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Ian Rankin in Lixouri

Interview with Ian Rankin: "Writing is about making sense of the world"

One of the most successful contemporary crime writers answered our questions concerning the celebration of the 30 years of Rebus, his writing techniques, the enemies of reading, his favourite Greek food and many more.
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Ian RankinIan Rankin is one of the most successful contemporary crime writers. He currently lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two sons. His most famous creation, DI John Rebus, has appeared to 21 novels to this day. After Rebus's retirement in 2007, Rankin created Malcolm Fox, who already counts 6 appearances. Ian Rankin has received several awards, including the prestigious Edgar Award in 2004 and Diamond Dagger in 2005, has seen his world inspiring a very successful TV series, and presented his own TV series, Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts on Channel 4 in 2002. His latest novel “Rather be the Devil” appeared in 2016 and a new Rebus novel has been announced for autumn 2018. Ian Rankin kindly answered our questions concerning the celebration of the 30 years of Rebus, his writing techniques, the enemies of reading, his favourite Greek food and many more.

- In 2016 you published a short story entitled “The Travelling Companion” in the series “Death Sentences: Short Stories to Die For”. It was the story of a young PhD student who spends a summer working in Paris before returning to his studies in Edinburgh. You returned to Paris and your beloved Stevenson. Was it some kind of autobiographical? Do old habits die hard?

Ah yes, that story was a mixture of the personal and the imaginary. In 1982, having finished university, I went to France with my girlfriend. We worked on a vineyard and a farm for several months, but spent maybe a week or ten days in Paris, working evenings at Shakespeare and Company and sleeping there in a room above the shop. So the main character in the story shares some of my experiences. I am also a big fan of Robert Louis Stevenson and it is true that he wrote a story called The Travelling Companion which was destroyed before it could be published. The hero of my story becomes obsessed with that lost piece of work, but also begins a kind of nervous breakdown which leads him on a path towards Mr Hyde. It was fun to write!

- 2017 is a significant year for Rebus and for you. You celebrated his 30 years with a special RebusFest in Edinburgh. How did you enjoy it?

The Rebus Festival was excellent! Fans came from all over the world. There was a night of live music, a quiz, walking tours, an exhibition, whisky tastings, a film show, et cetera. Extraordinary really, that a fictional character – a creation of ink scratches on paper – should have become this vivid figure for so many fans. When I created Rebus I was 24 years old; I had no idea I was going to write more than one book with the character, never mind twenty-one…


- 2017 is also a year without a new Rebus book; at least in English, because the Greek readers will have the opportunity to read “Rather be the Devil” that will be published at the beginning of November by Metaixmio. In late August you announced that a new Rebus book is coming in autumn 2018. Taking into consideration your time plan from previous years, you should be about to start writing. Is there any information that you could already disclose? I suppose that we won’t see Rebus hanging around a care home.

You know, I am writing this to you in late-October, my next book must be delivered to my publisher in June 2018 – and I have nothing. No plot, no title, no ideas. But that’s fine. The panic will set in soon and then the adrenalin will get my brain working. An idea will come – they always do. By January, I will be writing, and by June I will have finished 3 drafts. I find that by writing the books quickly, I inject pace into the narrative, and crime fiction requires pace.

Knots and Crosses- You have admitted that in the first draft of “Knots & Crosses” Rebus was killed. You finally decided to resurrect him, as he escaped with just an injury. After two different books you wrote, he returned motivated by a suggestion from your editor. Over the years you have gained the right to do a book when you want, and get as much free time as you want. Nevertheless, have there been invasive or upsetting comments or requests from your editors and publishers?

My publisher in the UK has always been very good. When I told them that “Exit Music” had to be the final Rebus book (because he had reached the retirement age for detectives in Scotland), they were surprised and maybe shocked but they never tried to persuade me to keep writing about Rebus. They were happy with the non-Rebus books which I wrote for the next five years. It’s funny, in the early days of my career I wasn’t making much money and I told my publisher I could maybe write two Rebus books each year – but they didn’t want two Rebus books, they were finding it hard enough selling one a year! So then I began writing thrillers under a pseudonym, so I could write and publish two books each year. Now, I am slowing down as I get older. My contract is for a new book every two years – and they don’t all need to be Rebus books.

- I have been reading Rebus since my adolescence; somewhere back in the beginning of the century. Actually I have read all your books published in Greek beginning with “The Falls”. I only quite recently read “Knots & Crosses” and intend to explore more of your first books. Which would be your advice to a young reader that wants to explore Rebus’s universe? Where should he/she start?

That is a difficult question. The Rebus we encounter in the first book is different from the one in the later books – much darker psychologically. I didn’t really start getting to know and understand the inside of his head until maybe book four or five. When I wrote “Black and Blue” I felt much more confident, and that for me is the first fully successful Rebus novel. If you start from the very beginning, you will see the apprentice as he works hard to master his craft. But the best books in the sequence are from “Black and Blue” onwards.

- You write crime fiction mainly from the police side, or -as you might would put it- about Jekyll finding out about Hyde. How about the “bad” side, the Hyde side? Do you believe in police and justice as institutions?

The police and justice as institutions? Maybe they are terrible, but better to have that than to have anarchy. Most detectives I know are good people working hard at their job. They want to prevent crime, and if crime happens they want to bring a sense of closure to the victims by catching the guilty person.

- I have the feeling that some crime writers simply attempt to fool me as a reader. And I find it completely unfair, because it is a one-way relation. Since you mainly write instinctively, you are discovering it as you write; you are also a kind of reader to the story. How do you treat the reader? Is he the mouse to be caught in a trap, or a kid to be taken by the hand?

I was never a fan of crime fiction when I was a young reader. I dislike the overt game-playing aspect of the whodunit. I don’t like it when the author tries to trick me. I never plan my own books that way, filling them with traps for the reader. When I begin writing, I know as little as (or not much more than) my detective. I am on the same quest as the detective – trying to get to the truth of what happened and why it happened. And if the reader figures out the identity of the killer long before the end of the book, that’s fine. For me, that puzzle is the least interesting part of the crime novel. I’m much more interested in what the crime novel tells us about our society and culture and about ourselves as flawed human beings in a complex moral universe.

RatherBeTheDevil- Over the years you have been so versatile. Apart from a successful crime writer, you have had several side projects; you did music, TV series, graphical novels, radio plays, and theatrical plays. Forgive me if I forget anything. How would you like to be referred to, or be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a good friend, a parent who always tried his best (even if he didn’t always succeed), and a guy who always paid for his drinks. They have named a street after me in the village where I grew up – so my name will be there for a while, I hope.

- As Rebus ages and retires, he begins to wonder if he has got any useful role in the world left to play. Do you feel something similar as you grow up? How much therapeutic is the feeling of being a writer? How important is success for a professional writer and how do you personally quantify it?

I definitely feel that the most recent Rebus novels have been about mortality. Rebus is really beginning to feel mortal. His health is failing, and he is no longer required by the police department. So does he still matter in the world? Can he still make a difference? This reflects my own thoughts and questions. I am no longer young and vigorous. My knees hurt; my eyesight is failing. I am surrounded by young writers who are hungry for success – so why don’t I just stop writing and leave them to do it? You know, success is wonderful, but even successful writers keep writing. Dan Brown keeps writing. J K Rowling keeps writing. Why? Because it is not about the fame and the money. It is about making sense of the world and communicating with the world. We write because it is fun, and because we would be lost without the act of writing.

- Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings claimed that they are “competing with sleep”. Which would you say is the enemy of reading?

The enemy of reading? Other forms of narrative: TV and cinema, of course, but also the internet and social media and computer games. People are reading more than ever before, but much of what they are reading is in the form of texts and tweets and blogs. The novel can be an escape from that, because it takes time. You must immerse yourself in each novel for longer than it takes to read a tweet or a text. Believe me, your brain will thank you for it!

Ian Rankin in Lixouri
Ian Rankin in Lixouri, Kefalonia, Greece.

- When you started writing, we were taking notes in a notebook, creased and timeworn. Nowadays we commonly use special apps on the smartphone. How do you write? Do you prefer paper or computer? Pen, pencil, or typewriter? How have your habits or preferences evolved over the years?

My handwriting has atrophied. I use a computer now, almost always. And if I get an idea, I will type it into my phone. But when I am writing my novels, I print out the pages at the end of each day. I still crave that personal relationship with ink and paper. When my words are on paper, I spot mistakes and clumsy sentences more easily than is the case when I look at them on a screen.

- What is your opinion on paperbacks, audio books, and e-books? Which is the right price for a book and what do we actually buy when we buy a book?

Young people have become used to getting stuff for free – music and video clips and information. So it’s difficult sometimes to get them to understand that the artist needs to make a living from their work. But if we all start working for free, only rich people will be able to become writers and artists and musicians! To answer your other point, I don’t really mind whether people read physical books or e-books – just as long as they are reading something! And audio books are great when you are travelling. As to the cost, there is no such thing as ‘the right price’. The market dictates a price and readers then have to decide if they can afford to pay it. If they can’t, libraries still exist…

- What do you reckon about the preservation of works of genius? Who should be responsible? We experience a boost of the digital world, but can writing really be saved or survive in form other than written?

I do worry about this. We store our memories (in the form of photographs) on something called ‘the cloud’. What is it? Where is it? What happens to those photographs if the cloud breaks down or is corrupted in some way? If you store your written words only on computer, how can the students of the future access them? That’s why I still use paper. I think my manuscripts and diaries will go to a library when I die, probably the National Library of Scotland. My wife says that when we get older, we may have to move to a smaller home. We would need to dispose of many of our books. Dear God, can you imagine? I don’t like it when I go to visit someone and they have no books, no LPs or CDs, just a Kindle and an iPod. It is hard to judge a person’s personality from these technological toys.

- Your affection for music is obvious, not only from the content of your books, but even from their titles. Although I think I know your choice, can you answer to the eternal dilemma: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

That is a tough question. Rebus would say The Stones. Why? Because they were seen as the bad boys, the mavericks. Rebus would want to be part of that. The Beatles were more influential, more creative, but their genius shone brightly for only a few years. I find myself playing the music of the Stones more than the music of the Beatles, but I admire both.

- A final gastronomical question. Which is your top-5 of the Greek cuisine?

 Greek cuisine? I love moussaka, but it is for cold days and I usually visit Greece when the weather is warm. I am very happy to sit outside a restaurant dipping fresh bread into some tzatziki and then maybe sharing a big bowl of Greek salad with lots of feta cheese. Washed down with a Mythos beer, of course. And for breakfast: Greek yoghurt and honey. Delicious!


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