12 November, 2007
Interview by Andrea Thompson
On behalf of Murder and Mayhem Bookclub
Scottish author Ian Rankin, creator of the D.I. John Rebus series, kicked off his Australian book tour this week with a day in Perth, Western Australia. Rankin conducted various interviews and attended book signings throughout the day with the evening event being a sundowner at the local Hilton (wine, food, Q & A, book sales and signings).
Perth turned in a typical spring day for the author (hot and around 39 degrees Celsius) so at just before ten in the morning we took our coffees to a cafe outside the local studio of our national broadcaster where Rankin was recording radio interviews.
MM: Some of our readers have said that it has been a little difficult to pick up their copy of EXIT MUSIC. There’s that sense of loss and it is being felt by not just by the Rebus fans but by the crime fiction community as a whole. This is like a goodbye.
This novel has been had the word “bittersweet” attached to it.
Was it bittersweet, writing the last novel after all this time? How did that feel?
IR: Before I started the book I felt about what it was I had to do with it being Rebus's retirement book, do I want to try and tie up all the loose ends that I've left in various books, do I want to bring back characters from the past too I've enjoyed writing about, does everything come full circle but then I thought how would Rebus treat retirement and I thought he would just treat it just like anything else, he's a stoic, he'd just get on with the job; so on his last ten days in the force he'd be doing the same things as his first ten days in the force, solving the crime in front of him.
MM: No need to do the big bang, more to go out with an appreciative murmur...
IR: No, I get it that there were so many scenarios that I could be doing with him but in fact having just written the G8 book which was just full of big bangs, that literally happened during the week of the G8, this book is a quieter book, it's much quieter I think, but it starts with the same opening sentence as book one which is the only way to bring things full circle..
MM: Knots and Crosses...
IR: Yes, starts with the same opening sentence as KNOTS AND CROSSES.
MM: Part of your readership doesn't realize that K & O was not in fact your first; THE FLOOD was your first novel...
MM: How do you feel about that one, looking back on it now, considering that for most of your career it has been all about Rebus?
IR: Yeah, well THE FLOOD was a young man's book, an apprenticeship, I couldn't have come up with Rebus without it in a lot of ways because THE FLOOD was based in the town I grew up in, thinly disguised, and in fact too thinly disguised, and I got in a lot of trouble with people from my home town who thought they could see themselves in my book..
IR: So when I sat down to write another book it had to be about a completely fictitious character, I wanted to make sure that people read it as fiction, not as a thinly disguised autobiography, so I created a guy that was unlike me, very unlike me, thinking about it as a one-off, it was never meant to be a series so Rebus was 40 in that first book and I was 24,25 when I wrote it, he’d been married, I wasn't married, he had a kid, I had no kids, he smoked, I never smoked, he'd never been to college, I was at college so you know I thought people can’t see me in him..
MM: You deliberately made him very different from you.
IR: Yes, apart from the fact that we grew up in same town, but he left, joined the army, joined the police.
MM: Writing about what you know is always the best thing?
IR: Well, I don't know about that.
MM: Geographically wise...
IR: Yeah, well maybe that is true but write about what you know and I knew nothing about the police, nothing about procedures in the early books, I made lots of mistakes.
MM: Readers have been expecting some dreadful health issue to come up with John Rebus.
IR: (laughs) Yeah, well my wife sure wanted that, she wanted to see him in a hospital bed.
MM: She probably wanted him to have some payback for that lifestyle
IR: Exactly, she wanted that, and she thought that in the final book he should be in a hospital bed for the entire book, suffering from emphysema or something. But no, I thought, he’s led this charmed existence and so for one more book he could have that charmed existence. Now I think the problem in retirement, I know people who have very full-on jobs that they are very passionate that when they retire they fall to pieces quite quickly and I think that might well happen to Rebus, unless he can find something to sustain him because he has no hobbies, he has no past-times. So realistically all he would do is go to the pub at 11 am which is when the pub opens and stagger out again when he’s had enough, and he’ll do that every day until he falls over.
MM: So for those twenty years that you’ve been writing novels, at what point was it going to be all about Rebus, that you were going to give up everything else pretty much? Was that what your publishers required of you?
IR: Rebus, nothing but Rebus, was quite late because you know the early books didn’t sell many copies and I was always in danger of being dumped by my publishers, even when I delivered BLACK AND BLUE to them which was the first commercially successful Rebus novel and also in terms of awards it was the first successful Rebus novel. It was just another Rebus book, they didn’t know it was special or anything, that it was anything new, and it was only when it won the Gold Dagger that they realized this was working; the series was actually working so up until then I was always in fear of being dumped. But even when I delivered BLACK AND BLUE I was writing two books a year, one Rebus and one Jack Harvey novel just to survive.
MM: When you were living in France?
IR: Yeah, when I was living in France, because I was only making about five grand a book, five thousand ponds.
MM: So that was cutting it all fine; it must have been hard at home.
IR: Yeah, it was cutting hugely fine. We didn’t have kids when we lived in France. The wife and I were in our early thirties and so we were sort of young enough and stupid enough and naive enough to think we could do that, to make a go of it and we knew that if it didn’t work we could always just scamper back to Britain again.
MM: So there were never any thoughts of giving Rebus the white picket fence finish.
IR: Ah, no.
MM: Not suited to him, and not suited to the series.
IR: I mean both I guess, definitely not suited to him. The big question for me was what I did with Cafferty, this personal relationship Rebus had with Cafferty, this gangster that runs Edinburgh; they’re very much like Kane and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, you know, they are two sides of the same character really and I was never sure whether they were going to become best friends or destroy one another and that was the big question in the final book, how would that relationship end and in fact in the first draft that I sent to my publisher, the final chapter as it now is wasn’t there and the book ended with Rebus confronting a young cop called Goodyear and my publisher said “oh, I think we’re going to need a little bit more closure than that, we need Rebus to go back to the hospital and see Cafferty” so that extra final chapter is something I wasn’t expecting to have to write, and it was very difficult to write, I did more re-writing of that final two or three pages than anything else I think I’ve ever written so I wanted to get the tone right and put in enough information but not so much that a reader could just go right to the last page in the bookshop and know exactly what came before. It just happened to J.K. Rowling, with the final Harry Potter...
MM: Shush, haven’t read the last one yet!
IR: Well people would go into the bookstore, read the last couple of pages and know what happened to all the characters.
MM: Perhaps a sealed section in the back of the book might have been the go?
IR: (laughs) Oh yeah...
MM: Was big “Ger” Cafferty supposed to be the dark, if you will, and Rebus the light?
IR: Yeah, Cafferty is an example of serendipity, a character you create who’s larger than somebody’s parts. He first appeared in book three in a tiny little cameo role. I had to get Rebus to Glasgow and I had him giving evidence in a trial against this guy Cafferty. He just got beneath my skin and I thought that there’s an awful lot I can do with this guy. I mean, he represents all the bad things that happen in the world, he stands for ALL the bad things, but with time there is an empathy between him and Rebus because they’ve very similar backgrounds, similar ages; in some ways they’re both like dinosaurs and they’ve both got a very old fashioned way of doing things and they see youth coming up behind them and in Rebus’s case the youth are intelligent, college educated and computer literate cops and in Cafferty’s case it’s young thugs who’ve got no moral sensibility whatsoever.
MM: This was like the new guard coming on, but then it was turned around. Was that something you were thinking of at the beginning of the novel, that the new blood was going to mean more?
IR: Yeah, I wasn’t sure what role Goodyear was going to play in the book when I introduced him. It was only halfway through that I really sorted what sort of role he was going to end up playing in the book. Hey, I make these books up as I go along. They’re not pre-plotted!
MM: Not a fan of methodical plotting? You’re not at it with the planning of stages, and the sketching?
IR: Ah, no! (Smiles). In the first draft of a book it’s me being the detective, it’s me trying to find out about the characters and their possible motivations and about how they connect to each other. Remember, my draft’s very skeletal, you’ve got the big chunks of text, capitalized text, embedded-in sentences or in paragraphs and its notes to myself, “hey this is an interesting character, maybe he was in the hotel the night that that happened” you know and it’s only when I introduce, when I meet the character, it’s when I get to find out what part they play in the story.
MM: They evolve as you go.
IR: Yeah, they do! I mean that first draft is very, VERY rough, but you know, without the first draft, there couldn’t be a second draft. Yes, it’s one thing when people say “do you have any advice for younger writers” and I say, don’t, just don’t re-write, re-write, re-write your opening page or your opening chapter hoping to get it perfect before moving on to the next one or otherwise you’ll get nowhere. It doesn’t matter how rough the first draft is, as long as you’ve got something you can work from, so just grit your teeth and get through that first draft.
I don’t even go back and check character names. Characters will change names, through the text. I’ll name them Joe Schmo, then later on I’ll go back and find out what their name wa
MM: You’re fitting the name to the personality at a later stage. If we can lead to Siobhan, is she being groomed? In EXIT MUSIC she’s saying that the last thing she said, or the last thing she thought was very “Rebus like”
IR: Yeah, yeah, she is one form of insurance policy against mortality because even with Rebus in retirement, she keeps on going. So, in the early Rebus books again there aren’t many strong woman characters. I didn’t feel confident, writing about women and especially about cops as I didn’t know any. And suddenly female cops and female crime writers say now that “I quite like Jo Templar, I quite like Siobhan. Women cops would say that that find them quite realistic so I felt well, maybe I can do that, so then she got a bigger role and she is just a very interesting foil, you know, she’s learnt a lot from Rebus, some of it good and some of it bad but she is also very unlike him in very important ways and so the two of them spark off each other, quite nicely.
MM: Now is she to continuing on, or is that still part of the unknown?
IR: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve got three or four projects that I’ve got to finish, to start and to finish before I can think about the next full length novel from scratch, and whether that will involve Siobhan, and/or Rebus.
MM: I say this is this as this is what your readers will be looking for in EXIT MUSIC, they will be looking for some future plot threads, some possibility of future works with Rebus being there.
IR: There are lots of possibilities. I mean, there is a member of the Scottish parliament who is a fan of the books and she asked the Justice Minister on the floor of the house if they could change the retirement age for cops for Rebus, to maybe change the retirement age to over 65. I got lots of annoyed letters from real-life cops who didn’t want to work until 65. (Laughs). You know, retired cops come down all the time to work on cold cases, there’s a cold case unit in Edinburgh, SCREW it’s called (shudders), Scottish Criminal Review Unit or something so you know, Rebus is perfect for that, because he’s tenacious, he’s just the kind of guy you want working on an old unsolved case.
MM: We can imagine him taking a whole box of them home him to mull over.
IR: Oh yeah, he’d love that, oh yeah yeah, he’d definitely do that.
MM: So do you feel like you are letting go of this other self, this person that you’ve been carrying about for so long.
IR: (big sigh) Not really, because I haven’t had time to think about it yet. Pretty much as soon as I had finished EXIT MUSIC I was up to the next thing because the deadlines were hanging over me. You know, there’s never been a big gap. I think I won’t really start to miss HIM or think about possible futures for him and Siobhan until I get some space to do it.
MM: Did you always look that far ahead; you’ve always got that next project planned?
IR: Pretty much, I know what I’m doing contractually up until the end of 2008.
Hopefully the fans will want to read whatever I write about in the future. They’ll at least give it go, see if they like it. We re-issued the Jack Harvey novels quite recently you know; they became quite popular. You know the first time they were published nobody read them, they sold very few copies.
MM: So was that more you, the Jack Harvey novels, was that more your choice of what to write, being thriller novels at the time?
IR: No no, quite the opposite, what happened was that I was trying to be a full-time writer and I wasn’t making enough money from the Rebus novels to be a full-time writer. The Rebus novels weren’t yet huge, complex, long books that were taking too long to write so I had an awful lot of time left each year. So besides I write two books a year but my publisher didn’t want two Rebus novels, they were having enough trouble selling one Rebus novel.
So I had to create an alter ego so that nobody would buy these other books, thinking they were getting a Rebus book so that’s why I called myself Jack Harvey and they were just thrillers, they were just books for people to read at airports, that was the way I thought of them, they were just a way of making enough money so that I could be a full-time writer.
MM: And about BEGGAR’S BANQUET...
IR: The short stories are just some things that I wrote between times, I’ve always written short stories, usually to order for magazines and papers that have asked me to do it and if there was a gap in the publishing schedule my publisher’s might say “do you have any loose stories hanging around that we could put in a collection?”.
MM: All valuable stuff now.
IR: They’re after everything now, of course. I’ve just got this huge big box of things that I wrote before I did the Rebus books and I don’t even remember writing half of them.
MM: You keep everything? No end of year chuck-outs or bonfires?
IR: My parents died... oh my mum died when I was 19 and my Dad died when I was 29 and a lot of stuff went then so when I was a kid I did comic books, cartoons and things, and they all went, a lot of my early stuff went, a lot of high-school stuff when I was trying to be a writer.
MM: Now are you done with Edinburgh, are you done with writing about her for now?
IR: No, I am not at all done with Edinburgh; I can’t stop writing about Edinburgh until I’ve run out of things to say about the place. It continues to evolve, and I continue to find out new things, secrets from its pasts, secrets from its present, it’s a fascinating city and has been a very useful microcosm of British society as a whole; it’s a really good setting for books.
And at the moment it’s crazy, so many writers living Edinburgh! When I started off, like 18 or 19, I couldn’t find any contemporary fiction writers in Edinburgh, no one seemed to be writing about contemporary Edinburgh and then along came TRAINSPOTTING and then along came Rebus, and suddenly you can’t walk 50 yards without bumping into yet another writer.
MM: Speaking of which, how do you feel about not being able to pop out the door without someone recognising you, in your home town?
IR: It’s a bit weird sometimes, it’s a bit weird. Like going into the Oxford for a pint and finding a Rebus walking tour there.
MM: You are all over the Oxford’s website, of course...
IR: But these Rebus walking tour things, they always end up at the Oxford Bar and occasionally I’m in there, and I can see this look of faint disappointment on people’s faces that I am not Rebus.
MM: That you’re not taller and wider? Shorter and wider?
IR: (smiles) Well... I’m not as complex as him or as damaged as him and I’m certainly not as dangerous as him (waggles his eyebrows). He’s the guy they’re looking for; they’re not looking for me.
MM: You’ve made him everyman; you haven’t been that distinct with his appearance.
IR: I’ve got no idea what he looks like.
MM: So you’ve just sort of kept him this shadowy image.
IR: Yeah, it’s the same with Siobhan; I’ve barely described them in the books as I wanted people to just put their own faces and shapes there. I think once in the books I described Rebus’s eye colour but I forget what it was and once in the books I think I described Siobhan’s hair colour – I forget what that is as well – so that’s never why I watch the shows on TV, because I don’t want actors to start representing these characters – to me they are just voices in my head.
MM: The series has just started back on here again in Perth.
IR: Yeah, I don’t know if they are going to make any more because the actor that is currently playing Rebus says he thinks he’s done enough now and wants to move onto different things. So whether they’ll try and keep him, whether the TV company will keep him or use another actor, or whether they’ll just let it rest, I don’t know.
MM: How do you feel about the marketing tags, with the market looking for another writer’s creation that they can tag as the “new” Rebus?
IR: (nods) Oh yeah, I mean in Scotland now, Scotland is brimming with young crime writers and they all get compared to Rebus. I feel really sorry for them. It’s just lazy marketing, or its lazy journalism, I’m not sure what it is.
MM: Tagging another’s work to your success.
IR: And everybody’s books all look the same, if you get a crime writer whose books sell well, suddenly everybody else’s books get the same jackets and the same typography.
MM: Production line.
MM: Your own crowned title, that being the “King of Tartan Noir”, the title that James Ellroy bestowed upon you...
IR: (grins). Yeah, absolutely, he signed it my book. I got him to sign a book for me and it said ‘you are the king of tartan noir’
MM: So why crime novels? Why’d you choose to write in that genre?
IR: I didn’t really, yeah, crime fiction picked me. The original page of notes for when I got the idea for KNOTS AND CROSSES, the very first thing I said was “male – hero open brackets, cop, question mark, close brackets”. I was toying with the idea of making him a cop but it was only after I’d written the first book that I thought a detective is actually a very good character if what you want to do is write about contemporary urban society, because he’s got access, he can open any door.
He’s got access to all areas, all levels, and all layers of society, so I guess that’s why crime fiction as I wanted to write about contemporary urban problems, but having made him a detective in that first book I was expecting to find KNOTS AND CROSSES in the literature section in the book stores. I was quite surprised to find it in the crime section.
MM: You were labelled and tagged! From that very first book.
IR: Yeah! Yeah, I didn’t read crime fiction. I mean, I watched crime shows on telly and I watched it in the moves, but I wasn’t a reader of crime fiction. My sister was, my older sister went through a big Agatha Christie phase when we were kids, and I tried reading an Agatha Christie and I just thought this milieu means nothing to me, I mean, little English villages with people playing cricket, and eating cucumber sandwiches and using obscure poisons. And how come nobody ever seemed to work out that if Miss Marple came to stay they’d be dead by Chapter Four.
MM: Yes, bodies followed her.
MM: Have you felt that there’s always been this upward increase in our expectations, from a long best-selling author?
IR: No, that’s for publishers to worry about, isn’t it? Publishers worry about that. I mean writers shouldn’t be worrying about statistics or whether they’re selling more than the previous book. What you do, your main job is to write the best book that you possibly can, and you want each book to be better than the book before. No one sits down to write a book that’s worse than what they’ve written previously. I mean, some people do that of course...
MM: I guess we’ve wanted Rebus to evolve and become more.
IR: It’s just a natural thing as early on I’d decided that he would age in real time because one of the things I’ve found unrealistic about crime fiction is that a lot of it is that detectives never changed, they weren’t changed by the job that they did, or by the number of dead bodies that they were surrounded by. They didn’t age in real time, or in anything like approaching real time and it was getting weird and I thought well if I want to write about the changing nature of Scottish society, then the cop should be allowed to evolve as well, and learn from his mistakes, and learn from previous cases, and be haunted by all these victims. So it was quite natural for that. So the problem I did was to make him too old in book one, I should have made him thirty in book one, then I would have had another ten years left in him.
MM: That being, writing a book a year, you never felt that you could sort of squeeze one more book in there, in Rebus time.
IR: It’s been easy for people to know what’s happening in the UK, to trace the timeline. The G8 happened in July 2005 and then the Scottish parliament happened in 1999 so when you’re reading these books and you know what’s in them, you know what year you’re in. So that you know between SET IN DARKNESS which is the one about the parliament and the G8 book, you know that six years have passed.
MM: When you’re writing about street names in your books, they are actual street names.
IR: Yeah, nearly always.
MM: You’re mentally turning those corners on the map.
IR: Yep. In the bars, in the police stations. It just kept making problems; in the early books I didn’t do that, in the early books he worked in a fictitious police station on a fictitious road and he drank in fictitious bars but everyone in Edinburgh said “oh that’s obviously that pub, and that’s obviously that police station” and I thought why am I making it hard on myself, why am I inventing these things when I could use the real world? But - then the problem is that when you start using the real world you have to be true to it.
MM: People are looking for it; they want to see what they know to be real.
IR: Yeah, so when I discovered... a cop told me that the real station I put Rebus in ceased to have a detective branch and I thought: shit, I’ve got to move him. And my publisher in London said: “why the hell did you move police stations?” Because in the real world, that was exactly what they had. The same with his retirement, once I found out when cops retired at 60...I didn’t know that until three years ago.
IR: Yeah, I was thinking 65 and then this cop wrote to me and he said “no, it’s 60 for CID, for detectives”,
MM: High burn-out rate probably.
IR: Yeah, so that was that! And then I bought this album by a young Scottish guy called Steven Lindsay, a singer-songwriter and it was called EXIT MUSIC, his first solo album, and I thought “Exit Music! That’s the final book!” as soon as I saw the title.
MM: There was a competition going about that for awhile, wasn’t there?
IR: Yeah, the guesses on the web-site? Some of the guesses were hilariously bad, “the crime of Mr John Rebus”, now what else was there... there were some really good ones actually... ‘The Final Cut”, which was Pink Floyd...
MM: Also the title of another novel, not so good.
IR: There’s no copyright on titles. I can call it WAR AND PEACE if I want. Kind of romantic.
MM: Has this been therapeutic for you, coming to the very end of such a long-running series?
IR: No, quite the opposite in a way because the therapy has come from writing the books; I think writing is therapeutic, it’s cathartic, for all writers because partly we get to play God, and control the world, in a way that never happens in real life. In fact, whenever bad things happen to us in our personal lives we can just channel it into our characters and channel it onto the page and that’s a way of dealing with it.
If I am crossing the road, crossing the street in Edinburgh and this car comes up and toots his horn at me and shouts out the window I just go and kill him - I just write about him being in a horrible car crash and smashing into a wall and that’s great.
MM: Do you feel that Rebus has been a bit of a whipping boy for you?
IR: Yeah, absolutely. Rebus has been my punch bag. He has been my psychoanalyst and my punch bag for years and that’s why if you meet crime writers, you find out that they are actually well-balanced individuals because they get all that dark stuff onto the page. It’s the romance writers you’ve got to watch out for.
MM: And so it goes, playing out on life’s frustrations? So, master and creation, who’s been ruling who?
IR: Oh well now...
MM: The whole process of writing these novels, they’ve been driving your life. Such as living where you are now?
IR: Yeah, four years now we’ve been living there. I live in a big house in a nice part of Edinburgh and I couldn’t live there without Rebus.
MM: Studio at the top for writing?
IR: Well, yeah, I’ve got a small office, I’ve got a room.
MM: OK, A room.
IR: (laughs) Yeah, I’m allowed A room. Actually it’s the house that Cafferty lives in. In the books, I’ve described the street, and I’ve described the house and he’s got a hot tub in back garden as have I and that’s Cafferty’s house, so he’s done very well for himself and so have I whereas Rebus continues to live in a student flat where I lived when I was writing the first book.
MM: Was there a guardhouse out the front, at Cafferty’s?
IR: Well, he’s got like a coach house out the back which is where his bodyguard lives. In real life, my youngest son is disabled, and that is where his carer lives. His carer lives on the premises.
I was at Tesco’s supermarket a few weeks ago, up the street from where I live and I was just pushing a trolley and this woman stopped me and she glared at me and said (affecting a stern voice) “I don’t LIKE it that Cafferty lives in my street”.
MM: Wow, truly?
IR: (laughs) Yeah, she was upset, it was hilarious! I didn’t have an answer for her; I was getting gob-smacked.
MM: Still drive around screaming at night?
IR: No, not since we moved from France. When I was in France, I used to do that when I was having panic attacks. That was when money was very tight, the books weren’t successful, and I was the only bread-winner. It was all going wrong, and I was thinking that I was not going to make it as a writer, basically. I could have kept writing, but not as a full-time job and there I was, having these horrible panic attacks, I couldn’t breathe and everything. A good therapy was just to get out and drive around the French countryside, screaming at the top of my voice.
MM: It must have been very difficult with your lives all riding on your success, on what was going to come out of your pen.
IR: A lot of pressure, especially when you were so far away from the readership and from the thing itself, you couldn’t see if your books were doing well, I couldn’t go into bookstores as there were no bookstores where we lived. My books weren’t translated into French until after we moved away from France, ironically.
Perth, Western Australia