Rebus is a man for whom the benefits of modern technology are questionable
at best. He relies far more strongly on his instincts, which have been
finely honed throughout his career in Lothian and Borders serious crime
squad. It is therefore rather ironic that I should find myself interviewing
Ian Rankin, with the agenda being the promotion of the Internet as a
forum for new writers.
It seems that the technological Gods share Rankin's rather wicked sense
of humour, as within moments of our chat commencing, technophobia had
gripped the studio where I was recording the interview. It seemed that
nobody could quite recall where the mute button was located. Rankin
is obviously accustomed to such hitches and merely hummed his way through
the ensuing chaos. I am certain that Rebus would have allowed himself
a wry smile.
The Falls is Rankin's fourteenth Rebus novel and it has collected the
critical and popular acclaim which has characterised its predecessors.
It concerns the mysterious disappearance of an Edinburgh student who
is the daughter of a wealthy local banker. She was heavily involved
in an Internet role-playing game before she vanished and Rebus's side-kick
DI Siobhan Clark believes that the only way to solve the case is for
her to play the Quizmaster's sinister game as well. Rebus is a denizen
of the physically tangible and it is quite telling that he allows Clark
to embroil herself in the Net. He has enough trouble with the real world
without looking for more in cyberspace.
idea of escapism seems important to this situation however, as Rankin
(like all fictional authors) is dependent on the public's continued
appetite for escape through his books. The Internet has merely taken
this collective desire to the next level, as a forum for the expression
and exchange of ideas and opinions. Rankin tells me that he has
effected his own release through writing since an early age, although
it did present certain difficulties.
He grew up in Cardenden,
a traditional coal-mining town in Fife and as a result, his devotion
to writing was a source of intense embarrassment: "I think my parents
thought that I was doing drugs. They'd bring me up cups of tea and I'd
be pushing lines of poetry under the bed - I think they thought it was
lines of Coke". Rankin's parents only found out about their son's
passion when they discovered that he'd come second in a poetry competition
in the local paper. As he says: "I'd almost have been less embarrassed
to say 'yes - I actually am a drug addict' than 'well, actually, I'm
A feeling that Rebus would have similar difficulties, were he ever to
reveal such a passion, should come as no surprise. It is often suggested
that there is a fine line between author and subject - an almost Jekyll
and Hyde relationship, as Rankin himself has explained in the past.
Today he tells me: "For me Rebus has always been sort of therapeutic
- a way of dealing with the real world". So this is how Rankin
escapes from his demons. The plot thickens when he says: "To a
certain extent, all literature, all fiction, all writing is confessional".
There are interesting parallels to be drawn between the relative anonymity
of the confession box and the displacement provided by fictional characters.
How much of what Rebus says and does is really Rankin?
For instance, when Rankin went to London and struck up an instant dislike
with the place, he says: "If I bring [Rebus] down here as well,
he can not like it too". Hence the third Rebus novel Tooth and
Nail. Yet when Rankin moved to France for six years, Rebus returned
to the brooding menace of Edinburgh. I asked if Rankin found it hard
being away from the place which he has previously described as the 'central,
shaping character'? "Absolutely the opposite", he replied:
"I loved getting away from Edinburgh as it meant that it did become
fiction. I wanted to recreate the city as a kind of fictional construct,
so getting away was the best thing that I could possibly have done".
This all sounds very confident and well considered, yet Rankin goes
on to confess that: "All writers are paranoid - a lot of the time
you don't have any idea whether what you're writing is any good or not."
He adds: "But in France I didn't have any other competition. I
couldn't go into bookshops and say 'how come you've got Ruth Rendall's
books but not mine?'" This sounds more like Rebus's self-doubt
creeping into the equation, especially when I am told that: "early
plagiarism is wonderful". Thankfully, Rankin goes on to add: "Through
it you eventually start to find out which bits are you." Rankin
has undoubtedly discovered his own voice, yet the gruff tones of Rebus
echo constantly in the background.
Rankin thinks that the character of Rebus needs three to four more books
before retirement. This is rather fortunate, given that his publisher
has just negotiated a £1.3 million contract for two more books.
By that time: "People should be left with a snap shot of Scotland
at the turn of the century, though more than that - there'll be a three
dimensional portrait of a man". He has other projects in the pipeline
though, such as a film script and, believe it or not, a comedy. One
presumes, however, that slapstick is out of the question.
televised version of Rebus which stars John Hannah (Four Weddings
and a Funeral, Sliding Doors) seems set to continue for much longer
however, given that filming has only recently been completed for
the second instalment, Dead Souls. "I'd no idea what Rebus
looked like when I started the books", says Rankin: "of
course now I know that he looks like John Hannah". This would
seem to be high praise indeed, although could it be that Rankin
is simply glad that there is little resemblance between himself
Although the discussion
was meant to revolve around the new BT website, we have touched upon
many areas and aspects of Rankin's life and his writing technique. My
final question though, seems destined to lead us back to the party line
of "what a great initiative this is, etc, etc". I am therefore
pleasantly surprised when I am told that one of the best ways to avoid
the 'slush pile' is to: "schmooze the publisher's switchboard woman
- they're the best folk you can schmooze". I am certain that Rebus
would approve of this old fashioned approach.
It is easy to see why the Internet is a powerful tool in the dissemination
of knowledge and ideas. Indeed, the very fact that you are reading this
proves the point. However, I find it quite refreshing that Rebus would
disagree, preferring instead the escapism of a pint glass in the Oxford
Bar. I think that deep down, in spite of his protestations, Rankin might
just feel the same way too.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001
The Falls is published by Orion £16.99