November 23, 2002
The writer sits propped over his second cup of coffee in a steamy-windowed café, wondering why he spends his days creating killers and psychopaths. “Where do the stories come from? Where does the interest in the stories come from? The stuff must be there inside my head. Even though most of the starting points of the books are true stories, why am I interested in those stories?” It’s around this point that your reporter realises her presence is pretty much superfluous: Ian Rankin is interviewing himself.
He knows the form: a few vividly-turned biographical anecdotes; the odd reference to his Friday night sessions in Detective Inspector John Rebus’s local, the Oxford Bar; a bit of chat about the fans (today it’s the pilgrims who came all the way from Norway only to discover that the author was in Helsinki)… He leans across the table, making eye contact: candid, intelligent, so unaffectedly likeable that I don’t mind him taking over my job: the dream interviewee.
We’re here to talk about Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts, a three-part series he’s made for Channel 4. The title and the moodily noirish opening credits suggest a man plumbing the sinister depths of his own psyche, but on screen Rankin comes across as an innocent. It’s hard to believe he’s ever had an evil thought in his life. His idiolect has a Sunday school ring: “wickedness”, “hellish”, “demons”, “God bless him”, “good for the soul”. Yes, he’s a crime writer, but of the tasteful school, not one of those sickos who put their readers through page after page of lovingly detailed violence.
And yet Rankin insists there is little difference between himself – or anyone else – and the people we brand “evil”. I’m not convinced by this; it sounds like woolly cant clogging his Old Testament instincts. So Rankin spends much of the morning trying to persuade me that he has the makings of a serial killer. All the time he was filming he kept seeing parallels, he says. Murderers are only acting out the fantasies of the “normal” population. “All of us have thought at some time or other ‘I wish you were dead’ and for fairly banal things. Yesterday I took Jack [his elder son] and a pal to the tennis courts. There were kids letting off bangers in the play park. In my head I could see myself going up and smacking them over the head with a bit of lead pipe because that’s a quick way of stopping them doing it.
“If somebody came along and killed one of my kids and was caught and put in jail money would change hands to make sure they were stabbed to death at the earliest opportunity…” He asks himself the obvious question before I can open my mouth. “In real life would that happen? It’d happen in my head, but in real life I have the slow-burn liberal response. Would I want to meet them? Almost certainly not, but they would die 100 deaths on paper.”
Nevertheless, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, he’s sure he could commit unspeakable acts. In 1942, in central Poland, a German reserve police battalion – ordinary men, not career Nazis – was told to round up 1,800 Jews, export the strongest males to labour camps and massacre the rest. Anyone who objected was excused from duty, but only 12 out of 500 declined. “Speaking as someone who’s made a life and a living out of not standing out from the crowd, I probably would have gone along with the herd.”
Killing humans is only an extension of killing animals, he says. As a 17-year-old student he worked in a chicken hatchery. Newborn female chicks were fattened for sale; newborn males, which fattened less efficiently, were put in a dustbin and gassed. “I stuck my arm in this dustbin. It was such an intriguing thing: you lifted the lid on this bright yellow fluffy mass. It was the fact that they were still warm that got to me.” It didn’t stop him eating chicken.
“After working eight hours, sweating buckets, these chicks just stopped having any meaning as living things. If one got trapped under the wheels of these huge wheely things – you’d see it lying there with its leg hanging off – you’d just get the heel of your welly, stick it on its neck and crush it. There was a casualness about it which rubbed off on the people who worked there. You did become very blasé about life and death.”
This then is Rankin’s model of evil: chicken-killing writ large, the ordinariness of atrocity. Muriel Spark says we all have the capacity for both good and evil; he thinks so too. “I’ve had road rage. I lived in London for four years. When I started I was a nice placid driver, at the end I was jumping out of the car, thumping people’s cars, kicking people’s cars…” (Fortunately the other drivers were too scared to get out of their vehicles so he never found out whether he was capable of inflicting more personal damage.) “That’s what environment will do for you.”
People who have killed talk of a red mist, as if they’re possessed by some external force. He’s known that feeling. “I’ve got a temper that hasn’t often been tested, but the few times it has it’s scared the shit out of me. The few times I’ve got very angry you do get that sense of the red mist descending.”
Less separates the law-abiding citizen from the murderer – even the mass murderer – than we care to admit, he insists. “Serial killers are very, very like you and me. It comes back to the idea of possession. A lot of serial killers, 99 per cent of them, appear to be normal. They are normal. They open doors for old ladies, give up their seats on the bus, and for a short time something just goes. They change into this ruthless killing machine. Once they’ve done that it’s like their demons have been exorcised and they can go back to being ordinary folk for a while.”
But there is one exception to Rankin’s forgiving theory, a figure who scares the daylights out of him: Moors murderer Ian Brady. “Ian Brady is the one individual in this whole enterprise who I’d happily describe as evil: unrelenting, unchanging, sociopathic, psychopathic, manipulative and just rotten to the core.”
Without consulting Rankin, the television researchers got in touch with Brady’s mother and Brady sent word back that Mr Rankin was to contact him directly. Rankin said no. It’s a surprising decision for a crime writer – turning his back on all that material – but he had no doubts. He knew Brady’s book, The Gates of Janus: “one of the most revolting texts I’d ever read, which purports to be a handbook for the authorities to help them catch serial killers, but is actually a wallowing, an apologia, and attempts to seduce the reader into siding with this man, using a crackpot philosophy from Nietzsche.”
But if he’d already digested Brady’s ideas on paper, what more was there to fear? “A book is much easier to handle, I could put it aside and go downstairs and play with the kids. If you’re sitting face-to-face with the guy you can’t close him out for the hour or two hours you’re sitting with him. Writers are fairly amenable to letting people get inside their heads. Brady was one voice I didn’t want inside my head. There are these unthinkables which, once you think them, they never leave. A guy in London in the 1980s told me about thalidomide porn movies. I’d be happy never to imagine that, but as soon as he said the words, bing! they existed, and there was no escaping it. Sometimes the unthinkable should remain unthought.”
Is he unusually susceptible to the influence of others, I ask – but I already know the answer. I’ve profiled many writers, but Rankin is the only one who’s started behaving like an interviewer. “If you put me with a strong personality, within a few hours or days – say people I’ve worked with – I’d be mimicking their speech patterns and physical gestures subconsciously, so I’m kind of porous.”
It’s the ideal quality for a writer who needs a limitless supply of characters, but it’s a gift that comes at some personal cost. Particularly when the writer’s theme is moral corruption. I don’t believe for a minute that Ian Rankin could turn serial killer, even if he spent ten years in Ian Brady’s company, but I’m beginning to understand how it seems possible to him. He has always kept reality at arm’s length. He doesn’t know why. “I didn’t grow up in an abusive home. My parents were as loving to me as two parents could possibly be. But from an early age I drew into myself and into this interior fantasy world and into a dark place.” He still spends a lot of time there, only these days he gets paid for it. He manages his dealings with the outside world through role play. The Ian Rankin who collected his OBE from Edinburgh’s Lord Provost is not the Ian Rankin who takes his kids ten-pin bowling or the Ian Rankin who goes to the Oxford Bar on Friday nights and tells dirty jokes with his pals.
But there must be a core self? “There is a core me but he’s a pretty sad individual, I think. He likes being on his own listening to Seventies rock music and reading comic books. He’s not a very interesting character, and he doesn’t come out very often.”So he’s Ian Rankin age 13? “To the present day, probably.”
Does this core self have to be alone? The question seems to annoy him. “Writers don’t become writers because they’re gregarious individuals who enjoy the company of others. You become a writer because you enjoy that sense of isolation and a fantasy world. Very much like serial killers. Very much like a psychopath.”
It’s nearly mid-day. He suggests we stroll around the corner to his home. While I’m putting on my coat he arranges our accumulated cups and saucers in a row on the café table. Is he going to return them to the counter? “Just lining them up,” he says.
The moment we step inside his front door Ian Rankin, dream interviewee, vanishes. He makes edgy excuses for the hall carpet and the lack of books in the huge front room, then segregates himself in the armchair in the corner. No more eye contact. He’s fidgety, getting up to remove a stray leaf from the fireplace, stooping to retrieve a toy from under the settee, sitting down again, flicking through a magazine, standing up and staring out of the window. Too late I realise I should never have subjected the porous Mr Rankin to the unguessable influences of home.
In fairness, he has reason to be touchy about exposing his house to prying eyes. More than one interviewer has passed censorious comment in print. Similarly, they tend to disapprove of a 42-year-old millionaire dressing like a student on his beam ends. It’s true that the baggy-arsed jeans, scuffed trainers and bob-a-job haircut sit oddly with the £1.3 million deal signed for his next two books and the four months of the year he spends crossing the globe on promotional tours like a literary Robbie Williams. But Rankin is not your typical superstar wordsmith.
Four years ago I asked him to talk to a library-based writers’ group in Renfrewshire. The fee was £80, which he accepted gladly. The event was advertised, but I expected at most a handful of the general public. By the end of the evening there was standing room only. He had no idea so many people would turn up. For years he had been producing a book every six months, selling modestly, rated by reviewers but barely making a living. He has recently learned that his publishers were thinking of dropping him. Then Black and Blue came out, winning the coveted Gold Dagger award, and suddenly his novels were walking off the shelves. He’s now Britain’s top-selling crime writer, translated into 21 languages, shifting a million books a year.
There was no huge publicity push. The award probably helped, but what really turned him into a publishing sensation was word of mouth: satisfied readers recommending him to friends and neighbours and returning to the bookshop for more. Talking to Rankin’s fans – and they’re not hard to find; it seems everyone in the UK is reading a Rebus novel – there’s a striking intimacy in the way they relate to the books. They believe in the anti-glamour of Rankin’s Edinburgh: not the knockabout Grand Guignol of Irvine Welsh’s city, but a recognisable, feet-on-the-ground place where bad things happen. It makes sense that these fictions would be written by an unassuming, feet-on-the-ground guy.
He regards Black and Blue as his best novel, and certainly it represented an exponential leap in his writerly powers. Rankin attributes this to the birth of his second child in France in 1995. It took the Rankins six months to discover that their blond-haired, blue-eyed son was not a normal, healthy baby. Kit has Angelman’s, a condition which used to be called “Happy Puppet Syndrome”. The impact this has had on Rankin’s life – never mind his art – is incalculable. At one point I ask him if he has had any personal experience of evil. None, he replies. “Unless you mean having a son born with a severe disability.”
“For me it’s one of the great ironies that the books started to get good around the time Kit was being diagnosed, I think as a way of dealing with it,” he says. “I could give a lot of the frustration and the anger and everything else I felt to Rebus. It was a kind of escapism. I couldn’t control what was happening in the real world but I could control absolutely what was happening in the fictional world.”
As with many porous people, the real world seems “chaotic” and “disorganised” to him. (Even those coffee cups.) He writes books to impose a pattern, and he looks for such consoling patterns in his own life too. He can reel off a list of uncanny coincidences in his past, though some – like his friend Joe Rebus (met after he named the detective) who lives on Rankin Avenue – are actually puns: words-turned-talismans to temper too much reality. Words are important to him. After Kit was diagnosed the family returned to Edinburgh and had to explain his condition to a GP who had never heard of Angelman’s. “It’s a microdeletion of chromosome number 15…” Rankin said. The doctor was surprised to hear this coming out of a layman’s mouth, but Rankin has always processed his terrors through language.
Rebus started out markedly different from his creator: years older, hard-line in many of his attitudes, not university-educated (Rankin, with his abandoned doctoral thesis, his allusions to George Steiner and T S Eliot, is the most erudite of crime writers). But the two shared certain characteristics. “There’s all this stuff to do with not fitting in. Rebus doesn’t fit in and I never felt as I was growing up that I fitted in anywhere: living in a rough working-class village, sitting in your bedroom writing poetry. When I went out there was no way I’d tell anyone, the gang on the street corner would have beaten me to a pulp. I had to pretend to be someone else. All that stuff goes into Rebus’s character.”
Thirteen books on, writer and written have started to converge. Rankin is even porous to his own fictional creation, and has to write short stories between novels to get Rebus out of his head. The oft-repeated line is that he uses Rebus to exorcise his demons, but what does this mean? What demons? For once his elegant powers of expression falter. “Things which linger in our heads to remind us of things we wish hadn’t happened.”
His mother died when he was 19. He was a first year student at Edinburgh University, coming back to Cardenden every weekend. “There’d be a bed and a commode in the living room and she’d lie there not doing very much, and you’d sit there not doing very much, and it was heartbreaking. My father had already lost one wife; here he was losing my mum, in her late fifties. It was terribly hard on him. It was grim, no getting past it.” Rebus too lost his parents fairly young, he remarks; in fact on the very first page of the first Rebus book he is visiting his father’s grave. “I’m sure a psychiatrist could read a lot into that. My dad died when I was 29. Losing both parents before you’re 30 is rather bad luck.”
Abruptly he gets up and stands by the window with his back to me, making a clicking sound with his mouth. “I’ve had too much coffee this morning,” he says. “I feel a bit shaky.” Jocularly I express the hope that he’s not having a panic attack, and in the ensuing silence I realise that’s exactly what is happening.
He knows how to control these attacks – take time off, eat less salt, cut back on caffeine – but they’re still a feature of his life. Mostly triggered by coffee and worrying about a book. The danger points are before he starts a new novel, and halfway through, when he becomes convinced it’s the worst thing he’s ever written. Though he’s not always consciously worried when he takes an attack. Sometimes it starts in his sleep. “Suddenly waking up in sheer terror with your heart going, hyperventilating, feeling you’re going to have a heart attack and going to die. Or an incredible adrenaline rush. Or the feeling something incredibly bad is going to happen to you.”
His first experience was when he was living in London in the late-1980s. In 1990 he moved to rural France with his wife Miranda to make a go of it as a full-time writer. He left the pressures of the city behind, but not the panic attacks. Part of the problem was the isolation, he says. He didn’t speak French, so he was on tenterhooks the whole time in case anyone spoke to him and he was revealed as a “foreign idiot”. He and Miranda had left fairly well-paid jobs in London, there was no safety net other than his writing. They were living in a dilapidated farmhouse three miles from the nearest village, 30 miles from a cinema or bookshop. “We were in each other’s pockets, never out of each other’s sight for six years. It’s amazing that the relationship survived.”
In France he couldn’t use language to process his terrors – other than through his writing, which was part of the problem. If there’s one thing worse than being porous, it’s being porous and having no-one around to get inside your head. No wonder he had the panics. But he dealt with them, in his own fashion. “The only way I could get rid of them was driving around country roads at high speed, screaming.”
And that’s the image which stays with me long after I leave him. There’s no reason to believe Ian Rankin the screamer is any more true than Ian Rankin the attentive charmer I met in the café, of course. Orphan, literary superstar, superannuated student, protective father, intellectual pundit on BBC2’s Late Review, fantasist, loner, one of the guys at the Oxford Bar, potential serial killer: he’s all of these. And none.
Courtesy of Scotsman Publications