Of Sprouts and Men: Robert Rankin Interviewed

After having held "some forty-two or forty-three" different jobs over the period of his life, Robert Rankin settled down to being a writer. Nancy Sparling went to talk to him about his career...

One of the most well-known writers of humorous fiction – classified by the bookstores and publishers as science fiction/fantasy – Robert Rankin refers to his own work as “tall tales or far-fetched fiction”. While they cannot fit perfectly into any set category, science fiction is where he would most like to be placed. ‘It is probably the most exciting section,’ he says, ‘and I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.’ Beginning with The Antipope over fifteen years ago, Rankin has been writing novels ever since. While not always wanting to be a writer, and indeed starting out life as an illustrator after receiving a diploma in Graphics from Ealing School of Art (where he studied with Freddie Mercury), he has always known that he ‘couldn’t cope with the prospect of working for a living. The idea of working 9 to 5 was horrible.’ He has always wanted to work for himself, setting his own hours and achieving his own goals.

Rankin did work for several years as a freelance illustrator, ‘but the problem with that is that you didn’t get paid. They’d take months and months and then just not pay you at all.’ Then he’d have to take a job to get by, but because he had a job he couldn’t go see his agent or clients when work did come up, so he would lose out all around.

Over the period of his life, Rankin has held ‘some forty-two or forty-three jobs, being a full-time writer only for the last five years or so.’ Between the publication of his first novel and giving up outside employment all together, he was employed ‘in thirty-nine different jobs, thirty-seven of which he was sacked from and the other two he quit.’

This propensity to be hired and to take on work has spanned a variety of careers, from building work, shop assistant, office jobs, lead singer in a rock band, and many, many others. He even ‘worked for the Kray twins.’ Well, sort of. He ‘had a stall at Brick Lane selling junk and antiques for three weeks.’ When after the first week the price of a stall was put up from £3 to £4 per week, he complained and muttered to his neighbouring stall keepers. They hushed him up quickly and told him not to make a fuss. Rankin didn’t understand. Why couldn’t he complain to the council? he wondered. Because it was not the council, they hurriedly assured him, it was ‘The Brothers’. The Kray twins owned the stalls and hence his loose employment by these well-known gangsters.

Rankin’s favourite job after writing is carpentry. It is a very satisfying task as “carpentry is either right or wrong. It’s different from writing, as writing is never ‘right’, you can always change it, make it different, make it better.” It is a definite achievement that the craftsman can feel proud of and satisfied with a job well done.

In the seventies Rankin was writing short stories when he met “a girl who worked for Aurelia Entertainment”. They were looking for writers so he gave her some stories to show her boss, the 1960’s icon and illustrator Alan Aldridge. Thankfully for Rankin’s writing ambitions, the head of the company was delighted with his work, but told him that he couldn’t sell the short stories and asked him to do a novel.

Writing furiously for six months, Rankin merged a group of his short stories into his first novel, The Antipope. It was taken to Pan and sold within two weeks. He has been writing ever since and his twelfth book, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, came out in October.

When he first began writing, Rankin “really liked Spike Milligan and Flann O’Brien”. He longed to “write something for the English like O’Brien” did for the Irish. He has always felt that the “Irish are the most exciting writers because of the way they use words. They have a way of communication that is almost melodic and they weave wonderful sentences.”

In his search for something different, Rankin began writing about the strange and bizarre. In fact, most of his ideas come from the Fortean Times. ‘It is like my bible,’ shares Rankin, ‘my major source of inspiration.’ Besides reading this magazine, he ‘has a library full of paranormal and occult books.’ But not only does Rankin read about mysterious happenings, but he also ‘collects weird stuff’. His ambition is to one day ‘open a curiosities museum’.

He is currently working on a book entitled A Dog Called Demolition. ‘It was inspired by an article in the Fortean Times about Multiple Personality Disorders.’ He explains the idea. ‘In the US a judge threw out a claim for MPD and sent a man to prison for twenty-five years. This man had claimed to be possessed by Zaigor, the voice of George, and a dog called Demolition.’ Rankin’s voice rises in excitement as he reveals his own plot. For his book, he thought, ‘What if these entities are real, but when the person gets sent off to prison the entities leave as they don’t want to be in prison?’ He took the concept from there and the completed novel is due out next April.

Currently Rankin writes two novels per year, enough ‘to pay for the mortgage. I don’t like it, but it comes down to economics.’ He does not have a daily routine, but rather ‘works as and when’ he feels like it. In an interview ‘you’re supposed to say you sit at your desk and write 9 till 6 every day,’ says Rankin. ‘But this isn’t true. If you look at all of the big, wealthy, and famous writers, they spend their time enjoying their money – on holidays, shopping, or whatever. I don’t believe you can write from 9 to 6. It’s not plumbing. Writing has to be artistic and inspiration doesn’t work like that.’

‘For me the best time of year to write is January to March. It’s rainy and cold so you don’t want to go outside’ and are happy to stay indoors and just write. The busiest times of the year are right before a deadline. The last few weeks are manic,’ says Rankin.

Married with four children (ages 18, 15, 11, and 6, though Rankin ‘may have a year wrong’), he feels that he is probably more of a distraction to his family than they are to him. ‘We live down this little lane in the country. It’s not far from the shops, but seems quite isolated. It is very comforting to have the kids playing outside.’ If anything, Rankin disturbs his wife ‘by coming down for cups of coffee when she’s trying to design her garden.’

Robert Rankin now lives near Brighton after growing up in west London and having spent the last ten years moving around on the south coast, but he won’t specify the exact location. He’s received too much antagonism for that. His ‘characters are based on real people. In Brentford people didn’t mind, but in Sussex they do. Someone even shot out the windscreen of my car with an air rifle. I know who it is, but what can you do?’

Unlike most writers, Rankin doesn’t read contemporary fiction. He concentrates mainly on the Victorian period up to the 1950’s. Biographies are also acceptable, as are ‘weird’ books.

Of his own novels, his favourite is ‘usually the latest one just finished, but I always ask myself if I died just after I finished a book, would I want that to be the one I was remembered for?’ But overall, he ‘would have to say that The Brentford Triangle is the best.’

Taken from The Best of Prism UK (The BFS Newsletter), published for the World Fantasy Convention 1997, ed. David J Howe; reprinting material from Prism UK – Editor: Debbie Bennett, Commissioning Editor: David J. Howe.