I have got a real treat for you as I speak to Peter James, award winning novelist and creator of the Sunday Times Bestseller List stalwart, the Roy Grace series, which is about to reach its 13th book with the upcoming publication of Need You Dead, in which Grace is faced with a challenging investigation as the killer of an abused wife appears closer to home than he’d like. A meticulous researcher and Crime Fiction enthusiast, Peter discusses his journey into writing and how he went from writing for the screen to creating this superb series, which has sold over 18 million books worldwide.
Tell me about how the books you write. What drew you to crime and thriller writing?
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 from my UK publishers, Pan Macmillan, approached my dear late 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 have never looked back.
What was the first crime fiction novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?
When I was 14 I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and this book totally changed my life. It is quite simply the book that made me realize I wanted to be a writer the first time I read it, when I was a teenager. It is also the inspiration behind my setting the Roy Grace series in Brighton. When I put this book down, I made a vow that one day I would try to write a novel set in my home city of Brighton that was ten percent as good as this.
This timeless novel is both a thriller and a crime novel, although police play a small part and the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the villains and two women who believe they can redeem them. Greene has a way of describing characters, in just a few sentences, that makes you feel you know them inside out and have probably met them, and his sense of “place” is almost palpable.
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. Greene captures so vividly the dark, criminal underbelly of Brighton and Hove, as relevant 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 honour.” And additionally, a bonus, is 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.
What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?
I started my career writing back in 1970 when I first arrived in Toronto, and worked for Channel 19 TV as a gofer, on the kid’s daily show Polka Dot Door. One day the scriptwriter was ill and the producer asked me to write the show – I ended up writing it for nearly a year. I used to sit in my flat in Toronto, staring out of the window in the morning looking at the rush hour traffic, thinking, ‘You lucky bastards, you are going to an office, you will meet other people, socialize all day…”. Then after 15 years in film and television as a screenwriter and producer in the crazy movie business, it was sheer bliss to become a full-time writer. I bought a massive Georgian manor house in Sussex and for some years revelled in not having to shave in the mornings- having all day to myself- but gradually I started going nuts with the isolation. One day I found myself carrying the vacuum cleaner across the fields at lunchtime to the repairman in Hassocks in order to have someone to talk to; life as a writer is difficult and I find most full-time writers that I know are a little strange. I love the balance that I have now.
Please tell me more about your books. Why do you believe that they have become so popular?
I never imagined, in my wildest dreams, the global success that Roy Grace would have. I love writing these books more than anything I have ever done in my life and just so long as my readers keep enjoying them and wanting more, I will continue.
In the early days, I had years of rejection letters as an unpublished author. It was as if there was a wall on one side of which were the publishers and the published authors, and on the other side were all those desperate to be published authors – and never the twain should meet. I became hugely despondent in my mid-twenties, really believing that the dream I’d held since the age of eight, of being a published author, would never come true. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be any good at writing novels, that I just did not have what it took.
I think all of us are the sum of our parts, so I would have to question whether, if I went back into the past and changed anything, I would be lucky enough to be so successful over again. Writing is a craft, no different at certain levels to other crafts. A wannabe carpenter’s tenth table is going to be better than his first, because practice does make perfect – or at least less bad! My first novel was actually my fourth – I had written three novels in my late teens and early twenties, which, luckily, never got published, before my fourth. But I was to write a further four before I finally achieved my ambition, to make the Top 10 best-sellers list – and exceeded it by reaching No 1. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would do anything differently. Instant success can be a dangerous thing. I’ve seen so many writers get a massively hyped first novel, and then struggle for the rest of their careers to match it – and rarely do. I am very happy with my lot – an overnight bestseller who took 31 years to get there!
The success of these novels has totally astonished me, I never expected them to be this popular – and it is wonderful – I’m immensely grateful to all my readers and, of course, now I feel very protective of him! I think my readers can connect to Roy’s human side which is drawn out of the fact he is based on a real person (David Gaylor) I think they find it interesting that his job is to solve mysteries, and yet he has his own mystery that he can’t solve. I think Roy would be good fun to spend an evening with, but more seriously, if ever I was unlucky enough to have one of my family murdered he’s the man I’d want running the investigation.
Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?
I write the way I like to read – which is short chapters, with cliffhanger endings. One trope I do enjoy is using a phrase in the last line of the chapter that I then pick up again in the first line of the next chapter.
What books/ authors do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?
I’ve learned a lot from some of the great classical writers – in particular Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene. I read very broadly and very eclectically, and I’ve never been comfortable with “genre” boundaries. In my view, great writing is great writing whether it is labelled “thriller”, “crime”, “general fiction”, “horror” or anything else. Of current writers in the UK, I like William Boyd a lot, and early Ian McEwan. One of my biggest influences was the late thriller writer Desmond Bagley. There are some fine UK crime writers, whose work I really like, including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Brian McGillivray, Anne Cleeves, Stuart McBride and many others, but I tend to read more US writers. I used to love John D Macdonald’s funky Travis McGee series, I was a great fan of Stephen King’s early novels, in particular Carrie and The Shining, and I think Ira Levin wrote two of the greatest, darkest books ever written, Rosemary’s Baby and The Boys From Brazil. I like James Ellroy, and I love Elmore Leonard – he just writes the most fabulous characters. Two of my favourite crime novels of the past few decades are Silence Of The Lambs and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
In fact, I have just collaborated on a short story which will form part of an anthology called MATCH UP where I have paired up with the wonderful Val McDermid and we have Carol Jordan, Tony Hill and Roy Grace working on a case together. Similarly, I wrote a short story with Ian Rankin in an anthology called FACE OFF, the story being called ‘In The Nick Of Time’ and this complication was a New York Times bestseller. We had Grace and Rebus working on a case together and it was hugely enjoyable writing it!
I hope to also write more with Graham Bartlett too. For many years, David Gaylor was my principal contact in Sussex Police, working closely with me on the planning of my stories and giving me introductions to any officers he felt would be helpful to my research on each successive Roy Grace novel, to lend my books the authenticity I try hard to maintain. When he retired, I was immensely fortunate to have that baton taken on by his good friend, Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett, himself a former senior homicide detective, who then became Commander of Brighton and Hove Police. Graham and I instantly hit it off and he was an invaluable help to me for several years. When he was coming up to retirement he told me he harboured ambitions to become a published author, and sent me examples of blogs he had written over the years, for me to judge his skills. Then I had a true light bulb moment. Many people had been suggesting to me, over the years, that I should write a non-fiction book about my research with the police and throughout his thirty-year career, Graham had the unique experience of policing Brighton and Hove at every rank and had been involved in many of the cases that provided inspiration both for characters and for plots of my novels. He clearly had writing talent. We decided to collaborate and write a book about what it was really like to be a police officer in Roy Grace’s Brighton and it was published last year and went to Number 7 in the Sunday Times Bestseller list!
Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?
Roy Grace number 13, called Need You Dead will be published on May 18th. The stage play of my 3rd Roy Grace novel, Not Dead Enough is currently touring the UK until July 1st. I’m just editing my latest standalone called Absolute Proof which is actually a move away from the crime genre- it’s a standalone novel on the theme of what might happen if someone claimed to have absolute proof of the existence of God. It is a subject that has long intrigued me, and I have been working on the research planning of this book for nearly two decades. It will be published next year. And I hope also to share some good news about Roy Grace on TV soon!
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?
I’m always excited to find a new writer who grips me. I really liked JP Delaney’s The Girl Before and I look forward to this author’s next book.
Do you have anything to add?
I’ve written the foreword to a wonderful work of non-fiction, Dorling Kindersley’s The Crime Book, which has just been published. And in June there is another fantastic book being published, Matchup. It’s an anthology, edited by Lee Child, in which eleven female thriller writers are paired up with eleven male writers, with their central characters working together. Val McDermid and I have Carole Jordan, Tony Hill and Roy Grace working together! Other pairings include Kathy Reichs’s Temperance Brennan working with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. It has been a lot of fun and I think all the stories are great!
Thanks to Peter for taking the time, it’s been really fascinating to learn about his methods, and if you fancy finding out his website HERE.