I TOOK a train from London to Edinburgh to talk to Iain Banks; both of him. There is Iain Banks the serious, mainstream fiction writer who was recently ranked by The Times as the 39th most significant British writer since 1945, just behind A.S. Byatt (34) and Ian McEwan (35) and ahead of the historian A.J.P. Taylor (40).
Iain Banks says when one of his characters starts ranting out of the blue, that¿s just his own voice. Picture: Wattie Cheung
And then there is Iain M. Banks, the science fiction writer who met his girlfriend Adele at anSF convention and would never dream of writing boring old stories about this world and this society.
Iain was the first to be published and still sells more books, makes more money and receives greater literary praise for his 12 novels. Iain M. is more political, gets more enjoyment from his writing and has a more loyal cult following, the sort of readers who are likely to swallow all 10 of his novels.
"Yes, yes, I know ... everybody says Iain M.Banks is the most penetrable pseudonym in literature," the tall 54-year-old who embodies both writers says with a quick laugh. "I have had to accept that there is a small possibility that it is not fooling anybody."
The M. comes from Menzies, a family name Banks wheeled out 20 years ago in a half-hearted effort to separate his sci-fi persona from his mainstream novels. His daring first novel The Wasp Factory (1984) had already been a hit. (It was panned as repulsive and degenerate but has since sold more than a million copies.) When it came to marketing his first sci-fi book, the thinking was that this was a quirky genre demanding fresh branding. The middle initial has stuck and Banks now jokes that he has considered "writing Westerns as Iain Z. Banks and erotica as Iain X. Banks".
"The very first stuff I wrote as a kid, from just 12 or 13, was science fiction, and for the first few years after The Wasp Factory was published, up to about the end of the '80s, I thought of myself as a science fiction writer who was daring to dabble in mainstream."
He has achieved that rare feat of balancing parallel writing careers by turning out a book as often as once a year, alternating between the two genres, an output Banks believes has been helped by his science fiction experience.
"As a science fiction writer you cannot do lots of research; you can't go to another planet and talk to aliens. You get completely confident about making it up, you just wing it. I think that gives you the ability and the self-belief to be able to do that in the mainstream as well and that saves a lot of time."
Banks is still bankable enough in both genres for his publishers to give him multi-year contracts averaging well over $600,000 a year. Matter, the new instalment in his science fiction Culture series, was released in Australia earlier this month, while his latest mainstream offering, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, is only now going into paperback. But the latest books do represent something of a comeback for him. In 2006 he split with Annie, his partner of almost 25 years, triggering something of a mid-life crisis and making him late delivering Garbadale, a family saga set largely in Scotland, which is his first piece of mainstream fiction for five years.
He still has the ginger beard and youthful manner of a fortysomething left-wing university tutor, but one gets the clear impression that his equilibrium was shaken; he has discovered with a bit of a shock that he is in his mid-50s.