Friends Reunited - An Interview with Ian Rankin

Fifer Elaine Bruce recently caught up with old school friend, Ian Rankin, and found him remarkably unchanged.

Walking up the path to Ian Rankin’s house in leafy, literary Edinburgh (he lives two doors away from Alexander McCall Smith and just round the corner from J K Rowling), I was surprised by just how nervous I felt. It was almost worse than a first date. Having read so much about Ian since I last saw him – a mere 25 years ago – I wasn’t sure how it would be.

All my fears disappeared instantly when he greeted me at the door barefoot, in jeans and a t-shirt, looking almost exactly as I had last seen him in the student flat we shared all those years ago.

Elaine: I can’t tell you how annoyed I was when your new book Rebus’s Scotland: a Personal Journey came out just after I’d arranged this interview – it answered most of the questions I was going to ask you.

Ian: That’s exactly what it was meant to do: answer questions. I’ve had so many fans contact me through the website wanting to know more about the background to Rebus, that it seemed like a logical step, especially as I wasn’t writing a Rebus book this year.

Elaine: I’m sure I’ll find some different questions.

And I might find some different answers. Just because I’ve written it in a book doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true!

Unlike me, you’ve managed to hang on to your Fife accent, was that deliberate?

Not really. I mean, I’ve never tried to change it, but I haven’t tried to hang on to it either. I go back to Fife occasionally for a course that I fund a couple of bursaries for at Fife College, and when I get off the train in Kirkcaldy, I’m surprised by the accent. I think, ‘is that what we really sound like’.

He mimics a broad, guttural Fife accent.

Do you feel that’s partly because you grew up at a time when it was good to be Scottish. That nationalism was on the increase, reflected not only in literature but also in the increasing interest in traditional arts.

There’s a bit of that, I guess. We were taught by teachers who’d trained in the 60s, and who hadn’t had to change their accents to become teachers. By the time we were growing up, it was acceptable to speak Scots in the classroom as well as the playground. But it still wasn’t acceptable to write in Scots. You couldn’t have handed in a school or university essay written in Scots. So in that way we did have to be a bit bi-lingual. I’ve carried that through into the Rebus novels. I do use Scots words, but I don’t write in Scots. I probably use less Scots words now that my father’s dead, because a lot of them came from him.

You touched on the fact that our teachers spoke in Scots, my feeling was that we had a very strong English department at Beath High School – did that affect you?

Absolutely. I’ve spoken before about Ron Gillespie as one of my favourite teachers. He was a working class Glaswegian with a strong accent and an unusual approach to teaching English. He used song lyrics as poetry and brought people like Carl McDougal and Norman MacCaig in to talk to us.

I always thought that it was just an excuse to play his record collection in school.

It probably was. But it was inspirational just the same. Especially if you were as into music as I was.

And was it the lessons taught in the classroom or meeting the teachers in the Glen Tavern just down the road that was more influential?

Definitely the pub. The fact that you were able to meet up with your teachers in the pub and have an intellectual debate in an informal setting definitely helped.

I seem to remember that we did some quite unusual novels, as well.

Yep. I had to own up recently that I’ve never read Sunset Song. We didn’t really do a lot of Scottish stuff. And the fact that we did Catch 22 at school was probably the sole reason that I went on to study American literature at university.

They only ever did Catch 22 once, you know. They didn’t get enough of the books back to ever do it again.

I know, I’ve got my copy upstairs, stamped Beath High School.

Rebus seems to me to have a very strong Fife character. Do you think there is such a thing as the characteristics of a Fifer?

Well the way you looked at me when you asked that question was very Fife. Challenging. I do think there are a lot of characteristics of Fifers – probably caused by our isolation. Historically Fife was virtually an island sandwiched between the Firths of Forth and Tay. And that hasn’t changed that much – we’re still a bit away from the mainstream. I think that’s partly why Fifers are quite insular. Not unfriendly, just a bit wary of strangers.

And of course your first novel, The Flood, was set in Fife, how does it feel to see that in print again?

I can’t believe how naïve I was thinking that people wouldn’t work out where it was set – I mean Carsden, it’s not that different from Cardenden, and I didn’t change the name of the river and even used a real shop, which still exists, in the book. I also used some real names, which caused endless confusion with people thinking I was writing about them, when I really wasn’t. I wasn’t sure about bringing it out again. Ideally I would have rewritten a lot of it. Then I decided that since I wasn’t doing a Rebus this year, it should come out as a historical piece and fans could read it as that.

I find it very difficult to read your books dispassionately. I’m always thinking that I recognise characters and situations. Do you deliberately use people you know?

I think it’s more that people think that characters are based on them. I’ve had people with remarkably similar life stories to my characters approach me and say that a character is based on them. But since I’ve never met them, it’s highly unlikely. I think as a writer, you’re always looking around at people and situations and thinking how you can use them, but I don’t deliberately use people I know. I had a former girlfriend contact me recently to say that she thought Rebus’s former girlfriend in Dead Souls was based on her.

And was she?

I’d even spelt the Janis the same way. Yeah, she probably was.

You are often praised for the realism of your female characters. I seem to remember at both school and university that you had lots of close female friends, and you also have two older sisters – does that help?

Well, there weren’t many strong female characters in the early Rebus novels. But people started telling me that they liked Gill Templar and female police officers have said that they find Siobhan very realistic. I think Siobhan is probably just about strong enough to carry the series on her own now.

It took a long time for success to come. Has that made it easier to deal with?

I think it probably has, but it was a long tough wait. My publishers were on the verge of dropping me when suddenly everything started to go right. I had had four or five books published, but wasn’t making any money, we were living in rural France. It was all pretty tough. We didn’t even have a sofa – we used to take the back seat out of the car and plonk it in the kitchen in front of the stove.

And has success changed you?

Ian: I don’t think so, I still do the same things. Still drink in the same pub, with the same mates. It’s just meant that we can appreciate some of the finer things in life. I still have pretty much the same record collection, just a better hi-fi to listen to it on. And some nice paintings – the accountant suggested we might as well hang some of our money on the walls and enjoy looking at it. And the silver lining is that we have enough money to pay for the care that our younger son needs.

Ian’s younger son, Kit, is severely disabled and, rather than flashy sports cars, much of his income goes into a trust fund for Kit’s future.

Rebus is due to retire soon, what next for Rankin?

Oh I’ve got it all worked out. J K Rowling has said that she fancies writing crime when she finished Harry Potter, and I quite fancy Harry Potter, so we can just swap!

I don’t suppose you remember what you wrote in my autograph book at school? It seems to me it sums up a lot of how you still are. It was: Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.

I don’t remember that at all, but it’s bloody good. I suppose I have always followed my instincts and done what was right for me, even if it wasn’t always what was expected. My mother died thinking I was going to be an English teacher and although my father saw me in print, he didn’t live long enough to see how successful I was going to become.

But Ian is still remarkably grounded about his apparent fame. “It’s all relative,” he says. “I must show you my picture in Q magazine. I was at an awards ceremony recently where I was presenting an award, and I was sitting with the band member from Sparks and the guitarist from Echo and the Bunnymen – all my early heroes. They gave people cameras to take photos of the people at their table which were going to be in the next issue of Q.” He flicks through the magazine showing me the photos of the rich and famous who were at the ceremony, then on a page toward the back shows me a tiny photographs and says, “Look, there I am!” pointing to a small, slightly fuzzy photograph which features, on the outmost edge, the tip of Ian Rankin’s ear!

Ian Rankin (press picture)