Robert RankinRobert Rankin, author of 19 books and well-known sprout connoisseur is touring, promoting that 19th book – Snuff Fiction, out on July 8. Next week he turns 50.

This is a traumatic time in anyone’s life. It is initially today the focus of Rankin’s, as we meet in a hotel lobby in Manchester. During the tour he has eschewed the sweeties and lost 7lb in weight. Is this an attempt to atone for the delights of touring or some aesthete to counter the calendar? "Its not a fear of old age, because I’m terrified of that anyway" he confided in a Manchester Hotel. "It is having a reasonably dramatic effect on my life." "Why?" "Because I’m 50 next week!

"That means I can look forward to being 60, rather than 15 and looking forward to 25. Of course I’d go back. Its much more fun being younger I wouldn’t even need to go back, knowing what I know now. I don’t know much more now. You can only know a limited number of things. I’m no more clever or worldly-wise than I was when I was 25. I’m probably more gullible, I never became smart. I don’t believe that with age comes wisdom. I think that’s nonsense. With age comes age".

During our conversation we will also touch on such topics as death, various ailments best known for their appearance in advancing years, the making of a will, and biographies of authors: "These days it’s not enough to have been an author, you have to have been a personality as well, have done exciting things as well. The life of an author isn’t going to make much of a biography – He sat down and wrote a book…that’s interesting isn’t it? What’d he do next? He wrote another one.’

The meeting is surreal. In the hotel bar to which we repair is a man dressed as an 18th century sea captain. Is it an advert for insurance or something more weird and Rankinian I wonder.

The interview gets off to an interesting start, since it turns out that Rankin is something of a technophobe "I’ve heard of the Internet, I’ve never actually seen it. I mean I’ve seen it over people’s shoulders, but that’s about all. I don’t own a computer."

"So, where is FTL then, in a big box somewhere. Somewhere there is a building with a big computer with thousands of these memory things in it, whatever they are, what ever they look like...I hate it, I’m sorry. Everything about it is sinister. All this link around the world,

"I write every word in exercise books. 23 exercise books equal a novel. You know where you are with an exercise book. I always wrote in pubs, then I moved to a village and they found out who I was and I could no longer write in pubs, because people came up to me and talked to me, so now I have an office, two rooms full of my collection of curios, and I sit in there with my biro and my exercise books. I know you’re supposed to sit there with a word processor these days, taking out this paragraph and transporting that one and running your spellchecker…yeah, right!

"If I ever had to take it all seriously, to the degree of realising what I thought I ‘d got myself into, I’d be so scared, I don’t think I could go on with it. Thinking…these books are going to be published, that’s how I make my living, it sends the fear of God through me. I don’t want to be thinking that, I want to think ‘I’m very lucky to be doing this, It’s a great way to make a living. I’m enjoying it, other people are enjoying this, it’s all terrific.

Sprout"When I sit down and write that’s all I do, sit down and write. I’m contracted to write a book every six months. A book’s only 80.000 words long…you write 2,000 words a time, that’s 40 sittings. I really don’t know how long it takes to write a book. I wrote A Dog Called Demolition in 23 days. Not 23 days in a row, but I keep a record of how much I’ve written and when I looked back I thought ‘you can’t write a book in 23 days’ but I had. If you’re working at your full mental potential – but usually it takes three or four months.

"I got into it because I wanted to be master of my own life. I wanted to get out of the nine to five day. Mostly it seems to work, Although mostly I go over the deadlines by about a month, mind you.

"One of the reasons I write is because I want to leave something behind when I’m dead. I’m very aware of my own mortality. I may have ten or 15 years left. 100 years from now people will still have my books. 200 years from now there may even be a few left. 300 years from now, one left in a library somewhere. In 500 years they will all have fallen apart…so whatever fame I have, if I’m incredibly lucky might last for 500 years. So, what is fame worth in the history of mankind, before the sun goes supernova and the planet goes up in smoke, fame is a blink in cosmic time. The human race is a blip in the cosmos; it’s not even noticable, so aliens coming down and landing on a set date – I don’t think so. We have this ridiculous sense of self-importance as if we are the be-all and end-all. We won’t colonise the stars; we will run out of resources, before we ever get anywhere. We don’t even have evolution any more in the western world."

"So, dare I ask, how would you like to be remembered?"
"As a guy who wrote a cannon of books that weren’t like anybody else’s and he never sold out and wrote a commercial book in his life. He was lucky enough to get published.

"Writing is fun. Oh, yes. Sometimes it’s terrifying, because you do sit with that piece of paper in front of you, thinking ‘I can’t remember how to write a book...I’ve no idea...perhaps if I just took the advance money and ran away and hid’ but it is usually fun. If it wasn’t fun, if it was laboured, you could tell when you read it.

"Writing the first chapter is the hardest, undoubtedly, but when you get two-thirds of the way into the book it should just fly out of the end of the pen"

Rankin is known for having a variable biography – each book tells a different story about its author. "Oh yes, its just tut. I remember being interviewed a long time ago on the radio, and they asked me a question, and this lie sprang into my head and I thought, ‘you never know, oh yes, I did this and that’, and we had a bit of conversation and I thought, yes, I can spread all kinds of disinformation- the biographies are a send up and a joke, but you would not believe some of the things people believe that I have done...because I’ve told them I’ve done them, and they think ‘what an interesting man’. I don’t know whether other people are telling me the truth."

Robert RankinRankin, besides being unimpressed by the Internet and all its hardware, professes ignorance of such as Star Trek – " are they military, all those uniforms, are they the navy of space. Who are they? Who pays for the five year mission, for the fuel? Why do they all speak english?" (They’ve all got a thing in their ear’)

"What does do it for me? Things like Blade Runner, richly dark, clever and stylish and wonderful, Metropolis… and then there are the ones like Starship Troopers, an absolute hoot, it was so gory, Star Wars, no sorry, I can’t live with anything that has just been done for profit. How many years has it taken to build all those products? Every shop, everywhere, thousands of different products. A marketing exercise like that turns my stomach. We did a signing at Andromeda in Birmingham and I asked Rog Peyton where all the Star Wars stuff was - ‘Couple of books in the corner’ says Rog ‘If you want any more go to Waterstones, they’ve got them’. Rog Peyton is a God."

"That’s all very well, but what if you were offered squillions of dollars for a story?" "Well, a couple of times in the past I have made what people considered to be an appalling mistake. Twice I had an offer to turn a book into a video game. I said no, want nothing to do with it. I hate video games. Then someone whispered in my ear how much money I had just declined, and I went and banged my head on the wall and then thought, stuff it, I don’t believe in them, I’m not doing it’ I won’t take PLR either. Pretty soon it will be 10p to hire a book out.

"I once got close, Armageddon: the Musical was nearly bought by Joe Dante, but when Dante approached the Elvis Foundation, they would not allow Elvis to be portrayed as I had portrayed Elvis, so that was the end of that. But I would take George Lucas’s money for a book, if they got someone really good to direct it – Quentin Tarantino directing The Brentford Triangle."

"Aha, why Brentford?" "Lived there for nine years. Loved it. Met some very, very strange people. The question is, are there strange people there, always there, waiting to be met, or is it me? Once you’ve lived in Brentford you’re spoiled for everywhere else in the world.

"Before I went into writing altogether I had 41 jobs and I was sacked from 39. That wasn’t so bad back then in the 60s and 70s, there were jobs everywhere.

Finally I ended up working for myself and the one thing I can do is carpentry. It started because a friend of mine was having a kitchen built and he told me he was paying £5,000, it was one of those Smallbone jobs with panelled doors and I said ‘I can build you that’. I said I can build you that for £2,500 and I knocked this thing up and I did a good job, I did stuff the kitchen company wouldn’t have done, I made it all fit exactly, it was all custom, the worktops at just the right height for them, the shelves just so deep. They thought it was brilliant and a couple of weeks later someone else wanted one and in no time I’d built dozens of kitchens. I did that for about five years. By the time I stopped to write books I was earning less from books than from kitchens – and I can’t say that books were more satisfying, because when you’ve finished building a kitchen which is exactly what somebody wants they’re really thrilled with it and you can go into that kitchen and sit there and think ‘I made that’. You can only build it two ways, that’s right or wrong. The drawers either open and close or they don’t. With a book you can always go back and change it, mess around with it, but you can’t mess around with wood. It’s very satisfying.

"I still do carpentry – there’s always something to build. The contrast with writing is that doing hard physical work is much less tiring – when you’re using your muscles all the time, you’re fitter, while with writing – well, I didn’t get this back from running a marathon. It was from being hunched over the exercise books. You sit hunched and you’ve been writing for hours, it seems like just a few minutes, but it might be three hours and you feel exhausted.

"One thing I can do, that they let me do now, that I’ve been fighting for many years to do, is my own covers. So then I had to try to find a way of doing covers that wasn’t like anybody else’s. I realised that I couldn’t sit down and draw these covers, then they’d have been the same as everybody else’s covers. So I thought I could make sculptures instead.

Snuff Fiction"For Snuff Fiction it’s a big teapot. I stretched leatherette round it, sewed it all up at the back, then went to the local bondage shop to get all the spikey bits. The man in there asked I wanted them for so I told him I was making a bondage teapot. He threw me out. Seems I wasn’t taking bondage very seriously. I get a real buzz out of doing sculpture; the next one is The Devil’s Hairdryer. I’ve got another six books to do. I love to get back to the art school thing, get the clay out. Errr yes, I have a BA in graphic design.

How I got into that, I was working as a labourer, and I was working in Laurens Van de Post’s place (he was one of the nicest guys I have ever met) and the end result was that he sent me to his friend Bill, Sir William Coldstream, head of the Slade. He thought I wasn’t good enough to go to the Slade and I said I’d always wanted to go to Ealing Tech. At first they didn’t want me either and I went home and said to my dad ‘getting in will be nepotism’ and my dad asked whether I wanted to go to art school or not and I said that yeah I did. ‘Okay’ he said. ‘Other kids will get in because they went to good schools and they have lots of qualifications, You want to be there, maybe even more than some of them, so just go. If you can’t handle it because it is too hard for you, you’ll know you shouldn’t be there, but if you can do it and enjoy it, then do it.’

And it was three years of bliss.

"I got into writing by being introduced to Alan Aldridge, taking short stories to his big rectory house in Norfolk [uk] and he said ‘if you can write a novel I reckon I can get it published for you’. So I wrote The Antipope and he took it to Pan and they said they would publish it.

"Two days later the shock hit me like a brick…Thought to myself…we can get a nice house, do lots of stuff…twenty years later still got an overdraft!

"I once was on a train and I saw someone actually reading one of my books, he did a sort of doubletake when he recognised me. I asked him if he had enjoyed the book and luckily he had, I signed it for him and he bought me a beer and then came along to a signing session too. What he didn’t realise is that it was probably more of a thrill for me than it was for him, to see someone really reading something I had written. It was such a buzz, Normally you don’t really get any feedback, you work on your own.

"I have fun working in all sorts of puzzles and things as well, like acrostics. I fill the books with all that kind of stuff – in A Dog Called Demolition it's in the tracklist, for example. That was hard to contrive. Some people spot it.

Rankin still wonders just where his fiction fits in. Most of it is not pure SF, or pure fantasy. It is perhaps a mixture of both, plus weirdness, viewed with astigmatism. "I don’t really belong in the science fiction bookshelf. I get put there because there is nowhere else to put me. I’ve written two or three books of SF in my life. Neither do I read a lot of it, so I don’t know what’s going on in SF. Having said that, the next book is about time travel. It’s called Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls, and is due out at Christmas. Its about how human evolution has come to an end now, because there is no more natural selection so in about three thousand years they realised that there is nothing left to do, everything has been invented and done, nothing more can be done, that’s the end, but of course everyone wants something new, then the huge computer that runs everything comes up with one more thing to save everything – time travel. Everyone goes, ‘time travel, oh it doesn’t work’ so one of the scientists says he will go back and get the newspaper, so he goes back but he can’t get the paper, so he gets sent back again but he goes back a bit too far and he’s already there, and in no time at all (!) there are about six of him going backwards and forwards fighting over this newspaper. At the same time all these hackers, who spend all their day hacking into computers have downloaded the programme for themselves, and they want to travel back to see the Stones, the Beatles, and Woodstock. One of them decides to do some good, like stop John Lennon getting shot and he does, and changes everything …now of course we don’t know that everything has been changed, that Lennon didn’t get shot and the Beatles won the Eurovision Song Contest three years running. Only one person knows, because he’s been stuck underground and he comes back and asks ‘why is Richard Branson on the £1 notes?’ and everyone says ‘that’s Prince Charles’ ‘no it’s not’...and after that things get complicated…"

Remember, knows nothing about computers and doesn’t write science fiction. No, of course not…