Peter James

Joyce Fraser interviewed author Peter James at the Auckland Writer and Readers Festival 2012. She asked him about the challenges facing authors in the era of the e-book, whether life as a writer meant giving up the role of reader and why he always wears red socks.

How I write

You travel extensively in support of your writing. Is this vital to success as a writer today?
I don’t think it is 100% essential. You do get big, bestseller authors who don’t, ones from America that were famously reclusive like J.D. Salinger but on the other hand J.D. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye and what since? Thomas Pynchon was another one that wouldn’t go out.

In this world today where we have mass communication and the modern media, it is a really important thing to do but I also get a lot out of it. I make it a condition with my publishers that when I travel anywhere in the world they’ll introduce me to the police and I learn so much that way. I’ve met police from all over the world; I’ve got friendly with the Chief of Police in Moscow, police in Germany, France, and India etc. In Auckland, last time I was here, I spent a day with the police.

Also when I travel I get to interact with my readers and learn what they do and don’t like. I’ve built up a huge research network from readers who contact me saying I’ve got something wrong although you do get letters from complete pedants saying Dear Mr James, the road you featured on p55 of your latest book is misnamed. It is not called the King’s Esplanade at that point but actually turns into Madeira Avenue. God, get a life! But the A & E nurse that says that piece of equipment is no longer in use, we use something else is useful and I’ll stay in touch and get them to check out any other A & E scenes.
Do you find that writing crime precludes reading crime?
I am a voracious reader but I don’t like to read fiction when I’m engaged in the writing process. I spend seven months of the year writing the first draft of my novel so I don’t read, as it is so easy to pick up someone else’s descriptions and style. Then I binge read. I read a lot of new books, publishers frequently send me new titles because they’d like a jacket quote. So I discover new authors that way. Two recent finds have been Clare McGowan’s The Fall, one of the best new crime novels I’ve read in a long time and also Louise Voss and Mark Edward’s Killing Cupid which I thought was astonishingly good because I’m a very hard reader to please. If a book doesn’t grab me within the first paragraph and unless someone has told me this book is good, I won’t read on. Life is too short; there are so many books out there that I’m never going to read, so unless I’m learning something or I’m really gripped I just don’t read on. I probably put down ten books for every one I finish.

Also I’m such a stickler for research if any author gets their research glaringly wrong I throw it away. The only time I suspend disbelief is when the writer makes me do it through the sheer quality of their writing. The moment that they get something factually wrong it jolts you out of the book. I’m always looking for a book that I can put down and say, Shit, I wish I’d written that! That is when you learn as a writer, when you read something better than you think you could have written.
Graham Greene sounds like he was that writer for you.
Yes, I’ve read most of his canon of work and there are very few writers that write character as well as him. Greene has the ability within a couple of line to make you think you know somebody. Hale with his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anyone could tell he didn’t belong-belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd in The Human Factor, which is one of my favourite Greene novels, he describes someone who is a bit of a tosser as a man who in the countryside always dresses as if he’s in the city, and when he was in the city he dresses country!

Too many authors forget that what makes you read the books are the characters. A friend of mine created the original questions on Who wants to be a Millionaire and everyone thinks that it is a quiz show but at its heart it is a drama. Every novelist can learn from this, someone sits in that chair, someone that you have never seen before in your life, the host interviews them and within 60 seconds you, the viewer, care whether that person wins the million pounds. Whether they want to buy a boat, take their sick brother to America for treatment whatever. Books are the same, you pick it up and within one page you should care about someone you have never met before in your life.

A life of crime (writing)

CoverYou talked in your session about the flavour Brighton brings as a location. What makes a great backdrop for crime?
In certain parts of Brighton you can definitely feel the danger and the need to survive. I have a theory that all the greatest cities have a criminal undertow. If you look at the United States where are the cities that you’d actually want to go to? New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and New Orleans. In Australia, Melbourne I think is the most vibrant city - my favourite city in Australia but it has had 37 gangland shootings. In Auckland you have the motorbike gangs and a dark undertow. The cities that have a life and soul to them have a crime life too. Outside of London there are some very nice cities like Bath and Chester but the vibe is different.
Describe Roy Grace, and the characteristics that define him and real-life police officers.
Roy Grace’s father was a copper who didn’t rise that high in the force but Roy was proud of him. You get this a lot with police officers, it is in the family, son follows father. I’ve also noticed with a lot of homicide detectives, and I’ve made a big effort to put this into Roy, that they connect emotionally with the victims. You’ll often get a detective still working on an unsolved murder even after he has retired. He has bonded with the victim’s family and it become personal. Homicide is a unique crime where no restitution is ever possible. There is a great saying by J Edgar Hoover that there is no greater responsibility that any police officer can have than to investigate the death of a fellow human being.

Good crime scene investigator have great bandwidth, they have to be lateral thinkers as every homicide is a puzzle with thousands of pieces and they have to put that puzzle together bit, by bit, by bit, hoping that they’ll get lucky one day and this combination of luck and doggedness is vital.
I go to this amazing conference every year called the International Homicide Investigators Association Annual Symposium. 500 of the world’s top homicide detectives meet in a closed conference and they do 3-5 hour presentations on the major crimes they’ve solved in the last 12 months. Sussex Police make me a Police Officer for the week and together with some other serving officers from the force I go along. What I get out of this is the methodology; you see the crime scene photos and what happened and how it got solved.

I also give lots of talks in prisons and find the attitudes in prison fascinating. In men’s prisons everyone is segregated into categories A, B, C etc. Women are all mixed together but when you do a talk to them you find all the black drug dealers sit together, the white hookers sit together and the middle-aged women who are the husband murderers sit together!
I read that actor Hugh Bonneville is signed to play DS Roy Grace?
He was in the frame and I know him quite well but that was a few years ago and A, with Downton Abbey it has made him Lord Grantham and B, he is too old now with the nicest will in the world but he is a great actor. He played a cop in a BBC series called Hunter a few years back but it didn’t get picked up. He has great versatility and I love the warmth he brings to his roles.
CoverWhat makes fictionalised brutality acceptable, why do we need crime?
Now there is a big question! Well, there are a lot of things going on there. The real world is a nasty dangerous place but the thrill of danger can be experienced vicariously through a book. You can control it, if the story is getting too scary you can close the book and reopen it in daylight.
What is the first thing we do to a new baby? We say, boo! We like to be scared. At another level, looking at the deeper psychology Daj Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said there is no action we have, no thought we do or deed we undertake that is uninfluenced by how our mind views its destiny and our body its death. Every decision we make, even sitting in a restaurant trying to decide between steak and the fish is to do with our subconscious acknowledgement of life and death. People are often accused of rubber necking at car wrecks, people slow down and they are curious. I don’t think it is because people are gloating, I think it is much more that they are interested in survival. We are genetically programmed to survive and we are trying to learn from the car wreck. With crime novels we are asking ourselves how did that woman get in that situation, what can I learn from that? That is going on at a subconscious level all the time.

The crime novel has multiple layers, as I said in my talk, if you want to write about the world in which we live nobody sees more of human life than a police officer. If you go back to any of the great, great writers a lot of what they have written would be classified as crime today. A lot of Dickens’ work could be on the crime shelves, half of Shakespeare’s plays if they were novels would also be there. I say crime is a genre for intelligent people and literary fiction is written by people who don’t know how to plot!
Does the success of Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the subsequent Viking crime invasion make life easier or harder for UK-based crime writers?
Steig Larsson has done the whole genre a huge favour. Up until The Millennium trilogy lots of people were like well, I wouldn’t read crime fiction, I read literary fiction. With Larsson it became cult to read it. I don’t think the books are great in themselves but they are great compared to most literary fiction. People that would normally have bought literary fiction have turned to crime fiction and found that they are having a good time, they are gripped and the pages are turning. So then they try something else and this benefits the whole genre. Steig Larsson is a classic example of death being a good career move!
You’ve just been re-elected chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. What are the challenges ahead and how are e-books impacting on crime publishing?
The challenging times are the whole way that e-books have suddenly exploded. I’ve gone from 2% of my book sales being in e-books to 50% in America and 25-30% in the United Kingdom. It is having a massive impact on high street bookshops and to me the high street bookshops are really important because people go in to browse and find new authors. Libraries are also important. If it hadn’t been for libraries I’d never have become a writer in the first place, and if it hadn’t been for high street, independent bookstores I would never have been a published author because in my day when I first started writing W.H. Smith was the juggernaut in England and had 35% of all book sales. They wouldn’t really buy books from new authors, or if they did they’d buy 30 copies.

So the people that really bought my books and put them in the shops were the independents and they are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking with the discounting of the big supermarket chains. Libraries are also under pressure. The positive is that people can self-publish with e-books more easily but the really nasty issue with e-books is price. If you think a hardback in England is £18-19, a paperback is about £8 today and an author gets between 10-15% of that price. People are screaming if an e-book is more than a few pounds and the author is still only getting a percentage of that price. Potential revenues are dropping by 70-80% and on top of that last year 20% of all e-books were pirated. I see author incomes being decimated. We’ve seen this in the music industry but they still make big money out of live gigs. I might get a couple of hundred people coming to one of my events but I’m not going to get 30,000 people at Wembley Arena to hear me reading!

I’m also interested in what defines a public author these days. It used to be that an author was published by a publishing house but suddenly Joe Bloggs can self-publish an e-book and sell 100,000 copies. But does that make him a published author? That whole paradigm is changing and there is a lot going on right now.

Libraries and socks

You mentioned that without libraries you’d never have become a writer. Do you still use libraries?
Yes, I still go to libraries, we have a great library in Brighton. I love going down the stacks and I love the smell and feel of old newspapers. You can’t get the same experience from Google and only partially from microfiche.
I notice you have some very natty red socks on, and you do have a family tradition in hosiery.
Yes! Someone told me some years ago that the Chinese wear red for energy, so I started wearing red socks. I’m kind of superstitious so I always wear them for luck and energy.
Interview, May 2012