Having returned with his first earth-set novel in four long years, a laidback Iain Banks tells David Pollock all about black humour and green politics.
Is it possible, I wonder, to detect a softening of attitude as the years advance for Iain Banks, the one-time enfant terrible of the Scottish literary establishment? Perhaps, but only in the ways which don’t quite seem to matter so much as you get older. He still, for example, won’t travel abroad, not since he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street in 2004, a protest against the Iraq war which famously also saw him sign a petition calling for the impeachment of Tony Blair. That’s not the only reason for his reticence in filling out the form, however. ‘When Blair goes, that’s when I’ll get myself a passport,’ he confirms adamantly. ‘But even then, I’m trying to avoid commercial flights for a while. I’ve had my fun, lots of very fast cars, lots of flying, and now it’s time to start behaving myself environmentally. So I’ve got the wind turbine, I’ve changed all the lightbulbs; I’ve only got the one car now.’
This, of course, from the man who lists among his former runabouts a Land Rover, a BMW, two Porsches and a motorbike (he’s still got that, but he’ll be downgrading in the spring). Such manly affectations appear to have been jettisoned as firmly as his socialist morals have been clung to, however, and his writing seems to have taken a similar course. His annual writing regime has been relaxed now, and the books are longer and more expansive, if not any less addictive.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale is his first straight fiction title since 2002’s Dead Air (sci-fi tale The Algebraist and a non-fiction book about Scots whisky appeared in the interim) telling an epic saga of a Scots family considering a sale of their lucrative gaming business to an American corporation. As usual with Banks, there is intrigue, affairs and some pitch-black humour, while the subject matter leads early comparisons to be made with his hugely successful family drama The Crow Road.
‘I enjoy writing about families because they’re like a situation comedy, where people are forced to get on,’ he says. ‘There’s this closeness, which is a feeling I’m spoiled by within my own family, but there can be an antagonism as well. This time, the family is intertwined with the game, and games are something I’ve always been fascinated by. I used to make them up as a kid, and there’s a similarity between games and stories; they’re both linear, they both have devised elements which help them along at a certain time. Although funnily enough, I’m not a very good game-player myself.’
Given his newfound feelings on the environment and the increasingly political references in his last two fiction books, however (The Business dealt with a shadowy capitalist organisation while Dead Air referenced 9/11), might the subject of a corporation taking over a family firm be a comment on globalisation? ‘Without being too heavy-handed, the comparison is there but I don’t want to dwell on it. Fine, if the reader wants to make that comparison, but it’s possible to read the book without it.’ As we would hope; after all, we’d be missing the best of Iain Banks if he ever got too serious.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale is published by Little, Brown on Thu 1 Mar.