On Losing Iain Banks

(First published in Three Monkeys Online)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is the blurb on the back of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. They are the first words of his I ever read and, at the age of thirteen, I knew I had to continue reading. Nothing was going to stop me. To say it was an eye opener is a bit of an understatement, but I loved it. The plot and characters were sick, twisted, vivid and oh so human behind it all. I’ve read it several times since and have the audiobook on my ipod for nights when I can’t sleep.

Iain Banks is a Scottish author and The Wasp Factory is his first book, published in 1984. He publishes science fiction as Iain M. Banks and (for lack of a better word) mainstream fiction without the ‘M.’ To this day when people ask me what my favourite book is I barely hesitate before I reply “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.” While my love for the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and a meagre handful of others verges on the obsessive Use of Weapons sticks out. It is the only book, that when I finished reading it, I wrote a letter to the author. I never worked up the guts to send that letter but a few years later it was the first book I ever got signed by the author. I frequently go back and read the first few pages and they never lose their impact:

‘Tell me, what is happiness?’
‘Happiness? Happiness … is to wake up, on a bright spring morning, after an exhausting first night spent with a beautiful … passionate … multi-murderess.’
‘… Shit, is that all?’

This is followed by gorgeous descriptions of a wine glass with veins of light snaking through it and when I read it I’m breathless and excited and ready to write my own fiction just to attempt to reach that level of brilliance.

I’ve always preferred his science fiction to his mainstream fiction. His aliens are more original than any I’ve ever read about before, more than just a re-skinned human. His ‘Culture’ books were so detailed and unique that on more than one occasion in college I toyed with the idea of writing essays about them. Somehow I could never quite convince my lecturers that this was a good move.

The State of the Art is what first got me into short stories. I was quite snobby about them before, thinking they were truncated novels or mere ‘practice’ for aspiring novelists. But the stories Descendent and Road of Skulls were so powerful that I immediately changed my opinion and began my own stuttering attempts at the deceptively complex genre he had opened my eyes to. His mainstream works can never be considered mundane or normal either. They are laced with the surreal and the intensity that marks his fiction. The Bridge is another novel whose opening pages I frequently return to when I’m feeling fatigued by this writing lark. I can’t say anything more about it without spoiling it but if sci-fi isn’t your thing, or if your stomach is a bit too weak for The Wasp Factory, go read The Bridge.

Only a few days ago, on the third of April, Iain Banks announced that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the gallbladder and likely has less than a year to live. His novel Quarry will be his last. He has not ruled out chemotherapy to extend his life but it seems unlikely that he will. In his usual dark humour he has asked his partner to become his widow and the two are on their honeymoon now. Well wishers can leave messages for him on his website. I still can’t quite process this information. Even though I only met him for one brief, wonderfully surreal moment, I feel like I know him. I get this way about a lot of authors and I imagine it must be the same way other people feel about actors or pop singers they obsess over. But after reading so much of his work over the years, it’s had such a big influence on me that I can’t help but feel like someone close to me is slipping away.

No author has challenged my perceptions of writing as much as Iain Banks. From an early age he cemented my belief that the literary fiction VS genre fiction divide is superficial at best. He writes across genres and all his books carry the same intensity, the same oddness and the same detail that marks all his work.

I was already aware that certain books were not considered ‘proper’ to read or as worthwhile as others. Some friends in school laughed at me when I read Terry Pratchett, they said the covers were babyish. I was a swot so many eyebrows were raised when I sat down the back of the class with copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy instead of Penguin’s classics. My Granny was forever buying me Jane Austen novels. I admit that I sometimes felt ashamed and embarrassed about reading these kinds of books but try as I might I still find Jane Austen incredibly tedious. I sat an exam on her in college without ever finishing one of her books (and passed quite comfortably). Nothing ever stuck with me as much as speculative fiction. Iain Banks was the first author who proved to me unequivocally that there need be no gap between genre and literary. Each can be as fun and as deep as the other. Since then I’ve never been ashamed of liking something, even things traditionally perceived as low culture. At the same time I don’t disdain literary fiction as being pompous and plotless. I enjoy them both and I’m glad I encountered Banks’ fiction at such a young age.

One of the things that first endeared him to me were the critics’ quotes he chose to include in the opening pages of The Wasp Factory:

‘Perhaps it’s all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish’ – The Times

‘A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn… bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty’ – Sunday Express

‘No masterpiece and one of the most disagreeable pieces of reading that has come my way in quite a while… Enjoy it I did not’ – Sunday Telegraph

‘A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles horror upon horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile’ – Evening Standard

‘Read if you dare’ – Daily Express

He had the sense of humour to know that his work would be different and he embraced these reactions and kept writing anyway. There are a lot of writers I enjoy but very few I look up to. Banks is one of them and his books have been on my shelf for as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer. I don’t claim to love everything he wrote. For example Dead Air wasn’t my kind of thing and Transition had some brilliant moments and characters but, what I feel was a flawed execution of the premise. That being said, ten years from now, when someone asks me what my favourite book is I bet good money that my reply will still be “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.”

24 hours stalking Terry Pratchett

I should probably give some background before I’m arrested.

I love Terry Pratchett, absolutely adore everything he’s ever written. When I was about 10 my uncle from Delaware recommended the dragon lance books to me. You couldn’t get them very easily here so they used to send them over to me. Then Mom got me to read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I began to work my way through my local bookshop’s tiny fantasy and sci-fi section. I read Terry Brooks, Douglas Adams, quite a few of the star wars books but I always shied away from Pratchett because his book covers looked so lurid and out there, I was only beginning to get into fantasy and trying to avoid children’s books because I was ‘all growed up,’ and lets face it, his covers did lead me to believe that they were for children. But the books were always intriguing. In my bid to be a ‘growed up’ I even read the Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, marginally more disturbing than anything I’ve ever read before or since. Eventually I ran out of other books to read (like I said, they didn’t have much) so I picked up the Colour of Magic and I was hooked.

Professor Sir Terry Pratchett OBE and Blackboard Monitor

A typical Sunday or Saturday back then: Myself, Mom, Dad and my sister walked into town. We’d leave Dad at the square so he could go to the pub and the rest of us would go do the shopping, groceries, clothes, school stuff, whatever we needed. We’d always end with a trip to the book shop. Then we’d join Dad in the pub and me and my sister would sit in the corner reading while the barman gave us free crisps and dairy milks.

It was a small pub, often packed to capacity. I read through all-Ireland finals like that. I read through the hitchhikers guide trilogy of five and a good portion of the discworld. That’s when I stopped trying to be grown up because it didn’t matter at all. Occasionally when I discovered a quote I would run over and recite it to my parents and the barflys that still recognise me to this day but I have trouble telling apart. I’d declare something like ‘Give a man a fire and he’ll be warm for an hour, but set him on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.’ then I’d run back to my corner and keep reading in search of more gems. Terry Pratchett is the reason I write because he taught me the fun you can have with language. He taught me how important it is to imagine how things should be and work towards them.He taught me a lot about people.

His presence as a member of staff in Trinity College was the icing on the cake when choosing Trinity over Belfast or UCD. His inaugural lecture last year was brilliant and last Wednesday night there was a questions and answers session with him and the head of the English Department, the ever-quirky Daryl Jones (I think all English professors are contractually obliged to be eccentric)

It was technically only for alumni and I had an essay and a story to submit that week as well as NaNo, but I volunteered to help out anyway. Myself and my friends were sitting in the front row, a meter, maybe a meter and a half from the genius himself. Afterwards there was a wine reception and while a few people monopolised his time, asking questions and that, we still got a picture with him and got to hob-nob over glasses of wine in the same room.

Then on Thursday we had a class with him. This was definitely the highlight for me. There was only fifteen of us in a room sitting around a table with him and we got to ask him any questions we like about writing. We got world building advice, a debate on genre fiction vs. literary, ideas for novels, the writing process and a truly epic tangent when one guy asked where he bought his hat. He talked about his new novel Snuff, no one else had read it so he turned to me and said “I’m just going to address this to my reader and the rest of you can all piss off.” For the rest of the afternoon he called me “my reader.” Best. Moment. ever. We talked about so much but here are the best bits.

Gems of Terry Pratchett:

  • The hat tangent: When Zach asked him where he got his hat he got incredibly specific details, then a commentary on fashion, praise of Victorian fashion, telling us how Queen Victoria really did like sex after all, then he talked about Victorian birth control.
  • He calls Cúchulainn Cuhooligan
  • he recommended we get jobs in local news papers, it will help writing
  • We need an eye for the serendipitous – if you’re open to ideas and information it will come to you, if you’re receptive towards inspiration it will swarm towards you.
  • he told us stories from his life that stuck with him which he later inserted into his books. He also told us quite a few stories that he hasn’t written yet and gave us full permission to write them first. He took us through one specific incident that fascinates him – the frozen ice trade in America in the 18th century – that stuck with him and explained how one thing can become so many different plots.
  • He doesn’t outline – the first draft tells him what the second draft will be
  • G. K. Chesterton’s work taught him about humour and paradox. The Punch comics taught him about literature and the world
  • “Walking through London is like walking through a kaleidoscope of colours, all golden people and they’re all English.” If you speak English you’ll become English. He reckons Hiberno-English is a particularly rich dialect.
  • I asked him why fantasy has had such enduring appeal for him considering he started off his career with YA and sci-fi. He said fantasy has all the tools, all the colours. You don’t have to mess about with with other colours to get the same effect. Approaching reality with fantasy reveals something new, with it he can turn his hand to anything.
  • He defined magic realism as “a bastard that says’ I’m a proper writer, but I’m going to write some fantasy.'”
  • he didn’t expect The Colour of Magic to be as successful as it was, he was halfway through writing another book called The Long Earth, which dealt with parallel universes.
  • To write you need to have  a love of language, word games and puns. Dramatising the truth for the purposes of instruction is soulless, you need to be able to spin words on the tip of your fingers. Facility with language is half the battle.
  • You need to research both your genre and outside your genre, bring new things to it.
  • Ideas are 10 a penny, what’s difficult is finishing.
  • When world-building don’t give a travelogue. The reader already knows what high mountains look like. Instead use a piece of dialogue or something. Show what’s different about these specific mountains. You can go over the top in descriptions when you describe through perceptions. Use things to describe a storm that you wouldn’t be able to attribute to ordinary weather.
  • He was successful because he made fun of the fantasy that doesn’t understand human beings or doesn’t know enough about reality. In fantasy you have to be real about the things that are real e.g. how long a horse can gallop for. If you make it real, say with a barbarian warrior whose feet still hurt, it’s relatable.

Afterwards he even signed books, I thought he wouldn’t but he signed The Colour of Magic for me.

Occasionally he was grasping for words and there were quite a lot of tangents but the signing was the only time when his alzheimers became apparent, his hands shook and it’s fairly illegible but it’s still one of my most treasured possessions.

There was a debate in the Phil society that evening ‘that the house would legislate in favour of assisted suicide for all adults.’ It was the single most absurdly formal thing I’ve ever seen. They were all in suits an dicky bows, lots of formulaic talking and reading of the minutes, standing up and sitting down at alarming rates. Then the debate began in earnest. All the speakers were very good and engaging and responded to audience interjections and POI’s well (except for the last guy, what the hell was that about?). It was really interesting and the pro-euthnasia side won, because frankly I don’t think anyone there was going to vote against Pratchett. No-one interrupted his talk, he spoke very softly but you could hear everything he said. He said he’s signed the letter to Dignitas but hopes he’ll never have to use it, he’d prefer a more English death. He spoke about his illness and why he signed the letter and that he’s glad he has it in his top drawer for when he needs it.

But fear not, he  said he has a few more books in him and that he’s in the middle of his autobiography.

He is a great man, a genius I’d say, and it will be a sad day when he does make the trip to Switzerland. No matter what I will continue reading and re-reading the Discworld for as long as I am able to read and write.