A Chat With Iain Banks

22 February 2008

Scottish novelist Iain Banks came to prominence in the eighties with The Wasp Factory and has stayed in the public eye ever since. He is also called Iain M Banks–he uses his middle initial for his science fiction. His new book, Matter, was released in January.

Why do you keep your science fiction separate from your other novels?

It’s branding.

Do you have fans who would only ever read your work as Iain Banks or Iain M Banks?

A lot of mainstream readers just won’t read SF. SF readers usually read other stuff too and are generally more adventurous, though there must be a few who only read SF.

Is writing science fiction any different from writing other types of fiction? Which is more rewarding?

Mostly pretty similar; they’re all just novels to me, with plots, ideas, characters, dialogue and so on. The mainstream is slightly harder and to the same degree more rewarding but the SF-at least the SF I tend to write, which is sometimes close to Space Opera-is more fun. I compare it to the difference between playing the piano–the piano forte to be excruciatingly correct–and a seriously capable organ in a cathedral. One is able to convey exquisite emotional depth and sensitivity, but for stops-out, bowel-shaking, awe-inspiring exhilaration, the organ’s the business.

How did you begin writing?

I started in primary school; I got lots of praise and good marks for making up stories. I have a drawing book from Primary Seven which shows I wanted to be a writer from the age of eleven. It must have been around then that somebody let slip that there were people called professional writers who actually made a living from making up stories and I decided That’s The Job For Me, By Jiminy.

Do you approach the business of writing in the same way today?

I think so. It’s become so second nature after all this time I hardly notice it happening.

When do you have your best ideas?

Over the last six-seven years or so, while hill walking. Otherwise, they pop up pretty much at random.

Do you feel it’s important for writers to tackle political issues and address social concerns in their work?

Yes, if they can do so without it seeming false or forced. Unfortunately I have difficulty doing this; I don’t think I’ve yet written a novel where politics is successfully integrated into the fabric of the plot or story itself. Complicity probably comes closest. The rest of the time I resort to what is quite obviously blatant vicarious ranting when one of the characters starts spouting what is plainly authorial opinion.

Can novels really change the way people think about things and the way they live their lives?

Of course novels can do these things. That’s one of the reasons for writing them. It may only, usually, be in the detail of people’s opinions and behaviour, and/or it may be cumulative across a body of work by the same author or many novels by many writers, but it can be done.

Some of your novels critique religion or religious behaviour quite unambiguously. Do you see anything positive in religion?

Not a great deal. I think the positive aspects religion sometimes gets the credit for actually originate in the people who believe in the religion rather than in the religion itself. And religion–God, whatever–seems to benefit from a sort of blindness in people, a kind of built-in prejudice; we call good luck a miracle and thank God for it, but don’t blame our chosen deity for any bad luck. At best, this is muddled thinking. Certainly religion has inspired–rather than just paid for–some great art, but it is moot whether the artists concerned might have found inspiration elsewhere in the absence of religion. However, as an evangelical atheist, I concede that I may be biased.

Your books always contain elements of humour, but at the same time, there’s a strain of darkness running your work. Does this reflect the way you look at life in general?

I suppose so. Though really I’m an annoyingly sunny individual most of the time. Well, apart from when watching the football results come in of a Saturday afternoon. I have what feels at the moment like the great misfortune to support Greenock Morton, who are currently exploring the lower depths of the Scottish First Division with an enthusiasm they appear bafflingly unable to apply to the business of scoring goals and winning matches.

What are your views on other writers–who do you enjoy reading, who do you avoid like the plague, and why?

Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed novels by Mike Harrison, David Mitchell, Dan Simmons and Alan Warner. Though I always answer this sort of question with the nagging feeling that I’m missing somebody out whose work I totally adored just a few months ago but have temporarily completely forgotten.

Are you pleased with the way your new book Matter has turned out?

Yup, highly pleased.

What have you got planned for the rest of the year?

Over February and March there’s publicity to be done for Matter and the paperback of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, then I have to plan the next mainstream, which I start writing in mid-October. In the meantime I shall be using a staggeringly complicated but brilliantly capable music processing program called Logic 7 to make music on. Objectively the results might be unlistenable rubbish but as I can finally hear through my ears what I’ve only ever heard in my head all these years, I remain resolutely tickled pink by the whole process.