Iain Banks at The Edinburgh International Book Festival

Iain Banks, or Iain M Banks if you’re reading his science fiction books, attended The Edinburgh International Book Festival to plug his latest novel, Transition. The event started with Banks reading the entire prologue of his new novel, which lasted 20 minutes. Transition appears to pull together his fiction and sci-fi work, with references to the world between the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Twin Towers and the global financial meltdown. There were also vivid descriptions of an assassin navigating between carriages of a train in Nepal, a man pitching a movie idea of how to spot sightseeing aliens looking at a solar eclipse and an attempted murder by smothering.

Transition sounded an intriguing novel, full of mystery and thrills. That being said, I’ve often found the best Book Festival events diverge away from this standard format and offer something new, maybe a unique short story or an ad lib performance. The linear nature of the first 20 minutes continued during the dialogue with Paul Johnston, the Scottish crime writer. Here we learnt:

  • Banks writes by carefully planning out a novel and summarising it with colour coded characters on one page, perhaps two pages for his sci-fi works. He can then see where each character appears and plan the whole book through
  • The length of time Banks actually spends writing each book is perhaps 2-3 months. This was the source of some good humour - especially the self suggestion that he spends most of the year doing nothing!
  • Banks didn’t neccessarily think Transition was the best novel for a first-time Banks reader - although he wasn’t sure his publisher would agree!

Perhaps I’d expected the Iain Banks who cuts up his passport and posts it to Number 10 Downing St or the Iain Banks who sold all his supercars as a gesture to the environment, to be more on display. Only when the audience began to ask their own questions did Banks’ passion begin to ignite. This was accompanied by a more animated and looser tongued Banks. The conversation included how Banks:

  • is currently learning the piano - he’s had two lessons and is already writing his “first symphony”
  • defines science fiction - he thinks the laser canons usually give it away! Interestingly because science fiction traditionally sells more copies in America, the Transition novel will be sold as an Iain M Banks novel across the pond
  • got the name Espedair Street from a friend who suggested it would make a great album title
  • has never been happy with Canal Dreams. He would tidy his flat to avoid writing; eventually starting to write at 9pm while drinking copious amounts of whisky
  • couldn’t believe the wide range of people, from cleaners to Lords, who connected with his first novel The Wasp Factory
  • agrees a lot of his sci-fi ideas maybe aren’t feasible because we haven’t sorted the Faster Than Light (FTL) problem, although some part of him hopes this is possible. But he just about gets away with his work involving “worm holes”.
  • gets ideas for his books from everywhere and everything around him

The final segment was, as is often the case, by far the most engaging. As we left Iain Banks was courteously signing shiny new copies of his Transition novel along with some of his old books, which fans had brought along.

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