SFX Issue 191

February 2010

Profile:

Robert Rankin

The “Father of Far-Fetched Fiction” has written a book that may just bring a tear to your eye. It did to his…

Nothing’s straightforward in the Rankinverse. His latest novel, Retromancer , isn’t just a sequel to The Brightonomicon , it’s also a prequel to his first book, The Antipope . “Everything seemed to come around full circle,” explains Rankin, “like a sacred mandala, or a chocolate digestive.”

Such chronomangling will be of no surprise to Rankin’s regular readership, au fait with a writing style he proudly describes as “stream of semi-consciousness”. A purveyor of fine comic fantasy for over 30 novels now, he prefers to call his work “Far-Fetched Fiction”. It’s certainly difficult to pigeonhole: a melange of detective fiction, outrageous puns, the occult, seedy characters and time travelling vegetables, ensnared in plotlines that merge like the tangle of wires behind your TV set, but somehow still pump glorious pictures onto the screen.

It’s amazing, then, that Retromancer is being described as his most ambitious novel. Lack of ambition has never been a problem with Rankin. “In a way, I wrote it for David Warner,” he reveals, somewhat surprisingly, “the now legendary British actor who played my character Hugo Rune so wonderfully in the radio series of The Brightonomicon . He wanted to play Rune again and I mentioned this to my publisher who said, ‘Go on then, write a sequel, you know you want to.’ And I certainly did. Rune, you see, is based on my father and I wanted to write the final Hugo Rune epic, tie up all the loose ends and go out on a big bang that led right back to the beginning of my work. This book is a bit special; it made me cry at the end, it made the typist cry and even my editor. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever written. I took it beyond, although this is hard to explain and might sound somewhat pretentious. I hope it’s received kindly. It means a lot to me. And the radio series should appear next July. I’m thrilled about that.”

In Retromancer , something has gone wrong with the timeline. The Germans won World War 2 and the Wife’s Leg Café in Brentford is serving bratwurst. Regular Rankin anti-heroes Hugo Rune and Rizla must return to war-torn London to set history right, encountering spies, robots, death rays and gods along the way. And integral to all this is a set of tarot cards.

“As you may know, I’ve studied the occult throughout my adult life and rather foolishly practised it too,” admits Rankin. “I have to confess that many of the experiences I considered ‘spiritual’ at the time, I now believe to be chemical in origin. But I was an illustrator before I became a writer and the idea of designing a tarot pack held great appeal. The Brightonomicon was illustrated with 12 maps (which I’ve replaced with 12 new illustrations in the new format paperback edition), so I asked if I might be allowed to include 12 tarot illustrations in the new book and the lovely publisher said yes. Rune and Rizla always have to solve 12 cases based on something – there’s an awful lot of stuff in those illustrations if you study them closely enough.

“I’ve always wanted to illustrate my books, but previous publishers would have none of it. They argued rightly enough that a novel is a novel and doesn’t need illustrating. I do always try to do a bit more to entertain my readers. I did a CD of music for The Da-Da-De-Da Code – some people got that, others were bewildered. I’m grateful that the publishers let me do it and I’ll welcome my readers’ opinions on whether they work or not.” But that hasn’t been the extent of his recent bout of illustrating. He’s also drawn new covers for his back catalogue of books, which are available through his current publisher, Orion. Previously, many of them had featured sculptures created by Rankin instead.

“The covers had become too complex. My partner at the time and I were building things like the FA Cup out of beer bottle tops, but when reduced to two inches high on a book cover these things really didn’t work. I begged for years to be allowed to illustrate the covers of my books, but I’m a black and white illustrator and the majority of covers are in colour. I have to thank the folk at Orion for putting so much trust in me. I’m sure it wasn’t simply my threats to throw myself from a high place if they didn’t let me draw the covers that sealed the deal. But I’m absolutely thrilled to have the entire back catalogue repackaged with my illustrations on the covers. They should all be out by Christmas and I’m very proud of them. If they don’t lead to an upturn in sales, I may find the folk of Orion flinging me from a high place, but such is art.”

But ask Rankin to come up with a one-line pitch to sell his work to newcomers, and even he’s flummoxed. “I do take a lot of pleasure from being described as the ‘Father of Far-Fetched Fiction’ and the guy in The Observer called me (and it’s going on my tombstone) ‘stark raving genius’. Summed up in one line? ‘Not like any other, love ’em or hate ’em, they’re different.’ Whether that would sell any books, however, I couldn’t say.”