Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Ian Rankin: The Ottawa Interview, Part 1

Following a luncheon event hosted by the Writers Festival, Ian Rankin and Ottawa crime novelist Jim Napier retired to a Byward Market pub for a pint, where the two men renewed a friendship that stretches back over twenty years. Given all the books and all the honours that Ian has accrued since then, Jim began their talk with a facetious question. [Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part post. For the second half of the conversation, click here. ]


Jim Napier: So how does it feel to be an overnight success?

Ian Rankin: Yeah, right! You know what? I think if you work for it, it feels all the sweeter. There were a lot of times in my career when the books weren’t selling, and the publishers were getting ready to drop me because they weren’t making any money. I was doubting my own abilities, my wife was going to get a job, and we couldn’t survive from writing. You know what it did? It just galvanized me and made me work all the harder. Because it was the only thing I knew how to do, write books. But it’s been a slow build from my first Rebus novel [that] sold I think maybe five hundred copies, and the next one something like a thousand. I kept getting great reviews, so the media were on board, and I got [some] prizes, and eventually it all came good. But it took a long time. The first book was published when I was twenty-five or six, the first Rebus book was published when I was twenty-seven, [and] I was in my forties before I was making a living.


JN: We first met in 1997, when you took home the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Black and Blue, and it seemed to me that you were well on your way at that point.

IR: Not really. You know, people get this feeling that because you’re winning prizes and stuff that you must be making a lot of money, but Black and Blue didn’t hit the top ten in the UK or anywhere else. It was never a best seller. The one after that, The Hanging Garden, had one week at number ten in the UK, and still wasn’t a best seller anywhere else. I think the book after that [Dead Souls] possibly went on to number one. So [I wrote] like ten Rebus novels before I was hitting the number one slot.


JN: What made you pick crime fiction as a genre?

IR: I don’t think I did.; I think crime fiction picked me. I was trying to write about Edinburgh. It’s got quite a dark history. A lot of gothic fiction has been set there, or written by Edinburgh authors. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which as far as I know is the first serial killer novel in history, about a religious zealot who starts killing people who don’t agree with his religion.


JN: Was this basis for Bible John?

IR: Well, maybe. Who knows if Bible John actually existed? There’s some controversy these days about that. But I like to write about Edinburgh, I like to write about Scotland, I like to write about social issues [and] I found that crime fiction is a good way of doing it. [At that point] I hadn’t actually written a crime novel. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was meant to be Jekyll and Hyde updated, but nobody realized that. As far as they were concerned it was a crime novel. You know, I hadn’t read [any] crime fiction. I was a Ph.D. student doing Scottish literature. I was going to be a professor of English. I didn’t want to be a crime writer!


JN: I think most Rebus fans are happy you didn’t stick with that plan! If I had to guess, I’d say you don’t really buy into the distinction between literary and genre fiction.

IR: I really don’t. And specifically, these days I think a lot of younger writers are writing genre who a generation ago would have wanted to be “literary novelists,” and they don’t see a distinction.


JN: Is that more more true over on your side of the water than here?

IR: I dunno. I think the UK and the States, and maybe Canada, were slow to pick up on the fact that commercial fiction could also be quality fiction. Whereas in other countries like France, for example, they always took the crime novel seriously. They saw it as being an extension of the existential novel. These detectives, these loner maverick detectives, were existential heroes, making their own rules and living [by them]. In the UK and in America, not so much. [But] I think the change is definitely happening, and now in the UK, you can study crime fiction in creative writing classes at university, and in high schools in Scotland you can study my books. So crime fiction is starting to be taken seriously.


JN: Between the writing and the book tours, you have a very busy schedule. Are you able to carve out some quality family time these days?

IR: At the moment, no. The big UK tour (for In a House of Lies, which will be released in Canada next month) means I got home Saturday morning…and came to Canada Monday morning. So I had basically under two days at home with the family. I’m out here for a week, I go back and I get maybe ten days and then I’m back on the road again. The UK tour starts again, and takes me through until Christmas, I get Christmas and New Year off, and then I go to the States January and February. So I cannae start to see daylight again until mid-February.


[Click here to read the second half of the interview.]