Ian Rankin, the writer of 17 best-selling crime novels featuring the Edinburgh detective John Rebus, looks quite at home at the Society’s traditional home at The Vaults in Leith.
His books have been translated into 26 languages and sell in the millions from Scandinavia to North America and Australia. The Rebus TV series, starring first John Hannah and then Ken Stott, has been shown all over the world.
Yet for all his global appeal, Rankin’s dour detective is as much a part of the fabric of Edinburgh as the historic Vaults are. The city of Edinburgh plays as big a role in his novels as the major characters do and, just as whisky is often synonymous with Scotland, Rankin and his fiction represent Edinburgh to his readership around the world.
What a fan in Japan gets from his books is a puzzle to the author, but not one that he wants to analyse too much. “It is still a mystery to me that people in New Zealand are buying these books and getting something from them,” he says, “but probably not the same thing as someone who lives in Glasgow or Fort William.”
Rankin retired Inspector Rebus in his 2007 book Exit Music when the policeman reached the age of 60. His latest book is called The Complaints. Set in Edinburgh, it is about Malcolm Fox, a policeman who works in the complaints and conduct department, the internal affairs of Lothian and Borders police force.
On the eve of the book’s publication, he settles in by the fire in the Members’ Rooms and talks about creativity, writing and whisky…
Ian Rankin (IR): Every character you invent comes from inside your head. The characteristics of those characters must exist inside you somewhere. Writing is a form of therapy, it’s a way of getting stuff out of your system. You get to role play so if someone cuts you up in a car then you get to go home and kill them in a short story. You get to play God.
Q: The Complaints is set against the backdrop of the current economic crisis and many of the Rebus books featured real-life events. Why?
IR: I’m always using the real world in my stories. The books always begin with a nugget of truth. If the reader picks the book up and thinks that actually happened, that is when they start to believe everything else, the fiction that you wrap around that.
IR: It is a lot of things, I have written a book a year and sometimes two every year since 1984. Secondly, I’ll be 50 in April next year, I can recharge the batteries, do some travelling.
I’ve been to Australia half a dozen times but I have never seen the Great Barrier Reef. When I’m doing book tours, I see hotels, cabs, books stores, radio stations and journalists. I have been all around the world and seen nothing.
Q: Do creative batteries need to be recharged or is it more like a creative muscle that becomes stronger the more it is used?
IR: It doesn’t get any easier. It gets harder and it should get harder because you should want to do better each time. The person you are up against all the time is yourself. Whatever you are writing now, you want it to be better than what you have done before.
A year off is a good chance for me to look at what I have done; what’s left to do that I haven’t and to take the time to step back and refocus. You never know, I might only have five or 10 years left. I could snuff it any time!
Q: Is there a set time and place for your writing?
IR: I can really only write when the kids are out of the house which means daytime on weekdays. There is always music playing in the background, but quietly and nothing with lyrics. So, jazz or classical is good as well as a couple of rock bands or some electronica. The table that I work at faces a blank wall, the only one in the house. The laptop I work on has no internet connection.
Q: Have you ever written after a couple of drinks?
IR: I tried it as a student. I studied American literature and your Faulkners, Hemingways and Fitzgeralds all seemed to drink a fair bit and were still functioning literates. I wrote a story one night after a few drinks, looked at it the next morning and thought it was garbage. It didn’t work for me.
Q: Why do you think people are so fascinated and curious about creativity?
IR: Anyone can write a novel. A lot of people think there is a magic formula to it. I sometimes get asked what pen I use as though if they use the same pen it might rub off on them or something.
I am absolutely fascinated by creativity as well, I occasionally get the chance to interview writers who I admire and I ask them those questions as well. I’m like that with painters and musicians. Anybody involved with an art form that I’m not involved with then I’m fascinated by it. It’s almost as though they have some form of shamanistic power that I don’t have.