I had several topics to talk about this week, and not enough time to do them justice. Then, just as I was coming to an idea about what to write about this week, someone told me that Iain Banks was gravely ill. It’s a horrifically sad situation; he has less than a year to live after being diagnosed with cancer. It’s the kind of news that knocks you for six, and it threw my attention off the topics I had thought I would write about.
This isn’t an obituary. Banks is still going. But given his announcement, it made me reflect a little on what Banks has meant to me as a reader, a writer and even in my dayjob as a bookseller.
Banks has long been my touchstone when it comes to modern Scottish fiction. He is one of the few modern Scottish authors of general fiction who managed to be both Scottish and relevant to me. He was the first writer I remember who wrote about computer gaming with gleeful abandon, who seemed to talk about things that made sense in the world I knew. On top of that, he wrote some blisteringly good SF novels (even if I stopped reading them for a while when I stopped reading as much SF; I came back to the Culture fold last year with The Hydrogen Sonata.
There’s also this fact:
Banks made me believe I could write, or at least make a damn fine stab at doing so professionally.
He didn’t do it in a way that he would even be aware of that. But he was the first writer I ever saw talk to an audience. It was the Edinburgh Book Festival way back in the mid to late nineties. To give you an idea of how long ago it was, Shots Mag was still in print and not on the web. In fact (and Shots edtor, Mike Stotter won’t remember this) I was trying to cover the Edinburgh Book Festival for them (for one reason or another I don’t think the article got published) on spec. I remember being bitterly disappointed that James Ellroy didn’t show up. But it was fine, because next on the Agenda before I went to see crime authors like Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre (rising young talents they were back then) talk, there was Iain Banks. I wasn’t covering Iain. I just wanted to see him talk. After all, one of the first truly “adult” novels I had discovered was Complicity, and I just had to see what the hell kind of man could have written that book (I loved it, by the way: it was dark, perverse and unlike anything else I had read up until that point in my life)
He had two events, from what I recall. One by himself and one with Ken MacLeod (or maybe I’m getting confused and saw them at two separate ed festivals, but this is how I remember it in the jumbled mess I call a memory). The first event I saw was Iain without-the-M, and what I remember clearly (and he’s said this at several other events, so I know for certain he did say it) is that he talked about how he went to university and decided to study the three courses any writer needs:
Philosophy, because a writer needs ideas to explore.
English, because that seemed a given
Philosophy because a writer needs to know how his characters think.
That made up my mind for me, I remember, and that’s exactly what I went on to study at uni (after a brief flirtation with specialising in an AI course).
I also remember thinking that this writing lark could be good because Banks seemed so damn joyful talking about it. He was enthusiastic, he was bursting with things to talk about. And he was honest. Oh, so honest.
I think when I went to get my book signed, I muttered something about “all the best writers come from Fife,” and then looked away, embarrassed by my own idiocy. Well, I was 17.
Later, seeing him and MacLeod talking, I thought maybe there was some mileage in my plan back then to write both SF and crime: it was possible, I was sure, like Banks, to be a multi-genre author. And I was even more buoyed when Banks talked about people bringing the “silly” back into SF (A-la EE Doc Smith) because at the time that what I wanted to do!
Fast forward a number of years, and Banks was still my Scottish writing touchstone. I preferred some novels to others, but I admired the fact that at least he was always trying something different, never really being a one trick pony. He would swerve from bizarre hallucinatory imagery (the Bridge) to slice-of-life (The Crow Road) to, well, Complicity (my first Banks novel, and one I hold a soft spot for). He would later merge his two personas in Transition and of course he had those blistering SF novels, too, none of which were ever quite the same as the other.
Years later, in my day job as a bookseller, running events for the store I work in, I was hugely pleased to get him to do some events for us. He was always great fun and hugely generous. He also had a fine sense of mischief. The second-to-last event he did, I was running about with a microphone to take questions in a large theatre. He took great delight in making sure that questions came from the audience members who were most difficult for me to get to, ensuring I got my exercise for the evening. I wound up clambering over chairs to get there quicker, which of course only gave him more fuel. He was, in short, hugely entertaining.
I can’t claim to know him well. I have talked to him only as a fan and a bookseller. But I can say that when I have met him, he has always been friendly, approachable and full of humour. As a writer, he’s always seemed to do whatever gave him the most pleasure. He’s been a huge influence on me as a writer, and to think that he is so ill is strange and unsettling.
But he’s not gone yet, and there is one more book to go. On his website he says that his publishers have brought the date forward so that he can see it brought to publication. I know that he won’t read this, but all the same, I felt I had to say something about the affect he’s had on my reading and writing life.
If you haven’t read Banks, I recommend you go out and do so. The best remembered books for me are Complicity, The Crow Road, Espedair Street, The Wasp Factory and on the SF side, Consider Phlebas, Feersum Endjinn, Use of Weapons and Hydrogen Sonata.
Thank you, Iain. For the encouragement you never knew you gave, for the entertainment you gave at your readings/events, and for the years of joyful reading.
I stole, er, borrowed the ending from Espedair Street for my own first novel, Dirty Sweet.
When I visited Scotland I spent some time in Paisley (though not Ferguslie Park, I'm not crazy ;).
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