Exclusive Interview with Peter James

Exclusive Interview with Peter James

With the paperback for the tenth Roy Grace novel – Want You Dead– out on the 23rd October, and his collection of short stories – A Twist of the Knife – out November 6th, Peter is certainly busy at the moment. We were lucky enough to spend an hour with the man himself to ask a few exclusive questions about his new book, his experiences writing and researching and what he’s got coming up in the New Year.

Hi Peter, first of all can you tell us a little about what we can expect from ‘A Twist of the Knife’?

Well I guess the first thing to talk about is…one of the stories is the first ever case that Roy Grace works on when he’s a uniform cop, before he even becomes a detective. There’s also, the story in here that inspired me to write the novels that were the inspiration for the novel ‘Dead Simple‘ which was the first Roy Grace novel of the series. It’s a collection of short stories of varying lengths… sometimes I like writing really short stories… a couple of them are literally just 2 sentences long. But most of them are between 4-20 pages long. It’s a real mixture of thrillers with a real twist to them and supernatural thrillers as well. My first successful book was a supernatural thriller, so I’ve written quite a few quite creepy supernatural stories in this collection. And I’ve also written about 3 stories in the collection that are actually basically true stories that I’ve heard about ghosts. One of the stories is my own experience of living for 10 years in a haunted house. Quite a lot of the stories in the collection are based on true stories that I’ve heard or been told or come across. I guess there’s one common denominator of all of them; hopefully they’ve got a twist or a big shock at the ending.

Is there more appeal for you in writing short stories than novels?

I actually love writing both. For me, if I write a novel it’s a full year’s commitment. It takes about 7 months to write the first draft and once all the editing’s done it a whole year. So it’s not physically possible for me to write everything that I want to write in novel form. I think what I love about short stories – this is the first volume I’ve ever had of short stories, I’ve been writing short stories for some years but this is the first time I’ve ever put together a collection- for me, the fun is to be able to take stories that maybe aren’t big enough to make into a novel, but which really work extremely well in the short story format. The other thing I like about them… I’ve always read a lot of short stories, and I think the way we live our lives now, a lot of us read late at night while we’re in bed and we’re tired, and I’ve always liked books with short chapters. And if I’m lying in bed and I pick up a book and I see a chapter 53 pages long I think “oh bloody hell, I’ll read that tomorrow”. This is like 2 pages long “oh I’ll read that” and then I’ll look “oh the next chapter is only 1 and a half pages”. And then next thing I know it is 3 o’ clock in the morning and I’m still reading. But you can take a book of short stories to bed and you can dip into one of them.

Despite the length of the stories, the connection with the characters is established very quickly which made the twists at the end even more gut churning (Susan in 12 Bolingbroke Ave in particular). Is this something that you work methodically on or does it come naturally from knowing your characters inside and out?

I always base every character I write about on somebody I know, but not necessarily doing the job that they’re doing in the story. So the real life Susan could be a doctor, or she could be a cab driver or she could be a secretary but I take somebody that I… I sort of collect people in a slightly, almost anoraky way. If I meet somebody and I think “ooh that would be a good character” I take notes on them and I’ll take photos of them and I sort of file them away. Because I think my biggest fascination of all, probably the reason that I write more than anything else, is that I’m deeply fascinated in human nature, why people do the things that they do. And the effects that outside forces can have on people. I like the idea of the innocent person who finds themselves in trouble, in a sense, like Susan does.

In the promo for the book it claims that the stories reveal the Achilles heels of your characters. Is this important for character development and did you enjoy exploring that aspect of their personalities?

That’s a really good question. I think that all humans put a defence barrier around themselves. Everybody you meet has a barrier, but I think every human being has an Achilles heel, even really nasty people have an Achilles heel. And I always find it fascinating to find what that weakness is and to write about that. One of my stories, I think it’s the second one after that, is about a food critic who ends up on a menu, and I write a monthly food column myself, I’m a restaurant critic too, so I notice how toxic some restaurant reviewers can be, how they can literally make or break a restaurant, and the pages of the main daily newspapers and the Sunday newspapers. And I wonder how many restaurateurs have wanted to get revenge on someone like A. A. Gill or Giles Coren or Fay Maschler or any of the reviewers that have trashed their restaurants. I’ve written about this character and I guess that his Achilles heel is that he is absolutely terrified of the number 13, that’s his weakness. I think everybody has some weak point in them… it’s the place where they’re most vulnerable.

Which story from the book are you most fond of?

Gosh that’s a really difficult question. I do like that particular story which is called ‘Number 13’. I like Roy Grace’s first case very much. I like a very, very short one which is 2 lines long called ‘Smoking Kills’. I think because they made my smile while I wrote them. There’s one I like which is actually called ‘A Very Sexy Revenge’ which is about a woman who gets very irritated by a guy who sits next to her on an aeroplane. There’s one I really like because it’s actually based on a true story that I got told years ago called ‘Art Class’. And another really short one again, about 2 sentences long, which is called ‘A Companionship’. About a sweet old lady who ain’t so sweet.

The paperback for the tenth Roy Grace novel – Want You Dead – is out this month. How do you think Roy has changed over the last 10 books, and how has he stayed the same?

I sort of played with time. With Ian Rankin, for example, with the Rebus books he had John Rebus nearly a year older in each book, writing a book a year. So as a result he finally hit retirement age, and I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to show a point in Roy’s life when he is on the change, so when we first meet him in ‘Dead Simple‘ he’s coming up to his 39th birthday, in ‘Want You Dead‘, which is the tenth book, he’s 40 and a bit. So all ten books have taken place within the space of possibly a year and a half. Although what I’ve done is real time, I’ve moved each book forward culturally a year. You know, we’ve had the Olympics so I keep the books in terms of, each new book is set in the year that I’m writing it but for Roy it’s just that short space of time.

The Perfect Murder is currently on tour as a play in the UK and there’s another play planned for 2015. How involved did you get with the process and is it exciting to see Roy brought to life on stage?

Well it was fantastic because we had The Perfect Murder which is currently on tour at the moment, it toured 15 weeks earlier in the year and it’s now on tour again. And so Dead Simple is the second adaptation. It’s the same writer on both – Shaun McKenna- and we worked extremely closely together. To me, it’s a magical experience. I’ve had 3 of my books adapted for television and I’ve never been happy with those adaptations. But the stage adaptation of The Perfect Murder was just brilliant, I love seeing it. I love going and watching the audience as well, as much as I love watching the play. It’s funny; every time I go it’s different. And Dead Simple is obviously massively important because it’s the book that launched Roy Grace, and I’m really happy with the adaptation. It seemed quite complicated having somebody on stage in a coffin for half the play but the set designer has done a really great job on it. I’m really hopeful that it will do well, we’ve got a great cast as well; we’ve got Tina Hobley, Jamie Lomas. It starts January 15th I think, it’s on a 26 week tour. But I’m really loving the whole experience

Why do you think adapting for the stage has worked better than adapting for TV?

I think you get this amazing connection with the audience with live theatre whereas I think when you watch something on the screen it’s always going to be the same every time you watch it. But with a play there’s almost a relationship between the cast and the audience. And I think seeing something acted out live just makes it feel so much more real. I think when you watch a movie there’s always an element of distance. I’ve always loved the theatre and my parents had seats every Thursday for the Theatre Royal Brighton, from my earliest childhood so from about the age of 9 I’d go every Thursday night. And I’d dream of the curtain rising and it’d be something that I’d written on stage. So I’ve always had that huge love of the theatre. And I think there’s a stronger connection between the stage and books than there is between film and books. Because, if you go back to the middle ages, writers wanted to reach an audience, most people couldn’t read in those days, and certainly books were prohibitively expensive so if you were a writer you wrote plays, that’s how they communicated. It wasn’t really until 1935 when Penguin brought out the first paperback that books really started becoming accessible to the public at large. So I think if Shakespeare was writing today he’d be writing crime novels. I think most of the great playwrights would be novelists today because that would be the bigger media forum. So I think that’s the connection between books and plays. And I think there’s an electric atmosphere in live theatre, however good a movie is, the atmosphere is only ever going to be one side of the screen, which is with the audience. But when a play is doing well, the actors feed off it too.

You clearly carry out a lot of research before/during writing your books. What’s the most memorable thing you’ve come across whilst conducting research?

I am particularly fascinated by people and their behaviour and I like meeting criminals because I find particularly serious criminals utterly fascinating, you know, what’s made them do this? What makes them tick? I remember, one of the most striking things I ever did in my research was when I met a woman in a prison a couple of years back when I was doing a talk, and I went up to this woman afterwards and she was clearly above average intelligence. When I do talks with persons I never say directly to that person “what have you done” I always say “how long do you have to go” as an icebreaker. And then if they can respond, then drilldown. So I said to her “how long have you got to go”. “I’ve got 9 and a half more bloody years” she said “it’s not fair. There’s a woman who did exactly the same as me in London and she’s only got 6 more years”. So I asked “what brought you in here?” and she said “well I poisoned my mother in law the old bag” and I said “oh really?” She said “well, the thing was she went into hospital to die so I embezzled her bank accounts and the bloody woman didn’t die and she came back home and I realised she’d figure out what I’d done so I had to poison her. And then i realised that my husband would figure out what I’d done so I had to poison him too. It’s just not fair, I’ve got 9 and a half more years to go, this woman in London did exactly what I did and she’s only got 6 more years”. She was obviously feeling no remorse at all she was completely indignant about the length of her sentence. When I was leaving the prison, I said to the officer taking me out “did she really do this?” and he said “oh yes, her husband did 3 years on life support, he’s got permanent brain damage and the mother in law died”. And she was just angry about the length of time she got. I found that fascinating and deeply chilling.

And then one of the most horrific that I went to, it was only actually about 18 months ago. I was in Los Angeles, I was spending the day with the chief medical examiner out there and I was taken to a multiple killing. It was a gang killing – a drug deal gone wrong, four people executed; 2 Hispanic guys, a Pilipino guy and a Chinese woman, and they were all kneeling and they’d all been shot in the back on the head. That was pretty horrific.

You’ve mentioned that real life paranormal encounters have inspired some of your short stories. Is paranormal activity something you enjoy exploring in real life?

Yes, I remain fascinated by it. One of the paranormal stories is literally based on my own experience of living in a haunted house. Some years back, in the early 90’s, I became a so-called expert on the paranormal, and I got asked to host a BBC programme on ghosts. I did a little research at that time, in particular I became even more fascinated when I discovered that there are quite a number of police officers who are prepared to go to mediums, clairvoyants when all else fails. Although they never talk about it publicly. But I became very good friends with a guy called Dominic Walker who i recently met when he was the vicar of Brighton and then he became bishop of Reading and then bishop of Monmouth. And when he was vicar of Brighton he had a secondary role which was chief exorcist of the Church of England. I was surprised to learn that the Church of England and the Catholic Church, they actually have chief exorcists but they call them ‘ministers of deliverance’. They call them whenever something goes on that the priest or vicar cannot explain, if one of the parishioners believes that they’ve seen ghosts or they’re suffering after playing with a Ouija board or whatever it is. And Dominic comes from a very non-flaky background, his father was a doctor, his mum was a nurse, he’s studied psychology at university, so he comes at the paranormal from a very sceptical perspective, so what he does is he tries to drill down and see what’s really behind the so called sightings and occurrences. And I said to him some years ago, have you ever in all of your experiences of dealing with and exploring the paranormal, come across something that you cannot explain and that has convinced you of the existence of ghosts. And he said “twice in my career”. He told me the stories and I’ve actually put those into the book. I think one’s called ‘Gifts in the Night’ and the other is ‘Ghost Painting’.

Who is your favourite crime fiction writer at the moment?

Gosh….I tend to like the American writers in general. My favourite right now is Michael Connelly. The writer that made me want to write crime fiction in the first place was Graham Greene, he’s not really a crime writer but his novel ‘Brighton Rock’ was the book that I read at the age of 14 and I put that down and I thought “one day I want to write a crime novel set in Brighton that is 10% as good as this book”.

A Twist of the Knife is available to order online as a Hardback or eBook.

Want You Dead is available to order online as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook.