An Interview with Ian Rankin
By Sarah Morgan
Thirty years and publication in 30 languages. Any writer would be very proud of a career with those kind of statistics, so stand up and take a bow, Ian Rankin.
This year, the crime fiction-loving world is celebrating three decades of his most famous creation, Rebus, and on a rainy day at Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, he’s sitting down to discuss the former policeman who has brought him fame and fortune.
“Always take the weather with you – and I’m sorry to say I’ve brought it with me from Scotland,” says Rankin, with a wry smile.
It’s not his first visit to the festival, where he always receives a warm welcome – he’s so popular that his event has been moved from the main location at the Old Swan Hotel to the larger Royal Hall down the road.
“Gets the cogs turning”
“The last time I was here was to interview William McIlvanney,” he recalls. “He didn’t think anybody would come out at 9am on a Sunday morning, but the crowds here are always enthusiastic.”
After 30 years, Rebus isn’t the same man he was when we first met him in 1987’s Knots and Crosses.
“In my head he’s 65,” explains Rankin. “He should be 70, but I didn’t write about him for five years, so I’ve knocked those off. He’s changed, but is determined to stay a detective. Someone like him would have reapplied as a civilian to work on cold cases, so that’s what I wrote. People ask how you keep the series fresh, but each book is different, a standalone, with a character who’s changed with the world around him.”
After all, these years, how does Rankin come up with new ideas?
“It starts with something I’ve read, seen on TV or been told, that gets the cogs turning. Do we get the kind of crimes we deserve? Have I got a plot in my head to allow me to answer that? It doesn’t always have to be a Rebus book, the plot has to fit the characters. My role is to convince you that it’s all happening.”
Rankin is clearly hugely successful, but he would never have become a writer if he’d taken his parents’ advice to get a trade. They hoped he’d follow in the footsteps of his Bradford-based uncle by becoming an accountant!
“But I wanted to do something I was passionate about, and decided to study literature.”
Thank goodness for that!
“I need an idea”
What may surprise some is that he doesn’t rate himself all that highly: “I’m a terrible writer. I never do any research, I forget what I’ve done in the past. I just make it up as I got along, and sometimes I get lucky.”
He also has his wife to thank for adding an aspect to the ageing Rebus that Rankin hadn’t thought about.
“She’s been saying for a while that Rebus is unhealthy; he drinks, smokes, and it’s bound to have caught up with him. A doctor friend came up with a list of ailments he might have and I settled on COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). So his mortality is there. He’s never going to get better.”
With that in mind, is the end nigh for Rebus?
“I don’t know if I’ll write another book about him,” muses Rankin. “I have nothing at the moment – I need an idea. But I certainly don’t see Rebus still solving crimes in his 80s from an electric wheelchair!”
Maybe not, but hopefully Rankin himself will still be going strong when he reaches that age – we’d miss him if he closed down his laptop for good. Here’s to another 30 years of his career – at least.
images: Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography Ltd