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Ian Rankin on writing

The “First Fictions” weekend at Sussex University kicked off with an interview with Ian Rankin by local thriller writer Lesley Thomson. Given the theme of celebrating and championing first novels, past and present, Rankin read an extract from “Summer Rites”, his first novel. A black comedy with some fantasy elements, set in a hotel in Perthshire, it is unpublished (and, he says, will remain that way).

He also spoke about his early attempts to write, his first Rebus novel, the first Malcolm Fox novel and his first graphic novel (200 pages, four frames per page and which required at least a page of text per frame so he wrote about a 1,000 pages – so much more than a conventional novel).

When he started his “aim was to be a Scottish literary author not a crime writer” – he did not read crime fiction. He wrote his first three novels while doing (or instead of writing) his uncompleted PhD thesis on Muriel Spark. (Apart from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” he highlighted that he liked “Loitering With Intent” which is about writers.)

In responding to questions about how he writes, Rankin made it clear he does not fall into the disciplined, timetable writer model. He works better with a deadline. “If my days are loose and baggy I can’t write, when I had a job I got more done.” With time allocated to writing he “did research: reading the paper, watching TV or DVDs – it’s all research!”. He noted that he “writes best in the afternoons and evenings” and although he had written some 20 to 25 novels “it isn’t getting any easier”.

In talking about the structure of a crime novel (crime / start; investigation / middle; resolution / end) he noted a significant difference between American and British audiences. “American readers are impatient. They want a murder on page one and a firm resolution at the end. In the UK you can have a more ambiguous ending.” He noted that one of his Rebus novels (I didn’t catch which one) has an additional chapter written for the US edition, specifically to address this. (Rankin is not the first author I have heard comment on this. Christopher Priest’s excellent novel “The Glamour” would only be published in the US after a rewrite of a lovely, challenging and ambiguous ending in the UK first edition.)

On being asked his writing tips he summarised these as:
– write every day: as good discipline and to keep the story and characters fresh in your head
– read a lot, write a lot
– don’t be afraid of criticism: read what they say but don’t react to everything
– don’t change your style just to fit to fashion
– get lucky, stay lucky!
– stick at it.

As an aside, I was lucky to get a chance to speak to Ian after his interview and in talking about living in South West France (he lived for a while in the north-east of the Dordogne while I am in Lot) he mentioned liking our local Cahors red wine! Good endorsement!

2 Comments so far

  1. Mike Keyton January 24th, 2012 9:11 pm

    Hi Phillip, I didn’t realise you had a blog – or such an interesting one. It’s bookmarked and there for browsing through on my many procrastinating days : )

    This Ian Ranking post is a cracker!

  2. Mike Keyton January 24th, 2012 9:11 pm

    Bugger. I misspelt his name

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