25 de febrer de 2016

Ian Rankin: I wanted to write realistic books

Gulf News Books, 24 february 2016]

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha

The accomplished crime novelist talks about his John Rebus series, coping with personal issues and frustrations, and why he can’t write when he’s travelling

“I wouldn’t make a good policeman,” says the refreshingly honest creator of Edinburgh’s cantankerous cop John Rebus, belying the biggest myth that crime writers are good at solving mysteries in real life. A lot of crime writers have an image that they try to keep up with — to be seen as dark and slightly dangerous, but not Ian Rankin.
“I got into crime writing because I wanted to write realistic books about contemporary issues and problems. A cop is the perfect character for this as he or she has access to each layer of society, from the very top to the very bottom,” he says.
Set in contemporary Edinburgh, Rankin’s Rebus books provide an interesting commentary on the heroin epidemic, social exclusion, racism, immigration, the death of old industries and the birth of new technologies, which form the backdrops to detective stories. There’s also consistency in the lurking darkness.
Known for subtle character sketches, deft plotting and honed attention to detail, Rankin is a star in tartan noir, albeit he got into the killer business by accident. While working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh, he wrote his first Rebus novel, “Knots & Crosses” in 1987, but it wasn’t until “Black And Blue” a decade later that his career took off. Since then Rankin and Rebus have been the most bankable pairing.
Although the author retired the curmudgeon cop in 2007, he revived him in 2012 with “Standing in Another Man’s Grave”. And he is not slipping into wilderness any time soon — Rebus is at his best in his 20th outing, “Even Dogs in the Wild”, released in November in the UK.
The Rebus series is now translated into 22 languages. New figures from John Rebus Limited, named in honour of his famous creation, show that it had total assets of £3.3 million (Dh17.3 million).
Selling more than 30 million books worldwide in three decades, Rankin, master of the long game, writes to make sense of the world, he says. It’s fun and therapeutic as well. “My stories usually begin as questions I have about the way the world is, and my plots allow me to work on those questions, though often without finding concrete answers. I have used my stories as ways of dealing with all kinds of personal issues and frustrations.”
Writers never really grow up, Rankin says. “We are still children, playing role-playing games with our imaginary friends. But we are also quite powerful — we have the power of life and death over our characters. We control their lives and their fate.”
But unlike his imaginary friends, Rankin has real insecurities. That his name is ubiquitous at the top of the bestsellers list, and Rebus is one of the best-loved characters in crime fiction is immaterial. Rankin, like every writer, lives with the fear that his next book will be a failure. “You are only as good as your next book, and you always want that next book to be better in every way than the one you wrote just before it. Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written, you still worry that you’re not really very good or have nothing original to say.”
Rankin took a “sabbatical year” in 2014 after a busy spell, prompted by the death of close friends, and to rediscover his passion for writing.
“There have been a few low points in my life — when the early books weren’t selling very well, meaning I struggled to make a living from my writing; when my youngest son was born disabled — as I was in the middle of writing ‘Black and Blue’; when writer friends started passing away. That’s one reason I took a year off. I was losing friends who were my contemporaries, including Iain Banks. I decided to slow down a bit and consider my options. After about six months, I was itching to start writing again,” says the 55-year-old writer of his time off, pondering weighty matters of life and death.
In addition to his Rebus and Malcolm Fox novels, the Scottish author has also written standalone novels including “Doors Open”, which was televised in 2012, short stories and a graphic novel — “Dark Entries”. There is also a number of novels under the pseudonym Jack Harvey and his non-fiction book “Rebus’s Scotland” was published in 2005. He has also turned his hand to a more collaborative effort, “Kickback City”, a crime noir project set in LA, comprising an album by one of his favourites, the late Rory Gallagher, a book written by himself with illustrations by Timothy Truman, and finally an audiobook voiced by American actor Aidan Quinn.
In his theatrical debut, “Dark Road”, a murder mystery written in collaboration with artistic director Mark Thomson, Rankin manages the tense balance, holding tightly to the sensibility which makes his books a success. “When a book is published, you are a long way from the audience so can’t see their reaction. But in a theatre, you soon know if they are liking the show or understanding it. ‘Dark Road’ was an interesting experience but nerve-wracking.”
According to some estimates, Rankin’s novels account for 10 per cent of all crime fiction sold in the UK. Beginning each book by getting his story and his characters lined up, Rankin, who cites films “Chinatown” and “The Maltese Falcon” as his inspiration, says he’s oblivious to the finish line. It’s the sort of thing only a supremely confident crime writer could say.
“I never really know how a book is going to end. I put myself in the role of detective, knowing as little as he or she does at the start of the process. Usually about two-thirds of the way in, I begin to see the best ending for the story and I then work towards it. I usually write three drafts. The book is finished when the publishing deadline arrives — it’s time to hand the book to my editor.”
A self-confessed “control freak” who has never missed a deadline — between 1986 and 2015 he published 30 novels — thriving in a deadline-driven industry comes easy to him. After all, he has been honing his craft for a long time. Admitting he’d be “lazy” without a deadline, Rankin says, “Pressure sometimes is helpful.”
And in less than a year’s time, he is publishing another thriller. He is already deep in thought about it. “I need to start writing a new novel very soon. The book has to be delivered by the end of June, so panic is beginning to set in, but that’s good — the adrenaline helps me get started.”
When not writing, Rankin loves to do the usual: read newspapers and books, listen to music — he was the teenage vocalist in long-forgotten Fife punk band The Dancing Pigs — sit in cafés solving crosswords, and go to the pub to catch up on news and gossip. “I also like to go travelling with my wife, now that our sons have left home and we have a bit more freedom.”
A conversation with his famous neighbours — Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Atkinson — is also something that Rankin does, although not regular. So when Edinburgh’s real-life “crime writing community” meets, what do they talk about? “I don’t see that much of Alexander McCall Smith — either he’s away or I’m away. But we occasionally catch up and talk about all sorts of things, from morality and murder to the weather. I bump into Kate Atkinson now and again. It’s lovely to feel part of a city of words.”
Just back from promoting “Even Dogs In the Wild”, Rankin says even if book tours are “always fun” to meet fans and find out what Rebus and the other characters mean to them, it is wearisome. “The problem is that I cannot write while I’m travelling, so the more touring I do the less time I have to write the actual books. Also, you’re not always in a place long enough to have any meaningful interaction with it.”
Incidentally, three months of each year of his career were spent promoting his work around the world.
Now, Rankin is looking forward to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March. “I need to do a tour of the US before I come to Dubai.”
The best thing about the festival in Dubai, he says, is that writers don’t just parachute in for a day or two. “You are there for a week, which means you can get to know the other writers, spend time talking with them, and also get to see something of Dubai and the surrounding area and meet the people.”
Keeping up with the changing world in his thrillers, the multi-award winning crime writer, now back with a renewed zest after his year of reflection, has steadily churned out engaging and interesting stories that keep a tight grip on the reader’s attention until the final dark twist — a whodunit reveal, which is typically Rankin — satisfyingly obvious and unexpected all at once. Not to forget, his effortless command of pungent scene-setting, caustic characterisation and pleasingly asymmetrical plotting.
It’s been three decades, but the bloody-minded cop Rebus has lost none of his bite — he just can’t keep his nose out of the murderous business. What will become of the best-loved character in crime fiction? “I don’t know what the future holds for Rebus. There has never been any long-scale plan for the series. After ‘Exit Music’ [2007], I thought he was gone for good, but he found a way to return. I think he’ll be the star of the show in my next book, but after that, who knows?”
There are more mysteries to be solved, and no one knows better than Rankin how to do that.
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
Ian Rankin will take part in the 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to be held at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, from March 1 to 12.
What would you be if you hadn’t been a writer: Probably a teacher of some kind, at a high school or university. But I would be dreaming of being a music star!
A book you wish you had written: “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; it’s a such a classic story of good and evil, and it will still be an influence in the decades and centuries to come.
The first novel you read: Probably have been a thriller, something like “Where Eagles Dare” or “The Day of the Jackal”.
A recent book you will remember in 10 years’ time: Hugo Wilcken’s novel, “The Reflection”. It’s such a strange and elliptical thriller, dream-like and captivating.
Something you can’t do without: Morning coffee and a cryptic crossword.

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