Standing in Another Man’s Grave with a Gun Machine: Warren Ellis and Ian Rankin In Conversation

Ian Rankin has called Warren Ellis’s GUN MACHINE “hellish fun.” Warren Ellis has called Ian Rankin’s  STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE “a magnificent read.” Figuring the Rankin and Ellis might have a thing or two to say to one another, we put the two in touch and watched the fireworks ensue. Their conversation follows…

Warren Ellis: In STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, you make returning to John Rebus look like putting on a comfortable old suit, but I wonder if it was. Was there ever a point where you assumed you’d never talk to Rebus again? Or were you waiting for the right story with which to go and see him again?

Ian Rankin: I retired Rebus because the real world demanded it. At that time (2006-7) detectives in Scotland had to retire at 60, and that’s how old I reckoned he was. But I knew that given the chance he would apply to work as a civilian in Edinburgh’s Cold Case unit. It really exists and is staffed by retired detectives. So when I got a notion for a story that involved a cold case…

Now let me ask you something, Warren: as a novelist, I found it hard the one time I wrote a graphic novel. I think authors of graphic novels work harder than novelists, who have all the time and words in the world. How different is it, approaching a novel to a graphic novel? What are the pros and cons of each?

Ellis: Writing a novel, for me, is always having to learn again when to stop describing.  You have to be so blunt and specific, for an artist, to achieve the image and narrative step you’re looking for, and doing that in prose is dull and thudding and takes away the possibility of the image growing and breathing in the reader’s head.  It’s like that art trick where someone draws three lines and a dot but yet everyone can see a face in it.  Not the same face, sure, because no-one sees everything the same way, but definitely a face.  But if you drew that face in detail, many of your readers would say, “huh, I didn’t think they looked like that,” and they’re kicked out of the book.  It’s that specific effect of evocation I have to try and find again.

The pros of writing a novel are about having space and time.  Graphic novels are limited containers of information, especially so in the amount of information one can radiate off a page, and books aren’t.  But there’s an atmosphere you can conjure in six words of text and a simple drawing that books simply can’t capture.  Comics are a hybrid form: they are semiotics and slogans and theatre and iconography and a dozen other things.  Like all hybrids, they have some weird weaknesses, and there are workings and effects in the prose novel that the graphic novel can’t really approach. But there are things in the graphic novel that the prose book simply cannot do.  They are pure visual narrative.

Back to you: Edinburgh’s a city that a healthy person can walk across in under an hour (and, if you’re doing it during the Film Festival, you can do it while never bumping into anyone who isn’t from fucking London), but eighteen Rebus cases made it feel as big as the world. The new book is much more geographically expansive, but, somehow, to me, made an entire country seem almost small. Scotland as a chilly little cage of huddled settlements. How much was Scottish independence on your mind while you were writing?

Rankin: In this book I wanted Rebus out of his comfort zone. He knows Edinburgh too well. I wanted to show him other Scotlands—the different psyches available beyond the central belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow. It doesn’t seem to matter if I consciously write with the political dimension in mind—reviewers see it anyway! Scotland is a small but complex and conflicted country with a big decision ahead of it. And all I know is: Rebus would vote no to independence and his colleague Siobhan would vote yes.

Now my question: I live on Edinburgh and set my work there. You live in England but tend to set your stories in the US. Why is that? Is there something about the culture that attracts you? And how much research into the US do you feel obliged to do? For example, the New York of GUN MACHINE. Did you go lick its brownstones or did you get to know the place virtually?

Ellis: I think it was Martis Amis who once described America as “where they road-test the future.”  Which probably says as much about Amis as anything else, but it’s an interesting way to view the American experiment.

The simple answer, really, is that I became a student of America because for a long time I was writing either extant company-owned properties that featured America and Americans, or for publishers that tended to favour an American setting for commercial reasons.

But I do find the country endlessly fascinating.  It’s like a vast cultural oven.  You put that many people in one place, with that many resources and that much freedom to elevate or destroy themselves, and then put it under pressure, and all kinds of weird and wonderful chemical events will happen.  If there was a God, then America is something he would do if his television was broken: a constant source of entertainment.

STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE felt to me like a novel where, at an extremely late date, John Rebus does some growing up, and Malcolm Fox is revealed as essentially an immaturely pious man. Am I being unfair?

Rankin: No, I don’t think that’s unfair. An American might say that Fox has a hair up his ass (or am I misremembering my Stateside colloquialisms?). He has always lived by the rules but he feels stifled by that. He is jealous of Rebus, who gets away time and again with flouting procedure. Rebus meantime sees himself as a dinosaur: not so confident that his methods, so useful in the past, are still relevant in the present day. Both men are in flux, both are at war with themselves.

Can I ask: What comes first for you: character or plot? In GUN MACHINE we have an extraordinarily-realised, memorable and unique character who is a killing machine. Did he come to you fully-formed or did you start with the image of the room full of guns, each one with its own story?

Ellis: Every job’s different, for me.  Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes it’s a setting.  I try to let each job grow in the way it wants.  In this instance, it was kind of… neither?  The seed of the book was wanting to write something about old weird America, and to see if those ancient patterns and places did leak up into the present streets.  Everything came from that.  For me, it’s a book about history first.

So what did you think of the new David Bowie single?

Rankin: I liked the atmosphere of the new Bowie single. Didn’t strike me as memorably tuneful on first hearing but it grew on me. There’s nostalgia there, and it takes the Bowie fan back to Berlin and the time of some of his best work. Alas, now I’ve seen the spoof video with Harry Hill, I’ll never be able to watch the original without bringing it to mind.

One of the big things about Bowie is that he tended never to repeat himself. He seemed restless, a shape-shifter. I could almost say the same about your own work. Discuss…

Ellis: Oh, you bastard….!

In all honesty, I don’t think it’s true.  Best case scenario is that the world keeps changing and I keep up with it as best I can.  I’m sure I’ve repeated myself more than once.  I’m just trying to make sure I’m not too far behind the moment, and that I can see the changes when they come.

Warren Ellis is the award-winning creator of graphic novels such as Fell, Ministry of Space, Planetary, and Transmetropolitan and the author of the novel Crooked Little Vein. His graphic novel RED was adapted into the #1 hit film of the same name starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. He lives in London. GUN MACHINE, which the New York Times has called “A pleasingly quirky crime thriller … which races along in crisp hard-boiled fashion,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons. STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE is now available in bookstores everywhere.