On the morning of Wednesday the 3rd of April a personal statement from Scottish author Iain Banks appeared on both his own website and the Orbit Books website which stunned everyone in the literary world in Britain. He has cancer, and is unlikely to live beyond another 12 months.
You could feel the shockwaves from this, as the news spread around the world, by Twitter and Facebook, and every other modern means available. From when I first saw a reference to it, on Wednesday morning, it took several hours for either of the above sites to be available, such was the magnitude of the traffic trying to go into them.
The full statement is through those links, but here’s the essence of it:
I am officially Very Poorly.
After a couple of surgical procedures, I am gradually recovering from jaundice caused by a blocked bile duct, but that – it turns out – is the least of my problems.
I first thought something might be wrong when I developed a sore back in late January, but put this down to the fact I’d started writing at the beginning of the month and so was crouched over a keyboard all day. When it hadn’t gone away by mid-February, I went to my GP, who spotted that I had jaundice. Blood tests, an ultrasound scan and then a CT scan revealed the full extent of the grisly truth by the start of March.
I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours either in the short or long term.
The bottom line, now, I’m afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.
The immediate reaction to this – from readers, from friends, from fellow writers – was one of incredulity, of absolute shock that this could have happened. I had heard the news myself the previous night, from a mutual friend, and am still reeling from it.
Iain Banks is the only author I know of who has written successfully both Literary Fiction and Science Fiction (for which he adopt the very thinnest of disguises, becoming Iain M Banks). He regularly attended both literary festivals and science fiction conventions, and was equally at ease – and adored – at both.
He has, unsurprisingly, cancelled all his previously planned public engagements, but there was one small ceremonial event he wished to take part in:
I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we’ll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing friends and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us.
There is a website called Banksophilia: Friends of Iain Banks where people can leave messages, which, according to an update from Banks’s wife Adele Hartley, who signs herself off as ‘Chief Widow-in-Waiting’, are all being read.
For proof of the first, I strongly suggest that, if you haven’t done so already, you pick up his first novel, The Wasp Factory, and find out for yourself. As for the second, the huge outpouring of love for the man that has overtaken the internet in the past few days should be all the evidence you need.