As easy as ABC for Banks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 1998, 12:00am

Do not whinge to Iain Banks about the tough, tortured life of a writer toiling away in a lonely garret. The top-selling Scottish novelist, aka Iain M Banks, creator of the futuristic utopia the Culture and other science fiction scenarios, has little sympathy. 'I'm fed up with writers who make it sound hard. Get a proper job then.' He delivered this line to a packed audience of Banks fans of all ages who came to meet and be entertained by the creator of the macabre wasp factory, who wrote the violent thriller Complicity and The Crow Road family saga, at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival. They were not disappointed. The boy who in primary school, when asked to draw his future career, had produced a picture of an actor and added the words 'and writer', has become both.

The theme running through his wisecracking talk was that writing is easy, and it does seem to be for 44-year-old Banks. He produces a book a year from his home in Fife on the eastern Scottish coast - a mainstream novel if it is a year ending in an odd number, science fiction for an even one.

Since his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984, 16 more have been published - in two years, he produced two titles.

Banks sits down to write in the autumn and sets a target of 15,000 words a week, he later told the South China Morning Post. If he achieves this in four days, he may take the rest of the week off or go away for a couple of days with his wife. He can stop work mid-sentence and pick it up the next day. He answers the telephone while composing his latest scene and, if it is a nice day, often decides it is better to go out than to write. 'Of course, if I lived in California, I'd probably get a lot less done as I'd always be going out for a drive,' he says. 'But I live in Fife.' His schedule produces a book in three months. He may spend another month on publicity. The rest of the year is his own. He rarely does book blurbs or reviews and does not socialise much with other authors. Instead, he indulges in his favourite pastimes: driving and reading. To help with the first, he has a 911 Porsche 4 Cabriolet, a BMW 528, a restored 1965 Jaguar Mark II and a Honda 750 motorbike. A 1963 Bentley S3 would be nice, but perhaps later, he said. For his second hobby, there is always a large pile pending, but the work currently being read is Valis by science fiction writer Philip K Dick.

Research for his writing? 'As little as possible. I've always had this idea that the best research is done by living,' he says.

A happy existence clearly, made happier by the fact that both his mainstream novels and his science fiction sell in ever-increasing numbers. All his recent works have made the best-seller lists in Britain. But he is aware of the dangers lurking in success and the ease with which he writes.

'I try not to take advantage of this or get complacent. Every time, I try really hard to write a good novel, one that I can be proud of for the rest of my life. I don't take myself seriously, but I take my craft very seriously.' His work is carefully structured in his head before he starts writing, and once plotted, he moves from start to finish, revising every morning what he produced the day before. Ideas are a blend of imagination and reality. His non-science fiction books, famously varied in their genres, are a result of his quest to avoid boredom by never writing the same type of book twice.

He does not see it as unusual that he should also write science fiction, likening it to a carpenter who uses the same skills to produce a table and a chair.

'You are still the same person doing the same job. It's just the result is different. Science fiction is slightly more enjoyable. I can indulge myself more.' He uses his middle initial - M - to distinguish the science fiction from the rest. It stands for Menzies, an old family name. He intended to put it on The Wasp Factory, but his publisher Macmillan thought it fussy and dropped it. After his family chastised him for it - 'Are you ashamed of being a Menzies?' - he decided to restore the initial with his first science fiction book, Consider Phlebas.

Reviewers have suggested his latest books, A Song Of Stone and the science fiction story Inversions, show the two strands are drawing closer, perhaps bringing an end to the separation of his work. Banks agrees there is an element of fantasy in the former, which is not set in any definite place or time, but do not expect it to last. His next mainstream novel will return to reality.

The dark side of his work - blowing up wildlife and unpleasant relatives, gruesome murders - seems much at odds with his cheerful nature. His only explanation is that he writes what he would like to read, though the extent that others do too has surprised him.

He says that, like all writers, he wants to influence people through his works - 'to be more like me'. The violence in his books is always there for a reason. 'It should not be gratuitous. Things should work out in the end so that there is a context which makes sense of it all and justifies it. In that way, my books are almost embarrassingly moralistic as the baddies do tend to get defeated in the end.' Banks has not always found it so easy. At 16, he wrote his first book, a spy novel now mouldering at the back of a drawer, but he was not published until he was 30.

He wrote while at Stirling University studying English literature with philosophy and psychology, and he wrote afterwards when working as a testing technician for British Steel, for IBM, and as a clerk in London. Three science fiction novels were rejected.

When he switched genres and wrote The Wasp Factory, six publishers told him it was not worth pursuing.

One report by a publisher's reader, he found out later, had said: 'Quite well written but far too weird ever to get published.' It is a lot simpler now. Now it is that time of year again and though when the Post spoke to him he did not know what he would write about, he did not fear writer's block: coming up with ideas was his job, he said.

But he gives an impression of coasting. After his second reality novel was published he sent in a third that his editor rejected, saying Banks could either take it elsewhere or write another.

After the initial shock, he wrote The Bridge, which he now regards as his best work. So while success has been obliging, what might he do if given a push?