Best-selling author Ian Rankin: “I had no interest in crime fiction – all this has been a lovely surprise”

The hit author's adolescent diaries reveal the accidental rise of the man behind the Rebus novels

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“What happens to them when I’m gone? Do I want them buried with me? Do I have them burned?”

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In the elegant living room of his equally elegant Edinburgh home, Ian Rankin is fretting about the fate of his teenage diaries. The creator of Inspector John Rebus and the godfather of tartan noir, with sales of some 30 million books worldwide, Rankin has been trawling his childhood musings for the benefit of My Teenage Diary, the Radio 4 series presented by Rufus Hound.

He found the experience both “emotional and toe-curling. I need to go through them before I make my will and redact all the stuff I’m embarrassed about.”

The diaries span 1975 to 1979, years 15 to 19 in the Age of Rankin. They reveal him not only to be a forensic recorder of everyday expenditure – “Went to Edinburgh. Had sausage roll”– but an aspiring poet and wannabe rock star.

The last two were somewhat exotic ambitions for a boy growing up in the Fife mining town of Cardenden.

“The literary world was so alien to the culture I grew up in,” he says. “Dad worked in Rosyth dockyard, Mum worked in a chicken factory. I was fascinated with writing, and books, but almost nobody I was in contact with shared those feelings. It felt solitary, but at the same time I was trying to look like I belonged. Cardenden was quite tribal, and I pretended to fit in, which is good experience for a writer, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the bedroom, pull out a stolen school jotter, and start creating this other world where I felt a bit more comfortable.”

This alternate universe included forming imaginary bands, designing intricate album sleeves and writing poems and lyrics. While at Beath High School, his poem, Euthanasia, came second in the under-18s section of the Scots Language Society poetry competition, earning a mention in the local newspaper. He can’t recall his parents’ reaction. Both were by then in their 50s, and left their youngest child largely to his own devices. They loved him, but he remembers few hugs, little discussion of emotional issues and even less money.

As the father of two sons in their 20s, one with severe learning difficulties, his own parenting style has been very different. “I’m sure I spoilt my kids rotten, because I had enough money and things my parents didn’t have. They had no money; our first record player was bought with Embassy Red cigarette coupons, which is probably why I’m still quite careful with money.”

He has denied being worth £25m – suggesting it’s nearer half that sum – but Rankin has come a long way from Cardenden. His detached Victorian villa is in one of south Edinburgh’s most exclusive neighbourhoods: fellow novelist Alexander McCall Smith is a neighbour, and JK Rowling lived there until a few years ago.

As the diaries progress, they track Rankin’s evolution as a writer. He was 19, studying English at Edinburgh University, when his mother died. In his journal, he described the events movingly, but with a sense of authorly detachment. “I was not only processing the information, I was actually starting to try and put feelings into words,” he says.

“I arrived at university thinking I was going to be a poet, in an attempt to woo girls, I suppose – and not having much luck! Then I joined the Dancing Pigs, this really crap post-punk band, so my poems were turning into song lyrics. It wasn’t until I was a postgraduate student that I turned to prose. In 1983, I was runner-up in a short story competition and I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m good at.’”

Following the publication in 1986 of his first novel, The Flood, he hit upon the character of John Rebus, and the notion of writing about crime as a way of exploring modern-day Edinburgh. “This was pre-Trainspotting, nobody was writing about contemporary Edinburgh,” he says. “A lot of people were pretending that the darker side of Edinburgh didn’t exist. Tourists never saw the housing estates and the crime, the deprivation and drug problems. Crime fiction seemed a good way to do it.”

He received £1,500 for the first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, which was never intended to be the start of an ongoing series. Thirty years later, the financial rewards are somewhat greater, while Rebus has become part of the fabric of Scottish literature. Now retired from the police force, the irascible sleuth will return next year, “but I don’t know what I’m going to do with him yet,” says Rankin.

“We’ll see if there’s any life left in the old dog. He’s got in-built decrepitude. He can’t stick around forever.”

While he ponders his fate, Rankin has spent much of 2017 marking Rebus’s 30th anniversary. There was an “amazing” weekend of events in Edinburgh this summer, while an exhibition at the city’s Writers’ Museum runs until January.

Next month, Radio 4 is joining the party. As well as My Teenage Diary, there’s a new Rankin story, The Deathwatch Journal, written specially for the Book at Bedtime slot, while an adaptation of his 2004 Rebus novel, Fleshmarket Close, is the Saturday afternoon drama serial.

“It’s been quite a ride,” says Rankin, who’s 57 now. How has life measured up to the dreams of that teenage diarist? “If you’d said to me then, ‘You’re going to end up writing crime fiction and selling loads of books,’ I’d have said, ‘What? I’ve got no interest in writing crime fiction!’ I didn’t read it, though I loved TV cop shows. My sister Linda liked Agatha Christie. I tried one and thought, ‘This isn’t a world that speaks to me.’ I always wanted to write, but in some ways all of this has been a lovely surprise.”

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My Teenage Diary: Ian Rankin Special Thursday 6:30pm Radio 4