Ian Rankin Q&A: “Would John Smith have shaped the UK differently? We’ll never know”

The crime novelist on Joe 90, Muriel Spark and the late Labour leader. 

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Ian Rankin was born in 1960 in Fife, Scotland. His father ran a greengrocer’s; his mother was a dinner lady. He is known for his Inspector Rebus novels, which were adapted for ITV between 2000 and 2007.

What’s your earliest memory?
Falling down the stairs at two or three, and being comforted with some Milky Bar chocolate. I believe my Milky Bar toy rifle arrived in the post that same day.

Who are your heroes?
I was a Gerry Anderson fan, so maybe Captain Scarlet or Joe 90. My adult heroes are writers I admire – William McIlvanney and Ruth Rendell spring immediately to mind.

What book last changed your thinking?
I found Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey utterly compelling. He writes about Britain’s underclass with passion and no little anger. Having grown up in a council house in a working-class village, I found myself nodding throughout.

Which political figure do you look up to?
John Smith. It’s a question of unrealised potential. Would he have become prime minister? Would he have shaped the UK differently? We’ll never know.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?
The novels of Muriel Spark. Either that or the life and times of the Rolling Stones.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?
Maybe Paris in the 1920s, though only if I had some money in my pocket and access to the writers and artists living there.

What TV show could you not live without?
My wife and I were addicted to The West Wing when it first ran on TV. We have the DVDs and still watch from time to time. We all need a bit of escapism, don’t we?

Who would paint your portrait?
I’ve had my portrait painted a couple of times. I’d be intrigued to let great Scottish artist Alison Watt have a go, though she tends not to do portraits these days.

What’s your theme tune?
“Silver Machine” by Hawkwind. I bought the single when I was 12 and I still play it.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?
A literary agent told me not to break off from writing when I needed to do some research; to wait till the first draft is complete, then do the research. That has saved me a lot of time: by the end of the first draft I know what it is I need to find out, not what I might need to find out.

What’s currently bugging you?
Extraneous noise bugs me right now. That continual yawp that surrounds us: phones and muzak and advertising jingles.

What single thing would make your life better?
Maybe a personal assistant. People tell me I need one, but I’m such a control freak it just seems less hassle to do everything myself.

When were you happiest?
I won a scholarship back in 1992 that allowed me and my wife and our infant son to spend six months on the road in the USA in a 1969 VW van. We travelled 14,000 miles and had no end of adventures. The future seemed bright but unknowable.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?
Rock star. I was in a new wave band in the late 1970s. We never made it but we had fun trying.

Are we all doomed?
In that we are all going to die, yes, we are doomed. Doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun on the way though, right?

Rankin’s 22nd Rebus novel, “In a House of Lies”, is published by Orion on 4 October

This article appears in the 28 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis