It was, if not a dark and stormy night, then a dingy and drizzly evening that saw me sitting in the Stillitoe Room at the top of Waterstones in Nottingham. I was surrounded by, I’m guessing, about a hundred other people. We were all awaiting Iain Banks who was scheduled for a reading and signing of his new novel, Stonemouth.
The man himself was a little late in arriving. The guy who gushingly introduced him (who I think was the shop’s manager) apologised to us for keeping him talking in the backroom. He admitted that he felt a bit star struck in Banks’ presence as he was a genuine fan himself and this was the year’s event he was most looking forward too. (He also said that the very first event he organised, in an independent bookshop, was for Banks too).
Banks started with a reading from Stonemouth. He explained that if you read from the beginning then you needed to have no introduction… and then to much amusement proceeded to introduce a passage from well into the book set at a wedding which included a great bit on Scottish dancing that went down well.
After Banks threatened to go into self-questioning mode the first question was on World Book Night. The event itself had been only a few days ago and one of the books to be given away had been Iain’s Player of Games (There were free copies available at the singing). Banks talked about his book being selected – his agent approved and he always took her advice. He was also glad that is was an SF one. He also went on to say that certain publishers don’t participate (he named names, but I’ll be discrete here). He talked about appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and how he was more nervous there, than for events like the current one as it was a more theatrical setting – someone said break a leg, but it really should have been ‘break a nib’. Banks also mentioned in passing that his girlfriend has told him not to wear the shirt he was wearing for us as he had was also worn it at the Book Night event. He assured us it had been laundered since and he wasn’t some ‘clarty bastard’.
Banks was then asked which of his books people most want to talk to him about and which was his own personal favourite. Whilst mentioning as long as not one asked about Trainspotting or Rebus which was a bit embarrassing he said it was The Wasp Factory. As for picking a favourite himself it was The Bridge and the one were he fumbled the ball was Canal Dreams. Though he said that whenever he mentioned that there would always be someone in the room whose face would fall as it was obviously their favourite. He also said he had soft spot for Song Of Stone despite it not being so popular – apparently it has no swearing (a ‘shit’ was replaced with ‘stuff’) and despite being dark it has an actual joke in it (about someone being quiet because they are ‘thinking aloud’).
Some complete idiot asked him an ill thought-out and overly specific question re the game in Complicity… oh, that’ll be me then. Banks was kind enough to rescue me from my fumbling to sat that the game Despot was real and not the imagination of the protagonist (I had had a discussion with someone online about it and they had brought up the idea that the game was not totally real). Banks said it was how he imagined the computer game Civilisation would be before actually playing it.
The next question was on why he wrote both SF and non-SF mainstream novels. Banks took the opportunity to talk about the books he wrote before The Wasp Factory was published and how he felt a bit of traitor to the cause of SF for abandoning it to write that novel.
The next couple of questions were on his writing methods. Banks explained his ‘3 months rest, 3 months thinking about thinking, then 3 months thinking, then finally three months actual writing’ method. He wrote in the Scottish winter as he was less likely to want to walk up a hill when rain was lashing against the side of his house. If he lived in California he would not write anything. He explained that he wrote from a page synopsis but was now lest strict about having an actual ending in mind (so instead of a straight line his plan would flare out towards the end). He uses different colours for the names so he can see if there was too much or too little of any particular character.
He was asked if book launches had changed over his career and Banks said the business was much more corporate now with a battle between the bean counters and the book people. For his first launch he had a wasp cake (because it coincided with his birthday) but now there was a meal instead of a party. He also said that Stonemouth was going to be published the previous year but it was thought to be too close to the Christmas period of celeb biographies and cook books and not a good time for literature. Banks explained that book launches used to on Thursdays to allow the senior publishers a full weekend to go shooting. This was not so much of a consideration now.
At one point Banks was asked about the villains in Stonemouth and if that was from direct experience… this prompted a great, and actually surprisingly chilling, ‘hard man’ impersonation. After which he explained some of the inspirations for the novel (I’ll skip those to avoid spoilers… and not the fact that my notes/memories are a bit sketchy on the details. Spoilers. Totally spoilers)
Banks was finally asked about audio books and he said enjoyed listening to them on long car journeys. When pressed about his own work he said he would not record his because, whilst he enjoyed doing brief readings for events like this one, he was not up to doing a whole book, makes too many mistakes, and that he spoke too fast. He said he did not have a kindle as he had a pile of books still to read and did not take enough international flights to warrant one. He and his girlfriend share an Ipad (though he moaned that she tends to hog it for Angry Birds etc).
I then queued up to get my copy of Stonebridge signed (along with a couple of the recent books I’d missed on signings for) briefly discussed Civilisation with him and then out into the now dark but still only drizzly night.