‘I get the shakes in a big city’

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Ian Rankin OBE, 48, is one of Britain’s best selling crime writers. The Scottish author is most famous for his 17 novels featuring the Edinburgh-based Inspector Rebus, which have sold 10m copies in the UK alone and have also been adapted for television. He lives with his wife and two sons in Edinburgh. His latest novel is ‘Doors Open’.

What attracted you to your current home and how long have you lived there?

We live in a three-storey Victorian villa and part of the appeal was that it’s detached; it’s the first time my family and I have ever lived in a detached house. And it’s in an area of town where my elder son, Jack, goes to school. What’s more, my younger son, Kit, is in a wheelchair and we were looking for somewhere with a lot of rooms on the ground floor. And when we saw it about five years ago it was in the process of being gutted and renovated by developers. So we did a deal with them and were consequently able to have each room arranged as we wanted.

What was your previous house like?

It was a Georgian terraced house but it was on a busy main road. It was a lovely house, still in the middle of Edinburgh, but it was by no means perfect.

Have you always lived in Edinburgh?

Oh man, no, I’ve lived everywhere. I grew up in a rented house in Cardenden, about 20 miles from Edinburgh. I moved to Edinburgh as a student in 1978 and left in 1986. The first house my wife and I bought after we got married in 1986 was a two-bedroom maisonette in Tottenham [north London]. After that we moved to a dilapidated farmhouse in France for a while before moving back to Edinburgh in 1996 and buying a flat, before in due course moving into the Georgian house and then our current home.

Do any of them have a special place in your heart?

If you’re talking about the perfect house in terms of family life, then we’re living in it now and there’s not much about it that I’d want to change. If we had the sea behind us and a little path leading down to the beach that would be lovely but you tend not to find that in the middle of a city. Although there are compensations, such as Starbucks. Mind you, the house I grew up in will always be special to me too. It might have been tiny in comparison but Cardenden boasted a great sense of community. I pretty much knew everyone in the area. And I turned my bedroom, which was about the size of a prison cell, into my own little universe, covering the walls with posters of my childhood heroes.

And is there a particular room in your current house that is special to you?

Probably my office – in many ways the most important room in the house for me. It’s the first time I’ve had a really nice office. It would have been one of the main bedrooms in the house. It has windows on two sides, so it has a lot of natural light, and an ornate fireplace, which looks authentic. Out of one window I can see nothing but trees and out of the other the houses across the street. It’s about 14ft by 12ft. It’s got two desks – one with a laptop where I write my novels and another for correspondence and paying bills. And it’s got my turntable, CD player, loudspeakers, and lots of CDs and LPs and a sofa for listening to music.

So is it important for a writer to work in a room with a view?

I don’t think it is, to be honest. When I’m working, I sit facing a plain wall. And that’s a good thing. If I had a view I would do no work. I’d be too busy watching people walk up and down the street. When we moved back to Edinburgh, the office was a little cubbyhole about 4ft by 8ft that housed a washing machine and had virtually no natural light. Working in more congenial surroundings has certainly improved the comfort level, although I don’t know if it’s improved the quality of my writing. 

Do you have a daily work routine?

Not really. That’s one of the pleasures of being a full-time writer. If I have a novel that needs writing, I’ll put it off for as long as possible, until panic sets in, and then I’ll eventually force myself to sit at my desk and start writing – usually from about 10 o’clock until 3 o’clock because that’s when the kids are at school. I’m the sort of person who thrives on a deadline.

Do you go away for the weekend much?

Having a son in a wheelchair makes going away for the weekend that much harder. But my wife and I do get the occasional break together if my son’s carer can look after him 24 hours a day. But the truth is I always want to come home on those rare occasions when we do go away. I love the part of Edinburgh we live in because pretty much everything – cafés, news agencies, delis, even the canal – is a short walk away.

Do you have a garden – and do you spend much time in it?

We’ve got one front and back, with a nice expanse of lawn and a table and chairs. I do like to sit outside and read the newspaper but the trouble with Edinburgh is that there’s always the wind, which makes it hard to read a broadsheet. But we have a hot tub in the back, primarily for our son’s use, and that’s very nice in winter. 

Having made Edinburgh your home, could you ever see yourself living anywhere else?

It’s a very compact city – the size of a town – so it’s easy to get around. I start to get the shakes when I’m in a city that’s too big. That said, I would love to live by the sea – the one thing I’ve never done in my life. I have this dream of walking out the door, through the garden and opening a door on to the beach. So maybe once my kids have left home and Rebus and my other writing projects have been put to bed it might be time for that one last move.


My favourite things: Whisky and a gold dagger

The Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction for Black and Blue that I won for the best crime novel of the year.

A photograph of my parents, James and Isabel – the only photograph I have of them – on my desk. Dad, who worked in a grocer’s shop all his life, died when he was 72. And Mum died at just 56, when I was 19.

A signed copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, which I got her to sign for me just before she died. I’m a huge fan. During the time I was supposedly writing a PhD on her books I was actually writing my first novel.

A street in my home town is named after me – and the sign for Ian Rankin Court is in my office.

The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed is probably my favourite album. The music is amazing and the lyrics are dangerous and druggy. It’s like rock music should be.

A limited edition bottle of Highland Park whisky. I visited the distillery on Orkney and was able to choose a whisky that they bottled to celebrate 20 years of Rebus.

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