A Writer’s Secrets to Going the Distance
In his latest novel, LOVE YOU DEAD, Peter James delivers an unforgettable female character, a sociopathic “black widow” way too fond of venomous creatures. And he brings back the character of a brilliant, ruthless assassin with a single soft spot: his dog. Oh and then there’s the main character, Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, who must not only solve a baffling, seemingly unconnected series of murders but cope with the reappearance of a woman he’d thought gone forever. With a novel this exciting, it’s easy to see how James maintains his position as international bestseller, with 18 million Roy Grace novels sold worldwide, 11 consecutive UK Sunday Times Number Ones, and New York Times bestseller status.
The short answer to the question of Peter James’ success is he works for it. The longer answers are thoughtful, witty, and insightful, and we are delighted to share his ideas on The Big Thrill.
People may assume that after writing a number of books in a series, it becomes a little too familiar to the author, but this book is bursting with energy and inventiveness. What is your secret to keeping a series vibrant?
Thanks so much for these kind words about the book–I guess my secret is having a large vodka martini before I start writing :-). But seriously, when I was a kid, so many of my favourite authors seemed to tail off after they became hugely successful, Alastair Maclean being one. I vowed when my first Roy Grace novels became popular that I would forever try to raise the bar with each successive one and never let my readers feel I was “coasting.”
I think there are a number of factors. The first is that I do, genuinely, love writing and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to make a good living doing something I am passionate about.
Secondly I love learning things, and when I start each book is it is a huge learning curve for me, as I am an absolute stickler for research and getting everything right. In LOVE YOU DEAD I immersed myself in the very dark and very fascinating world of females who kill for money – the “black widow” characters who deliberately target and marry rich, elderly men and then bump them off.
Thirdly, although I have my central character, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, and his private life, I also have his whole work world – all his police colleagues, whose lives I have lived for the past 12 years. When I sit down to start a new book, I feel I’m meeting up with my mates again. I say, “Hello Glenn, what’s the latest in your life? Hi Norman, how many people have you upset with your politically incorrect views this week? Hi E-J, is your dad’s tennis still rubbish?”
And fourthly and I guess very importantly, I do bring in fresh characters, and occasionally surprise my readers by unexpectedly killing one of my central characters. I believe if you don’t ever kill one of your major characters, ultimately your readers will never believe any threat you put them in. They must always be in very real danger!
The character of Jodie Bentley is truly one of a kind: a sociopathic mercenary, fearless “Black Widow” obsessed with insects, and a little too fond of the bottle. How on earth did you come up with her?
I had been wanting to write about a “black widow” character for some time, and had been studying past cases, and thinking hard about creating a convincing character. I give regular talks in prisons, for a charity I support, The Reading Agency, which encourages literacy in UK prison – where, as a terrible indictment on our education system, the reading age for 50 percent of prisoners is less than that of an eleven-year-old. I was talking in a women’s prison and there was one attractive-looking, quite classy middle-aged woman in the audience who was asking particularly smart questions about literature. She fascinated me, being clearly well educated and I wondered what crime she had committed. Perhaps she killed someone drunk-driving, or something like that, I wondered?
One big perk of my talks is that I get to mingle with the prisoners after and chat to them one-on-one. I made a beeline for her. I never ask a prisoner outright what they have done – it is kind of not etiquette! So as an icebreaker I said, ‘How much longer do you have to serve?’
She replied, in a booming voice, ‘Nine and a half more bloody years – and it’s just not fair! A woman did exactly what I did, in London, and she’s only got six more years to go.’
‘So, what brought you in here?’ I asked, somewhat startled.
‘Well, I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag!’
‘OK,’ I replied, somewhat astonished. Then she went on.
‘The thing was, she went into hospital to die, so I embezzled her bank account. Then the bloody woman didn’t die – she came home. I realized she would find out so I had to poison her. Then I realized my husband would find out so I had to poison him, too. And it’s just not fair – this woman in London did exactly what I did and she’s only got six more years!’
As I was being taken back out by a prison officer I said to him, ‘Is this woman for real?’
‘Oh yes sir, he replied. ‘Her husband was three months on life support and he has permanent brain damage – and she’s just angry about the length of her sentence…’
I knew at once I had found my Jodie Bentley!
The other “antagonist,” Tooth, is an even more dangerous character. He was launched in an earlier novel. What guides your decision in bringing back characters from past books?
I believe that more than anything else, people read books to find out what happens to characters they engage with – whether they are good or evil! It is the holy grail of all novelists to create characters that are universally popular – there is an alchemy to it that probably no one fully understands – neither the writer nor the reader. Just every now and then you create a character that for whatever reason rises off the page and becomes a real, vivid person. Many years ago an agent gave me a piece advice that I’ve always remembered, about not being too hasty to kill off characters. Tooth prompted an enormously positive reaction from readers around the globe, when he first appeared in Dead Man’s Grip – he seemed to be simultaneously the most feared and most liked of all my villains – and I was mightily glad I have left his disappearance at the end of the book ambiguous, enabling me to bring him back in Love You Dead.
Do you worry that the plotline of Jodie versus Tooth, essentially two antagonists, very well matched, would violate the “rule” of protagonist must be opposed by antagonist, all the way through the book?
I think you must be referring to the rules for writing detective fiction that were variously written by Knox and Van Dine in about 1928. These included Knox’s Rule No 5: “No Chinaman must ever feature in a story.” Hmmmn! These were written in an attempt to establish the boundaries for the so-called “Golden Age” detective fiction. Things have moved on since then. The rule of “two antagonists” was broken, I would argue in Silence Of The Lambs when Hannibal Lecter is brought into play to help identify Buffalo Bill. For the first time in a mystery novel, so far as I can remember, instead of having good versus evil, we had bad versus evil!
I believe there is only one rule in mystery fiction – and indeed all fiction: The writer must enthral the reader – hook them, keep them turning the pages, and give them a truly satisfying ending.
With such colourful secondary characters, how do you keep Roy Grace from being overshadowed? Did that factor into your decision to write about a lingering wound in Grace’s past?
I write all my novels from three different perspectives: That of the perpetrator; that of the victim; and that of the police through the eyes Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. My decision to give Roy Grace a missing wife came really from my knowledge of policing in the UK, having spent many years going out with them on a regular basis, on research for my earlier novels, before creating Roy Grace: There seems to be a general cliché, globally in crime fiction, of the detective with a broken marriage and a drink problem. But in the UK any police officer with a drink problem would not last twenty-four hours, these days. He would be out. I thought really hard about what it was that detectives do and first and foremost it is solving puzzles:
Every homicide, every major crime, is a puzzle comprising hundreds and sometimes thousands of pieces that have to be painstakingly put together. I thought it would create an interesting dynamic to give a homicide detective a personal puzzle of his own that he has not yet been able to solve. So when we first meet Roy Grace in Dead Simple, we learn he is coming up to his thirty-ninth birthday, and ten years earlier, he arrived home from work on his thirtieth birthday to find his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, has vanished – seemingly off the face of the earth. He has been looking for her for a decade now, wondering if she was abducted and murder, or ran off with a love, or had an accident, or lost her memory and wandered off. It has become a huge fascination for my readers and has certainly helped keep Roy well and truly in the limelight. There is a resolution in Love You Dead – but it sets something else up in the process….of course!
What is your secret to creating a plot and timeline with several threads, some of which do not come together until near the end? Do you outline ahead of time?
I tend to write the kind of stories that I like to read – and I’ve always loved those where you start with seemingly disconnected characters and different timelines, and you try to figure just where they will converge – as you know they sure as hell will eventually! I used to play a lot of chess at school, and I still find that discipline it taught me of thinking several moves ahead to be invaluable. It is important for me to strike a balance between outline and spontaneity – and I will be talking about this quite a bit in the Authors Studio section of my YouTube channel – where I – and many other authors, including Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Joseph Finder & Paula Hawkins – are giving writing tips. I always know the ending I want to get to – that is vital for me, to have that vanishing point on the horizon. I know the key high points, and I structure the first hundred pages in some detail. But then I love it when I’m sitting writing, and something pops into my head that wasn’t there ten seconds before! For me that’s when my book starts to take on a life of its own, and I always say that if you don’t surprise yourself you won’t surprise your readers.
How important is place and setting to your novels?
I think “place” is as important as character. If you don’t give your readers a setting they have no context. I also feel that places themselves define the kind of crimes that occur within them. For example, the New Orleans of James Lee Burke; the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly; the Edinburgh of Ian Rankin; the Norway of Jo Nesbo; the South Africa of Deon Meyer. And for me, the beautiful seaside city of Brighton, with its long, historical dark underbelly.
You have a large readership. How do you respond to readers and take place in marketing your work and doing media while carving out writing time?
Well, firstly I am determined always that we–myself and my team who work with me –respond to every letter and email from my readers. I try also to respond to every tweet, and as many Facebook comments as possible, although when I have 400 comments come in on a post, that becomes impossible. But I am determined to keep Facebook personal to me, and for it not to be come simply a publisher’s marketing tool, the same with Instagram, and the same now with YouTube.
Interaction with my readers on social media can also be very informative, in many ways. For instance, a few years ago I needed to know how to pick a lock, for a scene in a book. I tweeted, asking if anyone knew – and within 20 minutes I had a former (well, he said he was former!) burglar contact me. I met up with him for a coffee and he told me everything I needed to know about how to break into a house, an apartment, an office and even some safes! So watch out…
What is working best for British authors finding readerships in America and vice versa?
Winston Churchill once, so correctly said, “Two great nations, divided by a common language.” It is so true and there are so many subtle differences between our languages. One in particular is the word “quite” as in “I quite like that.” To say that in Britain is quite disdainful – it means you didn’t really like it at all. Whereas in the US it means you really like it! So therein lies some of the problem – lost in translation. But actually I do think that is a minor part of it.
There are a surprising number of big name U.S. authors who do not get traction in the U.K., and it is the same in reverse – it is rare to see a UK mystery writer on a USA bestseller list. If you look at the horror movie industry, and think how many horror movies made in Britain, in the last 50 years, have been a success in the USA, you’ll struggle to use all the fingers on one hand to count them. Yet most hit US horror movies have been equally successful in the U.K. An argument regularly used to explain this is that that Americans prefer the familiar, the brownstones, the white picket fences—home-grown—to the unfamiliar. But the recent phenomenal sales of Scandi novels in the U. S. such as those of Stieg Larsson and then Jo Nesbo, and now Paula Hawkins with The Girl On The Train, kick that “homegrown” theory into touch.
I have a very different theory and it is a simple one: The style and structure of the traditional U.K. crime thriller is completely different to the classic U.S. model, and it can be summed up in most cases by the opening chapter alone: The classic English detective story is still bound in the tradition of the past greats such as Agatha Christie: There is a dead body on the first, or opening pages of the novel and the rest of the book is the puzzle to solve it, sometimes with more action included. In the classic USA mystery novel, the victim is still alive at the end of the first chapter–and in peril.
The British write police procedurals and that is what so many readers in this country want. The Americans write crime thrillers and that is largely what the U.S. audiences want, mostly.
Peter James is an international bestselling thriller writer. He is a New York Times bestseller, as well as having 11 consecutive Sunday Times No 1s, and he is published in 37 languages. His DS Roy Grace crime novels have sold 18 million copies worldwide. Prior to becoming a full-time author, he was responsible for 25 movies. In 1994 Penguin published his novel, ‘Host’, on two floppy discs as the world’s first electronic novel. He is Overseas Vice-President of International Thriller Writers in the U.S. His novels have won numerous awards, most recently the coveted 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and he was publicly voted by WH Smith – Britain’s biggest book selling chain – The Best Crime Author Of All Time. Visit him on YouTube.