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Travel to Glasgow


Lunch with Ian Rankin at Ondine, Edinburgh

20 February 2016

A regular on international bestseller lists, Scottish novelist Ian Rankin is responsible for creating one of the crime genre’s best-loved and enduring protagonists. We spoke to the author over lunch at Ondine in Edinburgh.

It is a cold, wet and windy January day in Edinburgh. The harsh magnificence of the Scottish capital in winter is on full display, the city’s face grey and severe.

Ian Rankin arrives at Ondine, the restaurant he has chosen for our lunch, and hands his coat to the maître d’, offering a warm smile and a “Happy New Year.” His dark hair, cut in a vaguely mod style à la Ian Brown of The Stone Roses, has not been disturbed by the wind. Dressed in a button-down Paul Smith shirt in dark denim and Nike trainers, and carrying a plastic bag, which he will later explain contains a copy of his latest book, Even Dogs In The Wild, ready to post to a competition winner after our meal (he doesn’t have a PA), the author’s mood is the very antithesis of the Edinburgh weather.

Last time I spoke to Rankin, in 2013, he was fully immersed in writing the novel that became Saints Of The Shadow Bible, the 19th to feature his rebellious detective inspector John Rebus. He was happy to talk, but not as calm as he is today. Back then he spoke of having two distinct personalities.

“There’s the shy person who enjoys their own company and sits at home writing books for months on end, and then there’s the author who has to go out and promote those books and be chatty, be able to talk, to be interviewed and be able to do photo shoots,” he said. “It’s a weird juxtaposition of being solitary and then being very public. I definitely enjoy the solitary part better.”

An amuse-bouche of fresh oysters fried in a light batter polished off, two courses apiece – salmon gravalax and mussels for me and smoked ham and pea broth and haddock goujons for Rankin – ordered and a toast to 2016 complete, I point out that today he seems to be enjoying the public part of his job.

“Well, I’ve just had Christmas and New Year and I’ve had a really successful book. The latest book has just done gangbusters business,” he says, before going on to explain that, although he usually writes a book a year between January and June, he hasn’t yet started what will be the 21st Rebus novel, because he’s about to embark on a US tour. He’s still on holiday.

Even Dogs In The Wild, the 20th Rebus novel, was published in November 2015 and, as Rankin explains, topped the UK bestseller list for four weeks in the run-up to Christmas. It also debuted at No 13 on The New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction. The success of an Ian Rankin book is no surprise. In 2012, he became the first Scottish novelist, and only the seventh British novelist, to break through the £50 million (US$72 million) print sales barrier. His work is estimated to account for 10 per cent of all crime fiction sales in the UK and, as a result, he’s a multi-millionaire.

But he’s a multi-millionaire who, although he admits to dining at least once a month at this swish seafood restaurant a mere stumble from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, turned up wearing trainers and carrying a plastic bag. When he took a year off in 2014 – his first ever extended break from writing – Rankin bought a Jaguar (“that was the midlife crisis right there”), and he has a second home in Cromarty, a small town on the Black Isle peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, where he wrote most of Even Dogs In The Wild.

But the money doesn’t seem to have had that much of an effect on his character or, beyond those few luxuries, the way he lives his life. “I’m very set in my ways,” he says. “I might have plenty of money in the bank these days, but I still have much the same lifestyle as I did when I was a student.”

Fame is not an issue either. Even a successful writer is unlikely to be hounded by the paparazzi, and Rankin says fans never trouble him. “I don’t get bothered that much in Edinburgh. It’s is a city that pretty much keeps itself to itself. If people do stop you in the street they stop you to say nice things.”

Rich and able to live his life as he pleases. Nothing to worry about at all, then. Not quite. “You’re worried about whether your book is going to be any good. You ask yourself, ‘Is this when I will finally get found out?’ That bit of it doesn’t get any easier.” The success of Even Dogs In The Wild shows that Rankin is still at his peak, but he says he still finds fault with every book. “There’s probably no writer out there who, as soon as the book is published and they get that first copy, doesn’t open it up and go, ‘Ah, I could have written that differently, I could have written it better,’ which is why you write another book. You have failed yet again to say everything you want to say about the world in the best possible way. Each book is a small failing. So you try again, fail better, as [Samuel] Beckett would say.”

It is clear reading Even Dogs In The Wild that Rankin is confident writing Rebus, as well as his three other recurring characters: straight arrow former Internal Affairs cop Malcolm Fox, the main protagonist in The Complaints (2009) and The Impossible Dead (2011); Rebus’s sharp but more sensible sidekick detective sergeant Siobhan Clarke; and the detective’s long-time adversary, the gangster Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. It is a mature work. But Rankin is wary of becoming too comfortable.

“It would be very easy to just get lazy and go through the motions, and give readers something which is [only] very slightly different to what you have done before [when you have] characters they love and just want to hang out with. But you want to keep challenging yourself as a writer, partly because there are young writers coming up through the ranks who are using language in a different way from you, who have got exciting plots, new devices, new ways of telling a story. I have to keep on my toes, so that I don’t end up being forgotten about’”

It’s unlikely that Rankin will be forgotten in a hurry, but he sees writing as a contest. “I think all writers see it as a competition,” he says. “They must. All writers have got egos, and although crime writers tend to be a very collegiate bunch, like a gang, you don’t want to be slacking.”

Ian Rankin could never be accused of slacking. He’s published 31 novels to date, sometimes writing two a year, as well as short story collections, a stage play, a graphic novel and the libretto for a 15-minute opera – but he says he never expected to be in the position he is now. “I grew up in a coal mining town of 7,000 people. No writers in the vicinity. Very few readers. I mean, my parents didn’t read novels much at all. Maybe on summer holiday,” he says.

That town was Cardenden in Fife, where Ian Rankin was born in 1960. His father, James, worked in a grocer’s shop and then in an office at Rosyth naval dockyard; his mother, Isobel, worked in a factory canteen; and his two older sisters left school at 16 to find gainful employment. “I was the cuckoo in the nest,” he says. “I was the strange quiet one sitting in his bedroom writing poetry when he should have been out stealing cars or something.”

Our starters arrive. Rankin’s colourful broth looks like the ideal dish for a cold winter’s afternoon, and he can hardly wait to dip his spoon in, though he later declares that it has “defeated me”. My gravlax, served with a sharp mayonnaise, is the finest I have ever had: 10 thick dark orange slices infused with a flawless amalgam of fishiness and smokiness.

When he was 10, Rankin started writing lyrics for an imaginary band, The Amoebas, and reading comic books. He discovered the local library, where he would borrow novels such as The Godfather, Jaws, The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange, because he wasn’t old enough to see the films.

He studied English at the University Of Edinburgh, graduating in 1982, and started a PhD thesis on Muriel Spark, working on his first novel at night. He didn’t complete the PhD, but he did finish Summer Rites, a comedy set in a Scottish hotel featuring a boy with psychokinetic powers, which is still safely ensconced in a drawer. His second attempt, The Flood, about a boy growing up in a small Scottish town who falls for an unsuitable girl, was published in 1986. It was followed by Knots And Crosses, the first Rebus novel, in 1987.

“It was meant to be a one-off, and I’m sure in the first draft of Knots And Crosses, which I can’t find, he was shot and killed at the end,” says Rankin. “I certainly planned for him to die. By the time it was published he wasn’t dead, but that was it, done and dusted.”

He did move away from crime fiction, publishing Watchman, “my attempt at a le Carré or Graham Greene spy novel”, in 1988 and Westwind, “which I have never allowed to be reprinted because it was so bad”, in 1990. Neither book was a big success. Then living in Tottenham, London, where his wife Miranda, who he had married in 1986, went out to work as a civil servant while he tried to make it as a writer, Rankin wasn’t happy. “I hated it,” he says. “Hardly any money. Just grim.”

Then two decisions set the author on the path to success. First, his editor, Euan Cameron, encouraged him to revisit Rebus, and then, in 1990, Miranda suggested that they get out of London. They moved to a dilapidated house in rural southwest France, and in 1991 Hide And Seek, the second Rebus novel, was published. Five more Rebus novels were published while the couple lived in France, and their two children, Jack and Kit, were born, before they returned to the Edinburgh in 1996.

Then, in January 1997, Rankin’s life changed forever. “I opened up The Times and it said, ‘The best crime novel of 1997 has already been published and we will tell you what it is tomorrow,’” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘Oh right, what’s that going to be?’ I got the next day’s Times and Marcel Berlins, the crime fiction reviewer, was saying that [my novel] Black And Blue was going to be the best crime novel he read that year. That was January. In November 1997 I won the Gold Dagger with it. So it was a game changer.”

He had finally made it. “That book, which was Rebus novel number eight, sold four times as many copies as the previous books, and that was the first inkling I got that I could actually make a go of it as a writer,” says Rankin. “All the books before that were an apprenticeship.”

The decision to dedicate himself to crime fiction had worked. “I think by about book three or four I thought, ‘A detective is a very good way of looking at the world,’” he says.

“Oh, I can see chips,” says Rankin, beaming. “Lovely goujons,” he continues, as the waiter sets the plates down on the table. “Hooray. You don’t get chips,” he jibes. What I do get is a vast cauldron of steaming mussels in a mild masala broth. I think I’ve done pretty well, but Rankin with his bowl of chips, golden goujons and competitive streak begs to differ.

“When I first started, crime fiction wasn’t nearly as big a genre as it is now,” he continues after a few mouthfuls. “But a lot of younger writers started becoming interested in crime novels, in using the crime novel to say things about the world. It wasn’t just about the puzzle, it wasn’t just about solving the mystery, it was about the fact that crime tells us a lot about ourselves as a society and asks some very big moral questions of us, like: why do these terrible things keep happening in the world?”

Even Dogs In The Wild deals with child abuse; the title is taken from a song about a neglected child by Scottish band The Associates. But the overriding theme is the relationships between fathers and sons. “It’s a book about what parents hand down to their kids, for better or worse,” says Rankin. The human story is always far more important as far as he is concerned. “[Whodunit] doesn’t both me. You could work it out on page one and it wouldn’t matter. [With Even Dogs In The Wild] I didn’t know until near the end, either,” he says.

Other than deftly scrutinising human weakness, the element of Rankin’s fiction that lifts his novels above the average police procedural is the characters. The author has drawn them so skillfully and in such detail that for his millions of fans they are real. How close is he to Rebus et al? “I think I’m much more like Siobhan and Fox. If you put the two of them in a blender you would get something that’s much more like me, psychologically and philosophically. Rebus is more cynical than I am, he’s more Old Testament than I am. He’s stubborn in a way I am not, he goes against authority, he’s an anarchist.”

Fans won’t have to wait much longer to see what Rebus does next, but Rankin doesn’t know what his 33rd book will be. “I never think further than one book ahead,” he says as the waiter clears our mains. We both decline dessert and order double espressos. “After this book is finished the plan is for 2017 to be a year off,” says Rankin. “I will be celebrating 30 years of Rebus. The first book was published in 1987, so the publisher has got big ideas about 2017, and it won’t involve writing a new book. So by the time I start writing another book, it will be 2018 and I’ll be 58. Maybe there’s nothing in the tank. Who knows?”

For now, Ian Rankin is happy to wander off into the familiar Edinburgh chill, his belly full, carrying his plastic bag.

Words: Gareth Rees / Images: Rebecca Rees

Ian Rankin will be speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature, Dubai, March 1 to 12.