About Us
Travel Writing
Sport Comment


Contact Us



Archive 2
January Edition
February Edition



Arresting Technology
Stuart Macdonald

Ian Rankin discusses his life, his writing and his alter ego - DI John Rebus

Detective Inspector 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.

The 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 poet'".

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.

The 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 and Hannah?

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


< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article