By Elizabeth Hughes
After 19 books, a mantelpiece full of awards, a graphic novel and an OBE it is surprising to hear Ian Rankin announce that:
“Writing does not get any easier. I wish it did. I thought it would. Like stripping an engine, I thought it would get easier the more you did it – but it doesn’t.”
It’s a sobering thought for any fledgling novelists in the audience, seeking inspiration at the First Fictions Festival.
Sobering thoughts aside, Ian Rankin is great company on a winter’s night in Brighton.
Despite his success, he remains unpretentious and down-to-earth with a dry sense of humour. He is open and honest with the audience, discussing the early years of his career, how he uses writing to make sense of the world and why he retired his beloved Detective Rebus character, causing dismay to his readers and publisher alike.
Rankin is also here to talk about his unpublished first novel, written on an electric typewriter when he was a PhD student, which has not seen the light of day for over 25 years.
It’s a curious tale, Rankin himself has been bemused to read it again after forgetting its very existence and calls it “an odd book,” The story of its survival and re-discovery is just as strange.
Summer Rites is just 150 pages long and took eight months to write, longer than the author now needs to write a full length novel. At the time, Rankin could not afford to photocopy the manuscript and so it is miraculous that the original and only copy has survived.
Back in 1984, it was posted to various publishers and always returned safely but with notes attached about what changes the author should make before it could be considered for print.
After several such letters, Rankin chose to ignore all the comments, placed the pages in a box and started work on a second book, “The Flood” which became his first published novel.
Last year those pages, complete with Tipp-Ex and hand-written notes, re-surfaced in Rankin’s garage having survived the publishers’ comments and numerous house moves.
This “odd book” is a black comedy set in a fictional hotel in Firthshire and features witchcraft, voyeurism and the kidnapping of a famous American novelist by the Provisional branch of the Scottish National Party.
Strange stuff indeed. “Will it ever be published?” I ask.
“No” is the emphatic reply from Rankin, “It needs too much work and in my experience, juvenilia often reduces a writer’s reputation rather than adding to it.”
So, Summer Rites will go back into its box and back into the garage.
Meanwhile, Ian Rankin has just started work on his next book and retains his love of words and the craft of writing.
“We should have fun with language,” he says, “I am always excited to find new writers who are having fun and trying new things.”
Surely that’s good advice and inspiration for all budding novelists out there.