There was a particular reason why I wanted to talk to Ian. I'd seen him interviewed in the Guardian, which was partly quoting something in the Word, in which he had said something about how his language had changed between his first novel and more recent ones. Since I'd been thinking a lot about whether writing and reading styles are changing, I wanted to unpick this a bit. Is it really true that we all have to write more snappily than writers did a generation ago?
As an aside, I've always been grateful to Ian for choosing the title Fleshmarket Close for his novel that came out shortly after my Fleshmarket. This means that when people hear I'm a writer and ask me what I've written, I say Fleshmarket, and their eyes light up as they say, "OOH, Fleshmarket! I've heard of that!" Now, I know it's usually Fleshmarket Close they've heard of but they're happy and I'm happy and anyone in earshot thinks I must be famous, so why would I care?
ALSO, when my Fleshmarket had just come out, I was in a branch of Borders and saw a chalk board with the notice, "Ian Rankin will be signing copies of Fleshmarket here tomorrow." I contemplated adding, "by NICOLA MORGAN" to the board but opted for asking the manager why Ian Rankin was going to be signing copies of my book when I had definitely not given him permission. The cheek of it.
Anyway, you're waiting to hear from our guest. So, here we go:
NM: You were a PhD student when you were writing The Flood. And you are quoted in The Word as saying, "Jesus, it's like the writing of a PhD student." How much of that style do you think came from your academic environment, how much from the idealism of youth and how much because the style of writing in those days just was different? Do you remember what you thought about what type of novelist you were or wanted to be?
IR: That interview I did for The Word... I'm misquoted slightly (always happens). The book I was referring to was not my first novel (The Flood) but the first Rebus novel (Knots and Crosses). I do feel K and C is overwritten. There's a phrase in it – 'the manumission of dreams' – I have no idea these days what that means. At the time, I probably just wanted to use the word manumission. In other words, I was showing off. There's a lot of literary game-playing in that book, as befits a PhD student whose head was full of deconstruction and structuralism. Oddly, there's not nearly as much of that kind of thing in The Flood, which was trying to be Scottish Literature (in the Neil Gunn/Robin Jenkins mould). Plenty of overt symbolism in The Flood, but not so heavy on the 'jouissance'. [NM returns from consulting the dictionary and now knows what manumission means.]NM: Naturally, our reading tastes change as we get older, but do you sense your reading tastes changing in other ways? Have you ever gone back to something you loved as a teenager and wondered how on earth you had the patience for it? I recently returned to one of my favourite novels from my youth, Dumas' The Black Tulip, and found it way too dense for my 21st century brain. And I recently read Candia McWilliams' memoir - you maybe have, too - and at first I was delighted to spend time with her incredibly convoluted but perfect sentences, sentences which you simply cannot read quickly, and I felt my brain being re-trained to read properly - but after a while, I found myself thinking of all the urgent things I had to do, and I missed out whole chunks. Do you think we're all so rushed these days that we're unable/unwilling to sit with something slow? What's going on??!
What type of novelist did I want to be? Literary. Revered. The usual. But also without the embarrassment of going cap in hand to the Scottish Arts Council for money to live on. I was hoping to be commercial. Hence the crime novel. After which I tried a spy novel (Watchman) and a high-tech thriller (Westwind). Even had plans to write a horror novel. My early goal was to write a novel in every genre, but luckily that never happened.
IR: My feeling is that we are not unlearning how to read long, complex novels. Indeed, there are more of them around than ever. Wolf Hall is hardly emaciated. Ditto A S Byatt's The Children's Book. Ditto And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson. Ditto Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. These are books I've read during the past few months; not one clocks in at under 500 pages of dense prose. We may live in fast-paced times with an immediacy to news and commentary, but we seem still to enjoy immersing ourselves in laconically-paced fictional worlds. [I wonder if the same applies for debut writers, though, writers where the publisher is taking more of a risk? I think debut writers have to have an eye to the market more than established, proven writers, and a very lengthy novel is a risk, in the eyes of publishers, and therefore a risk for the writer who really wants to be published.]NM: Regarding your writing / genre now, you say, "Writers like me are part of the entertainment industry....In thrillers there's little room for purple prose" and "The style has got to be invisible. If something jars, or if a phrase is too flowery, suddenly the reader is aware that someone is writing a book," Do you think that writers now, at least in genres such as crime, thriller or YA writing, are and must be much more self-disciplined about the tightness of their prose than 30 years ago?
IR: I don't think crime fiction has changed that much. There was very little fat to be found in sentences penned by Raymond Chandler. I still enjoy crisp, speedy crime novels, but it's nice that there's also room for the occasional 'brick' (Larsson; Ellroy). Back in the 90s, I was told by someone in publishing that a crime novel of under 250 pages was only ever regarded by the trade as a crime novel, whereas one of 350 pages or over might be trying to say something about the world. In other words, might be veering towards literature. Dunno about this, but my own novels did start to get a lot longer....
As for genres outside crime, look at the success of those very lengthy Harry Potter books. Some might say there was some fat there to be trimmed by a ruthless editor, but the excess didn't seem to do sales any harm. [NM: Note to other writers: lesser mortals can't often get away with this. Publishers have both eyes to costs these days and many won't contemplate something too long. And the JKR exception is just that, an exception. And exceptions don't prove rules. Just saying.]NM: I often bang on about the importance of writing for readers, more than for ourselves as writers. Though of course we have to enjoy it, too, otherwise it's cynical and will show. How consciously and at what stages do you think of readers, if you do? Do you, like Stephen King, have an "Ideal Reader" in mind?
IR: I write first and foremost to entertain myself, and maybe to try to answer some question that's been bugging me about the state of the world. This goes way back to when I first started writing short stories. Whether anyone was ever going to read them or not, there was a real pleasure in crafting something that had never existed until you thought and wrote it into existence. It was suddenly there, and very real. You had brought it into the world. At some point maybe the market comes into it, depending on your goals as a writer. If you want financial success, it's easier if you know there's a public out there hungry for the kind of book you're writing. If you're writing experimental fiction, that audience may be harder to find than if you're penning crime stories. It's a conversation you need to have with yourself: write with one eye on cold hard commercial reality, or stick to those early ideals and hope for the best. [NM: Very true, that bit about knowing what sort of book you're writing and why. Another thing I bang on about.]NM: Can you give your top three pieces of advice for aspiring crime writers?
IR: I was asked this by the Guardian a while back. I think I offered ten pieces of advice, at least three of which were 'get lucky'. Luck is an important ingredient and there's nothing we can do about it. (I took my 8-month old son to a book festival in the USA... a woman stopped to tell me how cute he was.. she introduced me to her publisher husband... he ended up reading my books and offering me a six-book deal.) But you also need to be persistent, toughened to criticism and rejection, you need to have read widely, and you need to have a story you feel no one before you has told. [NM: My bold and red because this is SO right.]
HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? (I ask published writers some quick questions about their route to publication.)
NM: How long did it take you from beginning to approach publishers / agents to being taken on?
IR: I was lucky in that I had a poem published at the age of 17 and short stories published in my early-20s, so I had a CV of sorts when I approached publishers. But my first ever novel (Summer Rites) was turned down by every publisher I showed it to. The Flood was eventually published in tiny numbers (200 hardbacks; 600 paperbacks) by a small publisher in Edinburgh. Knots and Crosses was turned down by the first five publishers it went to. And for a long time after that, I was always on the verge of being dropped... Success was a long time coming!NM: Any rejections? Roughly how many? Any particularly memorable rejection letters?
I remember my rejection letter for Summer Rites from Gollancz. They said the first two-thirds was fine but the last third needed a lot of work. I just snorted. As far as I was concerned, it was perfect and I wasn't going to change a thing. (The manuscript is still in my bottom drawer.)NM: What do you think stopped you being published earlier?
IR: I almost wish I'd been published later. Some of those early books are not very good. And in Knots and Crosses I really had no idea what I was doing with the character of Rebus. It as only later that I began to know him.NM: It's well known that you had many books published before you became very successful - what was different about the book that changed it all? Was it the book, the publisher or something in the air?
IR: I think my 'breakthrough' was due to a number of factors. One, I'd written a good book, a much better book than my previous efforts. Two, it won a prize for the best crime novel of the year. Three, my publisher had found a terrific fresh look for the jacket and the typography. The book stood out from the crowd. Four, I had returned to Edinburgh after 10 years away, six of them in rural France. So I was available to talk at libraries and schools, do interviews, etc. But although Black and Blue sold four times as many copies as my previous novels, it still didn't make the UK bestseller lists. I had to wait another 2 or 3 books to reach number one. By then I had published about 15 books. A lengthy apprenticeship....Ian, thank you so much. I think your answers show so many of the elements of hard work, perseverance, talent, and luck that have been involved in your success. It all sounds as logical as this business can ever be, very right, and very well-deserved.
To those of you struggling to get the breakthrough to publication and wondering why you're being rejected at the moment, take note of Ian's first reason for his eventual new success: "I'd written a good book, a much better book than my previous efforts." That's what we all have to do, whether in breaking through to publication or to a new level of success after publication.
Remember: publication is not the destination, but a stopping off point on the way.