Ian Rankin: 'I still panic that I've got nothing new to say'

As his 31st book hits the shelves, Ian Rankin tells Doug Johnstone about why he's still on the 'really nice' treadmill

Last time Ian Rankin was interviewed in this paper, two years ago, he ended by declaring that he was going to retire.

Today, we meet in an Italian café in his Edinburgh hometown and retirement is the last thing on his mind. He laughs and shakes his head ruefully when I mention the word, and goes on to give me a list of his immediate plans.

"In November I'll start to think about the next book, in January I'll begin writing it, deliver it in June, in July it'll be edited, August is the holidays, September I'll start doing pre-publication interviews, it'll come out in October and I'll go on the road again," he says. "It's like working on a production line, there's not an awful lot of time to sit around chewing the fat with Salman Rushdie, even if he wanted to."

He sips on a peppermint tea and squints in the unseasonal Scottish sunshine. He looks younger than his 51 years, and laces our chat with laughter, enthusiastic ranting and daft anecdotes. When I suggest that his writing life sounds like something of a treadmill he gets animated.

"But it's a really nice treadmill," he says. "It's only a treadmill in that you'd be letting down the fans, who want a fix every year. Even John Grisham and James Patterson still punt out at least a book a year. Why are they writing, with all that money in the bank? They're writing because that's how they make sense of the world, it's what they've always done."

But does he enjoy the writing process?

"It's a very pleasurable way to spend your time," he nods. "It's therapeutic, it's cathartic, it's exciting, it's engaging. In real life writers tend to be quite boring, but in our books we're having exciting adventures all the time. I can't think of anything better than that, and it keeps you well balanced because all the shit inside your head goes on paper. I think we'd be troublesome individuals if we didn't get all that shit out our systems."

Chatting to Rankin is a lot of fun. Not only is his enthusiasm infectious, but there's a lack of guardedness, an honesty that's refreshing, considering his very high public profile and spectacular book sales. Take this, for example:

"No matter how many awards you've won or how many sales you've got, come the next book it's still a blank sheet of paper and you're still panicking like hell that you've got nothing new to say," he admits. "I still panic that the ideas aren't going to come, it's not going to be as good as my previous book, I've got nothing new to say, people are fed up with me, younger writers are doing better work. There are all kinds of fears that keep pushing at you. Thank God, otherwise you'd just sit back and write any old crap."

We're here to talk about Rankin's new novel, The Impossible Dead, his second to feature Malcolm Fox and his team from The Complaints, otherwise known as Internal Affairs – the cops who investigate cops. The first, The Complaints, which came out in 2009, established Fox as an anti-Rebus – a teetotal, by-the-book guy with no interest in music, although he does have his share of baggage.

The action in The Impossible Dead is set mostly in Fife, the region just over the Forth Bridge from Edinburgh, and the place where Rankin himself grew up. Like all Rankin's work, it's impeccably plotted, and what seems like a simple case of police corruption gradually spreads its tendrils back to the mid-Eighties, a period of recent history involving a brief outbreak of Scottish nationalist terrorism. It's loosely based on the real-life story of Willie MacRae, an SNP activist with alleged links to extremists, who was found dead in his car one night in suspicious circumstances. This linking of past and present is a familiar theme in Rankin's work, something that gives it a depth and resonance sometimes lacking in rival crime fiction.

"I'm interested in Scotland now and then, how it's changed," he says. "I want to get the reader to think about that by thinking about something from the past. How has society changed, how has policing changed, have we changed philosophically, psychologically, culturally, spiritually?"

The Impossible Dead is Rankin's 31st book in 25 years, a bibliography that of course includes the 17 Rebus novels, but also a graphic novel, non-fiction and several stand-alone thrillers, most recently Doors Open, an Edinburgh heist story. The idea that Rankin is known solely for Rebus is rather blown out the water by his next statement: "Doors Open was my biggest selling paperback," he laughs. "It outsold all the Rebus books." He shakes his head, smiling. "For the past 20 years I was wasting my time writing about Rebus."

Hardly. Everywhere he goes, the first question Rankin gets is always "When's Rebus coming back?" He freely admits that he's thinking about it, but is waiting for the right story to pop out of "the big file of ideas that I keep by the computer".

It's hard to picture these days, but there was a time when Rankin's name wasn't ubiquitous at the top of the bestseller list. In fact, Rankin didn't have any kind of breakthrough until the eighth Rebus novel (and his 15th book in all), Black and Blue, won the Macallan Gold Dagger for fiction in 1997. And even then he didn't have a bestseller until two years later, with Dead Souls.

"My publishers were taking a punt on me for a long time," he says. "That probably wouldn't happen now. I was having panic attacks, I was driving through the French countryside where we lived at the time, screaming at the top of my voice just to get it out my system. I was waking up in the night with this adrenalin rush like a heart attack. It was a pretty horrible time."

Which is a long way away from sunny Edinburgh cafés and his "really nice treadmill" – and few would begrudge him that.

The Impossible Dead, By Ian Rankin (Orion £18.99)

'Time was, CID could cut corners and be sure of getting away with it. Fox's task was to stop them doing that. Not forever and a day – in a year or two he would be back in CID himself, rubbing shoulders with those he had scrutinised; trying to put drug dealers behind bars without bending the rules, fearful of The Complaints and coming to despise them.'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum