My two favourite things about living in Edinburgh are the sky, which is sometimes blue or pink, often grey, but always luminous, and the huge number of literary events happening throughout the year.
A new addition to Edinburgh’s programme of book related events is Edinburgh City Reads, where an author comes to discuss his or her work and answer questions from the audience. Recently I went to hear Iain Banks talk about his latest book, Transition.
Banks describes the novel as “49% science fiction.” Closer, then, to literary fiction because the plot is “technically more scientifically plausible” than those of his science fiction novels which he publishes under the name Iain M Banks. (The inclusion of the middle initial, he explains, “sounds more American” and “gives the books more of a science fiction feel.”)
The premise of Transition is that there are an infinite number of parallel realities which certain people can move between with the help of a drug called septus. Agents of an organisation called The Concern exploit their ability to flit between realities by interfering in important events to control the outcome. The concept of a multiverse is something which Banks finds “mind boggling” and he jokes that he would one day like to write a letter to Nature to put forward his own theory on the matter (something to do with onions and layers, and the letter would of course be long and written in purple ink.)
The novel is told from the point of view of a number of different characters and Banks brushes off praise for making each voice distinct, saying: “if you are a writer it’s the kind of thing you have to do. It’s part of your job to get inside the heads of your characters.” He admits to particularly enjoying being inside the head of the terrifying Madame d’Ortolan. “She was great to work with. Often the really bad characters are.”
The advantage of a novel with multiple narrators, according to Banks, is that by switching from one viewpoint to the next you can avoid all the boring bits in each character’s life. If you are following only one character it is a bit risky to jump from one point in time to another past the boring bits.
Banks typically spends six months thinking about each book before he begins writing. “I do quite a lot of preparatory work. You could start with an idea like [the one in Transition] and just write and see where it takes you but that could take years,” he says, explaining that you could write yourself into a corner and have to backtrack. “If you plan the novel out in advance you make all the mistakes in your head rather than on paper.”
A good ending is crucial for Banks. “I’m a sucker for a surprise ending- a bit of twist in the tale. I couldn’t write a book … without a proper ending.”
Banks finds that the writing process varies from one novel to the next. “Some books are more laborious and more of a chore than others. Transition went almost too smoothly in a way. A month after it was finished I couldn’t remember writing it.”
The one novel that he really struggled to write was Canal Dreams, which he eventually got through “under the influence of a lot of whisky.” He describes it as the book he is least proud of. “I took on too many degrees of difficulty with that one,” he says, referring to the fact that the main character is female and Japanese so has little in common with him, and that the novel was set in Panama and Japan, places he had never been. The book was “intimidatingly difficult to write” and Banks distracted himself with displacement activities, laughing as he says, “My flat had never been cleaner. It was spotlessly perfect.”
Banks learned his lesson from Canal Dreams and tends to write about people who have something in common with him, “a middle class Scottish chap,” and who are of a similar age. He describes writing books set in Scotland as “a kind of laziness. I hate doing research.” Although he is famous as a Scottish author, he points out that there is “no sort of great burden of Scottishness” in his novels.
His next book will be based on the same template as his first novel, The Wasp Factory: “short, sharp and horrible and nasty.” His only concern is that he might come off as “an increasingly elderly writer trying to impress the kids. I’ll be 58 by then. I’m not sure if I can pull it off.” But, as he points out, “[Writing is] a late maturing craft. You’re always getting better and better up to a point. You have fewer ideas when you get older but you are better at writing them.” So he should pull off the next book just fine.