sense, and it does constantly undercut the general feeling that you have for this, well, fairly dysfunctional but mostly good and cohesive family.
Jill: You've said that the novels you like to write are driven by ideas, not characters. What would you say is the guiding idea behind this novel?
Banks: Other than the family saga structure, it's also a bildungsroman — a young person, a young man, in Prentice's case, coming to maturity. And it has a rhetorical point about religion, about superstition and faith and belief. The last part of it is about Prentice being an agnostic and then kind of a believer, but then eventually abandoning that. It is a frankly atheistic novel, which makes no apologies for that whatsoever.
Part of the idea was to say, "Well, here is something very strange and odd, and it must either be absurd or it must be explained by supernatural causes." Then you find out that's not true. There are lots of little details like that throughout the book. One example is when Rory thinks he can affect television screens from a distance by humming. As it turns out, it's not a superpower; it's just that he's vibrating his eyeballs at the same rate as the repetition rate on the screen.
What you think must be happening out there in the real world is not; it's all in your head. One of the most important parts of the book, which is an encapsulation of what it's really about, is where Prentice is saying, effectively, "All the gods are false; faith is idolatry." To quite a large degree, that's what the book is about. It's an evangelical atheist book, that's what it is. [Laughter]
Jill: There's a wonderful long sentence where Prentice is thinking about what his father tried to impart to his children. Prentice summarizes his ideas this way:
We — like everybody else — were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn't been told the whole story.
That seems like it could be a central philosophy of many of your books, and also maybe of the Culture, in the sci-fi novels.
Banks: Yes, I think that's fair enough. Now and again you find yourself with the excuse of being able to encapsulate something that you believe, and I think that was an excuse for doing it there. That is pretty much what I believe. You've got to be careful putting that sort of stuff into your characters' mouths, and those thoughts into their heads, but up to a point, I think you can get away with it. Basically, that was me trying to get away with it.
I also was trying to get across the idea that there's always going to be that rebellion that goes on between generations. In the novel, he does draw something very valuable from his relationship with his father, who was a very clear-thinking, clear-headed guy. Despite all the turmoil in Prentice's life, once he's gone through that turmoil, he comes back to something similar to what his father believed.
And yes, I guess this credo does run through the Culture novels; they are quite didactic in portions. That's me, I suppose; that's the author taking center stage, rightly or wrongly. That's part of the fun of being a writer; you get to do that sort of stuff.
Jill: You write about religion in other books, too, like Whit. What's the draw for you of writing about religion?
Banks: I'm fascinated by it. I do come from an atheist background on one side; my father was an atheist, as his father was before him. My mom used to take me to church when I was a kid, although they never had me baptized. She never insisted on me being christened, which I respect her for very much.
So I used to go to church, and then discovered that it wasn't compulsory, and neither was believing in God for that matter. I was lucky enough to move away from religion, but I had a kind of regression, back when I was 12 or 13, which didn't last very long. But I have been there, and I know how it feels and the comfort it provides, in a way. I still think it's fundamentally wrong. I think it's a distraction.
I don't think it comes out in Crow Road or Whit, but one of the things I'm struck by is that religion, and religious people and leaders, no matter how stern they may look and how darkly they may dress, are deeply frivolous. There's something absolutely frivolous about religion, no matter how ghastly it may appear, no matter how strict and stern its countenance. I call something frivolous if it distracts from the nuts and bolts of real life, of how we try to live our lives as model creatures. I find something quite unforgivable about the way religion clouds what should be fairly clear water and does everything it can to make that as difficult to navigate and negotiate as possible.
To that extent, probably all of my books try to put something of that across. But again, you do have to be so careful not to preach! (To put it in religious terms.) You have to have some understanding that a lot of people do need religion. They need something to believe in. You can dismiss it as a crutch, but it might be better call it a cast; in the end, the bone heals, and you throw the cast away. I think a lot of us end up trapped inside our casts, not realizing that we've become strong enough ourselves, but maybe that's a metaphor for another story.
Jill: I found it interesting that you said you like to write novels driven by ideas rather than characters, because I find your characters extremely realistic, with all their particular quirks of personality. How do you think about character?
Banks: I'm very pleased to hear you say that — goodness knows how that works! To me, the plot is the most important thing, the plot plus ideas. The characters tend to come quite late to the party. It's like the fitting out — do you know how you fit out a ship? Most of the work is done in the dock where you build the ship. Then you launch it, and after that you do the fitting out, where carpenters come in and put all the furniture in place and all that sort of thing.
That's the sort of role that my characters get consigned to. Obviously, I do my best to make them as believable as I can, and I think there is some truth in the idea that every character is a sliver of the author themselves, or at least starts out from a part of the author's personality in some way. But to me, they just come along and get used, almost as though they have to find their own ecological niches in the landscape of the book they're going to be in. Here's the plot, and here's how things are going to happen, and the characters have to make the best they can of it.
I think that's rather like how real life works. Very few of us (arguably nobody) are in charge of our destinies. In the same way, we come to our lives. You're nurtured by your parents, and society, and institutions, and then you have to make your own way within those frameworks. Then you come to life itself, which is entirely your responsibility, and you're presented with stuff. We do not have complete freedom of action or thought, really.
Maybe that reflects back on the way characters are treated in my books. It's not something that I have thought about that carefully. Maybe one of the areas in which I'm superstitious is not wanting to think too closely about these things, in case it robs the magic, or in case I suddenly can't do it any more.
Jill: The way you talk about populating the landscape of the novel with characters reminds me a bit of a game, which is another theme which comes up again and again in your work. In The Crow Road, Kenneth invents a wonderful game for his sons. I was wondering if you've ever invented a game, and if you think of writing like a game at all.
Banks: Yes! I used to invent games all the time when I was a kid. My dad used to work in the Admiralty, which is a semi-civilian part of the Royal Navy. Basically, boats go out and they do stuff with moorings and buoys and so on. My dad was in charge of the charts. Charts get amended, and after awhile there are too many amendments on them, and so you throw them out. My dad always brought the charts back to me; nobody else would have wanted them, and they just got burned otherwise. So I had all these great big charts, which were easily three feet by five feet. They were great big bits of paper, on which, as a kid, I was drawing battles and war scenes, and later on games, entire landscapes and games. I continued with that fairly well into adolescence, and to this day I still maintain a fascination with games.
I'm not terribly good at them. I'm not a great game player as such, but they do fascinate me. The similarity between games and story — between any linear narrative, any linear art or entertainment form — is definitely there. You have the beginning, middle, and end; you have characters or pieces; you have plots, events, things that happen in a sequence, and there's a kind of logic to them. You have triumph and disaster. There are a lot of similarities between games and stories, and it continues to fascinate me. It's come up in many of my books.
You can choose where you want this metaphor to end. All life's a game! Physics is a game! It becomes useless, because you're comparing everything to it. But you can certainly compare writing novels to a game. The similarity is that they fit together as things that you work on. You certainly have to have a degree of playfulness as a writer, I think, to present some things. You could use something dry and ascetic or just plain humorless, but I think that treating it as a game is quite a productive way of doing it, and certainly something that chimes with other people.
Jill: Not to further stretch out the metaphor, but do you apply that to the sentence level of your prose, when you write? I feel your language is often rather playful.
Banks: I wouldn't describe it as a game at that point; it's more self-indulgent, in a way. It's having fun.
One of the great privileges of my life is that I was lucky enough to be born speaking English, therefore writing in English. I've talked to various writers who write in other languages. I remember talking to a guy who was the biggest science fiction writer in Norway. He wasn't of the new generation of Norwegians who speak English better than I do; he was a bit older, so he only wrote well in Norwegian. He had to have two other full-time jobs to support himself. He could not just be a writer in a language that has a relatively small number of native speakers (I think there's only about three and a half million Norwegians).
So it's a privilege to have a language that has the worldwide reach of English. Plus, I don't think there's any other language that has as many synonyms as English, and the sheer size of the vocabulary — it's up to something like a million and a half words. Especially to be part of a relatively small nation within a nation — in Scotland where we've got five million people, the UK's only about 55 or 60 million — yet to be able to speak to the States, and to Australia, and South Africa, and all sorts of other places around the world, you're at a huge advantage.
Presented with something like English, you're almost derelict in your duties if you don't have fun with it, because there's so much fun to be had. You shouldn't just think, "This is my way of getting information across to you." No. You should have fun with it. If the writer's having fun, unless you're being hopelessly self-serving, I think you can please other people at the same time, if you do it right.
I've read things by writers, and you think, "Eh, well, obviously you're having fun, but I'm having a problem, because I can't work out what you're trying to say." It's keeping a kind of balance. I've got a friend who says that the main thing he's got against jazz is that the people on stage seem to be having more fun than the audience, and that's the wrong way round. And you can find some writers, when they're riffing away on the page, who are having more fun than you are, and that's the wrong way round, given that someone's had to pay for the privilege of reading it.
Banks: It's very much an amateur interest. It's trying to reflect a bit of the world as accurately as possible, and to the extent that you can do that just using bad spelling — bad spelling as a route to accurate accents! I'm just happy that you can muck around with English, or any given language, and make it do things that it wasn't really meant to do. I wouldn't want to place too great an emphasis on it, but it is something that I enjoy doing.
In the case of the barbarian in The Bridge, there was more of that than I originally intended, because I wrote the first bit, and I really enjoyed it, and my editor said, you've got to have another bit. And I said, "The book works in threes! You can't just have another bit. You can have another two bits, but it's one or three or nothing." So we went with another couple of episodes of the barbarian with his very strong West Coast Scottish accent.
With Feersum Endjinn, part of the idea, and it's a technical thing, was to try and slow the pacing of the book down. It was to try and make the reading of that part of the book almost problematic for the reader, so that you would have to take time over it when you were going over Bascule's ramblings. Looking back at some of these decisions, you think, "Oh my god, what was I thinking of?" I got away with it, you know, but — "Yes, make the book less easy to understand, Iain! That's a great way of getting more readers, isn't it? You idiot!" [Laughter]
These things have come to me and I forget how important they ought to be; this is my career, this is how I make my living. But at the time I get involved with it, I think "Oh, that's a good laugh, let's try that!" I would hate to lose that, though, that childlike glee in finding some new way to mess with the reader's head. Again, taken to an extreme it could prove counterproductive, but I think it would be daft for me, as a writer, to become too slick and professional. That, I think, would be the worst thing.
Jill: You have a lot of music in your novels; does it play a big part in your life?
Banks: Gosh yes, it's huge. It always has been. I used to sit making up tunes to myself — and still do! Composing is my hobby. A friend and I are working on what is basically the album to go along with the book that I wrote years ago about the rock industry, Espedair Street. All the songs that are mentioned in it existed in a sense even back then, and we've brought them to life. A friend of mine called Guy Lloyd, who is a proper, professional composer, lives in England, had this brilliant idea. It may never happen, but just the idea is good enough by itself: to get a bunch of famous rock-and-roll people to make a tribute album to a band that never existed. So we're trying to get some serious people to sing some of these songs that we've made up. We shall see; it could all end in frustration and tears.
In the meantime, in addition to that, I'm working on my own music and really enjoying it. I absolutely love doing it. You can do that nowadays. I've no musical training or anything, but with the state of music technology, with a computer and a piece of good music-processing software, if you can hear it in your head and you've got some patience, you will be able to recreate it in the computer through the speakers. It is possible. So one day, I shall write my symphony! Just see if I don't.
Jill: Did you know that in the Indiespensable box we're sending out with your book, we're including a CD of songs about death?
Banks: Splendid idea! I totally approve.
Jill: It's a death-and-music box.
Banks: I'm a big fan of the Pogues, especially in their days of glory and pomp about 20 years ago, and of their second album, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, which is their really big one, the one that really broke them. Red Roses for Me is good, but Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash was a masterpiece. I remember a journalist saying to them, "There are 12 songs on the album, and the only one that's not about death is the instrumental one." One of them, I think it may have been Shane MacGowan, said, "No, actually the instrumental one is about death as well." [Laughter]
Jill: I got to see Shane MacGowan play in England about 10 years ago, and it was one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen.
Banks: He's still got something — not a dentist, obviously! But bless him, he's really a shadow of his former self, and he does seem the worse for wear now. But he was, and remains, to an extent, an amazing talent. I was lucky enough to see them — oh, a long time ago now. A fabulous band. I love their energy. And also, they weren't as raw. There was a kind of poetry to their music which is just superb. I love the combination of Irish background music done in a kind of punk style. It's a fabulous combination.
Jill: I recently reread your first novel, The Wasp Factory, and still find it the most disturbing of all your novels that I've read. What was the genesis of that novel, and how did you become a writer in the first place?
Banks: I started out when I was about 14 trying to write novels. I wanted to be a writer even further back, when I was 11. I've actually got documentary evidence of this. It came from a drawing book from Primary Seven, which equates to 11 years old. The teacher said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" All my friends were drawing train drivers or astronauts. I didn't know how to draw a writer, so I drew an actor and put "And writer!" — correctly spelled, I might point out! — up in one corner. So it dates way, way back.
I thought I'd written a novel when I was 14, again in old school-exercise books, and then did a word count and realized that I hadn't; I'd written a novella, or a long short story. When I was 16, in pencil I wrote a sort of spy story in a logbook, which again I'd stolen from my dad's boat. After that, a very, very long kind of neofuturist satire. Not remotely science fiction, but much influenced by Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, an English science fiction writer. It was enormously long and full of puns. It was real juvenilia.
The three books I wrote following that were all science fiction, and I thought of myself as a science fiction writer by the time I came to write The Wasp Factory. I wrote The Wasp Factory partly because I was approaching what I thought of as the appallingly ancient age of 30. I was getting the same rejection letters back from the same small group of London publishers, and I thought, "At least if I write a mainstream novel, I'll get a bigger choice of rejection slips."
That's what The Wasp Factory came out of; it was arguably an act of desperation. I thought, "Well, if I can't get something published by the time I'm 30, I'm going to…" I was never going to give up, but I was going to stop trying as hard to become a writer. I think I would have written regardless, because I enjoy doing it, but I was going to stop trying to make it potentially a future career.
Again, religion was part of the novel, too — the different ways that people try to control their lives. Frank has a very controlled life in a way, very much under the influence of Angus, the father. At the same time, he has a huge amount of freedom. An unregistered person living on the island, effectively free to do anything. It was also in some ways kind of a feminist novel. It grew up partly in relation to a great sign that I saw at a protest march on the news, which said, ''Take the toys from the boys.'' It was referring to nuclear weapons, and I liked that idea.
It was supposed to be about the nature-nurture debate, about feminism, and to an extent also about war, about revenge. It was also to some degree about faith — maybe not even faith, but religious observance, the need for ritual, no matter how absurd it may look to a rational observer. There was quite a lot of stuff going on there for quite a short book.
Jill: How did using the M for the science fiction books come about?
Banks: To keep the family happy, mostly! I'd used the M on and off on occasion, just for a laugh. The thing is, I was supposed to be Iain M. Banks — it stands for Menzies. It comes from a French word originally, Des Minguiers. They came over in the Norman invasion in 1066 and landed up in this little bit of Scotland where my family originally came from. But it was from Des Minguiers, and it was anglicized partly as Menzies. It's pronounced Men-gis, but it's spelled Menzies. It's very complicated.
I should have been Iain Menzies Banks, but my dad forgot; when he registered me, he just put Iain Banks. I'd used the Menzies bit on and off. Finally, The Wasp Factory came out just as Iain Banks, and some of my uncles in particular seemed quite upset that I'd left the proper family name out. I thought I'd put it back in partly just to keep my uncles off my back and to keep them happy, and partly to make the distinction between the two different genres of mainstream and science fiction.
Also, it sounded more like science fiction somehow. Like a lot of Brits, though we are very proud of what we have done with science fiction — I think we've done awfully well — but to a large degree, I think we still think of it as an American genre. Having three names in there sounded more American, somehow. I did think of calling myself Iain Menzies Banks III — that would sound really American — but in the end I thought it would be a bit silly, so I didn't do it.
It's something I've kind of regretted doing, because it looks like I'm denigrating the science fiction; that's the obvious assumption that some people make. There's an awful lot of literary snobs — a lot fewer in America than in Britain. It could look like I'm playing along with them and saying, "Forget about the stuff that's got the M in it; that's trashy science fiction, and there's no need to worry about that. I shall stake my reputation on the stuff without the M!" And I regret giving literary snobs any ammunition at all. However, it's a small price to pay to keep my family happy.
Jill: Do you think of the two sides of your writing separately?
Banks: Not really, no. The metaphor I've used many times in the past has been that it's like being a furniture maker. One day you make a table, the next day you make a chair. The way they're used is quite different — you sit on one and eat food off another. To the end user, they're very different things. But to the person that makes them, there's almost no difference at all. You're the same person, using the same skills, using the same material, and you can forget what you're making — you're just following the plan. At the end of it, it's like "Oh yes, that's right, I was making a table" or "That's right, I was making a chair."
The only distinction that really matters to me is that I get to use my imagination a bit more freely in science fiction. I can solve problems, with one mighty leap of the imagination, in a way that I can't in mainstream. Mainstream is fixed; if you look at it in equation terms, there are constants. In science fiction, there are variables — you can change human nature, and you can use alien nature. You can even change a lot of the physics.
Apart from that, when you're actually doing it, the differences seem trivial. They've all got plots, they've all got characters, they've all got ideas, they all go from A to B, Z, Q, S, Pi to the square root of two. Some of the characters in the M books happen not to be human, but that's about it. I still think of them as human in a way.
Jill: They still have personalities, definitely.
Banks: Oh, absolutely, yes. The drones in the Culture novels aren't just sarcastic suitcases.
Jill: The Bridge seems to incorporate some elements of both — there are sci-fi elements and then mainstream ones as well. That's not an M book, right?
Banks: That's right, it's a mainstream one. I did read a couple of reviews that reviewed it as another science fiction novel, which was perfectly okay by me. It's something I've wanted to recreate for years, and I think I might be about to be able to do it. The book I'm going to start writing in about a month's time is hopefully going to be like that. It'll be mainstream, but it will have science fiction and fantasy elements in it. I'm really looking forward to getting back to writing something like that.
The Bridge is my favorite of my books. It's the one I'm most proud of. I love the way it mixes the genres and actually makes it work — well, I think it makes it work, at least.... [T]he thing about The Bridge is that it used up an awful lot of ideas. There's an entire short story collection in there; you could tease out lots of little ideas used in The Bridge that could become the germs of individual short stories.
I needed enough time to marshal sufficient ideas and plotlets, as it were, to make this next one work. But I think I'm there; I think I've got it. It's pretty much ready to go. I'm still tinkering with the plan at the moment, but I think it's there. We'll see. It won't be out till next year sometime. I don't even have a title, sadly, either. I wish I could tell you what to look out for, but I can't; at the moment, it's just got a serial number.
Jill: How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
Banks: Oh, I've got much better! Far, far better! [Laughter] I've no idea. I'm too close to the roots to see the trees. I think maybe at the sentence level it's gotten better. You do tend to have fewer ideas as you get older. I'm 54 now; when I was 24, I used to be seething with ideas. I still have ideas, but I think I use them better. I know how to place them, and how to extract more use out of them, but I definitely think you have more ideas when you're young.
That's as it should be; that's the way it ought to work. What a terrible world it would be if old people still had zillions of ideas and enthusiasm and all the rest of it. And were wise! And had garnered the results of wisdom through all the years that they'd lived. You have to have space for the next generation. It's all right and proper that old geezers kind of slope off and die quietly. Not quite yet, all the same, in my case.
But as I say, I'm the last person to be as objective as you really need to be, I think, about my own writing. So fingers crossed — I can't wait to see the final results on my report card. "Could do better! B-minus."
I spoke with Iain Banks by phone from his home in Scotland on September 10, 2008.
Books mentioned in this post