Iain Banks Interview

Iain M. Banks — the ‘M’ is for Menzies — was born in 1954 in Fife, growing up there and on Clydeside. He read English with Philosophy and Psychology as Stirling University between 1972 and 1975: “Mainly because I thought they’d be good subjects for a writer,” he admits, “it was utter presumption.”

Banks first published novel was The Wasp Factory, in 1984, and while it brought him sudden and widespread acclaim, his success did not come overnight: “I did work out,” he says, “that there was a million words in the five books [I wrote] before Wasp Factory.”

Writing almost constantly from childhood, Banks completed his first full-length novel The Hungarian Lift Jet, a cold-war spy novel about a Sino-Soviet conflict, in 1970. He followed that with TTR, a story influenced by Catch-22 and Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, in 1972. He completed a version of The Use of Weapons in 1975. Banks has taken the basic story from his 1975 version and rewritten it extensively to form Use of Weapons, which was published by Macdonald in 1990.

In 1977 he wrote Against A Dark Background, another idea which he intends to return to; and in 1979 he wrote the first draft of a novel which was eventually rewritten and published as The Player of Games, in 1988.

In 1980, Banks moved to London. “I was working for this firm of lawyers, and my job was to read through all these wonderful files and then try, by some leap of the imagination, some conceptual breakthrough, to justify the amount of money these dingbats managed to clock up on their clients’ time.”

In 1981 he wrote a novel called The Wasp Factory, his first attempt at a straight mainstream novel. One of the first publishers to which the manuscript was submitted was Gollancz, whose in-house reader suggested the book be rejected, saying: ‘This book is extremely well written, but far too weird ever to get published.’ But published it was, by Macmillan in 1984.

“The Wasp Factory was actually published on my 30th birthday. I’d promised myself, when I came down to London, that if I hadn’t made it in publishing by the time I was thirty, I’d go back to Scotland. I’d say: Right, that’s it! And I’d pack and go off in a huff, back to Scotland. So I just got there in time!”

The Wasp Factory was widely acclaimed, regarded both as a mainstream novel and an upmarket psychological horror story (and described by the reviewer of the Irish Times as “a work of unparalleled depravity”). After completing The Wasp Factory, Banks wrote the first draft of a novel which would eventually become Consider Phlebas, and he then wrote Walking on Glass, which was completed three months before The Wasp Factory was published.

Exploiting the position as both ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’ novelist he achieved with The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks has been able to alternate his off-beat ‘proper novels’, Walking on Glass (1985), The Bridge (1986), Espedair Street (1987) and Canal Dreams (1989), with a series of science fiction genre novels, which began with Consider Phlebas (1987), of which he has said: “It’s basically about a shipwrecked sailor who falls in with a gang of pirates and goes in search of buried treasure, in space.”

He continued with SF in The Player of Games (1988), the novella The State of the Art (1989, USA only, later published as part of Banks first short story collection in the UK)year), and Use of Weapons, all of which stories are set within his socialist future society, The Culture.

Iain Banks now lives in Edinburgh. [He died in June 2013 at the age of 59]


Paul Tomlinson: You said during a panel discussion at the 1987 Worldcon that The Wasp Factory wasn’t meant to be taken the way it actually had been, that everybody was misinterpreting what the novel was about…

Iain Banks: Yes.

PT: …That it is really about the fact that we aren’t born good or bad, male or female, and that masculinity, or macho behaviour is just a matter of social conditioning…

IB: It’s not just conditioning, but that has a lot to answer for, true. Although the novel is really about whatever people take from it, what I wanted to put in it -and people didn’t take from it- was the idea of it being anti-macho, anti-military, anti-religious, all that. And it was meant to be pro-feminist and about the Nature / Nurture debate.

It’s not all conditioning, there is some nature involved, but certainly the way we bring children up defines a lot of their responses, and to some extent makes them what they are.

PT: Did it bother you that many people took it as a straight horror novel?

IB: Not really. As long as people read it. If it’s any good, then I reckon that, although on a surface level they think it is only about this, there is some deeper message underneath that will still work. As long as they read it and enjoy it, I’m not really concerned what they think about it.

PT: The Wasp Factory was your first attempt at a straight mainstream novel after having written two or three science fiction novels before that. Why do a mainstream novel if you were really interested in SF?

IB: Well, I was 29, and I thought I was never going to get anything published, and with them being science fiction, once I’d been around, maybe, half-a-dozen publishers with them, I’d run out of publishers. I couldn’t think of anyone else who published SF. So I thought, if you’re going to do another book, (a) do a second draft, which might help; and (b), make it mainstream so that you can take it to more publishers, so you’ve got a better chance! It was as simple as that.

I had to sort of wrestle with my conscience, because one sub-committee of my brain was saying: This is a sell-out, Banksey! You shouldn’t do this… But I’m very pleased with the book; it’s definitely the best I’d written up to that point.

PT: Your most recent mainstream novel was Canal Dreams which has a Japanese cello player as its hero…

IB: A middle-aged Japanese lady cello player, yeah. The actual story is set in the year 2000. It’s not a science fiction story; it is set in the year 2000 because that is when the Americans have got to hand the Canal back to the Panamanians. The story has a war going on — a kind of Contra-Sandinistra-type war. The middle-aged Japanese lady cello player hates flying, she won’t fly, so she’s on a ship going through the Panama Canal, and the war hits, and there’s various sorts of political machinations.

It starts fairly quietly and builds to a crescendo of violence.

I don’t think we’re going to sell the American rights or the film rights, because it’s a bit anti-American, anti-CIA, or whatever. George Bush won’t like it!

PT: In Consider Phlebas, you begin the story with the Irdians, and let the reader grow to understand them and identify with them, and then you let them see what utter bastards they really are. Did you deliberately set out to throw the reader?

IB: To a large extent Consider Phlebas is a reaction against all the other space operas that I’d read, which tended to be… although I liked to feel the scale and sweep of space operas, I hated the sort of ideas that were being put across, which were very sexist, imperialist, right-wing, and all the rest if it. I thought I’d attempt to reclaim the moral high ground of space opera for the liberal-lefties!

The book does set out to say that you can’t just assume that because you’ve got this hero that he is on the right side. You can’t even say that he’s going to survive at the end… Hah, hah! I trilogy-proofed the book!

I wanted to… I won’t say ‘deconstruct’, but certainly to take the piss out of standard space opera ideas. It’s a comment on other science fiction novels, as much as a novel in its own right.

PT: How was Consider Phlebas received in science fiction circles?

IB: I think, because it was my first real science fiction book, a lot of people were disappointed because many people in SF look down upon space opera, in much the same way that people outside look down on science fiction. I think they thought my first science fiction novel would be some sub-Ballardian, tightly controlled story, in a much more British, or European, tradition, rather than be a pure space opera. Even though it was a space opera with a lot of differences, it was still determined to be a space opera.

So that was a disappointment, I think. It should do better in America, though I haven’t found out what’s happening there yet. I’ve got a feeling that it has not done as well as I was hoping. I’ll wait and see how the paperback does over the next few months, because that’s the market I’d really like it to go to. It feels like an American sort of book, with the scale and the action and all the rest of it. But it’s got a very sort of un-American message at the end.

PT: Consider Phlebas was very much about space war from the grunt’s point of view, and showed it to be as bloody and messy as the real thing…

IB: Rather than all the princes and princesses and all that sort of shit! I’m fed up with things like Star Trek and Doctor Who, where you got hit by a ray gun and glowed and disappeared completely, so there wasn’t even any ash left, never mind any blood and guts or splintered bone or anything. So I wanted to have all the gory stuff in there.

PT: Plus the sort of Catch-22 thing, where things go wrong.

IB: That was a major influence on me. And the thing about things going wrong is that war is about 99% fuck up. But that never really came across.

Dune was also an influence. Especially the first half of the first book, which is one of the best ever written in science fiction… it falls off towards the end, and it has one of the worst endings in SF!

But an aspect of that which really annoyed me was that everyone always knew what everyone else was doing, and it was all really just a big chess game. Life is not like that, and war certainly isn’t like that. So I was trying to get that across -mistakes happen constantly.

PT: Consider Phlebas was your first published SF novel, but didn’t you write a version of Player of Games before that?

IB: It was written just before Wasp Factory, in 1979.

PT: Was that vastly different to the version which eventually came out?

IB: Oh, yeah. The first quarter of the first draft, which became the first third, is completely different; what was the last three-quarters, which is now the last two-thirds, hasn’t really changed that much, it’s roughly the same, but an entirely new thread or theme has been added, which… doesn’t exactly stand the novel of the first draft on its head, but it makes a lot of difference in terms of things you’ve been told about The Culture. There’s a much more equivocal view of The Culture now, these ten years later, than there was in 1979. I’m not so convinced of the absolute good of it; I think that you have got to have some sort of elements of control, of wrongness, or badness, or whatever, to make it realistic. So it’s a different book in the end.

PT: I’m not really sure that I would want to live in The Culture.

IB: Oh, you would! You don’t really get much of an impression of it in Consider Phlebas. You get more of it in Player of Games, I suppose… But you would, you would, believe me. You’d love it, it’s great!

PT: It seems too quiet and perfect… too nice.

IB: It is nice. What’s wrong with nice? What do you want then? You can get whatever you want in The Culture.

PT: But isn’t there a problem in that writing about utopia is boring? That dystopia is more interesting?

IB: It is! That’s why one of the books is about a war, and the other one is about a horrible dystopia. You can’t… it’d be a tremendous challenge — and I might like to try it some time, though I don’t know if I will — to write an interesting book set entirely within The Culture, where nothing unpleasant happens… but you’re right, it might be boring.

The Culture is a reaction to all those boring utopias that have been put across, which are actually dystopias. the Culture is where I definitely want to live because it’s a great place to be, and you can do virtually what you want, as long as it doesn’t kill or hurt anyone else. You can do anything, you can see anything at all…

PT: Can you have horror movies in a utopia?

IB: Oh, yes. That’s actually mentioned in The Player of Games, the things you can do with video special effects to create your own movies: you can have all sorts of horrible things happening to people on screen, which doesn’t actually happen.

And in The Culture, you don’t have to work, but you can work if you actually enjoy doing something. You have access to any amount of fun — sport, entertainment, human interactions… the lot. And also, if you want, you can go out and try to civilize the natives.

I still haven’t covered all that is in The Culture, so there are other books to come yet, to try and get a feel of the society.

PT: It’s something that I would like to know more about.

IB: Good, that’s a good reaction, I’m pleased to hear this.

PT: What happened to the planned movie of Wasp Factory?

IB: They’re still talking about that. It was optioned for a long time for not very much money at the time, by a very small independent company. It is now with another independent company, but one that’s a bit better known, called Strongbow, who did a film called Eat the Peach a couple of years ago.

PT: About the bloke who builds the…

IB: …Wall of death in the countryside, yeah. They’re paying, I think, twenty-five thousand during the course of this year (1989), which is reasonably serious money when they’re only talking about a million budget anyway. I will eventually see this money, when it’s trickled down through accountants and publishers…

So they must be thinking seriously about making it, if not this summer, then next summer. but don’t hold your breath -films projects have a habit of falling by the wayside.

PT: Is there any interest in the other books?

IB: Not serious interest, no. No one’s optioned them. I think things like Walking on Glass and The Bridge are unfilmable. Consider Phlebas would make a fabulous movie, but it would be horrendously expensive! Espedair Street would make a movie, and there’s been a bit of interest, but nobody’s put any money where their mouth is yet.

PT: It might be possible to do some of the effects for Consider Phlebas with computer simulations now, because computer animation has moved on a long way since Tron

IB: Well, yes. But I don’t think you could skimp on the effects for the crash of the megaship if you were going to include that, and the train crash at the end… you probably could make it. I keep telling people you couldn’t make it for less than $60 million, but you probably could make it for less. I think it’s the sort of thing that people are less likely to take a risk on these days. Only people like Lucas and Spielberg can get the budgets.

I’d love to see Phlebas as a film, and I’d like to see it so much that I wouldn’t even mind too much if they changed the ending and the hero lives at the end! I’d just like to see the megaship crash, and the train crash, and the fight under the hovercraft.

PT: There are so many great sequences, but I don’t know if you could string them all together into a movie…

IB: You’d have to leave a lot out… I certainly wouldn’t want anything to do with the film script at all!

PT: Didn’t you do a script for The Wasp Factory?

IB: I did the original screenplay, which they’re not using anymore. They got a real scriptwriter in. But I tried. I didn’t enjoy doing it very much. I don’t like co-operating with people. I like to do things in my own way.

PT: So you don’t fancy collaborating with anybody on a graphic novel, or anything like that?

IB: I’m supposed to be doing a graphic story — it won’t be long enough to be a graphic novel — with SMS, so that might happen. I’m quite interested in doing graphic stuff.

PT: There are things you could do in comics which you couldn’t do in movies…

IB: There are things that you could only otherwise do in movies, which would cost millions to do!

PT: And in the meantime, are you planning to continue to alternate with mainstream and SF novels in alternate years?

IB: That’s the idea. Last year’s book was Canal Dreams, and that was non-SF, this year’s book, Use of Weapons, is SF, and I intend to continue that for the forseeable future.

PT: Is Espedair Street autobiographical to any extent?

IB: Oh, it’s not at all! The only thing is that the songs do exist in the form of lyrics written down and the music played into a tape recorder, plunked out a string at a time on a guitar.

PT: There’s nothing of you in the character of Weird?

IB: Weird, in a way, is a giant exaggeration of… well, not of me. But he reacts kind of in the way that I would in that sort of situation. And in a sense it is an exaggeration of what’s happened to me: I’ve been able to give up my day job, and I don’t have to work for a living anymore…

PT: But you haven’t moved into a folly?

IB: No, I haven’t. But I have moved into a flat in Edinburgh which was got a turret, so that’s… I think there are similarities, but it’s like they say, every character in a book contains something of the author. You can’t get away from that.

PT: I thought perhaps you were getting at the fame and attention you have gained because of the popularity of your books…

IB: Not really. His is of a different magnitude. He gets much more money and is much more famous because pop music is much more popular and much more lucrative than SF books. So it is an exaggeration. I wasn’t really getting at it, but I know the way I feel about certain things about being even slightly famous, so I might have magnified that a hundred times, or a thousand… But I wasn’t having a dig at it, or anything like that.

PT: Would you like to have been a rock musician?

IB: No, I wouldn’t really. I still think that I might try and get something done with these songs… but to be on stage? I don’t think I have any desire for that.

PT: You’d like to do something like Michael Moorcock did with Hawkwind?

IB: Something like that… Only better!



Originally published in the fanzine Other Times