Val McDermid on her friend Iain Banks: “He was one of the finest novelists of his generation”

The crime writer on the "profound signifcance" of Banks' writing, and why she's looking forward to the BBC dramatisation of Stonemouth

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I remember reading Iain’s first novel, The Wasp Factory, when it came out in paperback in the mid-80s and thinking, “Wow! This is extraordinary.” After that, I read everything of his — the science-fiction [published under the name Iain M Banks] as well as the straight novels. Later we met at a book signing in Manchester. I went along as a friend of the shop and a fan of his work. We all went out for a drink afterwards and that was the start of our friendship.

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Iain was good fun. He was witty, he could be acerbic, but he was never mean. As a companion, there was always a generosity of spirit, a sense of lightness about him. And it’s there in his writing: however dark the subject, he could find a black joke in it. I think that gallows humour is a very typically Scottish thing and it runs through Iain’s works like the vein of gold in a rock.

I’m looking forward to watching Stonemouth. I think in any dramatisation you lose some of the texture and complexity of the original novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t transmit the spirit of the book on screen.

Iain’s novels are very much rooted in time and place. Stonemouth is ostensibly set in the Highlands, but reading it, it felt to me very much like Fife. Iain and I both grew up there, and I think that it shaped us as writers to some degree. The thing about Fife is that for a long time it was quite an isolated place.

You have the Firth of Tay to the north and the Firth of Forth to the south, and until the road bridges were opened in the mid-1960s, it was quite an effort to get in and out, so Fifers have a sense of themselves as being very different from the rest of Scotland.

There’s a degree of political radicalism, because of our history of heavy industries, principally coalmining and shipbuilding, but there’s also the agricultural conservatism of those almost feudal parts of Fife. Also, we’re “thrawn” — quite stubborn and difficult.

Stonemouth was Iain’s second-last book — he was looking forward to collaborating on the screen version when he died in 2013. It seemed to me that he’d come back to territory he’d been to before, but was coming at it from a different angle and arriving at a different place.

There’s a strand of his writing that deals with the way that groups of people grow up together — we go off into the world and then we have to come back in later life and deal with the fall-out of those early relationships. I think there’s a mellowness in Stonemouth, an acceptance that maybe wasn’t there in his earlier work, a sense of dealing with things rather than railing at them.

I hope this dramatisation of Stonemouth encourages other film-makers to looks at ways of bringing Iain in front of people who maybe wouldn’t have read his books, but would enjoy them. I think he’s a really important bridge between high literary fiction and popular fiction.

He produced work that had quite profound significance, but he also managed to reach a wide audience. And maybe he sometimes wasn’t given the credit he deserved because he was prolific — there’s a sense that people who write a lot and write quickly can’t possibly be writing good stuff. Now we’re starting to get the distance we need to see that he was one of the finest novelists of his generation. 

As told to E Jane Dickson

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Stonemouth begins on Monday 8th June at 9pm on BBC1 Scotland, and Thursday 11th June at 9pm on BBC2