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What Ian Rankin has learned about writing: ‘A good writer never stops learning’

Ian Rankin

TONIA COWAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In a country renowned for its crime writers, Ian Rankin is a standout: His dark, nuanced Inspector Rebus novels about police procedurals have earned them the "Tartan Noir" handle and brought Edinburgh to life for thousands of readers. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

Well, I started writing at a young age, and I suppose I copied writers I was reading at the time, people like Anthony Burgess and William Golding. These were people I was studying at high school. Then there were poets like T.S. Eliot – least said about my poetry the better. Eventually, at university, I began learning from Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, and William McIlvanney.

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Did you imitate any of them?

As a teenager, I would try to write about my home town in the style of Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), or Eliot (The Waste Land), or Golding. I remember one early novella set in my high school, where older kids (under the malign influence of a Mick Jagger poster) incited the younger kids to go feral – my attempt at Lord of the Flies

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I think it took a while for my own voice to emerge. It helped that I started writing about contemporary Edinburgh when no one else seemed to be doing that. So I had the place to myself for a little while. And Rebus brought his own voice with him, of course – looking at the world through his eyes gave me a fresh perspective.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

I don't think anything is "dangerous" as such to the new writer. You should be open to anything, ready to experiment, unafraid to show your influences on your sleeve – or ready to give your elders and betters a kicking by telling the world their way of thinking is outdated and there's a fresh new voice in town.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

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I'm not sure Saints of the Shadow Bible owes much to books by other writers. I got the story and themes from the real world – real events, real stories told to me by retired detectives, real changes in the legal set-up in Scotland. Reality is a bigger influence on me than other works of fiction.

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

Lists of influential writers are published all the time but I'm not sure how useful they are. E.L. James is probably "influential" in that dozens of books in her genre are now being written and sold. But in a year or two, some other author or genre will have come along. Some writers influence a whole generation – Stephen King, for example. Others are revered, but don't seem to breed acolytes (Terry Pratchett). A good writer never stops learning, or being excited by a new voice or style. Gone Girl was so structurally clever, I had to read it twice to try to work out how the author pulled it off. Keith Ridgway's Hawthorn and Child was so odd and angular, I also read it twice – once for pleasure, once as a hard-nosed pro – was he doing anything I could or should be doing?

Who do you wish were more influential?

More influential? Well, I like my crime fiction to include social commentary, so am a big fan of George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty – to name a few. Any aspiring crime writer – or novelist of any kind – can learn from them about character, sense of place, pacing, and using a plot to talk about the ills of society.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

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I spent three years studying Muriel Spark for a PhD and still love her writing. She began as

a poet, and it shows in her economy. A Spark novel may

be short but it will contain

multitudes. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is funny, tragic, chilling, quirky, a miracle of construction, complex, easy to read, and contains any number of great lines. There is always something going on below the surface – she makes the reader work.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

I know some writers who don't read while they're writing but I find it a great relief at the end of the day to be able to turn away from the turmoil of a half-finished book and read something well-crafted and entertaining. When I'm in my writing zone, no one else's book is going to influence me. I'm careering down a fixed track. But I do like to put the brakes on and settle down with a great read.

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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