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.'

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