Iain M. Banks Interview

00:00 Fri 28 Feb 1997. Updated: 23:43 07 Jan 2007
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Sharon Jackson (then editor of Trinity's Alternate magazine) and I interviewed Iain M. Banks in February 1997 in the lobby of the Royal Dublin Hotel at Trincon 2, TCD's science fiction convention. A very slightly different version of this interview was published in Alternate.
I am quite a big fan of Banks's work; I've read almost everything he's written, whether as Iain Banks or Iain M. Banks, and consider him one of the best novelists currently writing in English.
For the pedantic among you: I refer to him as Iain M. Banks here because we were at a science fiction convention.

Sharon Jackson: So, to start with a classic question: what are you working on at the moment?

Iain M. Banks: Damn, if you’d asked me that on Friday evening, I could’ve said “tomorrow’s hangover”. But in fact, the next book is pretty well finished, the only thing that remains to be done is copy editing. It’s mainstream, short and bitter. Back to grim again. I’m veering wildly across the road of literature, from the cosy sentimentality of The Crow Road and Whit to the deeply unpleasant, gratuitously nasty stuff like Complicity. This one’s not quite as horrible, but it’s still got a very high body count. A friend of mine said that one of the things he liked about the book was that, unlike The Wasp Factory, which appalled everyone, this one will only appall clever people.

SJ: Have you seen your work getting more optimistic or pessimistic in general?

IMB: I go back and forth. It’s like someone having their first driving lesson, they just go all over the place. In a sense the optimism is in the Culture. The Culture is where I can have some faith in the future; they’re a bit like us but nicer, with a good relationship with machines. That’s strategic optimism; I’m a short-term pessimist. But that’s partly a survival mechanism—if you’re a short-term pessimist, then the only surprises you get are nice ones. If you’re a short-term optimist, your life is gonna be about ‘Ah, fuck, man! Bad scene.’

Tadhg A. O’Higgins: The Culture are optimistic, obviously, but the plots, like Consider Phlebas

IMB: Oh yeah, everyone dies at the end. But the good guys win—it’s just that a lot of people reading the book didn’t realise it. I’m so concerned not to paint the Culture as being totally wonderful, trying to show that they have a nasty side. Because otherwise it gets boring.

TAO: You made that case against them in Excession.

IMB: Yes, that’s a revelation to some about the Culture, that they can be as nasty as anybody else.

TAO: If they want something enough.

IMB: Well, more if they’re presented with something which frightens them. If they had a choice between letting something happen or not happen, they’d be against letting it happen, even though it has such a huge possibility for fun and exploration. They’d still see it as a threat, because they do live in a utopia, and they want to stay rather than threaten that.

SJ: Do you see a strong distinction between your genre and non-genre works, in terms of how you write them?

IMB: No, not in terms of how I write them. It’s very much the case that I write ‘space science fiction’—it’s not near future, as the Culture is in a sense very far future. I’m always aware of what kind of book I’m writing, but I certainly hope that I bring the same skills to science fiction as I do to the mainstream. I feel slightly more at home in science fiction because, well, you can make stuff up! It’s not essential to do as much research, you have more control over the variables and can do basically what you like with the society.

SJ: Do you ever write a piece that seems more suitable to the other type of novel?

IMB: Not really, because I’m always aware of what kind of book I’m writing each year. If it ends in an odd number, hey, it’s a mainstream work! I don’t usually write from an idea I had last week, it’s normally an idea that’s been hanging around for years, in some cases decades. Some never see the light of day, others eventually will. I generally know which ideas will fit where, as there’s a relatively small number of ideas that could fit into either science fiction or mainstream. When I’m planning a book, I look through my notes and try to find something that might fit.

TAO: What made you decide to make Walking on Glass non-genre?

IMB: I wanted to write something that wasn’t The Wasp Factory, although that hadn’t been published when Walking on Glass was more or less finished. There was some sort of indication that The Wasp Factory was going to cause a bigger splash than either I or my publishers had expected. That reinforced an I idea I had earlier, that I didn’t want to write upmarket horror stories for the rest of my career. I wanted to do something completely different. I did want to do something a little closer to science fiction, as though to make the transition a little easier, as I knew I wanted to get some genre novels published as well.
Usually when I think about a book, I’m at the stage I am now for my next novel which I’ll begin writing in October. There are lots of competing ideas, and there are a lot of small ideas which kind of stick to the bigger ones, and eventually one of the bigger ideas will ‘go critical’ and I’ll go with that one. Walking on Glass was the only time when three ideas all kept on growing at the same time, and many of the smaller ideas seemed to fit all three, and I decided to write all three together because they went so well together. It was always meant to be a little weird and bizarre but basically mainstream. But that’s taking writers like Borges and Kafka as mainstream. I tried to be credible. Walking on Glass and The Bridge could have been published as science fiction, and The Bridge was reviewed as science fiction in some places. It’s good, because you get people who don’t normally read science fiction picking them up.

SJ: What do you think of the adaptation of The Crow Road?

IMB: I thought it was very good, I was very impressed with it, and it was a big relief that they didn’t make a big mess of it. I’d heard of the people who made it, the writer seemed like a decent cove, but you still worry about your first adaptation. The wisest thing was not getting involved with it. It must be hard enough to adapt someone’s book without some bloody author standing over your shoulder telling you what you can’t do.

TAO: Do you have plans for any more adaptations?

IMB: Well, the same company that did The Crow Road are planning to do The Bridge so I sent off my usual letter telling them that anyone who tries to make that into anything other than a novel is mad. It’ll end in tears. There are plans to do Whit but it’s very similar to The Crow Road in terms of the emphasis the adaptation places on the search for Uncle Ruairi. Whit is also about the search for a relation.

TAO: Do you have any plans for movie adaptations?

IMB: The Wasp Factory saga has lasted twelve or thirteen years now, and it’s currently here in Ireland in the courts. The American production company which took over the Irish company Strongbow Productions (Eat the Peach) got the rights to The Wasp Factory. They claimed they’d started principal photography and we disputed it, so the litigation has been running for months now. There’s a company interested in doing The Player of Games, which would be the easiest to do. The producer is also thinking about Consider Phlebas, which I think could be done with the computer graphics that are available now. I think the problem would be the unwieldy background knowledge required.

TAO: Are you planning to work in any other media?

IMB: No, I’ve been completely spoiled by the fact that writing novels makes you God. The very idea of working where someone else can say “I don’t like this, change it”, which happens even more in television, is something I would hate. I had plans to write games, a long time ago, but I’m just not a team player. I had this plan for a romantic comedy where the hero was a drug dealer, maybe set in the West of Scotland. I wouldn’t mind that much if people mucked around with that. I’ve been talking about this for fifteen years so it’s unlikely ever to get written let alone produced.

SJ: Did you always plan to be a writer?

IMB: Yes, I have a crayon colouring book from Primary Seven, eleven years old, with a picture of what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was an actor because I didn’t know how to draw a writer, and at the top it says ‘AND WRITER’. I still have vague ambitions to write music, but I’ve never got very far in that direction. I wrote five science fiction novels before I wrote The Wasp Factory when I was sixteen, but I was thirty before that was published. So it took me a long time to get started. That was the apprenticeship, not an overnight success but an over-a-decade-and-a-bit-success.

SJ: Are the constructions in Feersum Endjinn really big furniture?

IMB: Yes, I used to have these model soldiers, and I wondered what it would be like to be one of those tiny soldiers in a giant house. I used to have these epic journeys for them. I thought if you had a giant structure, basing it on furniture would be easy. Feersum Endjinn is completely unrelated to the Culture, though I suppose it’s a good a reading as any to think it might be a world left behind by the Culture.

SJ: Whom do you admire in the science fiction world?

IMB: Well, Ken MacLeod, and I still think Dan Simmons is an excellent writer. I think under-rated writers are Mike (M John) Harrison and John Sladek. If I had my library with me I could tell you more people I really like. I’ve never really read graphics novels, but I’ve liked any of the small amount of Neil Gaiman’s work I’ve read. I seem to have something against graphic novels.

SJ: Do you see a time when you’ll stop writing?

IMB: I could afford to stop at the end of this four book deal, including the one that’s coming out in August and three more after that. I’ll probably want to but a yacht or something and then I’ll do another four books. But I’m happy doing a book a year, that’s the way and speed I write. I like to enjoy myself, so work gets shunted into the last, dark, rainy quarter of the year, but I still enjoy writing. I’ll probably keep on going, but I’ll see after this book.

TAO: Are you planning to write any more Culture novels?

IMB: Yes, of the four book deal, two are science fiction, of which one will be a Culture one though I don’t know which. It may be the one I’ll start writing in October or the one in two year’s time. It’ll be idea dependent, see what suggests itself. There’s bits and pieces lying around. There’s one thing that may become the next Culture novel.

TAO: Can you explain the Culture member who gets afflicted with Roman Catholicism in ‘The State of the Art’?

IMB: I didn’t want to make the Culture perfect, although it’s something the human race could achieve. There are people who are misfits in it, and there are many stories about people who leave the Culture. It’s not a coercive society, although at the same time they don’t want people who leave going off to coerce other societies, so they can’t take a heavily-armed spaceship with them. Or they’d send a better-armed spaceship after them. What happens to the character in ‘The State of the Art’ is that he falls in love with the irrationality of Christianity, with the ideas of pain and death, but he feels it’s about having fun, and sex, and more fun, and more sex. When he finds this planet that is so involved with this, and a religion that epitomises the idea of being born evil, he falls in love with it. He’s a hedonist. He dies, because that’s me playing God. If you’re stupid, you die.

Iain M Banks – a very brief bio

  • Born Iain Menzies Banks in Dunfermline Maternity Hospital, 1954
  • Attended Stirling University 1972-1975, graduated with degree in English, Philosophy and Psychology
  • Moved to London in 1979
  • 1984 published The Wasp Factory
  • From there it all got a lot easier…

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