On Tuesday evening Ian Rankin was presented with the West Lothian Libraries’ Scot Scriever Award and I was there, thanks to my son, who lives in West Lothian. He’d managed to get the last tickets. Ian Rankin was voted the public’s favourite Scottish author. He’s been my favourite Scottish author for some time so I was delighted to hear him talk about his work and shocked when he drew my ticket number to win a signed copy of one of his books, Exit Music.
(Photo courtesy of West Lothian Council)
It was a fascinating evening. Ian Rankin is an excellent speaker, even though he said that he isn’t a stand-up comedian – he’s a writer and writers sit in isolation in their rooms, scribbling away with a pen or writing on a laptop, or whatever. He finds it a strange existence coming out of his shell to speak on tour at book events. His talk was punctuated with many amusing anecdotes and there was much laughter from his audience.
He gave us some advice. As a teenager he’d entered a poetry competition and had read a book on writing poetry which said that you should write about what you know. Well, he did that, won the competition and got into trouble with his aunty because she recognised herself, even though his poem “Euthanasia” was about a tramp. Then there was a short story competition, which he won (he thought he could write a short story, because it was just like a poem but it goes to the edge of the page) writing about his uncle who walked through the streets naked and this also landed him in trouble when it was broadcast on the radio unchanged.
So his advice is “write about what you don’t know“, which is why when he decided to write a novel, Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus book, he wrote about the police because he knew nothing about them. He had done his research, talking to a couple of detectives, who as it turned out were investigating a crime similar to the one he was writing about in Knots and Crosses. They said the best way for him to see how they worked was for them to treat him as a suspect and he ended up for a while as a real suspect! So his next piece of advice is “don’t do any research“. He did no research after that until he met a detective, who later became his friend and helped him make the books more realistic.
He writes crime fiction because it helps him look at the world, it takes on moral and ethical questions, why things are the way they are, what makes people work, and what crime says about our society and the problems we have. Crime fiction is now a serious subject to study, both at school and at university, even though it doesn’t get considered for the Booker Prize for example.
He also talked about what he has been doing this year and the future. After the last Rebus book he wrote Doors Open , which is about an art heist. He planned it as the Scots Oceans Eleven, with all the great Scottish actors, but no one was interested in doing it. Later it was serialised in NY Times, then published as a book and now a film company is interested. He decided that he didn’t want any involvement in filming the Rebus books because he didn’t want the actors’ voices and faces in his head (the reason I don’t like films of books is just the same) and it’s not possible to fit a book into an hour and a half TV production anyway (which is why I think the books are better). But he’s going to be more involved in the films of Doors Open and The Complaints.
Even though he’s having a year’s break from writing he’s working on a film script of James Hogg’s book Confessions of a Justified Sinner. He’s finding this hard to write but I do hope he finishes it and the film gets made as I’ve been interested in James Hogg since reading Alice Munro’s book The View from Castle Rock (Hogg, born in 1770 was a poet, a protege of Sir Walter Scott, and a cousin of one of her ancestors). He may bring Rebus and Siobhan Clarke back investigating Cold Cases in another Complaints book – I hope he does.
It was a memorable evening – Ian Rankin is great storyteller. .