Ian Rankin talks about becoming a crime writer

By | October 29, 2012

It's Halloween this week and we love a spooky theme. So, for the next couple of days, we'll be posting up some of the best bits from some of our best books – including crime and thriller writing, detective fiction and all things Gothic.

If Halloween has got you thinking about writing your own ominous thriller, then The Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing is right up your street. It contains contributions from lots of high-profile writers including Ian Rankin and Lee Child. In the extract below Ian talks about his journey from student to best-selling crime novelist….

'I never set out to write
crime fiction.

I’d always been a writer
though. As a kid, I would fold pieces of paper in half to make little four-page
booklets, filling each side with strip cartoons, emulating the comics I was
devouring at the time. Around the age of eleven I began buying pop records and
decided to start a group of my own – in my head and on paper. They were called
Kaput (and, later, The Amoebas). The singer was Ian Kaput. I wrote all his
lyrics. In our English class at secondary school, we were made to
write short stories and poems – no hardship
for me. I wrote a story called ‘Paradox’ about a man
who thinks he is the US President but is actually an inmate of an
institution. The teacher wanted to know why
I’d chosen that title. I told him it was the
name of a song by Hawkwind. He sent me home after school to look up the word in a dictionary. At seventeen, I
entered a poem called ‘Euthanasia’ in a
competition. It won second prize. So I thought of myself as a poet when I arrived at Edinburgh University. I kept
writing – poems, song lyrics, short stories.
I was ‘gallus’ (Scots for daring) and would read my
work aloud at gatherings, while garnering a fair collection of rejection letters from magazines and the BBC.

was a postgraduate, working towards a PhD on the novels of Muriel Spark, when I
wrote my first novel. It was a black comedy set in a Scottish hotel. A few more
rejection letters went into the drawer. My next attempt, The Flood, found
favour with a small publishing house in Edinburgh. An agent contacted me and
asked if I was working on anything new.

PhD research had taken me in interesting directions: from Spark to Miss Jean
Brodie and from there to Brodie’s supposed ancestor, a real-life Edinburgh
character who had been gentleman by day and housebreaker by night. William
Brodie had inspired the writing of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I was intrigued
by the theme of the doppel-gänger and the nature of evil. I’d also been reading
contemporary Scottish Literature and had relished William McIlvanney’s novel
Laidlaw, featuring a dour, philosophical Glasgow-based detective. I had read
only a very few crime novels in my life, but I could see that the figure of the
detective allowed the author access to many layers of society, from the highest
echelons to the marginalised and disenfranchised. I invented a cop called Rebus
(the word means a type of puzzle), and gave him a doppel-gänger who is out to destroy
him. The crime would be solved with the help of a literary theorist at
Edinburgh University. The whole book would be playful as well as visceral.

book was meant to be a one-off, but Rebus himself had other ideas. He refused
to vacate the premises. Gradually I learned the crime novel’s manifest
strengths: sense of place; the potential to tackle big moral questions; pacing and plot. Every theme I wanted to
explore could best be contained within the
crime novel, with the figure of John Rebus as my guide.

I’m thankful he found me, and decided to stick around.'

Ian Rankin, born in Fife, spent three years writing novels when he was
supposed to be working towards his PhD in Scottish Literature. His Rebus novels
have brought him awards including the Gold Dagger, the OBE, and several
honorary degrees.

ArvonThe Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing, by Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King is now available to buy.

We will be posting up another extract from this excellent book tomorrow. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with all our latest blog posts!

Happy (spooky) writing

Jenny Tighe

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