Thursday, 14 October 2010


The "needs no introduction" cliché was never more true, but it's very rude not to introduce someone, so I will. Ian Rankin is the UK's No 1 best-selling crime author, creator of the lugubrious detective, Rebus, and general all-round star of the Scottish writing scene. (And much further afield, too, of course, but we like to claim him for ourselves.) I used to live round the corner from him, until I moved to the better side of town. Considering his huge busyness, I was hesitant about asking him to come on this blog as an interviewee, but I'm glad I did and very pleased indeed to welcome him here. I'm also glad to say that Mr Rankin revealed himself to be as ill-disciplined as the rest of us when he said he was answering my questions as a displacement activity when he was supposed to writing something else.

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.]

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.
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??!
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.


maryom said...

On the subject of book lengths - I've been reading a lot of short 'literary' fiction - nothing over 250 pages - now I've picked up a fantasy novel - 552 pages!and Book1 of 3. Fantasy always seems to be a genre where bigger is better. Why??

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting - I hadn't realised Ian had to wait so long for recognition. Thanks to him and to you for doing the interview, Nicola - I enjoyed it very much!

Sally Zigmond said...

I'd barely heard of Ian Rankin (or Rebus) when I joined the audience at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival about 5 yrs ago to hear him speak. (I only went because I only lived 15 minutes walk away and will always pay to hear a writer talk about books and writing, whatever the genre.)
I fell in love with him (in a literary way, you understand) there and then and started to read all the Rebus novels in order. Not only was I hooked but was able to see his style develop over the series. To me, the reader, his novels are unputdownable. To me, the writer, he is both guide and inspiration.

Sarah Hilary said...

Great interview, thanks Ian and Nicola. Interesting to hear about book lengths. I loved the slimness of Raymond Chandler's books, but recently I find the weight of some crime novels reassuring - it means I'm going to get lost in the story and learn lots of new things, and that's what attracts me to the genre.

optional said...

Thank you Nicola and Ian for this piece. It is really useful and inspiring, well done!

catdownunder said...

Thankyou - although I have promised myself I will have words with Mr Rankin over what he once had Rebus do to a cat! It took up time for both of you.
Finding out how long it took someone else always makes me wonder whether there really is something at the other end of the tunnel or whether it is an illusion...I will try to think of it as the former rather than the latter.

JaneF said...

Wonderful - I am another big Rebus fan. Ian Rankin is brilliant, I think, at pulling the reader into the story so that you really do forget all about the author. It all seems so real!

I love hearing about early 'mistakes' of authors I admire - makes me feel better! Thank you.

David John Griffin said...

Enjoyable interview to read, thank you Nicola and Ian Rankin. :-)

Sarah Callejo said...

Thanks for sharing this interview.
I found Ian Ranking's thoughts on how he should have been published later so interesting.
As with any other career you should improve with practice and this requires time. But then, those previous efforts are done with different points of view, experiences and even personality traits which were probably perfect for the time when they were published and the story.
I think the saturated publishing world requires writers to evolve from The Best to Better than the best.

Linda Gillard said...

This was marvellous. Thank you! Ian Rankin confirms my pet theory (probably wishful thinking) that really good writers are really nice people. It's the second division who've eschewed humility and embraced delusions of grandeur.

Marisa Birns said...

My sister loaned me her copy of STRIP JACK to read before bedtime when I visited her one weekend. Never really was a fan of crime novels until then; I stayed awake until I finished the story. :)

Enjoyed the interview, and the inspiration! Thank you Nicola and Ian.

Jo Treggiari said...

Absolutely wonderful interview! Funny and very honest. Thank you.
Love that he refused to re-work his first book and it still languishes in a bottom drawer. I definitely was guilty of that type of arrogance and it took me to exactly the same place. Also interested in his comments on whether his writing style has changed due to his readership, etc...and his thoughts on luck. I too believe that luck has a lot to do with it.

Jo Treggiari said...

I love a short snappy read and I also love a nice big thick book. Sometimes the pithy sentence/brief chapter/cliffhanger type leave me feeling as if I've just eaten a bag of salty chips. Tastes good but not filling in the end. I need something to chew on.

sheilamcperry said...

Thank you both - it is great to read about the path to success and interesting to find it so apparently precarious!

Unknown said...

This was a pleasure to read.
Top writer, top interview.
Great coup, Nicola!
Respect & regards,

Mike said...

Very interesting interview and his emphasis on the luck aspect is interesting.

You highlighted some comments on the importance of persistence. The advice given to writers to persevere is manifestly true -- most successful writers have battled against rejection, just like Ian Rankin.

However, I wonder whether the advice to persevere is given out too indiscriminately. Some writers' persistence is probably more likely to be rewarded than others and if a writer is told to keep plugging away by someone who's quite sceptical they will ever improve to a required level then that advice is dishonest, lazy and cruel to some extent.

However, if luck is the biggest factor then perhaps it is right to tell everyone to keep on going regardless of one's own judgement?

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

So glad I found out about your blog. I really hit the jackpot for my first visit. Inspirational and motivational interview. Going to read it a few more times.

Sally Clements said...

Wow, I'm a HUGE fan of Ian's writing, and it was great to read the interview here today. This year I've had my first sucesses with publication, 2 romance novels and 2 short stories, and I'm working on my third crime novel and hoping that someone out there will read it and like it enough to buy it too. It's very inspiring to read Ian's interview, thank you very much for interviewing him!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your great comments, everyone. It was good and interesting, wasn't it?

Mary - on why is fantasy often/usually longer: I suppose it does take longer to create that new world, but also, for some reason, fantasy readers just seem to expect and demand longer books. Huge generalisation, and no reason why other readers shouldn't, but it's just how the general feeling goes.

Mike - you say "However, I wonder whether the advice to persevere is given out too indiscriminately." I have tackled just this in a previous post - called something like "Perseverance sucks". I agree - persevering at something without improving or knowing what you're doing wrong is a wasted of time.

Anonymous said...

It's time someone realised that someone always needs an introduction, however obvious a person may seem. So thank you!

I always feel that Ian Rankin is an old friend of mine until I manage to recall that I've never actually read any of his books.

I'll just go and shoot myself.

Mike said...


Thanks for pointing me in the direction of 'Perserverence Sucks' -- which makes some very good points.

I think sometimes the advice given to people to keep persevering is down to the belief that people will feel happier if they think their lack of attainment is because they haven't tried hard enough rather than because of more deep-seated reasons. (This applies to much else in life besides writing too.)


CC MacKenzie said...

Hi Nicola,

Wonderful interview with a talented author who is a magnificent storyteller.

I don't believe in luck, in the way Ian thinks of it. I believe he attended a book festival with his son. Met the wife of a publisher - and took advantage of an opportunity he himself opened up - by attending the festival and speaking to the woman. He recognised an opportunity because he was looking for one and took it.

If he'd stayed at home, or gone to the festival without his son, or politely smiled at the woman and moved on, none of this would have happened. If you are not constantly looking for an opportunity it will pass you by.

Luck had nothing to do with it.

Taking an opportunity when it presents itself has everything to do with it. Well done Ian!

I don't know of one writer who has been published by 'luck.' Show me a publisher who said to a would-be author, 'Hey, you look like you could be an author! Please let me publish your book.'

I'm not nitpicking or being anal, it sort of struck a chord with me, the luck thing!

Christine Carmichael.

Alice Turing said...

"publication is not the destination, but a stopping off point on the way."

Until you get published, it's really hard to understand how true this is. It seems as though publication is the one big thing you want and need, and and everything will be fine after that. Sadly it quickly fades into the past and the goalposts just move. It's also unlikely to be anything like you imagined it would be. Although... in fact, being published, and the six months of honeymoon after that, were by far the most enjoyable part of my ten years of writing. It's just that it wasn't followed by what I thought it would be. Crucially it didn't make it significantly easier for me to be published a second time.