Video

Text

 

Dr Derek Neale, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Open University

The Cheltenham Literature Festival has been running for over 60 years, I’m here to talk to Iain Banks, one of the most imaginative novelist writing in Britain today.  He’s here doing interviews and readings, launching his 25th novel, Surface Detail.  I wanted to talk to him about his writing process and his writing career.

How do you feel British writing, British novels have changed since you first published The Wasp Factory in the eighties?  Have world events affected how you write and how your peers write do you think?

Iain Banks

I think everything affects you in a way.  I think your own immediate society as it were, you know, your immediate circumstances, familial etc, whatever occupation you have, so on, certainly your own society, your own country has an effect and certainly world events as well.  And I’m probably not the best person in terms of having a really good overview to answer that question, because I don’t keep sufficiently close eye on novels in general, there are people who are much better read, more widely read than I am.  Apart from anything else, I have this thing I’ve got to keep in touch with mainstream literature and try and keep abreast of science fiction as well, you know.  I don’t mean this to sound like a chore, you know, I love doing both, but it means I can’t go into the same depth as someone who is restricting themselves to one of them.  I think, just probably looking at my own sort of career, I think the fuss that happened with the publication of The Wasp Factory probably wouldn’t happen now.  I think The Wasp Factory itself had a small effect on things like American Psycho of Bret Easton Ellis that probably, you know, had the effect of widening the field that you could talk about stuff, unpleasant things within conventional mainstream literature.  I guess that was probably what has happening.  I don’t think there’s any great revolutionary individual thing going on there with either novel, it’s just gradual increasing of scope as it were. 

I think a lot of the stuff that’s happened has been about publishing itself, which is much less sort of collegiate and much less of an old boys’ network, it’s much more corporatised now, there’s really only about three, you know, really big publishers in London and they’ve all got a sort of international presence as well.  In the old days it was, well for example, the lady who first read The Wasp Factory at Macmillan, Hilary who became Hilary Hale, married to the late much missed James Hale who was my editor and the guy who actually made the decision to publish The Wasp Factory, but she was interviewed by the interviewing panel at Macmillan back in, this must be the very early eighties I guess.  She was asked what her circumstances were and how she intended to live, well money’s not very good obviously, but intend to do her best on the salary, and the two people who were interviewing her apparently were lords of the realm and they were absolutely astounded this poor dear girl didn’t have an independent income, and that just wouldn’t happen in publishing nowadays.

Dr Derek Neale

No.

Iain Banks

Nowadays you look for people who are prepared to do internships or whatever, but you still needed an independent income in a sense but there wasn’t that, you know, sort of top down look at it as a sort of gentleman’s club and occasional spaces for girls to come along while they were waiting for a husband.  It sort of changed a bit and it’s the corporatisation that I think has affected things most.

Dr Derek Neale

But also I suppose it’s changed in its way of delivery.  I mean several of your novels are available as audio downloads.  Surface Detail for instance was available on the day of publication as an audio download, how does this make you feel?  I mean you once said you’re breathless at the pace of technology.

Iain Banks

Yeah.  I think that’s just a general remark mind you.  On the other hand if you’re a science fiction writer, you’re a science fiction reader, you’re also very impatient you know, to get better.  I think we’re all kind of left amazed at the way that the net and the web has developed so incredibly quickly with the commercial empires and fortunes have been made in the course of a few years, and I think how quickly things can fall away as well.  But I think as so many fans and readers, writers have lamented over the years where’s our jetpacks, where’s our moon base, where’s our Mars base and all that stuff?  But I think in terms of the way that writing’s changed, I mean the biggest real change I think is not the release of, you know, audio editions, it’s more the digitalisation of books themselves, and I think the eBook and the Kindle and so on are much more sort of fundamental, sort of potential the loci of change than simply audio books.  The thing about an audio book is that it kind of widens the market in a sense that people can listen to a book while they’re driving, you can’t read and drive.  Tried that, crashed every time.  So an audio book kind of increases things a bit, and whether it’s downloaded or whether they used to be on cassettes and they kind of had to be abridged.  Nowadays you can have, you know, ten CD box sets with every single blinking word there.  Never read by me I hasten to add, because I stumble and fall and get my words wrong and get very mixed up and...

Dr Derek Neale

So do you think the Kindle and the eBooks signal the demise of the book?

Iain Banks

I don’t think a demise, I think things are going to change.  I mean the thing is no sort of technological change ever necessarily signals the end of the earlier version.  I mean people still paint paintings and people still buy paintings, they’re a flourishing art market you know, even though the camera came along and in most cases is a much better way of recording scenes in front of you, and the same way people, well we still take photographs, we still have the theatre, people still go to the theatre and write plays even though the cinema came along and again made it sort of more efficient watching stuff on what appears to be a stage whatever.  So I don’t think any of these things necessarily mean the end of the earlier version and I think personally I just like books, I like the feel of books.  I like having the books. 

Dr Derek Neale

I suppose it means that there might be some things that are suited to books and some things that are suited to electronic delivery in some way.

Iain Banks

I guess so.  I mean the obvious one is I think where publishers are feeling the greatest, you know, sort of heart is in reference books, because it’s so much easier to do that stuff and keep it right up to date as well on the web.  With novels it’s kind of different.  I mean to some extent the traditional model, the business model will suffer because of the digitalisation of print, you know, and I think a lot of publishers are scared stiff if they look what’s happened to the music industry after the digitalisation of music, but I don’t think it has to be that terrible.  I think the ways to look at it, you know, I mean it’s such a sort of cliché, but it’s true to look at it as an opportunity rather than as a threat, but it does require some pretty fancy footwork on behalf of publishers and they’ve traditionally not really been that sort of fast or quick moving, because they haven’t had to be, because such a long time for a book to get written, a book to be printed and finally published and so on.  It’s a relatively slow moving, you know, fairly slow moving sort of area.  So yeah, they need to sort of, and they are, to be fair they’re trying.  One publishers, they’ve had a second version of the app, the iPhone app first for my earlier novel, Transition and for this new one Surface Detail, and it’s gradually going to expand to include pretty much all the novels both science fiction and mainstream.  That’s the plan at the moment and it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility for there to be two separate apps, one science fiction, one mainstream, whatever.  You know, but obviously they’re trying their best to move with the times and we’ll see how it works out. 

Dr Derek Neale

I’m just wondering how it affects you and your approach to writing.  Going back to the audio versions for a second with these new technologies where you’ve got an audio version of the text and a book version of the text and an electronic version of the text, your books contain a range of character voices, extraordinary range of distinctive voices and I’m just wondering whether you think in audio terms when you’re writing, when you’re creating these characters.

Iain Banks

Absolutely not.

Dr Derek Neale

No?

Iain Banks

No.  The other thing that I never do, which it’s one of these things that sometimes when people mention stuff like that and say I assume you do this you think no, it never crossed my mind.  I never have a sort of properly developed image of my characters either.  I think a lot of other writers and now I think about it it’s a much more sensible, you know, way to do it, they’re imagining a film star or maybe somebody that they know, but there’s a definite person in the real world, whether they’re very famous or whether they’re somebody that only they know, as it were, that they model their characters on and I’ve never done that.  It just never really occurred to me.  So I just have a sort of vague image of them, but kind of what I’ve described on the page is pretty much all I have.  And the same with audio stuff, I mean set with a sort of internal dialogue generator that I’ve got going inside my head, it’s the thing that you hope, you know, is working properly, it makes the dialogue in the novels read believably not clunkily.  And that’s one of the harder things to do in stories, whether it’s a novel or short story or whatever, is to get dialogue that actually sounds plausible and not just sort of well tell me all about this now, and we’ve now got the added thing of science fiction that now here comes the info dump, you know, where it’s told lots of stuff.

Dr Derek Neale

Yes.  But what I find in your novels is that the voices are distinct, you know, there’s a contrast between them, so you’ve obviously gone through some sort of process of saying ah that character speaks like this.

Iain Banks

Oh yeah, absolutely. 

Dr Derek Neale

Or this one speaks like that.

Iain Banks

Ah that voice is definitely there, but that’s the idea of the character and how they would express themselves, you know, I’m not actually hearing their voices as such. 

Dr Derek Neale

No.  I’m just struck by Jonathan Franzen recently declared that he didn’t have a clue what his main female character looked like other than she was five foot ten.  And then in that conversation that a reader spoke up and said well I know what she looked like, and I suppose that’s what you’re doing, you’re trusting your reader.

Iain Banks

Oh yeah, I mean it’s kind of a cliché by now, but no-one reads exactly the same novel, everyone reads a novel that is, you know, customised for them via their own brain.  You provide the words, the raw material and you’ve a huge amount of control, but in the end they make up their own images and they will sort of hear their own sort of voices and so on.  And yeah, I had a person that said - they weren’t being facetious saying that they knew what they looked like, they did for them.  Although I do find that a bit weird to an extent, you know, what a main character looks like apart from their height, that’s just bizarre.  But also pretty good, it matters, you know, if someone’s like three foot six that has an impact on the entire being, the entire life or ditto if they’re sort of two metres tall.  You know, it’s yeah, odd.  Yeah, you sure he wasn’t just kidding us on there?  You know.

Dr Derek Neale

Yeah.  I mean I think fiction writers have a tendency to talk fiction sometimes don’t they?

Iain Banks

Oh no.  Obviously not, no.

Dr Derek Neale

And talking about your writing process, you’re incredibly prolific, you produce on average a book a year and some of them are big books as well, and yet you don’t, I know that you don’t write for all of the year, which would make some writers very envious I know.  I just wonder whether you could elaborate on the template for, you know, how a novel comes into being within a year?

Iain Banks

Well I mean certainly the raw material side, the stuff that comes up kind of all the time, you know, every I don’t know few days or whatever you’ll have some sort of idea.  It might be quite a big idea in terms of an overall sort of plot thing or story, very often it comes down to a level of a single word, you know.  It could be a bad pun or something, but more often it’s a line of dialogue or just a name or something, some sort of idea or some sort of neat bit of technology or whatever.  So those just all get collected into a notebook.  After having just written a novel, having sort of done the first draft and the usually not too sort of laborious bit of second draft and talking to the publishers about any amendments and so on, I kind of have about three months when I don’t really do very much at all and then another three months where to the uninformed eye it looks like I’m still not doing very much, but I’ve started to think about the next book, or at least started to think about thinking about it, and there’s another three months where I’m sort of doing proper plotting.  I’m actually sort of deliberately thinking about a very organised in a fairly sort of formal sort of way.

Dr Derek Neale

Does this go in charts, in notebooks?

Iain Banks

Just in a note.  Yeah.  Just, you know, I always open a document in the computer and put it there.  It usually starts with a list of all the ideas that I’ve had and then gradually there’s a sort of weeding out and the stuff that I’m going to use for that book stays and the stuff that I’m definitely not going to use becomes a new set of sort of raw idea, the raw material for future novels whatever.  So there’s sort of three months of doing absolutely nothing, three months of thinking, three months of proper planning and then three months of actual writing, that’s at the most.  I mean sometimes the one I’m going to be writing next, I’m hoping I’m going to be able to do it in less or certainly about two months, maybe a week or two less hopefully.  But the trick is it’s the three months of planning is the important bit, because that’s where you can make all your mistakes and you can sort of write yourself into corners, because you’re not physically writing anything down and not, you know, committing keystrokes and that’s where you can sort of decide oh, I’d better not do that or, you know, that’s where you’re metaphorically sitting looking at the blank sheet of paper or the blank screen, you should never be doing that once you start writing.  That’s for me.  I mean other writers have to, you know, I know they work is to have a single idea or image and go with that and see what happens, in that case you sometimes do end up just staying thinking well what happens next and if that’s what works for them that’s fine, but for me I need to know pretty much where I’m going kind of from the off.

Dr Derek Neale

And when you do start writing does much change from that three months of planning?

Iain Banks

Very little.  It changes a bit more towards the end.  I’m kind of a bit less strict than I used to be, I’ve kind of loosened up a bit, so that towards the end if you look at a sort of column, as it were, of events, as it were, it gets a bit more sort of flutelike when it gets to the top, so a book has got a potential for going in different directions according to, you know, whatever’s happened in the meantime.  So I’m not quite so, you know, determined to stick to an absolutely nailed down plan.  But it’s fair, as well I mean the case of Surface Detail for example had this big sort of showdown marked for the end and that had to happen, so I was really looking forward to writing that bit and so it couldn’t deviate too much.  Other things could go in one other directions, but that sort of big fiery sort of ending thing had to…

Dr Derek Neale

So there’s certain showpieces, scenes that you know that have got to be in there. 

Iain Banks

Yes.  And it varies from book to book, some books have those and some books, you know, it can still be left a bit more, well a bit sort of looser, you know.

Dr Derek Neale

Going back to world events, you know, what we were talking about before, I mean I was just wondering about how world events sort of impact on your writing process.  For instance Dead Air has got, it starts with 9/11 doesn’t it, and Garbadale has got sort of reference to George Bush and corp, and it’s about sort of corporate dealings in a way.  So it’s very, very topical.  Do world events impinge on the process or do they…

Iain Banks

Oh I think necessarily, I mean in a sense rightly so.  I mean thing is for a start you can write historical fiction that, you know, except by sort of metaphors, you don’t have to bring present day stuff in.  Or you can write in the very far future where again that don’t have to have any sort of relevance to now.  But I think if you’re writing something that is set in relatively contemporary times and if you’re not going for that very sort of timeless placeless feel, which sometimes you might want to do, then you kind of have to reflect what’s going on.  I sort of usually do try and bring reality in there.  In the case of something like Dead Air when it was always going to be set in that particular time when the sort of three months when I was writing it was the three months that was going to be set within and I was quite prepared to be, you know, because of the trying to capture the DJ, the sort of left wing shock jock, he was always going to be talking within the context of what had been going on then.  But I mean I actually delayed starting the novel because of 9/11 because it just, you would obviously have to be talking about that.  But I hadn’t planned and I hadn’t imagined anything that sort of catastrophic or so game changing would happen.  It took me a while before I could work out how I was going to deal with it and, you know, it had to be mentioned, but I didn’t want it to, you know, sort of look too sort of horribly gratuitous or whatever.  So that had actually delayed the novel by about, in a way.

Dr Derek Neale

Because some novelists would actually stay clear of topicality in that way, because they’d be scared of it dating a novel.

Iain Banks

Oh it does, uh-huh.  Well, you know, that’s definitely an option, that’s fair enough.  It depends what you’re going for.  If you’re going for themes or ideas you want to work with then topicality is, it can just be a distraction.  For all you’re really talking about is like, you know, this like eternal romantic triangle whatever, then again unless your characters are people involved in the news like journalists or a DJ or something like that then yeah, it can be just a distraction to mention topical events.  You want to concentrate on the emotions of the people and that’s kind of irrelevant, but as soon as you start to broaden out a novel a bit I think you have to have some sort of semblance of respect paid to the time that it happened within.

Dr Derek Neale

Well we’ve talked a little bit already about Surface Detail and you are of course Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, you’re a mainstream novelist and a science fiction novelist, but anyone looking at both strands of your work would see other genres in there as well, there’s gothic in there, there’s thriller in there, there’s crime in there, there’s psychological thriller.  There’s all sorts of things.  Surface Detail, somebody described it recently as a revenge thriller, which is, you know, understandable I think.  What do you think of genre in your work?

Iain Banks

I’m very happy with genre, I mean I like genre.  I think if I was taking a fairly sort of relaxed view of the requirement for the novelist to appear too serious, you know, I don’t take myself seriously at all.  I take the work fairly seriously, but even then it partly comes down to I think there’s too much mystification of writing, and I think writers are very much responsible for this.  We kind of just pretend oh it always comes to us and we must wait for inspiration and all the rest of it and we kind of ignore the sort of craft aspect of it, and I think I’m given a sort of a mission, I wouldn’t say a one part, one man, one person mission, I presume there’s other writers that’ll try and do the same thing, but to try and sort of demystify it a bit and say well look, it is a craft and there’s ways of doing this.  And I’m not going to pretend that I sweat and agonise over every line, I’m the kind of writer that happens to have lots of ideas.  I write very quickly, and I’m guilty of having said when someone have said have you ever suffered from writer’s block and I sort of facetiously said yes once for an entire morning and another time for an afternoon and an evening, you know.  But then I thought that’s actually really cruel for writers who genuinely have suffered from it, it’s a bit glib, you know, but I’m just lucky that way, I just don’t.  And I enjoy writing and it’s about, if you like, the ability to concentrate hard for long periods.  But even then it’s more like fun, I mean anyone who’s ever played a computer game, we’ve all had the experience of sitting down at about 10.30 at night and thinking right, I’ll just play for half an hour and you don’t, you don’t play for half an hour then you go to bed at a respectable hour and read a bit.  What happens is you’re woken up from your reverie at four o’clock in the morning by your bladder demanding to be emptied, and all you’ve done for the last sort of six hours just play the game.  Well I get that sometimes writing, I literally have that experience where sort of I’m aware of the sort of pain back in the real world and oh, is that the time?  Good grief, you know, ooh must go to the loo, because I’m enjoying myself and been concentrating so hard and I look and I think oh good God, I’ve written four or five thousand words.  You know, that doesn’t happen every day, it doesn’t even necessarily happen every novel, but to a small degree it happens, you know, to a minor degree that happens with every book and just time just seems to go so fast.  So I love writing and that makes a big difference to that.  And I’m not here to pretend that I don’t.

Dr Derek Neale

No.

Iain Banks

I find it quite easy and very enjoyable.

Dr Derek Neale

Which is great and, yeah, as you say, in contrast with some writers certainly.  Going back to this genre question, I mean I just wonder what’s your favourite genre and how do you decide on a genre?

Iain Banks

Oh well my favourite’s definitely science fiction.  I mean I discovered it when I was 11, 12, 13, round about then, and I probably read sort of science fiction stories but not really sort of clocked that they were a very specific genre, and I just loved the freedom of it.  I love the feeling of starting especially a collection of science fiction short stories and simply not knowing at the start of each story where you were going to be. It could be anywhere in time, you know, both the far past and the future.  It could be inside the mind of an alien or anything else.  And from that point of view I regard genre in the sense as being there to exploit and also I regard mainstream as just another genre.  Certainly a theoretical sense, I don’t regard it as having the primacy that is kind of assumed to have.  Now having said that, because there’s always a sort of clumping together of, you know, the big brains as it were in any sort of given situation, you get the Oxbridge effect, and if you really wanted to show how good a writer you are then you will tend to write mainstream because that is where the other sort of really good writers are the most impressive or the most lauded will tend to gather, that’s where they go, this is the big arena.  So in practical terms I think it does end up, you know, often having the best writing.  It has got a primacy that, well it’s practical primacy rather than a theoretical one in a sense, and I’ve sort of said for years I think science fiction is really the most important of the genres because it’s the only one that deals quite specifically with the effects of change on humans, both at individual and a societal level and that has mattered very fundamentally with industrial revolution. Until the industrial revolution people tended to die in the same society as they’d been born into, stuff didn’t change that much.  There was still, you know, sudden, shocking horrible events like wars and natural catastrophe, but technology didn’t really change much, it changed very very slowly.  And once the industrial revolution hit suddenly no-one that lived a normal lifestyle died in the same society that they’d - certainly no-one that was touched by, well obviously it was spread out from Europe and from the developed world and in a sense still is.  But it’s that, it’s a shock of the new, the shock of change that science fiction deals with.  And a lot of time it doesn’t live up to this high standards and I don’t think my SF necessarily does all the time either, but in a sense it has that capability, the unique capability amongst genres that it deals with something very important and is affecting us all the time and increasingly.

Dr Derek Neale

I mean yeah, by that token I mean we are learning to live in old age at the moment aren’t we?  And the novelists like yourself should be and are very interested in that sort of thing, and also there’s a sort of lineage of mainstream mixing with science fiction.  So there’s JG Ballard, there’s Aldous Huxley, there’s all sorts of people that have - and your novel Transition for instance, I think that was - is that mainstream or is it science fiction?

Iain Banks

Well I’m sticking to the line it’s 51% mainstream, but yeah.  I mean the idea there was I was trying to sort of recreate something of the feel of The Bridge, which was a novel.  If you look at my sort of career it sort of formed a Y-shape initially, there was like The Wasp Factory, which had no science fiction in it at all, then Walking on Glass, which sort of had elements of science fiction and fantasy, and then The Bridge took that a bit further.  But after that that was the crux of the Y is where it split, the science fiction became much more science fiction, it was proper space opera with, you know, big aliens and spaceships and laser canons, and the mainstream became much more mainstream, much more well banal, mundane if you like in a way, with no, fairly any sort of phantasmagoria or fantastical elements at all.  And I thought for years it’ll be good to sort of try and bring those back together again and I almost did it with Garbadale.  The original sort of plan for Garbadale the mainstream novel before Transition, it was going to be much, much weirder, it was going to have people sort of trapped inside a game, because instead of just being about a game, a family that owns the rights to a game whatever, but I couldn’t get it to come out as anything like a sort of slightly upmarket version of Jumanji, which wasn’t going to work.  So it became, you know, a much more straight down the line mainstream novel.  But with Transition I finally got the sort of plan together and thought I can make this work.  I think I probably overdid it slightly in terms of bringing the science fiction in, you know, so I wasn’t just tickled by the fact that it was published as mainstream here and science fiction in America, put the M in for America, although that was more of a marketing thing what does the M stand for?  Marketing.  Because the science fiction sells better in America, but it was kind of probably more correctly, you know, judged science fiction and mainstream, but I’m not really bothered, not really concerned about that particularly.  I don’t want to misrepresent, you know, stuff like that, but I think I’ve been writing for so long now people know that I do science fiction as well as mainstream.  I don’t think anyone would feel, I hope no-one sort of felt cheated by the fact it was, you know, science fiction on the way.

Dr Derek Neale

No.  On one hand genre is just a way for publishes to shelve things differently and sell things differently as well.

Iain Banks

Absolutely.  And the same as like bookshops as well.  I mean you could organise a bookshop, an entire chain of bookshops that just had every single author alphabetically arranged on the shelves, but it would make it hard if you particularly like crime fiction, you’re going to have to look, you’ll be fine under C for, you know, Christie or whatever or R for Rankin you’d know where to go, but it would make life difficult.  So it’s arranged, there are reasons that we have categories and the reason that we pigeonhole stuff, you know, that it makes sense to have a science fiction bit of the bookshop and a crime thriller part of the bookshop and so on.  It would be slightly eccentric, it would be a sort of rather wilful thing to do to say right we’re ignoring all categories and we’re going to put all the mainstream, science fiction, everything else and also the non-fiction in as well, sort it out amongst yourselves, that’d just be daft.

Dr Derek Neale

And it’s interesting the trajectory of your career, your writing career.  Wasp Factory had elements when it first came out that reminded me of early Ian McEwan in a way, The Short Stories, the Ian McEwan Short Stories and yet he went in one direction and you seem to have gone in another direction and I’ve heard you say before that you consider yourself a non-realist writer, do you think that’s a fair description of the…

Iain Banks

I suppose, I think I’m very happy to use, you know, non-real sort of techniques or whatever.  I certainly don’t think myself as a, you know, kitchen sink sort of realist in that point of view and I think as soon as you start writing science fiction the idea of, well certainly the kind of science fiction that I write sort of far future science fiction, then ideas of realism kind of go out of the window frankly.  But aside from that sort of defenestration at the same time you’re trying to make it as realistic as you can within the confines that still exist, that means you’re making some sort of psychological sense, you still have to have some sort of character or characters that the readers will sympathise with or at least care about even if it’s sort of negatively in a sense, and even if you’re invoking stuff like faster than light travel etc, you still have to make everything else as believable as you possibly can and so that’s how you compensate in a sense.  So it depends what you mean by real, you know, I mean I would still try again, as I said, to get the dialogue as realistic as possible.

Dr Derek Neale

So it’s got to have its own dramatic logic, its human logic.

Iain Banks

Exactly.  Yeah.

Dr Derek Neale

Even though the premise of the story seems surreal really.

Iain Banks

Yeah.  Or just bananas.  Yeah.  (laughs)

Dr Derek Neale

Yes.  Great.  The Crow Road was adapted very successful the early nineties into a TV series, won accolades and awards, I just wondered what you thought were the benefits of telling a story in that way on a big or a small screen and what were the deficits, what do you lose by telling it?

Iain Banks

I think you don’t have to lose very much as long as you’re doing it on the small screen and it’s like, as Crow Road was, it was four one hour episodes.  I mean the conventional wisdom is that you can’t really film the average novel unless it’s a very short novel.  Quite often some of the best films are made from short stories, there just is not enough time, 90 minutes is not enough time to tell, you know, conventionally in any sense the stuff that goes on in the average sort of novel.  Even like The Wasp Factory is only 65,000 words, I think you’d struggle to get everything that happens.  If you simply filmed what happens in the novel, you know, it’d be well over 90 minutes or even two hours or whatever.  Taking four hours, you know, to tell a story like The Crow Road is probably about right in that sense, but I think a lot of it comes down to just the different techniques.  The whole thing about telling in a novel and showing in a script, and there’s a couple of bits, one bit in particular, I spend about half a chapter, you know, 5,000 words or something telling you how Prentice, the central character’s life is sort of going downhill and this is happening, that’s happening, he’s falling out with people and dropped out of his university course and his life is really going badly, and it was encapsulated in about, I think it was about 20 seconds of screen time with no dialogue.  And all that happened was that Prentice was walking down the street, he stops to pat a little dog and a passerby mistakes him for a tramp, because he thinks it’s his dog and he puts some money into his hand, into his palm and he sort of looks up and you’ve got this look gradually dawns on his face at the same as it is for the viewer going he looks like a tramp, someone’s mistaken him for a tramp, things are that bad.  And the beauty of it was there was no dialogue and there was no scene like that in the book either, that was really clever, that was a fabulous bit of screenwriting.  So it kind of teaches you the difference, as I say, between the intense telling that you have to do using words and nothing but words, you know, for this dialogue in a novel and this showing which is the ideal way of doing it on screen, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Dr Derek Neale

Yeah.  Did you sense any of the telling that was lost in the adaptation then, parts of the novel that you really liked or thought were...

Iain Banks
Oh yeah.  There’s bound to be bits.  Yeah.  And I think that obviously you have to sort of take an overview and look at it as a scriptwriter, you have to adapt and you have to, you know, take a really strategic look at the whole thing and often there’ll be bits that worked really well in the novel.  And usually of course, it’s usually something in the internal thoughts of the central character or characters that you’re allowed to intrude into their brains, as it were, and that’s the stuff that does tend to go in any adaptation from novel to screen.  I just have to accept that’s kind of the way it goes.  You can do it, but I think as a general rule it’s best, you know, there’s this assumption if you can always try to avoid voiceover, you know.  And sometimes voiceovers can be really good and they can make a film, but the general rule is you’re sort of cheating, it’s that whole thing about having it showing.  So yeah, I only know this stuff from by repute and by watching stuff, I don’t have any pretentions to be a scriptwriter myself and I’ll basically stick at writing novels I think.

Dr Derek Neale

One thing’s noticeable that, you know, Crow Road was a great success, but there haven’t been many other adaptations have there?

Iain Banks

Well there’s only one really, there was Complicity, which turned into a film and that just didn’t really work very well at all, despite, you know, a lot of very considerable talents working on it.  I think it just didn’t really have enough money for one thing, the budget was a bit tight and yeah, it just, it didn’t really happen.  But, you know, I think sort of one success and one failure out of the novels so far, and I’ve still got, there are still nibbles every now and again, there’s a couple of novels and one story that have sort of options, so we’ll see.

Dr Derek Neale

But you don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about your novels that, you know, says that they can’t be adapted easily.

Iain Banks

Well it depends.

Dr Derek Neale

Or that do they demand too much money?

Iain Banks

Yeah.  I don’t think The Wasp Factory, you could do The Wasp Factory quite easily and cheaply, you could do Dead Air as well, stuff like The Bridge and Transition by their very nature I think would be fiendishly difficult to do, you know.  The simpler, you know, sort of story, I think
Espedair Street
as well what about the rock music.  Again that’d be a bit more expensive if you wanted to get, you know, the…

Dr Derek Neale

There’s been a radio version of that.

Iain Banks

Ah, yeah.  But that’s simple, you know.  But yeah, doing it on screen it would be a little bit more, it’d certainly cost more if you’re going to actually have the crowd scenes and so on on, the stage mount and stuff.  So it depends very much on the novel.

Dr Derek Neale

Yeah.  Alan Bennett recently did a Mastermind quiz on his own work and you of course were once a Celebrity Mastermind champion, and I just wondered how much you would score on your novels. 

Iain Banks

I don’t know.

Dr Derek Neale

You remember them?  Do you revisit them?

Iain Banks

Yeah.  Well sometimes.  I mean obviously you’re so involved when you’re actually writing them, thinking about them, writing them and then doing all the revision and stuff, yeah, I kind of get a bit bored with them or just fed up with them, you know, for a while.  Sometimes I go back and read particular bits, you know, quite shortly afterwards, other times long afterwards, but I don’t have a sort of rolling programme of going back to revisit them.  Again because I’m not trying to adapt scripts from the novels, I don’t have any real need to go back and revisit them.  I don’t know how I’d do.  I’d do reasonably well, but not that great.  There was a guy on Mastermind who had the culture novels as his, I think yeah, just the culture novels and all my science fiction as his specialist subject and I, by sheer chance happened to turn it on, so the last sort of about two thirds of his specialist subject round, and he got a lot better than I did.  Although I did get right the one thing he got wrong, because John Humphrys said, you know, in the first line of the novel Inversions complete the sentence, “The only sin is…”, and he says stupidity and the answer is selfishness, and I got that one right and he got it wrong.  He got about 33 out of 34, you know, a clever person.

Dr Derek Neale

Well I think Alan Bennett got 15 so he didn’t do…

Iain Banks

I would hope to get at least that, yeah.

Dr Derek Neale

Yeah.  Well talking of memory, memory seems to me at least to be a central sort of theme or motif in your novels.  There’s either personal memory or cultural memory or memories at the centre of families that are being disputed, lost or secreted somewhere, do you agree with that?

Iain Banks

Oh absolutely, yeah.  And I think memory’s what makes us in the sense we have to remember who we are each morning when we wake up, you know.  We spent this time sort of semi-unconscious during the night and it’s only as you remember who you are each morning.  We are our memories, we are the memories of everything that’s happened to us in our lives from the womb onwards, and it’s our memories that make us.  Obviously, you know, genes matter as well in a sense, genetic inheritance is a form of a sort of hard memory in a sense, I suppose that’s more of a metaphor than a really useful sort of idea perhaps, but do you know what I mean?  We are in a sense encodings of information, this is what we represent, this collection of cells, you know, this bringing together of all this matter that’s basically existed for the past 13.7 billion years.  It happens to be, you know, for the moment for an embarrassingly short time together in our bodies as entities and part of that matters in our brains and codes the memories that make us who we are.  So yeah, I think memory’s absolutely paramount, that’s why it’s great fun to work with and great fun to muck around with when you’re writing a science fiction.

Dr Derek Neale

Do you think it’s essentially connected to narrative in some way and to writing fictions?

Iain Banks

Yes.  Absolutely, yeah.  Well essentially again we are our narratives, you know, we have a narrative of our own lives, of even what we might regard as our own destinies whatever, our ambitions, our goals whatever.  Our fears as well.  So we embody the idea of narration in our lives regardless of whether you’re a writer or even read fiction at all or read, you know, narrative is in a sense what we’re very much about as human beings. 

Dr Derek Neale

And you’re often billed as an imaginative writer, as with “imaginative” in quotation marks, meaning really that you’re not, or suggesting that you’re not an autobiographical novelist really, and I’m just wondering do personal memories at all play any part at all in your novels?

Iain Banks

Very, very slight.  I mean the one I’ve mentioned was in Crow Road where there’s a phenomenon that Prentice, the central character spots, and this comes from when I was watching Top of the Pops like, you know, 30 whatever years ago with my mum and dad we’re sitting on the couch watching Top of the Pops and I was humming along and I noticed a certain frequency of the hum the screen sort of shook and I thought it’s really weird, that’s really strange, what’s going on, and I’ve sort of gone and found the precise frequency and I thought that’s amazing, I’ve got a superpower, I can affect televisions, you know, passive rays, oscilloscopes, whatever.  I thought this was - and mum, dad watch this.  Mmmmm (hums).  I got exactly the right note and they both looked at me and said are you on drugs or something?  You know, and no look, and then eventually I worked out what was happening was that particular note must’ve been round about 24, 25 hertz and I was actually vibrating my own eyeballs at the same refresh rate as the screen.  Oh dear.  So I mean that idea was used in Crow Road, and the point is not just to use these things, just say ha ha isn’t that funny?  In that case it was used as a kind of metaphor, sort of anti-religious metaphor saying that things that you are absolutely convinced are happening in the outside world have got nothing to do with you in a sense, or that appear to be action at a distance.  It’s all in your head.  But beside that not really, and there’s almost a form of professional pride involved there and there’s nothing wrong, you know, the conventional, confessional novel or whatever, but there’s some great work been done, but for me it is a matter of pride to no, I made it all up, this is my job, this is what I do.  There must be small individual bits of people that I’ve met or things that have happened to me that are kind of mixed in there, but it’s a difference between, you know, putting a lot of ingredients into - forget word processing, think about food processing, think about a food processor; you put a load of ingredients into a food processor and sort of give it a quick pulse and you can still tell what’s in there.  There’s all that fruit, you can say oh there’s a bit of banana, that’s orange, you know, and so on and that’s the way a lot of writers work and the way a lot of confessional writers work, you can still see huge gobbets of their life in there.  The way I work is I keep my finger pressed down for about five minutes, so you just get this goo.  It’s still made of the stuff that, you know, but it’s so mixed up and sort of recreated that there’s little you can re-identify.

Dr Derek Neale

No.  Do you ever get surprised by things that you recognise that you didn’t realise were from your own past?

Iain Banks

Very rarely.  It’s only happened to me once that a character’s not done what they’re supposed to do at a certain point in the book.   There’s a very strong willed lady called Sharol in one of the non-culture SF novels and there’s one point where she was supposed to be getting sort of browbeaten and intimidated and I just found her strangely suddenly standing up to her oppressors, I thought that’s really cool, this is what it’s like, you know.  There was a bit of me going How date she? it’s the character, you’re not supposed to have a mind of your own!  Yeah.  So no, that’s not really, you know, normally the case, I’m not usually surprised, because it is fairly well worked out in advance.  I kind of have spent the last three months before I’ve set, you know, the first proper keystroke going that I’ve set it all.

Dr Derek Neale

There seems to be quite a personal regard for landscape on occasion, Scottish landscapes especially in there, I suppose that’s autobiographical in a way is it?

Iain Banks

Oh yeah.  I was brought in North Queensferry well for the first nine years of my life anyway and it’s like three quarters of an island, a sort of promontory, and so it’s got a very definite place and situation, you know, it’s right on the River Forth, looks out south towards sort of Edinburgh and it had the Forth Bridge, the rail bridge, was starting out from there and heading across or finishing wherever.  And so you’re very, very aware even as a quite small child you had this incredible, at the time even more sort of a famous worldwide symbol of Victorian British engineering excellence literally casting a shadow over you, and that kind of placed you and gave you a very strong idea of where you lived and its significance, and also in a sense, a perhaps unwarranted sense, of privilege that people throughout the world would say oh, I live beside this famous landmark.  So yeah, and just also walking, hill walking still matters to me a lot, I love going hill walking by myself, you know, just partly for the solitude, but I just love looking at landscape and I just like the kind of scenery we have in Scotland, happily.  You know, if I liked deserts I might have a problem. 

Dr Derek Neale

Yeah.  I’m just wondering this thing about memory, many of your novels are intricately plotted, they’ve moved backwards and forwards in time, does that ever pose a problem of memory whereby you forget where your characters or what they’ve done, how much they know of each other and things?

Iain Banks

Again not if the plan’s working out properly, they should all be fairly, you know, well worked out.  So it rarely, rarely happens.  Especially now, I’ve been doing it for so long, you know, that I’ve got reasonably good at it over the decades I’ve been doing this.  So no, nothing like that really tends to happen.  I mean you could argue that maybe it should and maybe it’d be more interesting if stuff like that did happen and it suddenly went in different directions I wasn’t anticipating, but that’s what younger writers are there for, you know, I’ve long since ceased to be a young turk or whatever.  So I think you kind of expect, you know, that older writers will kind of gradually collapse into their dotage and get a bit boring and like there’ll always be subsequent generations of young writers who come over and sort of pick over the traces, and that’s the way it should be. 

Dr Derek Neale

Great.  Iain, Iain Banks, thank you very much indeed.

Iain Banks

My pleasure.  Thank you.

Dr Derek Neale

Thank you.

45’00”

 

 

Try a free course

Study at the OU