Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

One on One with Ian Rankin


There was a lot of excited chatter in the church before the event began—then lots of applause when Sean Wilson, OIWF Artistic Director, introduced Ian Rankin. The funds raised are used to support the OIWF's literacy programs across Ottawa, and Sean Wilson noted that 500 students will benefit from the program next year—thanks to Ian Rankin (and to everyone else who'd attended!)


Host Alan Neal, who has interviewed Rankin several times, started a very natural conversation about Rankin's well-known character, John Rebus. "We're more alike than we've ever been," noted Rankin, adding that he was young, unmarried, and without children when he wrote the first Rebus novel. Today, however, he is noticing that the years are catching up with him. In one of the books, Rankin explained, another character essentially calls Rebus a vinyl guy in a digital world, and he feels that way himself sometimes. "I can be more empathetic [toward Rebus now] than was previously the case," he said.


Much to the audience's delight, it became quite clear that Alan Neal has a bit of a crush on one of Rankin's other characters, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. Although it pained him, Neal had to ask why John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke have never jumped into bed together. Aside from the fact that their relationship is more "avuncular", Rankin was quick to point out that "it would be a terrible experience for both of them—especially her." Rankin also explained that he would rather not write those scenes. When his editor asked him to remove a sex scene in his third book, Rankin was relieved. "I'm not keen on following Rebus into the bedroom, either," he admitted.


As the discussion turned to some of the fundamental elements that make up Rebus's character, Neal asked if Rankin shares Rebus's hunger for truth. Rebus needs to know the truth for his own satisfaction so that he can move on to the next thing, but Rankin said that he actually likes loose ends. He mentioned Caledonian Antisyzygy (a term he highly recommends for playing Scrabble, even though you likely won't find enough tiles with the letter "y") and that it's something that he likes to explore. Often, he'll read the newspaper or an article in a magazine, picking away at it by considering what it "says about us as humans, as Scottish society," and he will work through some of those themes and contradictions in his work.


For his most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rankin was inspired by some stories and anecdotes of retired cops who worked during the 1970s and 80s. He is often invited to police retirement parties and joked that he has to run to the washroom to jot down notes on toilet paper when a retiree's story sparks an idea. Overall, though, the stories made him think about Rebus and how he would have been as a much younger man. Was there a time when he was more idealistic? Did something happen? The new novel delves into some of Rebus's past, so Rankin said that he scrolled through all the (microfilm) issues of The Scotsman from 1983 and picked out things that he thought would catch Rebus's eye. "I was looking at Rebus's 1983," he emphasized, "not mine." (Nobody could picture Rebus dancing to Spandau Ballet, as it turned out...)


As a special treat, Neal invited Laura Smith on stage as she had won a contest to have her name as a character in Saints of the Shadow Bible . To earn that honour, Smith contributed to a fundraiser contest for the Ottawa-based Shepherds of Good Hope—which is happening again this year! Neal pointed out that the "Laura Smith" in the novel is a significant character (a crime reporter, in fact) and she actually gets to challenge Rebus. Rankin and Smith read a scene aloud that involved an interaction between "Laura Smith" and Rebus—and then the real Laura Smith quipped that her parents had likely purchased every copy of Saints of the Shadow Bible in Calgary since her name is in it.


Finally, the discussion turned to Rankin's writing habits. "I'm murder to live with when I'm writing a book," he said. He doesn't work with notes or even do much pre-planning, so he is working everything out (the main plot, all the sub-plots, character interactions, and how everything fits) as he writes the first draft, which he writes quickly so that he doesn't forget anything. "If you don't know who the killer is when you write the book, chances are good that the reader doesn't either," he said with a laugh. He also joked about a time when he was finishing the first draft of a book and still hadn't figured out who the killer would be. There were four or five characters, he said, "and I thought: Well, it could be any one of you..."


It may be encouraging (or not!) for aspiring writers to know that even with a solid body of work completed, Rankin still doesn't feel like a master novelist. "I really thought it would get easier, [but] it gets harder," he explained. "Every time I start, it's like I have to learn all over again. It's why I don't teach creative writing—I don't know how to write creatively!"


After some questions from CBC's All in a Day listeners and a couple from the live audience, there were more rapturous applause before everyone leapt out of their seats to form the line for Rankin's book signing. Neal was an excellent host, Rankin was a fantastic guest—and after we got home (and my husband had had some single malt in Rankin's honour), we agreed that it was a great night and that we would definitely encourage people to attend the event if Rankin comes back to Ottawa with his next book.