Seeing Ian Rankin

Both Hobgoblin and I follow crime-novelist Ian Rankin on Twitter (here) and when he tweeted that he would be doing a book tour in the U.S., we both said, let’s go! So yesterday we drove up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear him speak. (He’s also appearing today in New York City, but Hobgoblin has an evening class so we couldn’t make that talk.) The event took place at Porter Square Books, just a mile or so from the center of Cambridge and the Harvard campus. I’d been there once to visit a friend a while back, but it had been a while, so Hobgoblin and I decided to arrive early and spend some time exploring. We found, of course, the bookstores, or some of them: Raven Used Books, Harvard Book Store, and the Globe Corner Bookstore, a travel bookshop. All of them were fabulous, as was the main location for the evening, Porter Square books. It’s so marvelous to be able to show up some place, start walking down the street and find bookstores immediately.

After browsing to our heart’s content and getting dinner at a local Irish pub, we staked out our places for the talk. Careful observation and a little hovering got us what we wanted: front-row seats. I heard at one point that they were expecting maybe 60 people, although I think more showed up, so it was nice to be in the front row of six or so people just a few feet away from the microphone.

I expected it to be mostly a reading with some Q&A afterward, but after his introduction, Rankin launched into the story of how he came to write the series he’s known for, the Rebus books, and from there he talked for almost an hour. He did read something, but that took maybe five minutes tops. He was clearly more interested in talking to us. And what a fun talker he is! He told us funny stories about getting in trouble after writing about his family’s embarrassing secrets and making them locally famous, and also about getting taken in for questioning when the plot of his first novel too-closely matched a recent crime. He was, he said, the main suspect for a while, which came as a huge surprise, as he had never heard about the crime on the local news. He has a great sense of humor, and he had us laughing the whole time.

The most interesting part of the talk was hearing about his writing process. He said that he usually gets to the end of the first draft without knowing who the murderer is. He sometimes doesn’t know who the murderer is even after the second draft. He said that he becomes like a detective himself, trying to piece together the evidence to discover the most logical conclusion. I find this method amazing — what if he were to discover that there really is no solution and the evidence doesn’t add up to anything? But he said that’s never happened to him. It sounds like a hugely risky way to write a novel, but I like the idea of the author as detective, searching for the solution just as the detective does and the reader later will, rather than the other possible model of the author as God, presiding over a world with all the answers already at hand. He said he doesn’t see the point in writing a novel where the solution is already worked out. What’s the point of that? He writes to find out what the solution is. He said that the one time he wrote an outline of an entire novel complete with the mystery solved, he never went on to write the book itself, because he found the prospect boring. It was a good story, he said, and too bad to lose it, but what would be the point of doing anything more?

I’ve read only one Rankin novel, The Falls, but I enjoyed it very much and I’d like to read more. Getting to see Rankin in person has made me that much more eager to pick up some of his other books.


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14 responses to “Seeing Ian Rankin

  1. Rohan

    Rankin came to speak/read here once (a relatively rare visit from someone so high profile to our humble small town!) and I agree, he is very entertaining! He definitely enjoys talking and playing to an audience. He tells that story about becoming a suspect every time, I think; it’s also featured in published interviews and I steal a laugh from it myself every time I teach Knots and Crosses. It’s a good story! The only thing that bothers me about Rankin is that, at least when he spoke here and in some of the interviews I’ve read and seen elsewhere, he really plays up the whole anti-intellectual thing, mocking his work as a PhD student in literature, for example. That’s fine in itself, I suppose, except that it’s pretty clear his books are intellectually quite serious and literary–he learned something from that work! He can be not just smart but downright eloquent when he talks about the origins of detective fiction or about the difficulties of getting genre fiction taken seriously by the critical establishment. To me, that’s all a lot more interesting than how much he drinks in his pub.


  2. Rohan — I got the feeling while he was talking that these were stories he told frequently. Not that it felt rehearsed or old, but he was so fluent it felt like he had a bit of a schtick. Which as a teacher, I fully appreciate the value of 🙂 If I’d thought of it in time, I would have asked him about his work on Muriel Spark, as I find that fascinating, but I would have been disappointed had he mocked his grad school work. He did seem very smart and he talked about various types of mystery writers in interesting ways.


  3. Rankin is one of life’s born entertainers. He is frequently on the radio and television here in the UK and he never fails to put in a performance. I haven’t heard him speak in person, but I can imagine that he would be superb. Do read the other Rebus books. As Rohan says, however he likes to portray himself there is intellectual rigour in his make-up and it shows in his writing. I also very much enjoyed his most recent crime novel ‘The Compliants’. It would make a good new series but as yet there is no sign of that happening.


  4. I’ve never read a book by him or heard him speak but he does sound fun. It’s lovely to come across an author who really enjoys the publicity side. I feel for most authors who chose to write because they like being alone in a room. The world must belong to those who can perform in public as well as in their private head space.


  5. That sounds like a great evening! I only read one Rankin, last summer, and it was very entertaining, but I guess I won’t put Edimburgh on top of my destination list for holidays.


  6. It sounds like you had a fun evening. It is so nice when authors are so engaging and make you want to read them even more.


  7. I’ve been to two of his talks. The first one was very much like the one you went to and yes he had us all laughing so much. The second one was even better because it was him in conversation with Richard Havers about music and the role it’s played in his life – and a bit about Rebus’s taste in music too. He’s an excellent speaker and comes over as a nice person too.


  8. That sounds like a great talk and I love the way he writes his books–it makes total sense to me.


  9. This sounds so fun! I think my dad is a fan of Rankin; now I’m curious how far west he’s coming. That does seem like a truly risky way of writing a whodunit, not knowing the culprit in advance…like different parts of his brain must be communicating without his conscious knowledge, or something.


  10. That sounds like a great evening. I have yet to read a mystery by Ian Rankin, though I also have The Falls on my pile and really must get to it sooner than later as I think I would like him. It’s interesting to think about how a crime writer creates his stories. I think I always assumed an author had a character in mind for the culprit and worked the story around them to make it all add up in the end. And I like the idea of mysteries being an intellectual puzzle, so am glad to hear Rankin’s style reflects that even if he talks down that aspect.


  11. Oh, I’m awfully jealous. If only I’d read this when you wrote it, maybe I could have made an effort to go see him yesterday, because I happened to be in New York. Anyway, that’s absolutely fascinating about his not knowing who the murderer is when he gets to the end of a draft and then piecing it together himself. Makes me feel much better about not being the sort of writer who ever seems to know exactly what’s going to happen by the end of anything she writes (even when she has an outline). It seems it would be awfully difficult to do with a crime novel, though, but then again, I’ve never tried my hand at crime writing.


  12. Annie — Rankin read from a draft of his new book, so there is good news! It was only a first draft, but he thought it might be coming out in October or something like that. He’s out promoting The Complaints right now, which is currently being released in the U.S. I will definitely read more Rebus books, when I can.

    Litlove — I know, what an enviable position to be in, to like both the private work and the public appearances. I wouldn’t be able to do it if it were me.

    Smithereens — funny, Edinburgh is on my list! Maybe not at the top, but it would be fun to go and see it for myself. I believe there is an Ian Rankin tour available.

    Stefanie — yes, definitely. I find when I hear a good interview with an author, I’m much more eager to read their work.

    Margaret — he really loves music, doesn’t he? He talked about his musical tastes when I saw him, and he tweets all the time about seeing out record shops. Hearing him in conversation would be a lot of fun.

    Lilian — it makes sense to me with regular fiction, but I have a harder time doing it with detective fiction where unraveling the plot is so important. But maybe I’m making too big of a distinction here.

    Emily — yes, I wonder how the unconscious process works. Impossible to know, but fascinating. He’s tweeted from Chicago and Austin, but I have no idea if he’s going further west.

    Danielle — my guess is that most mystery writers work the way you describe, or something similar to it. But then again, how would I know? He’s talked a lot about wanting to write about social issues and about character as well as plot; it seems like he has an awful lot going on in his novels, which is cool.

    Emily B. — you would have enjoyed his talk a lot, I’m sure. It’s nearly impossible for me to imagine writing a crime novel myself, so it’s fascinating to hear a little bit about the process.


  13. I follow Rankin on Twitter and didn’t know he was speaking in my neck of the woods. I hear nothing but great things about seeing him in person and he’s great on Twitter. Hope the Republic of Cambridge treated you and Hobgoblin well.


  14. Mike — we had a great time in Cambridge, thanks! I love Rankin’s posts on Twitter as well. It’s been fun following his progress on his book tour.


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