Wednesday 5 September 2012

Interview with Peter James

Leigh Russell talks to
Peter James has written 25 books, the most recent of which feature Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. His books have been translated into 35 languages. Peter is currently the chairman of the Crime Writers Association. His new novel, Not Dead Yet, went straight to number 1 in the UK hardback bestseller list, Peter’s fifth consecutive number 1.

Q What did you find most exciting about writing Not Dead Yet?

A It was fun using my experience in the movie business. Plus I’m a stickler for research so it was fascinating finding out about forensic podiatry, which has never before been used in a novel.

Q It’s encouraging to see a UK author reaching out to overseas readers. Tell us about your visit to India.

A Last March I did an author tour in India, which is the only country where print reading is on the increase. My publisher Macmillan have had a presence there for a hundred years and with a billion people in India, more and more of whom are reading in English, it’s a huge emerging market. It’s always interesting to visit different countries. What was lovely there was the amount of press interest, with fifteen to twenty newspaper reporters queuing for interviews. A lot of them asked me why I write crime novels, rather than ‘proper fiction’. Boy, did they ask the wrong person! ‘Do you like Shakespeare?’ I replied. “If he was writing today, I think he’d be writing crime novels. Over half his plays have a courtroom scene!

Q My own detective recently relocated from the Home Counties to London. Could you imagine DS Grace ever moving away from Brighton to join another force?

A Location is incredibly important in the genre; location is as much part of a book as the central characters. I couldn’t imagine Rebus operating anywhere but Edinburgh, or Mark Billingham’s Thorne anywhere but London, or James Ellroy anywhere but LA. In Brighton it’s interesting that a number of junior police officers have moved up to the Met for higher pay, but most senior officers are passionate about the city. The Divisional Commander Graham Bartlett would have the opportunity to go for promotion to ACC level, but this would almost certainly involve him in leaving the county, which he doesn’t want to do. This kind of stability places more emphasis on community policing as officers like Graham Bartlett – and Roy Grace - get to know the local villains. I’ve been driving through Brighton with coppers who point out the drugs dealers, house burglars, all all the other crims to me. That said, in Not Dead Yet there are elements from outside the UK, and the book I’m writing now starts in Brooklyn. Criminals don’t stick to boundaries, and Roy Grace is based on a character who has visited the States several times on police business.

Q You describe yourself as “a stickler for research”. One of my own favourites was spending an after noon with a team of firemen; research involving live maggots was less enjoyable! Can you tell us about a highlight, and a low point, in your research.

A An absolute low point was when I was writing Dead Simple, the first Roy Grace novel. For a wedding prank, a character is buried in a coffin in remote woodland, before the pranksters are wiped out in a car crash. I wanted to know what it would feel like to be shut in a coffin. A funeral director was happy to oblige when I asked him to screw the lid down and leave me for thirty minutes. A coroner had advised me it was possible to survive for at least three hours in a closed coffin, unless you hyperventilate. Did I tell you I’m claustrophobic? That was the worst thirty minutes of my life! There are many highlights. I love going on police raids. The police love it too, driving on blues and twos and getting in what they call a “bundle” – a euphemism for a fight. I’m a petrol head so some of my best moments with the police are travelling in a traffic police car late at night. I was recently in the lead car in an hour and a half chase involving seven cars, dog handlers and a helicopter. The sheer adrenaline rush was fantastic. One of the officers said, ‘I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this.’

Q Religion plays a diminishing role in many people’s lives. Is part of the appeal of crime fiction that it offers us some kind of moral compass?

A Yes, part of the appeal of crime fiction is the adventure, usually seen through the eyes of a heroic detective, that takes the reader to a place where everything is all right in the end. In addition. Intelligent people read books to get not just a story, but also to learn something about human life. Look at any bestseller list and half the names on the list will be North of sixty in all genres, on both sides of the Atlantic. We authors (hopefully!) get wiser as we get older. Good crime fiction understands the world. No one sees more of human life in a thirty year career than a police officer. In good crime fiction the reader learns something new each time about the human condition. That’s why I get angry when people ask why I write ‘genre fiction’.

Q What do you find challenging about having the same protagonist in each book?

A If someone picks up my ninth book, and they haven’t read any of the series, I have to describe my main characters. At the same time, I don’t want to bore people who have read the previous eight books. What to say or not to say about characters and location is a challenge. But I really like having the same main characters. Each time I start a new Roy Grace book, I feel like I’m going back to my family.

Q You touched on this earlier, but do you think your experience working in film and television has influenced your writing, and if so, in what ways?

A Yes, I do. I think we tend to read books in a different way than people did a hundred years ago. We are influenced by television and movies, where there are frequent changes of scene and character perspective. The biggest lesson I learned was years ago when I worked on a sit com in the US. We were told we needed to have a gag every 14 seconds. Fifty per cent of the potential audience channel hop. If we didn’t give them a joke every 14 seconds, they wouldn’t stay. I don’t have a joke every 14 seconds in my books! But I learned the importance of giving the reader something on every page to keep them hooked.

Q Do you think groups like Mystery People and the CWA, which you chair, are important, and if so, why?

A Yes, I think they are incredibly important to readers who like a particular genre. The crime genre is such a broad canvas, I am constantly coming across writers I have never heard of, who are big selling authors. These groups are the best way of learning about authors in an area of fiction we love.

Superintendent Roy Grace series
Dead Simple (2005) Looking Good Dead (2006) Not Dead Enough (2007)
Dead Mans Footsteps (2008) Dead Tomorrow (2009) Dead Like You (2010)
Dead Man’s Grip (2011) Not Dead Yet (2012)

Under the chairmanship of Peter James, the CWA is introducing a new Manuscript Assessment Service for aspiring crime writers. Peter says, “The Crime Writers Association is inundated with requests for guidance on manuscripts in the genre, so we think this service is going to be very popular.” Details are on the CWA website.

This interview first appeared on


Charles Gramlich said...

I found the issues about series characters particularly interesting. I struggle with that myself. Great interview.

Leigh Russell said...

Me too, Charles, especially as a lot of readers are following my series, while many others picku up each new book without having read the earlier ones.

BernardL said...

I could sure see immense problems with moving a series character's location. I'm glad to read someone else who gets annoyed when asked why they write 'genre' fiction. :)

Leigh Russell said...

It's often discussed here in the UK, Bernard, whether genre fiction is on a par with 'literature'. Some authors claim not, but genre fiction novels tend to be far more popular - and often better written - so do we care?

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

What an interesting interview.

How exciting it must be for Peter James to be able to research his books in such exact detail.

Leigh Russell said...

I'm glad you enjoyed reading it, Debs. Yes, some research is very exciting, although some isn't exactly glamorous... I think Peter illustrates that point very ably!