Q&A with Peter James

A change of direction for this one, Plot Bunny jjclark conducted the interview over the phone. So, over to Joe.

Peter James is one of England’s leading crime writers, setting a great many of his stories in south coast locations which will be very familiar to the Plot Bunnies. His popular Roy Grace series, starring the eponymous detective with a troubled past and on-going series of problematic presents, has visited brutal crimes and exciting chases along, underneath, inside and beside many a Sussex landmark. He’s also published a number of science-fiction thrillers, favourably compared to Michael Crichton in style, including Host, a story based largely on the University of Sussex campus. He has just completed a collection of short stories, which are being published online in two parts (the second part will be available in December), and will be available in the shops next year.

I spoke to Peter over the phone one Sunday afternoon and asked him a little about his work.
It’s worth noting that Peter James is extremely supportive of other writers, and was charming, engaging and approachable in this interview. He contributes to a number of local community schemes - including Sussex Crimestoppers, The Old Police Cells Museum in Brighton, and the Sussex Community foundation. Far too many to explore in this introduction and indeed the interview – safe to say, though, that Peter is one of the Good Guys.

PB: We’ll get off to a nice easy start: have you ever attended a writers' group, as a guest or as a member?

PJ: Yes, I have. I’m actually very keen on writer’s groups, because a major part of book sales now, in the UK, is to writers' groups. And actually I love the idea of a group of people looking at books intently in-depth.

PB: Do you get time to read yourself, and if so what kind of things do you read?

PJ: Yeah, I don’t have as much time as I’d like because I’m always chasing my tail. I’m trying to write a Roy Grace novel each year, plus research and re-reading proofs. I get sent a lot of books by publishers and new author, so I tend to look at those. But I try to read at least one classic every year.

PB: What’s the last classic you read?

PJ: I’m actually - this is something of an admission - but I’ve actually never read War and Peace, so I’m just working on that now. Just for a light little read…

PB: Whenever I sit down to do any writing, even something simple like a shopping list, I ask myself, “How would Douglas Adams phrase this?” Who influences your writing, and how directly?

PJ: Well I think, unquestionably, the biggest influence on me is Graham Greene. I read Brighton Rock as a kid and was just completely blown away by it. I remember putting that book down and just thinking to myself, “You know, one day I want to write a book set in Brighton that’s 10% as good as this.” And also, it’s the first crime novel I’d read that was different. There’s usually a dead body in chapter one, especially Agatha Christie, and the rest of the book is a puzzle to try and solve it. In Brighton Rock, the rules were completely different. There’s no dead body in chapter one, and it has this fantastic opening line – which taught me the importance of opening lines – and within three hours of arriving in Brighton town he’s about to murder someone. But more importantly there’s a central character, Pinky, who’s a teenage gang-leader and murderer. And also a devout Catholic.

I just love the complexity of the book, it was in a different league to any other crime novel I’d ever read. I promised myself that’s what I was going to try and write some day. And in a sense that was the first influence behind writing my first Roy Grace novel.

PB: That’ll be Dead Simple, which sees a character be buried alive inside a coffin. In fact, that leads me nicely on to my next question. I believe you once had yourself trapped in a coffin for research?

PJ: I’m a great believer in research. You’re never going to write anything that you haven’t had experience of yourself - short of dying. I needed to be put in a coffin myself. And I asked a Brighton undertaker if he would put me in and screw the lid down and leave me for thirty minutes. I’m deeply claustrophobic and I can tell you that it was the most terrifying thirty minutes of my life.

PB: Do you think that made a tangible difference to the story, or...?

PJ: I do, yeah, I think it helped me to get that sense of claustrophobia. Also, you know, I’d asked a Brighton coroner how much air you’d have if you were in a coffin, and he said to me you’ve got about four-five hours if it’s well made and air-tight, but if you start to hyperventilate you can knock that down to about forty minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever, ever been so glad to get out of somewhere!

PB: He’s trapped in the coffin for quite a long time, isn’t he? You have to fill quite a lot of space with that. It must have been difficult.

PJ: Yeah, he is and that’s genuinely my worst nightmare. But I think, you know, you write best about things you feel about.

PB: Do you worry about cliché? Especially in the genre of crime fiction where there’s obviously quite a lot of other people writing it, and it’s on TV all the time…

PJ: Absolutely. Yeah. I have occasionally taught some creative writing sessions and I always say, “We’ll keep clichés off the page today.” But the problem with clichés is the reason they’re clichés is that they actually work so well. So it’s always a difficult one. But, by and large, I think that what you need to do is always try to find new descriptions. I mean Martin Amis did once say that he spent twenty-four hours to try and find a new way to describe a loaf of bread on a kitchen table. And I can understand that. I will struggle for hours trying to find a new way of describing…

PB: A dead body, for example?

PJ: A body, fear, even the sky on a beautiful day. I think the originality in storytelling is so important. Someone once said that there are only about seven plots in the whole of literature, so it’s very hard to ever write something really original. It’s the way you write it that’s so important.

PB: Any tips for doing that? Or is it just a case of hoping for inspiration, or forcing it out?

PJ: I think it’s part inspiration, it’s part searching. You asked me earlier about writing, about what I read. When I’m in the middle of the book, I don’t like to read fiction because it’s very easy to suddenly pick up someone else’s style. But what I do read is a lot of poetry. And poetry is a great way of getting inspired. A lot of poets write with incredible imagery. And I’ve often had a lot of inspiration from poets, both modern and old.

PB: So now I have to ask who your favourite poet is.

PJ: There’s a long, long list! But my favourite poem of all time… I would be hard pushed to choose between T.S.Elliot’s The Wasteland (there’s some wonderful imagery in that) and a poem by the Russian poet Yevtushenko called Xima Junction. It’s just an amazing, amazing poem.

PB: Let’s talk a little bit about Host.

PJ: Ah! It’s got my favourite ending that I ever wrote.

PB: Oh really? It is a good ending, I remember being very struck by it. When it was released, critics accused you of trying to destroy the novel. Because it was the world’s first e-novel, I believe?

PJ: Yeah, I think we published it both on conventional print format, and on two floppy disks bound in a sort of thin hard cover. It was the world’s first electronic novel. And I was pilloried by the world press who accused me - on the Today program and the front page headlines in Italian newspapers - of murdering the novel. Within about six months I would become, in everybody else’s perception but my own, the world’s leading authority on the future of the novel.

I got invited to give a keynote speech at the university college of Los Angeles on the Brentwood campus; this must be about 1995. I went there and I arrived at this conference to discover I had Steve Jobs on one side of me, the head of Newsweek and all those newspapers, and I think Nicholas Negroponte, the head of the MIT media lab and myself. And I had to lunge into this speech feeling a little bit outclassed.

So I said that electronic books will catch on the day they become easier and more pleasant to buy and read than a printed book. We are pretty much there, though I don’t think we’re totally there yet. There are still issues with electronic books. Because, you know, I like short stories and if you download a short story collection onto your Kindle you can’t flick through the chapters, you know and stuff like that. But they have a place and a lot of people think so. It’s about half, fifty-fifty, of the book market right now.

PB: Do you think it will ever overtake the traditional printed book, or do you think they’ll both keep their place in future?

PJ: I think they’ll both keep their place, I think so many people like the printed book and the low-tech aspect and the physical feel of it. But maybe that’s my wish talking. I expect the reality is they will overtake but I don’t think the printed book will disappear. I think we could see a percentage something like 60-40 in favour of electronic books.

PB: Yes, I agree, and the interesting thing will be what the next generation thinks. They’ll probably deal with electronic books more, especially through school, and that will be the real test of what happens next.

PJ: Yes, yes. And the other thing is that there’s a pirates charter. Russia is one of my biggest sales territories in the world, and two out of every three e-books I sell there is pirated.

I had a fan in Russia write to me, she wrote in Russian I had to get it translated by my Russian publisher, and she said to me, “I see Dead Man’s Time is coming out in England and I might be able to get it on this site in Russia on the same day.” And she included a link to this piracy site!

PB: With your collection of short stories coming out [Short Shockers], what do you think the modern role of the short story is? Do you think it still has a big place? It certainly used to: James Joyce and lot of my favourite sci-fi authors, their best work is, I think, in the short story.

PJ: I agree with you. I can think back to the times of Guy de Maupassant in France, who wrote these wonderfully acerbic short stories with real stings in the tail. I love the short story - reading them. I haven’t written that many in the past because they take a lot of time to write. You have this deplorable question of, oh it’s only a thousand words so it should be a hundred times quicker than a novel. But there’s so much more thought and precision that goes into them.

I think the nice thing with short stories is as an author I can explore ideas, that wouldn’t necessarily stand in an entire novel.

PB: What does your family think about some of your more gruesome crimes? Do they read your work?

PJ: Yeah, my partner Helen is my best critic.

I don’t ever write something for the purposes of shocking people. Apart from anything else I don’t want to put off readers by having something so gory they can’t face reading it. I feel it’s more important to get that balance right of what’s strong enough to shock a reader. I like to shock Roy Grace, just to drive home what the horror of the crime is without ever being exploitative about it. I mean, police see the most horrendous things every day. I usually actually tone down what they saw - rather than build it up - when I’m writing about it.

PB: But there are still some fairly horrific scenarios – even just going back to being buried alive in the coffin. You don’t need much detail for that to be a horrifying thing.

PJ: No, I think psychology is much more powerful in terms of what you can come up with than gory descriptions. The job of the writer, more than anything else, is to influence emotion into the reader’s mind. Whether than emotion is love of a character, or fear…

PB: So you think that to hint, to insinuate, is more effective?

PJ: Yeah, I think it’s very true in horror movies especially. The occasional exception, I guess, is things like Jurassic Park, but in general horror movies work best when they prey on the imagination. It’s the monster you imagine rather than the monster you actually see. I think it’s exactly the same with reading fiction. It’s the writer making the reader’s imagination fire.

PB: Thank you Peter, this has been very insightful and entertaining. I appreciate it, we all do.

PJ: Anything I can do to support a writing group I’m more than happy to do.

Thanks from fiver and the whole group, indeed. If you want to thank Peter in a practical way, you could buy one of his books.