It gives me great pleasure to welcome one of my favourite crime authors, Peter James, to the blog today.
Peter James’s nine consecutive Sunday Times No 1 bestselling Roy Grace crime novels are published in 36 languages, with sales of 17 million copies. He’s the recipient of the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger, and in 2015 was publicly voted by WH Smith readers as the Best Crime Author of All Time. He has written 28 novels as well as one non-fiction book on policing. He lives in Notting Hill and in Sussex, with his wife Lara, 2 dogs, a cat, 7 hens, 5 alpacas, a baby shark and a gerbil called Colin. His 12th Roy Grace novel ‘Love You Dead’ will be published in the UK and Commonwealth on May 19th.
Somehow, in between charging around various other writing commitments, motor racing, and home life (including an amazing menagerie of pets), Peter found time to chat with me about his writing life, and plans for 2016.
Peter, a huge welcome to the blog.
In other interviews, you’ve often stated that Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock had an enormous influence on your wanting to be a crime author, although I note you’ve also stressed the importance of compelling story-telling over genre. What other books would you recommend fellow authors seek out to learn the craft?
I think the key thing is to read and analyse some of the most successful books in the genre in which you wish to write and try to get a sense of the evolution of the kind of story telling because all authors learn from their peers and the past. Books which have most impacted on my writing including “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” – Conan Doyle, “The Con Man” – Ed McBain, “Get Shorty” – Elmore Leonard, “The Onion Field” – Joseph Wambaugh “Rosemary’s Baby” – Ira Levin, “The Silence Of The Lambs” – Thomas Harris, “The Shining” – Stephen King. In terms of modern contemporary writing Michael Connelly’s “The Poet”.
You’ve got a reputation for being very hands-on when it comes to research for your books. Has there been a particular situation when you realised you were out of your comfort zone, but it was too late to back out?
You are right, I’m a total stickler for research! I have been on lots of ridealongs and accompanied the police on patrols and raids. There have been many where I have felt slightly out of my comfort zone… one was when I was on patrol in a rough sink estate with a young sergeant and a rookie constable, a young Indian woman. It was 10pm and we saw a group of 10 youths walking along, swigging from open bottles and beer cans. It is a criminal offence to have an open bottle/can of alcohol on the streets of Brighton and Hove. They pulled over and climbed out the car, and I followed them, wearing a fluorescent jacket marked “Police Observer”, and stood some distance back with my notebook, as they confronted them. Several of the gang were clearly drunk and they became aggressive and threatened violence, and started hurling racial taunts at the Indian woman officers. The sergeant radioed for backup, but that can take 20 minutes to arrive on a busy night. As the gang advanced on the two officers, some of them pulling out knives, I began to wonder whether to get back into the car or run for my life… But I knew that if I was to keep any respect I had to stand my ground and help out the two officers. I used to box at school when I was small, so can look after myself a bit. Then the ringleader came straight towards me, jabbed a finger at me and demanded to know who I was. Quick as a flash the sergeant replied: “He’s with the FBI!” This had an instant effect – they all backed off and turned into pussycats – meekly handing over their drinks and their weapons….Phew!
Do you outline/plot, or do you prefer to start at the beginning and see where the story takes you? Why do you prefer this method of writing?
With all my books I create a basic plot structure which includes the high points of the drama and the ending as I always know the ending that I want to get to, Within this I plot the first 20% of the book in considerable detail. But what I find in the first 100 pages is that the characters start to take on a life of their own, I know the principal character arcs that I want to happen but as I get more into the book I often find that the story becomes driven more by the characters than by the plot itself. I am a great believer in a balance between spontaneity and structure. By this I mean that whilst adhering to the basic framework, I think it is very important as a writer that I constantly surprise myself, because if I didn’t surprise myself then I wouldn’t be surprising my readers.
You’re a prolific writer, with two standalone novels and a Roy Grace novel published during 2015 alone. How do you structure a typical day to ensure you avoid distractions when you sit down to write?
I try to ensure that whatever I’m doing I leave myself time to write 1000 words 6 days a week. I have offices in my Sussex and Notting Hill homes, but I can write anywhere. Thanks to laptops, my office has long ceased to be a concrete space and I can write on the move. I actually write really well on airplanes, in the back of a car and in hotel rooms! But my favourite writing time is 6 – 9:30 in the evening. I got used to that when I was working full time in film and TV, and made this my ‘me’ time. I have a stiff drink – often a vodka martini, with four olives, put on music and get in a zone. I really love this time of the day.
In your spare time, you’re a self-confessed ‘petrol head’, and despite a spectacular crash a few years ago at Brands Hatch, have continued to race with a few competitions in the 2016 calendar already by the look of it. What car(s) will you compete in this year?
My first race this year is actually back at Brands Hatch! I will be racing a 1958 Fiat Abarth Evocation (which I will be co-driving with my wife Lara, who has recently passed her ARDS licence) and then in a single driver race in my 1958 Austin A35. I will be racing my 1965 BMW 1800 Ti (known as a TiSa) at Donington with Amanda Stretton who is a fantastic racing driver and lots of fun! Then I hope to be competing in the St Marys Trophy again at Goodwood Revival in September.
You’ve had an amazing assortment of roles during your career, as well as a host of hobbies and interests. If you didn’t write, which of your other interests would you pursue full-time, and why?
I’ve spent much of my working life so far as a film and television writer and producer – so I guess I would be doing that but I far prefer writing novels. When I was in my teens I wanted to write books, make films and be a racing driver. I’ve been lucky in managing to make a living out of the first two, and although I do love motor racing, I’m glad I never took it up as a profession, because I don’t think I would have been good enough!
The problem with film producing is that films are such a collaborative process; it becomes almost like a committee, but up to 20 people who each believe it is their film! For example you have the screenwriter, and very often a second screen writer or “polisher”, the producer – sometimes two or even more. The executive producers, again sometimes two or more, the director, the principal actors, the director of photography, the set designer, the editor, the composer, the distributor and so on. Each and every one of these has influence on the end product. And most normally have egos the size of aircraft carriers. With a book the creative process is utterly pure. There is just myself and my agent and my editor. If I don’t want to change one single word I have written I don’t have to. I love that freedom from the “committee” process of film-making.
I was interested to read that you’ve recently become a patron of the Brighton Greyhound Owners Association Retired Greyhound Trust, having had two adopted retired greyhounds of my own. Any plans to adopt, or is your current menagerie keeping you busy enough?
Finally, can you tell us what to expect from the next Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead, due out in May this year?
There is a big, big development in the Sandy saga in this one, I promise! In ‘Love You Dead’ the central character is a true black widow…. An ugly duckling as a child, Jodie Bentley had two dreams in life – to be beautiful and rich. She’s achieved the first, with a little help from a plastic surgeon, and now she’s working hard on the second. Her philosophy on money is simple: you can either earn it or marry it. Marrying is easy, it’s getting rid of the husband afterwards that’s harder, that takes real skill. But hey, practice makes perfect…