Sign up to the newsletter

Interview with Ian Rankin

Creator of the dogged and often hard-drinking Edinburgh cop, Detective Inspector John Rebus, Ian Rankin is among the most successful crime novelists of our day. Since his first book was published in 1987, Ian’s work has been translated into 22 languages and is a fixture in bestseller lists across the world.

We caught up with Ian and asked him about writing, deadlines and how the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook helped his career as a multi-award-winning author.

Why do you write?

It’s just something I’ve always done, because it’s fun making up stories. But I think it is also a way of trying to make sense of the world, to give shape to thoughts and imaginings and random events. And it means I never have to grow up, because I can keep ‘playing’ with my imaginary friends.

How was your first novel published?

Well, it wasn’t my first novel – I’d written one full-length novel which was turned down by everyone I tried. So I started again with a book called The Flood. I was a student at Edinburgh University and the Students’ Association there had just started a publishing venture called Polygon, so I sent them my manuscript and eventually they accepted it. I think they paid me £400 (in 1986).

Do you have an agent?

When my first novel was published I had no agent, but one came looking for me, and she got me a deal in London with my next book (the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses). But then she disappeared so I looked in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and liked the sound of Curtis Brown. I met with one of the agents there and he took me on. Eventually, he passed me on to a protégé who was just starting in the business… and that was Peter Robinson, who is still my agent.

How does your agent help you?

Agents act as a buffer between the publisher and the author (so we are less likely to fall out!), plus they know the various markets and have access to overseas publishers.

Describe a normal working day.

I don’t really have a normal working day. A lot of days, I do no writing at all – I’m too busy ‘being’ a writer, which means doing interviews, turning down (or accepting) requests to attend festivals, etc, dealing with mail and emails (I have no assistant or secretary). When I’m working on a book, I tend to work five-day weeks, writing late into the night. But if the day isn’t going well, I will walk away and do something else, rather than force myself to grind out the words and scenes. I write directly onto a laptop (which means I can write or revise while I’m travelling – on trains, for example).

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Have faith in your abilities, and the confidence that you have a story worth telling. But be open to advice and criticism. You need perseverance and a thick skin, and you also need a measure of luck. I’d been getting published for over 10 years before I ‘made it’.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The hardest thing about being a writer… well, any number of things: the panic that you’ll never have another good idea as long as you live; the struggle to make each new piece of work better than its predecessor; the fear that you really don’t know if something is any good in the first place.

How to you deal with writing under pressure?

I enjoy deadlines – they give some shape to my writing year. If there were no deadlines, I might get lazy.

What book did you enjoy publicising the most/least?

I usually enjoy the publicity circuit, no matter which book I’m touring, but some countries are easier to tour than others… naming no names!