“Is it because half of the year it’s very dark?” asks Margaret Atwood, wondering what it is about Scotland which seems to draw its writers to the sinister and supernatural.
“With nothing but whisky,” replies Ian Rankin, whose own novels may not have strong supernatural elements, but certainly still take a walk on the dark side.
“Scotland’s a small place,” he says. “Full of storytellers and stories.”
They are joined on stage by Valerie Martin, the award-winning US novelist with a close familiarity with some of these storytellers. Her novel Mary Reilly retold Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and her forthcoming book — The Ghost Of The Marie Celeste — features another of Edinburgh’s literary giants, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Stevenson sent a letter to Conan Doyle,” she says, “saying his writing was ‘very good to read before sleeping’. He also referred to Conan Doyle as a ‘fellow spookist'”. Perhaps Stevenson was interested in spiritualism too.”
Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism is well documented, despite his otherwise seemingly rational mind. “He was easily duped,” says Martin. Though, as the previous evening saw the Edinburgh haar descend and shroud everything in an eerie mist, she admits the atmosphere of Scotland can be quite otherworldly.
“Edinburgh encompasses the rational and the irrational,” says Rankin, comparing the dual nature of the Old and New Towns to the likes of Jekyll & Hyde. “Something that’s in the literature is also in the city.”
Atwood goes on to ask about ‘the Scottish play’, commenting that, in her opinion, Lady Macbeth is “the perfect corporate wife, just trying to help him in his career.”
Rankin is however reluctant to talk about it, in case mentioning the play by name brings that fabled bad luck to his own theatrical script — Dark Road — which he is attending the first rehearsal of at the Lyceum later today.
Instead, they go on to discuss some other celebrated dark Scottish storytellers, particularly James Hogg and his seminal Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Martin refers to it as a “wild trip”, whilst Rankin cites it as the first real serial killer novel. “It was a lodestone for a lot of my fiction,” he says. “And it’s incredibly modern.”
Then, when one of the audience asks if an author can write about the supernatural without believing in it, the three writers are unanimous in their response that you can — and that a healthy disbelief may in fact be a benefit.
“Nothing’s off limits to the right kind of writer,” says Rankin.
Valerie Martin and Ian Rankin were in conversation with Margaret Atwood at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 Aug.