Illustration: Sophie Henson
Questions that authors are never asked
As the Hay festival kicks off, with world-class authors being interviewed on stage all week, we invited writers to follow the example of Nadine Gordimer – one of the star billings this year – and ask themselves questions journalists never ask . . .
Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
Extremely. I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get the names "right" – even for the most minor walk-on characters. If you christen a character correctly, he or she, I believe, already starts to live on the page. You don't have to go the whole Dickensian-Vonneguttian hog, but a little unusualness about the right name works wonders. Characters called perfectly nice and normal names like "Martin Foster" or "Sally Thomas" will always struggle a bit to claim your attention.
What about the titles of your novels?
I couldn't publish a novel if I wasn't happy about the title. The title is a kind of benediction on the whole enterprise. To send a book out into the world with a title I wasn't happy with seems inconceivable to me. Sometimes the right title comes almost immediately; sometimes you're still sweating at it as the 11th hour comes and goes. It's a vitally important omen – for me, the novelist. I don't think it matters particularly to the reader.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?
Many, I'm sure. In my case I think being a novelist prevented me from ever learning to drive – natural indolence coupled with an absence of need. I also have a sneaking suspicion that eczema is the novelist's disease – or some kind of similar skin problem. Any suggestions, Dr Freud? Also there is the career-long advantage/disadvantage that you don't have to worry about waking up with a hangover.
What's your favourite fruit?
Why do you write for children rather than for adults?
I've been very focused from six or seven years old – I always wanted to write realistic but imaginative children's books, the sort I desperately wanted to read when I was growing up in the 1950s and could rarely find.
You seem to have a lot of time for children, and chat to each one at long signing sessions. Don't you ever get sick of kids?
There are occasional children who are pert or demanding and irritating – but I always try hard to be friendly. Mostly, the children I meet are delightful, and it's a joy to talk to them. It's easy to be warm and welcoming – because I know that at the end of the day I return to a serene and child-free adult home.
Are you interested in anything that isn't child-oriented?
Of course I am. I collect antiquarian books, and have a vast library; I love art and know my way around most of the major art galleries; I have a passion for unlikely things like Doctor Who, Queen, films of the 50s, dancing, medieval saints, designer clothes, highboard diving . . . but don't ever expect me to go on Mastermind!
How many people have you done away with over the course of your career?
You mean the body count in my books? I've no idea. I think it's quite low – one or two corpses per tome, and each book represents a year in the life of Edinburgh.
Ever dispatched someone and then regretted it?
Often. The prospective member of the Scottish parliament in Set In Darkness – I liked him, but the narrative didn't. Then there was the old priest Rebus used to hang out with – he died of natural causes, but it came as a bit of a shock.
Have you ever been in trouble with the police?
Back when I was writing the first Rebus, they did add me to their files for a short time. I'd gone into a police station to ask a few questions, and it turned out Knots and Crosses bore some similarities to a case that was ongoing back then.
Why do you never write about sex?
I find it embarrassing.
More embarrassing than violence?
So when were you last involved in a real-life punch-up?
I'm usually the one holding the jackets.
If you were going to commit the perfect murder, how would you go about it?
Pick a victim whose absence from the world is going to cause as few ripples as possible.
You've obviously given this some thought.
Keep bugging me with questions and you'll find out.
Ian Rankin, thank you.
Are you a member of the Cornish aristocracy?
Alas, no. No Manderleys for me and nor for Jon Tremain, my first husband, who gifted his nice name to me. I used to be somebody known as Rosie Thomson. Rosie was fond of black eyeliner and white boots. Her paternal great-grandfather was William Thomson, archbishop of York. Her maternal great-grandmother was a chambermaid.
What was the name of your first typewriter?
Larry. It was a secondhand, industrial strength Adler, bought for eight quid in a blighted alley off Tottenham Court Road. It weighed a lot more than a mouth organ and made a rather more repetitive noise. Now, Larry Adler lives in soundless retirement in my attic.
What d'you want to be when you grow up?
A café singer in Paris, circa 1958, friend of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand. And I'd like to be kissed at least once by Simone de Beauvoir (but not by Sartre).
Aside from cocoa, what is your favourite bedtime drink?
A wicked concoction Richard Holmes and I have titled the Norfolk Slammer. We were given the recipe by a barman in Les Halles and have passed it on to a few carefully selected friends from mid-Wales, Somerset and Bengal.
No, but seriously . . .
My favourite line of poetry is: "And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow".
Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job, like data entry or working in a factory?
When the writing isn't going very well, I admit I often wish I did something mechanical and repetitive for a living, perhaps something entirely physical. Of course, when I do such labours in the garden or around the house, like digging or raking, I tend to be irritable, so perhaps I'm dreaming.
Do you believe in a deity?
I'd like to believe in a God, and admire people who do, but I suppose in the end I can't say that I do. I don't know if this makes me more or less optimistic about existence. I do know I believe in humanity, not its inherent goodness or fallibility or anything like that, but rather its unending and amazing variety and possibility.
Do you ever write naked?
Not quite naked, but on hot, humid summer days (my study is poorly air-conditioned) I have to strip down to my undershorts to work. But almost stripped, there's a definite feeling of the elemental while I'm writing, a sense of physical exertion that's a welcome counterpoint to the endless operations of endless thought
(more & more . . . damned interesting)