In Appreciation of the Writing of Iain Banks

We should write more about the authors we like when they’re alive. Bothering to write about them and their books only once they’ve died is perhaps a little disingenuous. Why we can’t raise ourselves to praise reflects our blinkered selves; or perhaps we just don’t appreciate those writers out there until we suddenly realise that there’ll be no more offerings from them at all. Iain Banks has died, and I feel a need to add my voice to the posthumous account of his work.

I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s recent blog post about his relationship with Iain Banks. It reads as honest, but I wonder if Gaiman also wishes he’d written more about Banks’ writing and about him as a person when he was alive. This is an aside. What I’m most wary of here and now, as I write, is that Banks’ back catalogue won’t be getting any larger. Of course, he has his soon-to-be published last book out imminently (The Quarry, June 2013) but, barring any long-lost manuscripts, that’s it.

I certainly haven’t read as much of Banks’ work as I should and could have done. One day I’ll catch up on all of that (like I should be catching up on Kundera, Márquez, and all the other writers I’ve not become fully, fully acquainted with yet). However, what I have read of Banks has — for the most part — left me feeling extremely jealous, with certain memories, and occasionally astounded. This passage, from Descendant in his collection titled The State of the Art (1991) has remained at some level of my consciousness for many, many years:

This is our home town from before we felt the itch of wanderlust, the sticks we inhabited before we ran away from home, the cradle where we were infected with the crazy breath of the place’s vastness like a metal wind inside our love-struck heads; just stumbled on the scale of what’s around and tripped out drunk on starlike possibilities . . .

It was passages like these from Banks, and other authors who amazed me when I first found them, to inspire me to keep such treasures in notebooks specifically bought for the purpose.

For my money, and for that of many others I suspect, one of Banks’ finest works was The Crow Road (1992). That a novel can be started ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ was a young writer’s lesson in opening lines in one fell swoop (not to mention dispelling the myth held by some critics that opening with such a ‘vague pronoun’ as ‘it’ is ‘unliterary’). Crow Road impressed me with its characterisation, family bonds, and geography. The other most cited Banks offering has to be The Wasp Factory (1984). I read this, I remember, way back but it was so way back that I need to read it again. It had an affect on me, but maybe I wasn’t sufficiently developed as a reader or as a writer then to appreciate it. As is the case with praising the recently deceased, we often find we need to read such books as The Wasp Factory again and for similar reasons.

Banks’ writing, for me, wasn’t all worthy of high praise. I suppose it’s inevitable that in any body of work there are some offerings that just don’t come up to the mark. The most notable of these, in my reading of it, was A Song of Stone (1997). It just didn’t feel like Banks writing this: I laboured with it for a while, maybe half way or so, maybe a little more, but it felt like he was trying too hard. That is, maybe he was trying to show us a new Banks, a new voice, or a tangential one at least. The writing attempted the poetic but fell short.

For different reasons I also came to a bookmarked year-long pause on Transition (2009). The writing in this isn’t so stilted, but it did take a few re-starts to try to get the hang of the various chopping and changing of characters and, indeed, places in time and geography. I’m sure I’ll pick up Transition again one day and give it a couple of days of dedicated attention.

It was at some point in the mid-nineties that I dedicated attention to Walking on Glass (1985). I know this because I remember sitting in a chair reading the entire book to my then partner, whose first language was not English. If I think hard enough I can narrow this down to a more or less exact point in time. There aren’t many authors who dovetail with such personal recollections. The Bridge (1986) was another Banks book to have left its mark: the strange liminal world depicted won’t be for all readers, but it found me at the right time, I suppose.

We all have writers in our reading histories who affect us enough (through their good work and despite their not so good offerings) for us to go back to them again and again. Iain Banks was undoubtedly one of those writers for me. In appreciation of words, I shouldn’t have left it till now to say this. I should also consider all the other writers I enjoy reading too, and I should consider them and their words here and now.
 
 

Interview by Nick Wale

I return from my travels with the possibility of words forming. Until they do, however, the following is a majority excerpt of a recent interview I gave to Nick Wale. Nick helps promote books via his site Novel Ideas and contacted me a few weeks ago through my Facebook writer page (see the link in the side bar here). He’s helped me and I’m happy to help him in his venture by publicising links on my blog. The direct link to the interview below can be found here.
 
Q) So Joel, why did you become an author?

A) It’s a compulsion, a drive, I suppose. When you write you just need to keep on writing.

Q) What does a compulsive drive to write feel like?

A) It often feels like blocking out, locking in, sinking in. You know? Some days it’s a rush. Some days you read and re-read and it’s like you’re looking at something that shines (or might shine) and you want to keep that, show that, have that, always.

Q) Do you ever find it hard to stop yourself from writing? Is it like a daze or a dream you can’t break from?

A) Physically writing (or typing), yes, I suppose. I mean, it can be extremely immersive, as many writers will know. However, that immersion also plays itself out in the day-to-day, pen not in hand, computer not on. Words (or the possibility of them) are everywhere.

Q) Words are your thing as a writer? So what is your favourite word?

A) What an excellent question! A barman asked me what my favourite book was recently (your question reminds me of that): how to pick one? You can tell by the long pause that this has given me cause to think. I can tell you what my most recently learned word is (and, by extension, a current favourite): tenebrous.

Q) Tenebrous? So what does tenebrous mean?

A) It’s to do with the obscure, the dark, as I understand it. This isn’t a reflection of my writing; rather, the word has a sort of rhythmic quality to me.

Q) Well, you have to learn something new everyday! So, lets reflect on your writing. What do you like to write about? Tell me about your writing.

A) In all its forms, long and short, my writing is intended as a means of finding the small gems of this world. There are hidden things in between what we just see on the surface — there are textures and layers to relationships, subtleties, moments. I’m looking for the moments that also linger. There are ‘objects’ of beauty, even in the laments, in many places.

Q) It’s interesting that you write about ‘beauty’, as everyone’s definition of beauty is so different. What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written about? What is ‘beautiful’ to you?

A) Well, beauty is subjective, of course, but I’m sometimes taken aback by how things turn out. It’s unexpected. There are moments that happen which I read time and again because they still have some power over me. In one of my stories, a child’s brief interaction with the narrator takes me in every time; in another piece, it was something I wrote in a female voice because I needed to do this more, I was there with her, as her, in Venice because the words were in that flow state; poetry is a vanity, but there are lines of colour and there are lines that sink me sometimes. Questions such as these are like choosing between children!

Q) If you could write anywhere in the world, where would it be? What landscape would really incite your creativity?

A) On a beach, in the mountains, in a forest, all of these. Specifically, though I’ve done my fair share of overseas travelling, I’d come back to the west of Cornwall. Standing on the cliffs overlooking some of the little unknown coves down there, the sea and the wind in your hair and on your face, that huge sky (it really is huge, like they say in their tourism promotions), makes words just come in for me. The artists there laud it for the light; I just can’t get enough of the energy.

Q) I understand that you’re published so others can enjoy your creative energy. Which of your works are currently available?

A) I’ve got a collection out at the moment (Disintegration and Other Stories). I loosely label this as literary fiction (though that term can be interpreted in many ways). DaOS is out in ebook and print. This collection came together in an odd way: I didn’t realise that there’d been a thread running through some of my writings for a number of years. It was like seeing invisible ink slowly become visible. I’m working on a collection of micro fiction, which will be a first volume (Four Kinds of Wreckage) to be added to. Micro fiction is much misunderstood. Away from fiction, I’m also published in the field of what’s known as ‘playwork’ (a particular way of working with children). I’ve had writings taken on by the national/international playwork publication for the sector, as well as credits with the organisation concerned with psycholudic playwork practice. (Now though, I fear I’m stepping into the jargon of my other calling — though writing is also a big part of this, too).

Q) So tell me, Joel — why did you want to be interviewed by me?

A) You do a good job of finding writers, Nick. When I became aware of your work I came over to your blog, and yes, I like what I see here. What you’re doing is exactly what writers need — a way of getting their words out there.

Q) Thank you, Joel. One of my stock questions is to ask — if you could be any writer from any time who would it be?

A) As far as writers are concerned, I have a range (as we all do probably): Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Jeannette Winterson, Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, Adrian Henri. There are others. I wouldn’t want just one small list to define me, though we start somewhere with questions such as these.

Q) Characters are important to you. What makes a good character for you?

A) The unusual wrapped up in the usual. Subtlety people often might not see. The strangely put. Love in odd places, ways; perceptions of this. Someone who aches in some way.

Q) It has often been said that ‘repeated readability makes a book’. Would you, as an author, agree with that?

A) Yes, I think I would. Who was it who said that journalism is read once, whilst literature more than this? Something like that. Anyway, it’s the sentiment here that counts. There are books on my shelf that I come back to time and again; there are passages on some pages that just astound me. Kerouac wrote about ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road. I come back to that time and again.

Q) You strike me as an intellectual — someone striving for the beautiful things in life. Would you agree with that?

A) I don’t know about intellectual! I certainly am on the search for the beauty of the world though. That’s in words, in moments, in art, in love and lament, in the play of children, in the play of us, in nature.

Q) What would you personally deem as ‘ugly’?

A) There’s nothing so ugly as not wanting to see, perhaps. Ugliness is also wrapped up in the politics of power, greed, deceit.

[End of excerpt]
 
 

Writing as the Opposite Gender

How do you get inside the head of a woman? That is, how do you think like a woman if you’re a man, and vice versa? Getting inside the thinking processes of any other person (in the shape of character) is difficult enough. Switching genders in your thinking — for the duration of that writing period, and more, for the duration of the ‘building up’ to writing — is a stretching of the imagination. We have different brain processes, men and women (I would imagine!), and we have different psyches.

Even Carl Jung suffered from this difficulty. In his analytical psychology, Jung developed ideas on the anima and the animus: the first being the female representation within the male, and the second being the male representation within the female. Jung, being male, focused more on the anima. This is how I read it. He could, perhaps, only really speculate on the unconscious male archetype — the animus — within the female.

Jungian archetypes, in writing, are interesting with regards to character. That is, archetypes are ‘figures’, characters, call them what you will, within the collective unconscious (something we can all tap in to), and are ‘characters’ we can all associate with. These are not stereotypes. So, for example, we can all associate with ‘mother figure’ (not ‘mother’ here), ‘healer’, ‘goddess’, etc.

Archetypes, for me, can provide a useful starting point. By their very nature, archetypes aren’t fleshed out at all: they’re just outlines, templates. As such, the writing still needs to be put in. However, the template is the easy part: just take it off the shelf. How do you get inside the thinking of someone of the opposite gender though?

We need other starting points too. Within the text of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera wrote:

It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal’. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.

This has stayed with me for years. Just like chance meetings with strangers in pubs, the after image of which might play itself out in characterisation in some story somewhere down the line, some other small oddities and insistences also find form and become personified. Thoughts on the minor movements of a dancer, perhaps, might play themselves out and grow into a character themselves.

That said, it doesn’t fully resolve the question: how do you get inside the head of a woman? How do you think like a woman if you’re a man, and vice versa? In what turned out to become Disintegration (2012), I realised that I was writing plenty of pieces from male perspectives because that was the way my brain was tuned. When the epiphany hit, I focused on tuning out of myself and into ‘the other’. What transpired are examples that still fascinate me.

In Kundera’s model, I don’t know what the equivalent rumbling of the stomach was for pieces such as Salute di Castellaneta, Tristan and Isolde, and Mbayo. Perhaps the main rumbling was my conscious focus on genders. However, what the other drives were, I can’t now tell. This is not troubling. The pieces have found their own forms, their own ways, and I am now not a part of them, as I might have been in other discarded works.

Briefly, Salute took me from an unknown start point (or, at least, not now remembered) to a way of thinking mainly alien to me; Tristan/Isolde was a conscious effort at voicing the female part through the medium of the male character; Mbayo came about as a thought on oral histories and, as such, the story and the narrator took on their own forms.

What I have learned in these departures is something I’ve known for a while, but something that I needed to be reminded of: stories take their own shapes, after a while, and characters written from unusual perspectives, such as those of the opposite gender, can also manifest in such ways.

Whether we start from archetypes, or templates, from observing the oddities of real others, or from developing characters based on minor moments (such as rumbling stomachs), richer characters can form the farther away from the writer they are.