Iain Banks: interview

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At 52, Iain Banks has no intention of mellowing with age – the Iraq war alone has left him furious. But his new novel, 'The Steep Approach to Garbadale', is his strongest for years

  • Iain Banks is fond of music-based analogies, so let’s try one on for size. If ‘The Wasp Factory’ was, by his own admission, his classic debut album; ‘Complicity’ his angry punk record; ‘The Crow Road’ his sprawling masterpiece; and his SF books – written as Iain M Banks – the obligatory side-project, then his latest mainstream novel, ‘The Steep Approach to Garbadale’, looks set to be seen as that mid-career staple: the return to form.

    ‘Garbadale’ is vintage Banks, following the idealistic Alban as he juggles hedonism, morality and an attraction to two sexy, independent women who represent his past and his future. Add dangerous sex, hard drugs, packed iPods, political proselytising and, above all, the sweet whiff of nostalgia undercut by the incessant pull of a dark family secret, and you have a mix that’s perhaps over-familiar for those who enjoyed ‘The Crow Road’, but highly addictive nonetheless.

    Banks acknowledges that this is a more accessible affair than his last few mainstream novels, but considers eclecticism a key element of an interesting body of work. ‘You have to be prepared to do something that isn’t going to be popular, that somehow makes sense in the context of the whole,’ he says, sitting in the kitchen of his home in North Queensferry in Fife. ‘You shouldn’t be trying to please everybody you pleased in the past. But “Garbadale” is almost self-consciously a return to doing something to the gallery – I’m quite happy with that.’

    Not for the first time, the family dynamic holds a fascination for the Scottish novelist, an only child who was nevertheless surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. ‘Heaven forfend I should resort to talking about themes or what the book is actually about, but I did want to try to get across the idea that succeeding generations pick up the tab for the mistakes of previous generations,’ he says. ‘Either by repeating those mistakes or going too far in the other direction. And the family is an ideal way of exploring that.’

    At 52, Banks remains firmly on the side of youthful idealism. In particular, he’s a master at capturing the immediacy and freshness of the world as seen by those straddling adolescence and adulthood, as well as their righteous anger at the mess their elders have made of the place. If ‘Garbadale’ is not strictly speaking a political book, in the manner of ‘Complicity’ or ‘Dead Air’ – a polemic which took 9/11 as its backdrop – it’s because Banks is so enraged these days he finds it hard to express himself directly through fiction. Instead, he cut up his passport in 2003 and sent it to Tony Blair in protest at the Iraq war, and even considered direct action.

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