Writers’ Passport: J.J. Hensley Talks With Ian Rankin

By J.J. Hensley

Most of us have seen the beer commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World. I have often wondered what it would be like to interview a man like that, should he exist. It turns out he does exist, and his name is Ian Rankin. He has been a musician, a playwright, hosted documentaries, and been an ‘alcohol researcher’. Oh, and he happens to be an international bestselling author who witnessed an entire festival being held in honor of his most popular character. So, what do you ask the man who has done everything? Well, pretty much anything.

Your novels have been in print for over thirty years and over twenty of your novels have involved the character Inspector John Rebus. Many authors tire of writing about the same character over a long period of time. How do you manage to keep a fresh approach to Rebus?

I think there are various ways in which I keep Rebus ‘fresh’. For one thing, he ages in something approximating real time. So the Rebus I create today is different from the one of thirty or even twenty years ago.  Back then he would use his physical heft to intimidate people. Now, he is in his mid-60s and knows he doesn’t present as much of a threat as previously, so he has to change his way of doing business/getting results.  He shies away from fights/brawls in a way that he wouldn’t in the past – because he fears being beaten. His lifestyle has also caught up with him recently, and he is much more aware of his mortality.  So when I start a new book, I’m dealing with a character who has changed in the period since the previous book. Added to this, he is a complex personality and I’m not convinced I know all there is to know about him. I need to keep writing about him so he can reveal more of himself to me. I’ve also given myself a challenge, because he is now retired from the police force. So how can he inveigle his way into an inquiry?  How can I get him past the front desk of the police station? Again, this helps keep the series fresh.

While preparing for this interview, I came across information for RebusFest. It looked amazing! Can you tell us a little about the event and how it came about?

My publisher in the UK wanted to mark the 30th anniversary of Rebus, and we decided a weekend festival might be fun. It took a lot of planning, but it WAS a lot of fun.  There was a concert of live music – bands I like and Rebus would doubtless like – plus an exhibition focusing on the first novel (and featuring rejection letters from the five publishers who turned that first Rebus novel down). We also had whisky tastings, walking tours, an evening of conversation featuring a retired detective and a serving detective, etc. And Highland Park produced a malt whisky called Rebus 30!

Everyone knows you for the Rebus and Fox novels, but you authored a graphic novel, co-wrote a play, constructed several short stories, appeared in documentaries, and you are a self-proclaimed “frustrated musician.” What drives you to throw yourself into all of these arenas?

It’s good to stretch yourself, and I enjoy the challenge of writing in different media. I’m a big fan of comic books, so writing one was exciting.  The stage play (and various radio plays I’ve written) made me rethink form, structure and the construction of dialogue.  I fronted a TV documentary series about evil, which got me access to death row in the USA, and an exorcist in the Vatican. I learned a lot about that subject, which may have crept into some of my books subsequently.

I read an interesting interview you gave to The Guardian in which you describe the reaction of fans who stumble across you in what is the favorite drinking spot of John Rebus and yours. You said you couldn’t help but feel sorry for those fans because they meet you and expect Rebus. Instead of getting a complex and dangerous man knocking back whisky, they get you with your pint and a paper.  Have there been times you wished you were more like Rebus, or times you thought about making him more like you?

I think Rebus is more like me now than in the early days. When I invented him, I really didn’t know him at all and didn’t realize he would be sticking around. I was a 25-year old postgrad student, not married, no kids, never smoked. He was 40, a lifelong smoker, divorced with one daughter. Now that I’m a parent, I can relate to his relationship with his daughter. And sure, there have been times I wished I was more like him. He’s tougher than me, less scared of physical confrontation, and he has great one-liners – I only think of great one-liners hours after I could have used them! I sometimes think of him as the big brother I never had. We grew up in the same town, attended the same school, but I was the one who went off to university…

It is documented in many places that you were once an alcohol researcher. However, I never found a description of what that job entailed. Can you enlighten us?

That was a real job! They were doing a research project at Edinburgh University about the drinking habits of teenagers. I had to interview the subjects in their homes. It was only for a few months, but it was money.

Over the past three decades, you have been interviewed countless times. Is there a question you wish more people would ask? If so… consider it asked and fire away!

I wish more people would ask about music. I AM a frustrated rock star (like many thriller writers I could name). So if you ask me for my top five albums of all time, I’d have Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones), Astral Weeks (Van Morrison), Solid Air (John Martyn), Ricochet (Tangerine Dream) and Today and Now (Coleman Hawkins). But ask me again next week and I’d probably have changed my mind. I’m not sure Rebus would like Tangerine Dream, but he would rate the others.

The 21st Rebus novel is out now. What can we expect from you this year?

2017 is a fallow year for me – no new book, although I’m kept busy by short stories, radio stuff, a new stage play and a planned reboot of the TV show. 

Thanks to Ian for taking the time to speak with us at The Thrill Begins. It looks like there will be plenty more to talk about in 2018!

Ian Rankin Announces a New Rebus Book to be Published in 2018: https://www.ianrankin.net/ian-rankin-announces-new-rebus-book-2018/

To learn more about Ian Rankin’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.

To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s newest novel, click on the cover below: