Ian Rankin, interviewed by Peter Robinson
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Elroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich and many others. Recently we were entertained by Eddie Muller, author of The Distance, a great noir mystery set in the world of 1940s boxing in San Francisco.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Ian Rankin interviewed by Peter Robinson.
Ian Rankin was born in 1960 in the Scottish village of Cardenden. By the time Ian reached university, he was already a prize-winning poet. While attending Edinburgh University, Ian turned from poetry to the short story. He won several literary prizes, and one short story just grew and grew, becoming his first novel. Ian's first three novels were written while he should have been studying towards a PhD in English Literature. The last of these three was Ian's first "Inspector Rebus" novel, Knots and Crosses.
Until he was able to support himself full time as a writer, Ian worked at a variety of odd jobs, including alcohol researcher; swineherd; grape-picker; tax collector; and singer in a punk rock band. Currently, Ian divides his time between Edinburgh, London and France, and is married with two sons. His thirteenth Rebus novel, Resurrection Men, is available now in the U.K. and will be published in the U.S. in 2003.
Peter Robinson: Rebus has changed and developed as a character throughout the series, and recently he seems to have become more and more of a loose cannon, alienating both senior officers and friends. I know you don't have his future all mapped out in advance, but can you give us some idea of where he may be heading? Also, Siobhan Clarke played a stronger roll in Resurrection Men than in previous novels. Do you see her growing as a character and taking centre stage?
Ian Rankin: I'm never very sure where Rebus is heading, until I start writing each new book. He continues to surprise me, which is probably why I'm still writing about him. However, he does live in something equating "real time," and soon I will have to confront the big question: what happens to him when he reaches retirement age? I have some thoughts on that, but I'll keep them to myself for now. As regards Siobhan, she was always meant to be a minor character, but the strength of her personality impressed me, and I found that she "demanded" more space, a bigger share of the plot-lines, and a voice of her own. This could be good news, as she might act as an insurance policy of sorts, should Rebus ever step down! It's just a pity about her name. When I
came up with it, I didn't stop to think that readers outside Britain might have trouble pronouncing it.
PR: When you first came up with Rebus, you probably had no idea that you would write so many books about him. Had you known, is there anything about him you would have made different right from the start? If so, what and why?
IR: I always say that if I'd known Rebus was going to become a series character, I wouldn't have given him such an odd name (the word rebus means "picture puzzle," by the way) and I'd have made him a few years younger in book one! I actually quite like the fact that I didn't know everything there is to know about him right from the off: it means I'm on a learning curve with him, same as the readers are.
PR: I've always been impressed by the sense of place in your books. Can you tell us a little about how you go about absorbing and recreating Edinburgh, and how important the city's history is to your work?
IR: I wrote the first Rebus novel because I wanted to write about contemporary Edinburgh. I came here aged eighteen as a student, and found it a strange, beguiling place. There are so many layers to the city: the Edinburgh of Miss Jean Brodie and the Edinburgh of "Trainspotting" seem to coexist. As with Rebus, it may be that if I ever ran out of new things to discover about the city, I'd have to stop writing about it. As for how I go about mapping the city in my fiction, well, it's an easy place to write about -- that's as much as I can say.
PR: Do your background and upbringing play any part in the development of your themes and characters? If so, what part?
IR: I started off wanting to explain Edinburgh to myself, and later on, once I was confident about my abilities, I decided to try explaining Scotland to the world (and to people living in Scotland, too). I'm not sure that my background plays much part in this. I grew up in a happy, working-class home in a small town where everyone knew everyone else. I knew I felt "different": I preferred sitting in my bedroom drawing cartoons or writing stories and song lyrics, rather than hanging out in the main street with my peers. I suppose I've always written about people who prefer to be on the outside looking in. Maybe that reflects my nature.
PR: A book a year can mean tremendous pressure, along with all the promotion and touring. How do you organise your writing schedule to deal with this? Do you plot out your stories carefully first or just jump in there and start writing?
IR: I wish I had a writing schedule. Basically I'm quite lazy; it takes a lot to get me started on a project. I spend a long time mulling a story over, not in any meaningful way, just thinking of incidents and characters. Eventually, when I get down to the actual writing, a first draft can take as little as seven or eight weeks. (Though it's usually draft three or four before my publisher sees it.) This year, my publishers in the UK have taken pity on me. I think they're beginning to realise that I can't write a book a year and spend six months on the road promoting each new novel. So I've got eighteen months to produce the follow-up to Resurrection Men. I was
supposed to start this new book in January -- then it was going to be Easter -- now I plan to commence right after I get back from my two-week summer vacation -- or maybe I'll wait till the kids are back at school.
PR: You have remarked on a number of occasions about the coincidences regarding the Rebus books and real life, and I know "Bible John" is a major presence in Black & Blue. Could you say something about the relationship between real crime and fictional crime in your work?
IR: Since Black and Blue, I have made a conscious effort to use real crimes and real-life mysteries in my books. Why? Because, for Scots-based readers at least, they cause a suspension of disbelief. If a reader knows that the case I'm writing about really happened, it's easy for them to be coaxed into thinking that everything else in the book is real, too. This means that the reader becomes more involved in the story. The hook is in, as they say in the trade! I'm also fascinated by real-life unsolved crimes (and a few of the solved ones, too).
PR: It seems to me that the line between American and British police fiction has become extremely blurred over the past ten years or so, as British crime writers get harder-edged and leaner in style, and more urban in scope. Which American writers mean something to you, and what do you think their influence on British crime fiction is, if any?
IR: It's not just the lines between American and British crime fiction which have begun to blur, Peter -- what about Canadian, Australian, French, German, Danish, Spanish...? The problem -- if it is a problem -- with English/British crime fiction is that it comes from a certain tradition, in which well-meaning amateur or semi-professional detectives solved crimes which tended to take place on country estates or in genteel drawing-rooms. Some readers may still get a lot out of these types of novel, but I don't think they can be said to reflect contemporary concerns (with the breakdown of society, the drug problem, terrorism, conspiracies and corporate cover-ups). All that's happened in Britain is that crime writers have started, in the main, to write about the world around them. This produces a more troubling body of work, in that evil is not always punished (or even defined!), good guys and bad guys have been replaced by "grey guys," the crimes themselves are no longer bloodless (no more rare poisons or blunt instruments), and so, these newer books tend to produce fewer happy endings, and make the reader think harder about the big moral questions, because few
spinsters or titled gentlemen are on hand these days to solve the mysteries for us. As to which American writers I think have affected the new strain of urban crime fiction in Britain, I'd point to the usual suspects: James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, etc, plus the Hollywood output of directors like Tarantino. Ed McBain is also important. Writers such as McBain and Simenon wrenched the police novel away from the amateur detectives and back to full-time professional detectives.
PR: You wrote three books under the name Jack Harvey and three -- The Flood, Watchman and Westwind -- under your own name. Any more plans along those lines?
IR: I'm definitely going to take a break from Rebus after I've fulfilled my present contract (ie: two more books after Resurrection Men). I'll probably still write in the crime genre -- I've no plans to move into historical fiction or romances.
PR: You can have lunch with anyone, living or dead (but they won't be decomposing when you meet them!) Who would you choose and why?
IR: Just the one person, huh? Maybe one of my heroes from the writing field. Raymond Chandler would do the trick, if he was in a good mood and not feeling too down about the way Hollywood was treating him. I'm having dinner with Harold Pinter in August, and am looking forward to that. I also once had lunch with P D James, and wouldn't mind a return bout: she is a wonderful thinker, raconteur, sharp as a tack, intellectually very stimulating company.
PR: You're on a desert island with a Walkman and a lifetime supply of batteries, but only three CDs. What would you like them to be?
IR: Three CDs, huh? That's a pretty mean trick to play. I love music, can't live without it. Just the three -- let's see. "Let It Bleed" by the Rolling Stones. I'd like something by The Cure or Joy Division, but it would maybe be too depressing. J S Bach, "The Well-Tempered Clavier," played by Glenn Gould. And number three would have to be Van Morrison, "Hard Nose the Highway." I listened to it on a beach once when I thought I was cracking up. I didn't crack up.
PR: And one book?
IR: One book? Does The Complete Shakespeare count? Martin Amis's Money is good for a chuckle, as well as being a bravura linguistic performance. And I like to argue with Amis's books -- there are always things in them that irritate the hell out of me.
PR: As a Scottish writer, how do you feel about being awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire?)
IR: I had to think about whether to accept the OBE or not. I mean, I'm not an out-and-out Republican, but I've had harsh words for the monarchy in the past. On the other hand, I knew my family would be thrilled, I knew my parents (were they still alive) would have been pleased as punch, and I realised it was a real fillip for crime writers in Britain. This is an award for "services to literature." With P D James and Ruth Rendell in the House of Lords, we're hardly the poor relations of English Literature any more, are we? The only other writers to get awards this year were Harold Pinter and Sebastian Faulkes -- not bad company, really...
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