Both Hobgoblin and I follow crime-novelist Ian Rankin on Twitter (here) and when he tweeted that he would be doing a book tour in the U.S., we both said, let’s go! So yesterday we drove up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear him speak. (He’s also appearing today in New York City, but Hobgoblin has an evening class so we couldn’t make that talk.) The event took place at Porter Square Books, just a mile or so from the center of Cambridge and the Harvard campus. I’d been there once to visit a friend a while back, but it had been a while, so Hobgoblin and I decided to arrive early and spend some time exploring. We found, of course, the bookstores, or some of them: Raven Used Books, Harvard Book Store, and the Globe Corner Bookstore, a travel bookshop. All of them were fabulous, as was the main location for the evening, Porter Square books. It’s so marvelous to be able to show up some place, start walking down the street and find bookstores immediately.
After browsing to our heart’s content and getting dinner at a local Irish pub, we staked out our places for the talk. Careful observation and a little hovering got us what we wanted: front-row seats. I heard at one point that they were expecting maybe 60 people, although I think more showed up, so it was nice to be in the front row of six or so people just a few feet away from the microphone.
I expected it to be mostly a reading with some Q&A afterward, but after his introduction, Rankin launched into the story of how he came to write the series he’s known for, the Rebus books, and from there he talked for almost an hour. He did read something, but that took maybe five minutes tops. He was clearly more interested in talking to us. And what a fun talker he is! He told us funny stories about getting in trouble after writing about his family’s embarrassing secrets and making them locally famous, and also about getting taken in for questioning when the plot of his first novel too-closely matched a recent crime. He was, he said, the main suspect for a while, which came as a huge surprise, as he had never heard about the crime on the local news. He has a great sense of humor, and he had us laughing the whole time.
The most interesting part of the talk was hearing about his writing process. He said that he usually gets to the end of the first draft without knowing who the murderer is. He sometimes doesn’t know who the murderer is even after the second draft. He said that he becomes like a detective himself, trying to piece together the evidence to discover the most logical conclusion. I find this method amazing — what if he were to discover that there really is no solution and the evidence doesn’t add up to anything? But he said that’s never happened to him. It sounds like a hugely risky way to write a novel, but I like the idea of the author as detective, searching for the solution just as the detective does and the reader later will, rather than the other possible model of the author as God, presiding over a world with all the answers already at hand. He said he doesn’t see the point in writing a novel where the solution is already worked out. What’s the point of that? He writes to find out what the solution is. He said that the one time he wrote an outline of an entire novel complete with the mystery solved, he never went on to write the book itself, because he found the prospect boring. It was a good story, he said, and too bad to lose it, but what would be the point of doing anything more?
I’ve read only one Rankin novel, The Falls, but I enjoyed it very much and I’d like to read more. Getting to see Rankin in person has made me that much more eager to pick up some of his other books.