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THE CHAIN

 

The Chain is a series of one-to-one conversations between authors discussing the business of writing. This issue compatriots Denise Mina and Ian Rankin are sharing a chat.


So Ian, hello!

 

 It’s quite weird writing to you so formally, a bit like letters home, but here goes anyway: I actually did a bit of homework for this, like opening The Complaints and looking at the list of ‘also by’. I appreciate that you’re very, very old but you’re also pretty hard working and I wondered how you get all of this work done? What’s your writing process for a book, say? Also, does the idea come first? Do you keep notebooks and go back to them?

The Rebus books in particular are very much a testament to the times they are written in. Are you an avid reader of newspapers or does the zeitgeist just seep in through watching Corrie and reading the Dandy?

 

Dx

 

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 That’s a lot of questions! You are correct to assume that I am very, very old, but even when young, I think I was a worker not a shirker. I did all my school homework… swotted hard for university exams… and also had jobs in the likes of chicken factories and civil service offices. But writing never really seemed like work, hard or otherwise – it was just something I always did for fun, as a hobby. In the early days, song lyrics, poems and stories poured out of me. There was never much forethought or eventual editing, as a result of which a lot of it was not very good. But I learned to be self-critical, and to accept valid criticism from others, and I became a better writer as a result.

As to How I Write: I get an idea – maybe it’s a theme I want to explore or a question that’s bugging me about the world around me. I find a plot that will allow me to worry away at this problem. I don’t do a lot of plotting per se before I begin writing, because once the writing commences the story usually tells me where it wants to go. I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, and sometimes ideas start there. I do very little research online: that’s how old I am.

For the Paddy Meehan books, you went back in time – I wonder if you think that presented you with any problems. If I dig too far back into Rebus’s life, I’m always afraid I’m going to be guilty of anachronisms....

 

Ian

 

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Denise Mina

 

 

 end of the wasp seasonThe Impossible Dead

 

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina is published in hardback by Orion, price £12.99. Denise's backlist has been reissued in paperback.

 

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin is published in hardback on 13 October by Orion, price £18.99.


Ian Rankin

 

 That critical facility often strikes me as the difference between good and bad writing: whether someone can look at something they’ve written and see what’s wrong with it and make it better, but it can be crippling if you don’t have confidence. Coming from an ordinary working class background, where did you find that conviction that you had something to say? Were you confident or did you just decide to chance your arm?

I was rubbish at everything else I tried because I always thought I was going to try and write one day. My first book was an attempt to get that out of my head. I loved the mention of a chicken factory: I worked in a meat factory and I’ll never forget the smell. Did doing those McJobs affect your writing? I still use characters I met in those days.

Going back in time for the Paddy Meehan books was great fun: I sat in the library and read a year’s worth of old newspapers to get a flavour of the time, cigarette adverts and coupons for Bejams, and the rest of it I just made up. I get letters every so often telling me I got some things wrong but the further back in time the books go the more forgiving people are of mistakes.

If you don’t plot in advance, do you ever get stuck? I always seem to get lost two-thirds of the way through and have to take a break because I can’t work out what’s going on. You told me once that you write a book in about four months: is that a twelve-hour day or can you bend the fabric of time? As to annoyance or bafflement at the world fuelling your work, what’s bothering you at the moment? Let’s leave News International out of this because, obviously, we’re both being watched by the agents or RM and neither of us work in windowless rooms… 

 

Dx

 

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 I do think punk was an important influence on my life – not the music so much as the message behind it. I was 17 in 1977, and I remember an issue of the fanzine Sniffing Glue. The cover had a crude drawing of three guitar chords and a message along the lines of ‘Now go form a band’. What punk said was: anyone can have a go. You didn’t need to have gone to a posh school or know people who knew people.

So I became ‘gallus’ and tried my hand at everything: sending terrible poems to upmarket London magazines; singing in a band, even though I couldn’t sing; writing scraps of journalism and trying to start fanzines and literary magazines… Did I have anything worth saying at the time? I’ve no idea. Everything was material: I did an update of Lord of the Flies and set it in my high school. I wrote Wasteland-style poems about my hometown. I penned a novel (in stolen school jotters) about a kid who doesn’t fit in so runs away to London and drowns himself in the Thames… I had ambition, but not much in the way of talent. But I practised and got better.

To come bang up to the present, it still takes me around three months (90 days) to get a first draft down. It’s pretty rough and ready. The first draft is a skeleton – it is the bare bones of a workable plot. Then I add texture (flesh), breathe some life into the characters, and go do research now I know what settings I’m using.

By the time my publisher sees it, it is usually third draft, and there’s another draft after that based on comments from publisher, agent and editor. I don’t work 12-hour days, but I do work most days – so I don’t start to forget what’s happening in the book.

Maybe like you though, I find that the life of a ‘successful’ writer is taken up with tasks other than actual writing: doing interviews like this, or dealing with mail and e-mails, or sending off signed books to charities, and so on. Being a control freak, I have no assistant or secretary. And I do try to have a bit of a family life, too…

As to what’s baffling me or annoying me right now… I’m not saying. Who knows what plots I might be giving away?

I only get one idea at a time: I get the idea, write the book, and it’s maybe a few months before I get another idea for a story. Are you like that, or do you have ideas for your next half-dozen books stockpiled? And do you feel duty-bound to set your books in a recognisable Scotland?

 

Ian

 

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 I love that: punk changed everything.

I never had a sense of entitlement either, so we’re both have-a- go-heroes. Your early work sounds as if you had tons to say, though. I love Samuel Beckett’s crack about his early work – ‘I was a young man with nothing to say, but a strong urge to make’.

As to the sheer weight of admin around being a writer: I used to resent it and think it was keeping me from getting on with my work but now I think I’d go stone mad without the work avoidance of it. Is it just the control freakery that stops you having a secretary? Most people in your position do, I think.

Touring the world must take up a lot of time, do you enjoy that? Where do you like touring most? You told me once that you can’t work when you’re touring, do you miss it or is it a nice break?

I grew up all over Europe and never think of myself as especially Scottish until I go abroad. Were you aware of spearheading representations of contemporary Scotland when you started writing? Weren’t you living in France during several of the early Rebus novels? Is that sense of place important to you when you’re writing?

Speaking of himself: are you missing Rebus? How does it feel to move on from such a long-running series? Is Malcolm Fox from The Complaints coming back? Is he the anti Rebus? Will they meet at a waterfall and have a disagreeable chat? Please say yes.

 

Dx

 

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 I'm not a huge fan of the extended tour. You never seem to have time to see very much, and you get no actual work done. Unlike some writers I know, I cannot work when I'm 'on the road'. On the other hand, it's always nice to meet readers and visit bookshops and meet the people who work there.

I always feel very self-conscious in countries where I don't speak the language, and I am not fluent in any language other than English. The only time I went to Japan, I thought I was going to have a breakdown – none of it made sense to me! Was that a discreet restaurant, or was it someone's house? Was this the metro stop I wanted? The older I get, the easier I want life to be. I prefer routine to new experience. Yet I seem to travel a lot – go figure....

I lived in France from 1990 until 1996 (my wife's idea), and liked the culture and quality of life, but never mastered the language. I would watch dubbed episodes of The X Files with a French-English dictionary on my lap. I once tried telling the local baker my wife was pregnant but managed to call her 'ancient' instead. But I did get a lot of writing done. Having studied literature for seven years at university, I knew that lots of writers had to leave home to be able to write about their native country.

Then again, I wasn't writing literature, was I? I was writing crime novels. So I tended not to be talked of in the same way as a Muriel Spark or an Irvine Welsh, even though I felt I was trying to say important things about society, or at least asking questions about the mess we were in. Rebus was useful to me in that regard, because if you want to talk about civic and corporate corruption, people trafficking, the narcotics problem, poverty and neglect and disenfranchisement and everything else that ails society, a cop is the perfect central character.

That's why Rebus stuck around. Of course, writing a series presents problems – maybe that's why you've never let yourself be 'trapped' by one. Once tone is established, you can't suddenly have someone like Rebus turn into a bundle of laughs. You can't take him out of his natural setting. You can't easily set your books in the past. And you have to be aware of all the baggage someone like Rebus carries around with them from book to book. If he was scared of flying in book one, that's something you need to bear in mind for all the books that follow. Is Fox the anti-Rebus? Well, let's say that Rebus is the kind of cop Malcolm Fox and his internal affairs team would most probably end up taking a look at. Will Rebus be back?

Never say never....

 

Ian

 

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 Never say never... how about saying yes?

Isn't there a great benefit in not being taken so seriously, though? I often think that for those of us readers who aren't born with our left hand stapled to our chin reading is supposed to be fun. That's the great strength of crime writing: that it's deeply political but not excluding. Ultimately, it's a marketing decision I suppose.

You've talked in the past about things like the Booker Prize excluding crime writing, have you seen the boundaries change over the past twenty years or do you think they're deepening because the sales of crime novels have done so well?

I wanted to ask about all your extracurricular activities like TV presenting and writing lyrics and comics: have you enjoyed them? Have they informed your novels? Which did you enjoy most? Also, you're very grounded compared to most celebs, can't you get it together to be starry? Seriously, what keeps you in your skin rather than being caught up in how other people see you?

I broke my brain touring India: I'd lost all my luggage and spent three days trying to buy underpants from chemists' and hardware stores. They have adverts above the shop but that's not what's in the shop. Mark Billingham took me to the rumoured site of a Marks and Spencers in Chennai but it was shut. I was so homesick I took photos of the empty building.

 

Dx

 

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 I think attitudes towards crime fiction have changed in the decades since I started out as a writer. You can now study crime fiction at some universities in the UK, and high school students can write English essays about crime novels they've read – that's all great, and is testament to the fact that crime fiction should be taken seriously as a form of writing which explores complex moral and societal situations. At the same time, as you point out, crime fiction should be fun, exciting, involving to read.

I've liked my extracurricular adventures: writing a graphic novel, an opera libretto, song lyrics, even a film script. But none pleases me as much as getting stuck into a novel, and I doubt any have influenced the way I write or the things I want to write about in my books.

I think most writers are fairly well grounded – we tend not to be invited to the major film premieres and A-list society parties, and are all the better for it! We tend to work from home, so are always near our family. It's me who nips out for bread and ketchup from the corner shop; me who answers the phone to the plumber or answers the door when a parcel arrives. Writers may still have garrets, but there are precious few ivory towers.

Background helps, too, I think. My parents were working-class, I was the first one of my family to go on to university, and success as a writer did not come quickly – all of which helps keep me grounded.

Of course, authors are Jekyll and Hyde figures. We sit in our rooms for months on end, writing our books in something akin to solitary confinement; then tour with the books we've written and are meant to be chatty in interviews, gregarious when doing signings or talks in bookshops, and all the rest. It is not for everyone, and it can start to mess with your head. When I come home from a tour, I just want to lie down in a darkened room, but there's usually bread and ketchup to be fetched from the corner shop....

 

Ian

 

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