A Between the Lines Interview with Peter James
In this month’s feature is one of England’s favorite sons. Representing the “I” in ITW, is Peter James. Peter is a Brighton born author, screenwriter, and film producer. His latest novel DEAD LIKE YOU went straight to the #1 slot on the Sunday Times Bestseller list–and hit #1 on all the other UK fiction bestseller lists as well. That’s a good trick. He even beat “The Man,” James Patterson who had to settle for the #2 slot. Sorry Jim, but he got you!
Peter’s books have been translated into 33 languages with an estimated total sales of 20 million copies worldwide. He receives fan mail from virtually every country on the planet–with one common question: When is the next Roy Grace novel coming out?
As a board member with the title of Vice President of International Affairs, Peter is heavily involved with ITW. He oversees six different sub-chairs, each representing a different area of the world. As ITW continues to encourage and promote international authors, Peter is at the forefront of that effort.
As you can imagine, Peter is being pulled in dozens of different directions, so I appreciate him taking the time to do this feature interview:
When did you know you wanted to become a full-time writer?
Ever since I was a small child my ambition was to be a writer and to make movies. I wanted to entertain people but at the same time I wanted through these media to examine the world and society in which we live. But I never thought I had any talent…. My first break was when I was seventeen I won a national short story competition run by the BBC and had to read my story on air. I loved doing that and it made me realize that even though printed books are the bedrock of novels, there are all kinds of other media where the written and spoken word can be used to wonderful effect. After all, long before printing was invented, stories were told and passed on orally. Now in my work today, I find the crime novel is the best genre through which I can explore the world in which we live.
My true Eureka moment, I guess was when I was fourteen and read Graham Greene’s BRIGHTON ROCK for the first time. As a kid growing up in Brighton, this novel just blew me away, and as I finished the book I promised myself that one day I would try to write a novel, set in Brighton, that was just 10% as good as this one! It is for me an almost perfect novel. It has one of the most grabbing opening lines ever written (“Hale knew, within thirty minutes of arriving in Brighton, that they meant to kill him.”) and one of the finest last lines – very clever, very tantalizing and very, very “noir” – yet apt. Green captures so vividly the dark, criminal underbelly of Brighton and Hove, as relevant to my home city now as when the book was first written, and the characters are wonderful, deeply human, deeply flawed and tragic. And yet, far more than being just an incredibly tense thriller, Greene uses the novel to explore big themes of religious faith, love and honor. And additionally, a bonus, it is also unique for being one of the few novels where the film adaptation is so good it complements rather than reduces the book.
Is there something you’d consider to be a pivotal event in your career?
Yes, creating my Detective Superintendent Roy Grace character. I had always wanted to write “crime novels” yet had shied away for many years, because I thought the UK crime fiction genre had very definite rules and conventions that could not be broken. For instance that you had to start with a dead body, preferably in the library of a country house….. and the rest of the story was the puzzle of solving what happened. I started writing very bad spy thrillers, then I wrote a number of supernatural thrillers. Then I started reading modern American thrillers by the likes of Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and James Patterson’s Alex Cross stories, and realized that it was perfectly possible to write crime novels that were, at the same time, fast paced thrillers. The really pivotal moment for me was when Geoff Duffield, Group Sales and Marketing Director of my UK publishers, Pan Macmillan (sister publishers of St Martins/Minotaur) and the man who had turned Harlan Coben into such a success in the UK at his previous publishers, Orion, approached my agent, Carole Blake. He told her he felt I had the potential to become the UK’s answer to Harlan Coben if I was willing to write crime thrillers. I jumped at the chance and six and a half books later have never looked back.
What is the most difficult aspect of being a novelist? The most rewarding?
For me the most difficult aspect of being a novelist is the knowledge that you can never sit back on your laurels. I’m always thinking about the next book…. And the one after that…. And every time I finish a new book and my editorial team is happy, I think, “phew, got away with it again – but for sure the next one is going to fall flat on its face…” ! The hardest thing of all for me is the first line of a new novel. I think it is crucial to grab the reader from the very first sentence, and it can take me two weeks and sometimes longer before I get a first line followed by a first chapter I am happy with.
The most rewarding aspect of being a novelist, for me, is seeing that dream come true, my name in the Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller list. It was many years and many books before I made it into that list, and I so badly wanted it! But for sure, the most rewarding thing that ever happened, above all the awards I’ve been lucky enough to win, was just two months ago, my new book, DEAD LIKE YOU going straight into the Sunday Times Bestseller list – and all other UK fiction bestseller lists at No 1, and preventing James Patterson from getting to that slot for the first time in many years! He had to make do with No 2 for two weeks running, as I stayed up there! Nothing has felt so rewarding as that!
Do you feel that the pursuit of success is more important than the end game?
No, I absolutely don’t. They say that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration and they could say the same thing about success. I had years of frustration, writing books that I was sure were good, that got great reviews, but which never made it into those magical bestseller lists, and that was an incredibly frustrating time. Ten years ago, shortly before that phone call that changed my life, I was thinking of quitting writing novels altogether and focusing on my film and television writing and producing career which was going well. DEAD LIKE YOU is, as I write, in its 8th week on the Sunday Times list and my novella, THE PERFECT MURDER, has been No 1 on iBooks since it came out on June 10th. It is a truly wonderful feeling. Except of course, I’m thinking, gulp, how do I keep this up…..?
Do you make an outline or plot synopsis before writing a book? Do you recommend it? Why?
Every writer I speak to has a different way of working, and the key is to find what one is comfortable with. I personally like to have a “road map” when I start out with a novel, but at the same time, what most excites me as a writer is when the story takes on a life of its own. I love nothing better when a plot development pops into my head that wasn’t there ten seconds ago, or a new character suddenly appears in my mind. However and it is a BIG however, I like this to happen within the framework I have created. So what I do is create a basic synopsis, noting especially the high dramatic points I want to hit, plan out in some detail the first 20% or so of the book, and the ending. I call it the vanishing point on the horizon that I want to reach. It is really important to me to know the ending from the very start – even though I might change my mind when I get there!
You write crime novels and many criminal acts are quite violent and gruesome. Are there certain lines you won’t cross when describing scenes in your books? Do you have an internal alarm that sounds off if you feel a scene goes too far?
I think that everything in a crime thriller should be there for the purposes of telling the story, not for the writer to show off how much research he has done, or how gory he can write a scene. But equally I don’t believe in shirking away from the truly gruesome. During the course of their work, police – and other emergency services workers – are faced with sights and situations that many people just could not cope with, and I see my role to portray these accurately. In my second Roy Grace novel, LOOKING GOOD DEAD, I have a scene in which Roy Grace has to retrieve a severed head from a bathtub filled with sulphuric acid. It was inspired by a story told to me by a homicide detective who had done just this. I attempted in the scene to convey the horror he himself felt at what he had to do, without the scene becoming “gothic”.
However in DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS, I have several scenes during the immediate aftermath of the airplanes striking the twin towers. I put in graphic descriptions, given to me by two NYPD officers who were among the very first on the scene, and I found it necessary to tone these down as they were too horrific – far more than had ever been described in the press.
In the real word of policing I have attended some truly horrific sights. At one crime scene I saw a young woman pinned to the floor by a dagger through each eye. At a particularly horrific Road Traffic Accident I attended, I saw one traffic cop kneel down and scoop up a dead motorcyclist’s eyeballs into a dustpan. The emergency service workers have a way of dealing with this through so-called gallows humor. When there is a single vehicle fatality, such as a motorcyclist going too fast and hitting a tree, the traffic cops describe it, privately, as a DODI. The letters stand for “Dead One Did It.” Another particular example of gallows humor I like (although I guess I shouldn’t) is a FUBAR BUNDY. It is what UK ambulance crews whisper to each other at the scene of an accident where the victim is alive but clearly not going to survive. It stands for Fucked Up Beyond All Recovery – But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet.
I think the biggest censorship I find myself having to apply is when I am at dinner with friends. I sometimes forget their stomachs are not as strong as mine has become….!!!
All of the Roy Grace books are freestanding, but do you recommend reading them in order. Has Roy Grace evolved or gone through a character arc?
I have written the books so that they can be read in any sequence. However, there is one continuing and developing thread through the books, which is Roy Grace’s missing wife, Sandy. When we first meet Roy, in the first novel, DEAD SIMPLE, he is coming up to his 39th birthday, and we learn that 9 years earlier, on his 30th birthday, he came home to find that his wife, Sandy, whom he loved and adored, had vanished, without trace. For nine years he had had no word from her. He doesn’t know whether she is alive or dead, or what happened. Did she run off with a lover? Was she kidnapped? Did she have an accident? Was she murdered? Did she deliberately disappear – but if so, why? In each of the subsequent books, I seed in a little more information regarding this mystery… and in the current book, DEAD LIKE YOU, some of which is set 12 years back in time, when Roy and Sandy were first together, for the first time we see the relationship from her point of view. So to get the maximum from this story within the stories, reading the books in sequence is best, but it would not spoil any reader’s enjoyment to read them out of sequence.
If you could use only 3 adjectives to describe Roy Grace, what would they be?
Caring, unconventional, sharp.
Is there some aspect of Roy Grace you’re keeping in reserve–something about him which could become a bombshell for a future book?
Yes, there is a bombshell at the end of the book I am currently writing, DEAD MAN’S GRIP – the seventh in the series. But I am saying no more….!!
You took a break from Grace books with THE PERFECT MURDER. Did you need some time away from him, or was TPM burning to be written?
I love writing the Roy Grace series, and plan to continue for as long as I have fun writing them and my readers have pleasure in reading them. But I do have a lot of other books in my head that I want to write. For instance, THE PERFECT MURDER, a novella, is darkly funny, much more humorous and simply plotted than my Roy Grace novels and it was really enjoyable to do. Alongside the new Roy Grace novel I’m working on, I am also finishing a stand-alone novel PERFECT PEOPLE about a couple who go to a secret clinic to chose the genes of the child they want – to literally have a “designer” baby.
What advice would you give to debut authors?
My best advice to any new author is to read, read and read the kind of book you would like to write. If it is crime thrillers, then don’t be afraid to take your favourite crime novel and literally deconstruct it, as if you were taking apart an engine. Try to understand what the author has done to make you like this book so much – how did the author make the characters compelling to you, how was the plot constructed, what hooked you first about the book… and then see what you could apply to your own book. And secondly very important, once you have started writing, keep up a continuity. At least six days a week write something every day, however little, to keep everything alive in your mind
How does it feel to be a #1 bestseller!
The first time I saw my name on the top of the bestseller lists was, quite honestly, among the happiest moments of my life, if not the happiest. I wasn’t very good at school and left with the lowest possible grades, in some disgrace. One of the other truly happy moments was when I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Brighton. I feel to some extent that I am living proof of Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” !!!
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To say Peter is an adrenaline junkie would be an understatement. Anyone who harnesses himself into a 2CV Citroen for the 24 Hour Endurance Race at Snetterton, needs a certain amount of, well…. Therapy? In all seriousness, Peter doesn’t have a death wish, he just likes to push the envelope to see how far he can go, or more accurately, how fast he can go. There is no low gear for Peter James, it’s pedal-to-the-metal or nothing at all. He pursues all his interests with genuine passion, including golf–even though it’s not a pretty sight.
As with most professional sports, race car driving may look easy, but it isn’t. It doesn’t take a huge mistake to lose control, and it’s often someone else’s mistake that causes a massive chain reaction of burning rubber, grinding metal, and shattering glass. We’ve all seen spectacular crashes on TV and from the grandstands, but for those strapped inside the cars, the perspective is quite different–sheer terror! But it’s a risk Peter’s willing to take because he loves racing, loves the competition. It’s a passion. Whether it’s big wave surfing or climbing mountains in the death zone, racing cars is the embodiment of risk and reward: The greater the risk, the greater the reward. By definition, there can only be one winner, but anyone who even finishes a 24 hour endurance race should get our stamp of approval.
Perhaps the biggest passion in Peter’s life is being a crime writer. All of his books have an element of mystery to them, but they read like thrillers–fast paced with high stakes and suspense.
Writing crime fiction is tough endeavor. How do you avoid getting lost in the procedural aspect of police investigative work and yet make the story authentic and interesting? It’s a delicate balance and Peter’s on the cutting edge of the genre. His novels give us the perfect amount of color and detail without getting lost in minutia, plus he’s got a terrific character in Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. I read lots of books and I don’t always remember the plots, but I never forget great characters. Jack Reacher. Harry Bosch. Scot Harvath. Roy Grace. It’s the characters that keep us coming back for more.
The Detective Superintendent Roy Grace Novels in the order they were written are:
LOOKING GOOD DEAD
NOT DEAD ENOUGH
DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS
DEAD LIKE YOU
And coming next year, DEAD MAN’S GRIP
Events in authors’ lives shape them into who they are and how they see the world. As authors, we imbue some of our own traits into our characters. Peter has a vast reserve of experience to draw upon. His interests include cars, both modern and antique, motor racing, aircraft, skiing, tennis, golf, and running. He’s also into science, medicine, and the paranormal.
His former home in Sussex, a seriously haunted Georgian manor house, is built on the site of ancient Roman ruins. Ten years ago he and his partner, Helen, moved and the ghosts moved with them. They also discovered some new ones. This house is on a historic site near Lewes and the new ghosts are said to be victims of the Battle of Lewes, but they have now been politely evicted. Peter also owns an apartment in Notting Hill on the site of a former cinema. “No spectral screenings yet during the night, but I’m always hoping…”
Diversity is in his blood. For a spell, he owned a authentic WWII Mitchell B25 bomber, hosted his own BBC radio show in Scotland, and in his youth trained for the British Olympic Ski Team–but his parents thought it would be too disruptive to his education. Had he pursued the Olympic dream, I have no doubt he would’ve achieved it.
There isn’t enough page space here to cover all the awards and honoraria Peter has received, but one of the more notable is being awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Brighton, 2009. He was made a Doctor of Letters in recognition of his ongoing contribution to the arts and to the status, infrastructure and culture of Brighton and Hove.
I would encourage you to visit Peter’s website: www.peterjames.com where you’ll find all kinds of interesting information on our author. He’s got a great blog, a list of interviews, reviews, articles, films he’s produced, and photos of his cars. I like the photo of Bertie and Phoebe the best. No, they aren’t cars, they’re dogs! Peter’s love of dogs speaks volumes. Anyone who appreciates the simple act of petting a dog is “A-okay.”
So the next time you’re doing 100 MPH the autobahn and someone screams past you in a Bentley Continental GT Speed, take a closer look, it might be Mr. James!
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Peter James is the author of 21 books, including the Sunday Times #1 bestseller, DEAD LIKE YOU. He and his partners have produced over 30 films with some well-known actors–James Caan, Donald Sutherland, Sharon Stone, and Robert De Niro to name a few. Peter currently divides his time between his homes in London and near Brighton with his 3 dogs. Phoebe is a German Shepherd with a beautiful temperament. Oscar, a rescue Labrador/Collie mix who is so mellow at times, Peter suspects he’s doing drugs. And last but not least, Coco–a cross between a Shitzu and a Poodle. Apparently the breed is known as a Shipoo. Yes folks, the breed’s name could’ve been a whole lot worse!
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