Today, Ian Rankin is the reigning king of the Scottish thriller, but it wasn’t always that way. In the latest of his series of writer interviews, John Niven meets Rankin for lunch...
Ian Rankin was born in Cardenden, Fife, in 1960, and now lives in his adopted hometown of Edinburgh. He started publishing novels, with limited success, in 1986. That all changed with Black And Blue in 1997, the eighth novel featuring Edinburgh detective John Rebus – the one that launched Rankin into the arena of multimillion international sales, TV adaptations and a devout fan base. Like so many others, Black And Blue was where I came into his work. I remember my breath being taken away by its sweep and assurance.
Ian and I had never met, but we had been following each other on Twitter, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Unsurprisingly he turned out to be wonderful, easy company: in fact I had to remind myself that the man sitting across the table from me is the recipient of an OBE. We spent four hours together: a long lunch
at Timberyard in Edinburgh (beef sashimi then lamb chops for Ian, scallops then pork belly for me, a bottle of chenin blanc between us) bookended by a brace of pints in the Blue Blazer pub. The full transcript of our conversation would fill half this magazine. This is about 30 per cent of the whole thing.
John Niven: You lived in London in the Eighties, didn’t you?
Ian Rankin: Yeah. My girlfriend, Miranda, had a job with the civil service, so when we got married it made sense to move to London. She found us a flat in Tottenham Hale. She was working in Victoria, so we just went up and down the Victoria line until we found a bit of London we could afford to buy in. I had no job, I was trying to write full-time. Basically, I was going to the video shop to rent dodgy videos and watch them all day, and when Miranda came home I’d say “Aye, I’ve been working really hard.”
In a way, you really were working, though. Like Tarantino in that video store, absorbing narrative all day.
In a way, I really wasn’t. It was all rubbish. I was just p*ssing about. I needed a shape to my day, so I applied for a job at Middlesex poly, working as a secretary, and the great thing was that after my boss went home I could use the computer to type my stories – an old computer with floppy disks – the whole Blue Monday sleeve thing.
Was it the typewriter before this?
Yeah. I had an electric typewriter, but it was noisy as hell and the neighbours complained all the time – thin walls, thin floors. The first typewriter I had was a portable one that I got from my sister’s John Lewis catalogue. Fifty pence a week! A wee yellow thing with a cover. I remember typing my first novel on it, which I sent to [publisher] Gollancz, and I hadn’t learned about things like line spacing yet, so it was just this massive single-spaced block of ink. And, bless her, Libby at Gollancz read it and said, “Some of this is very good, but it needs a big rewrite and X, Y and Z,” and I thought, “What do they know?” So it went into the bottom drawer where it still sits. But, you know, you try again. “Fail better”, as Beckett said.
Ever dig it out and have a read?
No. I lost it for years. Actually, my wife just found it again recently.
Tell me about the gear change that happened to your career around the time of Black And Blue.
I was one of those writers who, for years, was selling OK, just ticking over, and I think they were thinking I was never going to break through. I kept nearly getting dropped or changing publishers for ages. And then I delivered Black And Blue, and I remember my agent saying they were a bit disappointed, because it was just another Rebus novel, and I said, “No, it’s a much bigger book.”
Then, when they published, there was a review in The Times by... wasisname? Reviewed all the crime fiction in The Times… Michael something. Anyway, he said, “This is the best crime novel I’ll read all year.” And this was in January! Then in November it won the Golden Dagger and the publishers finally went, “OK. This guy knows what he’s doing.” But until then I had barely been making a living.
Miranda never said, “OK, you’ve given this a go. Time to go and get a real job and support the family”?
No. Never. I probably thought more about that than she did. I remember panicky drives in the middle of the night, in France, in our 2CV. Just screaming at the top of my lungs because my new book was out and not getting anywhere...
What took you to France to live? This was the early Nineties?
Again, my wife. When we graduated, she knew someone who had a vineyard that was a staging post for waifs and strays. We had nothing else to do, and went there and wound up staying for six months. That was 1982. Then I went back to uni and did – or tried to do – the PhD. Then we were in London and I didn’t like it. I was working in Crystal Palace, living in Tottenham.
Exactly. It was a 90-minute commute each way. And we hardly had any money, and if you’re living out in the boondocks, you can’t be bothered going into town at night. After four years, Miranda said, “We’re not getting as much out of this city as it’s taking out of us. If you want to be a writer we have to go somewhere else.” So she went to France and found us a place. It was a ridiculously low rent. We had no kids, no ties. Bought a transit van, took some friends...
Sounds idyllic. Like a Neil Young song.
It was. Daft and idyllic. The local supermarket had wine in a kind of petrol pump. You took your container and filled it up for 40p a litre. The local restaurant did a five-course lunch with wine for four quid, and if you finished your litre of wine they brought you another. I put on a stone and a half in the first four months. From 3pm until nine at night, we’d sleep.
But you were writing the whole time?
At night, yeah. In the attic. There was a wee creaky ladder up through a trap door, and it was just me and an Amstrad computer and a daisy wheel printer. I had postcards and a bus map of Edinburgh on the wall.
You were in France but writing about Edinburgh?
I knew I wanted to write about contemporary Edinburgh, because no one else seemed to be doing that. All the books were coming out of Glasgow. I met William McIlvanney at the Edinburgh book festival in the mid Eighties, and I said, “I’m writing a novel that’s basically Laidlaw in Edinburgh,” and as he was signing my book he wrote, “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw.” The first few novels were me finding my way towards this. By the time I got to Black And Blue I thought, “I know who this guy is, I know what I can and can’t do.” Also, I had a golden moment where I thought, “What if someone started mimicking [real-life Scottish serial killer] Bible John and he came back to get them?” That six-word pitch you’re waiting on.
A lot of film ideas are like that. Spielberg says he likes concepts “you can hold in your hand”.
It rarely happens to me. Only that one time, really. I’d been reading a lot of James Ellroy, who writes about real crimes, real characters, so I wanted to bring in the real world, play that game with the reader. Also, it was written around the time my son was being diagnosed as having special needs, so there was anger in there as well. That hadn’t been in the previous novels.
These things tend to seep into the text in indirect ways, don’t they?
The first thing I did in the next book was to put Rebus’s daughter in a wheelchair. And I thought, “Oh sh*t. That’s really petty and vindictive.” Unfortunately, my son’s still in a wheelchair, but Rebus’s daughter walked again. I’m not a vengeful god.
Like with McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw, Rebus’s family is marginalised in the books.
It’s just easier. If you’re writing about a cop and you want him to be driven, you’re concentrating on the story, and then he’s suddenly got to say, “Oh hang on, I’ve got to take the kids to school.” You want to strip that stuff out and get on with it. Also, Rebus is a loner. He’s not the kind of guy who’s gregarious and outgoing. In the early books I gave him women to play with and he rejected them. Or, if he liked them, my wife didn’t. She reads the books before anyone else and she’d say, “No, she’s boring” or “she’s weak” or whatever. That’s why I got rid of Patience Aitken, the doctor. Miranda didn’t like her.
One might make some psychoanalysis of your wife terminating the love interest.
No, she’s just a good editor. My first editor. She reads more crime fiction than I do, so she sees problems and flaws that I don’t.
How does she couch her criticisms?
Brutally. You know us writers, John. We’re fragile flowers. Also, every book is perfect until you show it to someone. And then you go, “Oh sh*t. It’s not perfect. I have to start again.”
Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin is out now; Straight White Male by John Niven is published on 15 August