Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Iain Banks in Brussels

As mentioned a few weeks back, Iain Banks gave a lunchtime talk in Brussels on Tuesday, in Scotland House which is the top two floors of the building where my own office is located. (The building also houses the Brussels representations of Norway, just below Scotland; Sweden, occupying the three lowest floors; and Gibraltar, around the corner from my office; and of course I myself have certain quasi-diplomatic duties too.) The Scots put on a decent spread of standard Brussels sandwiches; I was pleased to see both guidoeekhaut and quarsan there as a result of my publicising it. Both of them have already written the event up on their respective blogs.

The actual lecture room was filled up, with a dozen people left standing at the back after the 150 or so seats were taken; we were welcomed formally by the jolly Linda Fabiani, Scotland's Minister for Europe and Culture, and then Iain Banks immediately began by standing up and dominating the entire room, leaving the unfortunate Scottish attaché for fisheries and agriculture (nominally chairing the meeting) cowering in his seat and attempting to interject the occasional question.

We started with the issue of writing - the Minister had fired off a question in her introductory remarks: was it true that Banks just writes until he finishes, rather than editing as he goes? and the chairman added, was it true that he only spent three months a year writing? Banks said defensively that it may look like he only spends three months writing, and spends the rest of the time wandering the hills, eating curries, etc; but in reality he takes three months off a year, lying fallow, his own personal "set-aside" scheme; then three months thinking about thinking about the book, "to let the mulch settle in the recesses of my brain"; then three months thinking about writing; then three months actually writing; a system he has arrived at by trial and error - "mostly error". He told the story of his first, unpublishable, novel, written as a teenager, and of his occasional fetish of knowing the last line odf the book well in advance.

But then he turned to the Minister's question, and said that indeed, he does write to the end and only then go back and edit what has been done. There is no such thing as a perfect novel. You can have a perfect poem, so it is worth putting in the effort to try and get a poem to the right degree of perfection, but you will never achieve that with a novel, and too much editing en route means you will never finish.

He then read the Paris scene from The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and remarked that he had given very few of the characters "normal names", so as not to be sued - "We live in litigious days." The Wopuld family in the book are named after his own frequent mis-typing of the word "would". He then allowed the chair to start taking questions from the audience.

Politics: Banks says he is a frustrated political novelist; he would like to be muich more political but just can't do it, and feels that when he does incorporate politics into his work it ends up rather shallow. On the other hand he wants to make his novels as precisely contemporary as he can, and likes a chance to rant - he filled an entire book (Dead Air) with rants. Canal Dreams is the one book he will never allow to be filmed, because he is afraid that Hollywood will invert the political message behind it.

Two names: Banks described the contrast between "Iain Banks" and "Iain M. Banks" as a "grievous mistake", but launched into an entertaining account of how the family name had changed from "Banks Menzies" to "Menzies Banks" as a result of his grandfather's political activities, and his own attempts to subvert the Sirling University database. Though there might be other possibilities, "Iain W. Banks" for Westerns, "Iain X. Banks" for erotica... He pointed to the precedent of "Brian W. Aldiss" for non-fiction (I am not sure if this is quite accurate, myself). Apparently he had at one point hoped to use the pseudonym John B. McCallan, but this fell by the wayside.

Treatment by the literary establishment? - as a "serial offender". SF is actually lower than Westerns in the pecking order of genres. But he gets invited to lots of posh parties. But he lives in Fife so doesn't get to go to many of them.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? - Banks drew a picture of a writer in his P7 exercise book (aged about 11) when asked what he wanted to be, and shaped his university studies to suit this ambition.

Are you mellowing? No more exploding grandmothers... - yes, Banks concedes that he probably is mellowing. having fewer ideas and fewer mad ideas. He likes writing about big families, being himself an only child from a big extended family.

Do you like reading your own work aloud? - I'm rubbish at it! And think of all those poor unemployed jobbing actors...

(My own question) Seeing as you famously destroyed your passport, how did the Scottish Executive get you here today? (At this the Minister turned round to me and loudly corrected my question - "The Scottish Government, not Executive!") - A very funny answer.

Who else do you like to read? - Jane Austen, Roger Zelazny, Shakespeare, Tolstory, Bellow, Greene; but of contemporary writers especially David Mitchell and Alan Warner, the only people I read where I don't find myself thinking, "I could have done that." I'm quite a slow reader, but I get there in the end.

Anyway, great fun; I was feeling pretty grotty, but the event lifted my spirits for the rest of the day.
Tags: writer: iain (m) banks

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