A few days ago, Iain Banks, one of my favorite authors, passed away. This Scottish writer crafted novels under two names:” Iain Banks” for mainline fiction, and” Iain M. Banks” for science fiction. I’ve read him under both genres. Many consider him a master of “space opera” which is a sub-category of science fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed his book, Consider Phlebas, which is the first of his space opera series called “The Culture.” Most would agree that Bank’s magnum opus is The Wasp Factory, one of his mainline fiction novels.
For some reason, this book, or rather, my book review of The Wasp Factory, opened up some interesting opportunities.
First of all, you need to know a character named Frank Cauldhame, a teenaged sociopath who may or may not have murdered some people before the story begins, narrates The Wasp Factory. Just for cheap thrills, Frank builds a contraption out of junk parts he calls “the wasp factory.” It’s an obstacle course in which he places wasps he has caught. After meandering around the contraption, the insect perishes somehow; it’s smashed or gassed or burned or pierced. Yeah, Frank’s a really swell guy.
I wrote a review of The Wasp Factory and pasted it onto several book-related websites. For some reason, this review got a lot of “likes” which surprised me because I didn’t think much of the review itself. I knew I liked TWF, but I remember having trouble expressing exactly what I wanted to say about Bank’s creepy tome. I usually only write reviews of a book that affect me in a special way so I settled on saying, “After a few chapters, the dark humor and hypocrisy of Frank’s evil habits are amusing.” Whatever.
After writing this review, I discovered that TWF has quite the underground following. In one case, one of the people who liked my review was a young novelist, Chris Tusa, who wrote a novel called Dirty Little Angels. He asked me to read his novel and review it. So I did. Not a big life-changing experience, but it was the first time an author had asked me to do that. It was also the first time I read a digital book–he sent it to me as a pdf. Again not a life-changing experience, but it did factor into my decision to finally give in and buy a Kindle, which has changed my life. I am thinking of adopting my Kindle, so in love with it am I.
The really interesting opportunity that arose from this book review of TWF happened in 2007.
One day I was sitting in my office, minding my own business, doing some innocent graphic design as usual, when my office phone rings. A woman on the other end of the receiver introduced herself as Phoebe. She was calling from Great Britain. With a thick accent that my mind had trouble deciphering, Phoebe said she worked with a BBC radio show called World Book Club and an upcoming episode featured guest author Iain Banks talking about TWF. She had found my review online and wondered if I would be interested in pre-recording some questions that they would play on the show and Banks would answer. I said, “Sure.”
I emailed two questions I had about TWF to Phoebe. I can’t remember the exact words of one of my questions, but it was about the religious metaphors in the book. The other question was about Frank the protagonist. Phoebe called me back a few days later–I’m still not sure how she got my work number–and asked me to read the questions over the phone as they recorded them for the show.
Well, I looked up World Book Club on the web and was impressed with the caliber of authors the show invited as guests: Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few. These authors discussed their best known works on the show with a live audience that asked questions. Some of the questions, like mine, were pre-recorded and played as a call-in.
Here’s the question I asked (please excuse the dorkiness): “This is Andy Rector from Louisville, Kentucky in the United States. My question is: did you struggle with making the protagonist, Frank, a sympathetic character? Were you ever afraid the readers would not like the story because they didn’t like Frank or couldn’t identify him? Thank you very much.” Banks liked my question and said he actually got asked that a lot. He revealed that he did indeed worry that the readers of TWF would put down the book and not finish it because it meant getting into the head of a psychopath. They didn’t use my other question, but someone in the audience asked Banks about the religious imagery in the book and the author revealed it dealt with his becoming an atheist. It was nice to know someone else picked up on the same symbolism that I had.
Not a life changing experience, but showed me that placing a humble book review online may yield some interesting requests from strangers. I still have several of Bank’s books on my to-read shelf at home. Thank you, Iain Banks, for the hours of entertainment your stories have brought to me. Looking forward to reading the rest.
Oh, and if you want to hear the radio show where I asked Iain Banks my dorky question, you can listen to it here.