Peter James: An Exclusive Interview on the Life of a Crime Writer

Peter James: An Exclusive Interview on the Life of a Crime Writer

Hi Peter! Let’s catch up on what you’ve been up to lately, what have you been working on?

The play ‘The Perfect Murder’, which is from last year, is coming back on tour this spring. With Shane Ritchie and Jessie Wallace co-starring in it. You can go to www.theperfectmurder.co.uk and that’s got all the tour details and booking details. And I’m flat out working on the twelth Roy Grace novel which is called Love You Dead and that’s coming out late May next year. So I hope a copy or two will be on sale at WHSmith. And then I’ve been working on the Cold Hill promotion stuff. I’ve had a lot of signing events recently, including in a WHSmith store in Brighton.

So do you get recognised in Brighton as you’re going about?

I do a fair bit. Oddly enough by a lot of police officers. I still get the odd look from them. Also by a lot of bin men. I did a tour of a bin loading operator for some research , so funnily enough a lot of bin men recognise me.

Do you enjoy that?

Yes. I think as a writer you’re not recognised out in public places as much as an actor. When Shane Ritchie came down to Brighton, we were talking about doing the play, and he’s mobbed almost everywhere he goes.

I do get people come up to me in restaurants asking me if I’d mind signing a book or signing a piece of paper. I actually don’t mind that, I think if you want to make a living as a writer then you’ve got to be in the public eye. It’s really nice to engage with fans, although you do occasionally have the odd slightly irritating one, but 99% of the time they’re absolutely good as gold. And I love engaging with fans.

Some people say to me ‘why are you so open on twitter and facebook’. It’s two reasons. One is that historically, before social media, if you wanted to communicate with the writer you had to write to the publisher and go through the agent, and the agent would write to you, and then you’d reply on a piece of your agent’s notepaper so you didn’t have a dangerous stalker turning up at your house. But I can talk to fans almost in real time now.

And I find it great for research. This book I’m writing right now, is about this black widow character who targets rich men and catches them. And she keeps poisonous snakes. And I needed more research on poisonous snakes. So I just put a twitter post up about a month ago saying ‘does anyone know anyone who keeps poisonous snakes?’ and I had about 6 replies.

And a couple of years ago I put ‘does anyone know anyone who can pick locks?’ I had this reply, pretty quickly, from a former career burglar. He helps the police now. So I met up with him and he told me everything I wanted to know about picking locks. And that’s information that would have been almost impossible to have got previously.

So can you pick locks now?

I could if I needed to.

Do you ever get into trouble as a result of your research? I saw the picture of you with a snake wrapped around you on Facebook. And I saw recently that you’ve been making bombs?

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Yes, I have to be quite careful with what I put on my Facebook. Sometimes I think people might think I’m very strange. I think there have been quite a few situations which have kicked off. Where I’ve been in the middle of a massive fight or walking around at 2 o clock in the morning with a suspected armed killer on the loose and I’m thinking ‘what am I doing here?’

Having a snake stretched around my neck was actually not a very comfortable experience. I said to them ‘If this thing attacked you, would you be able to get it off yourself?’ she said ‘No, I’ve never let it out without someone else in the room with me. Because once it gets around you, the only way to get it off is to unwind it by holding the tail and the head, and if it’s around you, it’s pinning your arms down so you can’t do it.’

And I had a really nasty research trip for the same book where I went to a poisonous reptile show in Holland. There’s a reptile show twice a year in Holland and also one in Germany. And you can buy anything there, and I mean anything. Black mamba, black widow spider, trapdoor spider, world’s deadliest scorpion. Prices were £30-150. And you can bring it legally into this country straight through customs. You don’t have to declare it, all you have to do is apply for a license within 48 hours, and most people don’t apply for a license because it can cost up to £1400. I went to the show in Holland, and they put a scorpion in the palm of my hand. I’ll send you the picture.

You’re a braver man than I am.

I could not wait to get it off my hand. And he said ‘It’s alright, it’s only small which means it’s probably got a small sting, it’d just be like a bee sting.’ And I went ‘Yeah, thanks’.

Yeah you could probably do without a bee sting! So is there such a thing as a typical writing day for Peter James?

There is although I don’t have as many as I need. I break up a lot of the day by doing interviews and things or research.

My writing day is slightly back to front because I started writing novels when I was working full time in film and television. So I had to find a time of day when I could write and that turned out to be evenings. My creative day starts at 6 o’clock in the evening. And it’s just me, a fag and music. And I write until about 10 o’clock at night. Then Lara and I have supper and watch topical television – the news or a movie or whatever.

Then I get up early morning, and either swim or run for half an hour. Then I have breakfast and then I revise what I wrote the night before. And that takes most of the morning. Then I have a bite of lunch. Then in the afternoon I try to catch up with emails, I use afternoons for general stuff. I sometimes walk the dogs.

I look forward to writing, I can’t understand these writers who hate the writing part, it’s a treat in my day. And I love research, I love learning stuff. I go out with the police a lot and I go out in patrol cars. I do take quite a few chunks of time for research.

I do that 5 days a week. And then Saturday is quite similar but I tend to write in the morning and then maybe a little bit in the evening if I’m not going out. And then Sundays I try to switch off, but I often end up catching up on emails, I write a monthly column for Sussex Life so I do that on a Sunday morning.

So you have a very busy week then!

I do but I really like it. I also do a bit of motor racing. That’s my real switch off. Probably one weekend in four I’m doing some practise. Not so much in the winter but certainly in the summer.

Do you have any maxims that you live or write by?

I think in terms of writing, what’s absolutely crucial is always try and be original. I can’t stand clichés, you know like ‘It’s a beautiful, sunny day and the birds were singing’. I think with writing, I always think a reader who doesn’t know you, who just picked up your book in WHSmith, was first attracted to you by the cover. And then secondly they turn the book over and see what it’s about. And then what I always do is read the first paragraph, and if I’m not hooked by that first paragraph then I put the book down. It has to make me want to keep reading. The two most important moments in the book are the first line and the last line. You take the reader on a journey. If you let them down with the ending they’ll never forgive you.

So just one last question then – do you have a favourite first or last line of a book?

Yes, I mean outside of what I’ve written my favourite is Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. The opening line is ‘Within 3 hours of arriving in Brighton, Hale knew he meant to murder him.’ I think that novel also has one of the nastiest last lines ever written, psychologically nasty.


The eleventh Roy Grace novel – You Are Dead – is available to buy online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook. Peter James’ recent haunted house story – The House on Cold Hill – is also available as a Hardback or eBook.