I have just been invited to host a chat with the famous Scottish crime writer, Ian Rankin, on November 19th during the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and so it seems like a good time to repost this blog post on how I met Ian Rankin and how he changed my life. It was first posted in January, 2011:
Well, a lot of what happened around The Beggar’s Opera (to be published sometime between the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012) involves sheer luck. Not to mention timing. But also persistence. Honestly, I was ready to trunk the entire manuscript. Tired of the eye-rolling of friends who thought I’d lost my mind, and those who said ‘well, at least you’re having fun.’
Fun? They’ve obviously never written a novel. It’s hard work. And being rejected 156 times is definitely not fun. Plus I was doing it as someone who was unemployed and hoping for a new career, or at least some income.
I finally decided to put the manuscript into a few international competitions. If it didn’t get any traction, I was done. Time to get back to being a lawyer. Or at least finish the realtor exams I’d started but stalled. I entered The Beggar’s Opera in the St. Martin’s/Minotaur contest in the U.S. I also entered it in the Unhanged Arthur Ellis competition in Canada, run by the Crime Writers of Canada. I’m Canadian. I thought I might have a shot at the Ellis, since I had sat as judge on the CWC non-fiction panel. The third, and least likely, was also the most prestigious: the Debut Dagger Award of the UK Crime Writers Association.
Canadians had done well in the past, but a Canadian had won the Debut Dagger the year before, another, three years before that. I thought it was unlikely that I’d get too far.
St. Martin’s was a wash. I didn’t even get a ‘thank you for your entry.’ The Unhanged Arthur Ellis short list was long, but I wasn’t on it. And then, the deadline for hearing about the Debut Dagger passed with no news. I finished my real estate exams and started looking for a brokerage to work with. A few weeks later, when I got a letter postmarked from England, I actually wondered who I knew there.
‘I am delighted to inform you that The Beggar’s Opera has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award,’ it began. And right then, I knew everything had changed.
Once the shortlist was announced, several agents from top U.K. literary agencies contacted me, asking for my manuscript. Was I coming to Harrogate, one asked, where the award would be announced? I hadn’t thought about it.
Since I was still unemployed, my friends raised the money for me to fly to Yorkshire. I hoped like hell I would win: after all, that would almost guarantee publication. But I didn’t. The Debut Dagger was awarded to a UK writer. I admit; I was pretty disappointed. And then, one of the agents I was supposed to meet didn’t show up. The other managed to avoid my eyes like a waiter in a snooty French restaurant.
I’d spent a lot of other people’s money and was no further ahead. Okay, I thought. I guess it’s real estate. At least I tried; I’d given it everything.
On my last night in England, I went to the bar for a last glass of wine before I returned to the hotel to pack for my red-eye flight back to Canada. The bar was empty. There were sessions going on that I couldn’t afford, and that’s where almost everyone else was. Which was why I was the only person at the bar when the Scottish author, Ian Rankin, walked by. Now, normally, if I see a celebrity, I leave them alone. But I’d promised the Crime Writers of Canada that I’d take photographs for their website.
“Mr. Rankin,” I called out. “Can I take your picture for a Canadian website?”
“Of course,” he said.
He asked me where I was from and when I said Ottawa, it turned out he had just returned from our Bluesfest the week before; he’d visited with his son. If we hadn’t had that five minute chat about the crazy 40 degree heat he’d experienced, I doubt he would have asked me why I was in Harrogate, or if I had an agent or a publisher. I told him about the Debut Dagger, and how many times I’d been turned down.
“It’s quite an accomplishment getting shortlisted nonetheless,” he said. “Have you contacted my Canadian publisher?” and then he named her.
“Well, no,” I said. “But I doubt she’d accept an unsolicited manuscript. They usually only deal with agents.”
“I think she will if you use my name,” he replied.
I almost fell over. He hadn’t read a word of my work. “Really?” I said. “You’d let me do that. Are you sure?”
I realized after he’d left that I hadn’t even introduced myself. When I got back to Canada, I contacted his publisher. “Well, of course, I’ll take a look at it if Ian is recommending it. Do you have an agent?” she asked. “Have you contacted Ian’s agent, Peter Robinson? ”
I found Peter’s email address online and emailed him. I included the entire thread, so he’d know that I’d met Ian Rankin only briefly. “I’d love to read your manuscript if Ian’s recommending it,” he replied minutes later. “But I can’t get to it for several weeks. We’re busy, getting ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair. I hope that’s all right with you.”
Weeks? I’d waited to hear from some agents for months. That was early Friday morning. On Monday morning, I came downstairs to find an email from Peter: ‘I read the manuscript over the weekend and quite literally couldn’t put it down. I love it and on the strength of this would love to represent the book and you.’
Three weeks later, The Beggar’s Opera was on the hot list at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Germany made a pre-emptive offer, followed by Holland, then Norway. And then Penguin Canada purchased the world English language rights.
‘I worked so hard that I got lucky,’ is the phrase that comes to mind. But Lady Luck has been very kind indeed. And so was Ian Rankin.