Author interview. Peter James, author of the best selling Roy Grace series talks about his formative years, the inspiration for Roy Grace and why Brighton is definitely the place to be!
R: The Crime Warp’s latest interview is with Peter James, most famous for his Roy Grace books, but he’s also been a script writer, film producer and writer of the world’s first “electronic novel”. Welcome Peter, it’s a privilege to have you here.
PJ: Thank you, it’s an absolute pleasure.
R: Peter, going back to your childhood, I understand that your mother was came to England as a refugee in 1938. How did that background influence your childhood and home life? Did it have any effect on the career path you chose?
PJ: My mother was a refugee from Vienna, but had kept hidden from my sister and I that she was a Jew. I went to school at Charterhouse not knowing what a Jew was! I was bullied because I looked Jewish – many people in the school, like in much of England in the early 1960s, were aggressively anti-Semitic. One day, ten boys sat on a wall were chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew” at me. I dived over the wall and punched the lights out on the first guy in the line. After that I was never bullied again there, and the experience gave me the will to succeed - to show those bastards that a Jewish boy can do quite well. One of the films I am proud to say I co-produced was ‘The Merchant of Venice’, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. A critic in Toronto wrote that the director, Michael Radford, had turned an anti-Semitic play into a play about anti-Semitism. Unquestionably, because of those 10 guys sitting on a wall shouting "Jew, Jew, Jew"!
My mother was an extraordinary woman. She was a fantastically successful business-woman, but she was very funny and very human and kind. She loved skiing and my father did not ski because of injuries so every December from the age of 6 and every March she and I would go skiing together. She treated my like a young adult, letting me order the wine from about the age of 8 which was great as I learned about wine from that which has always stood me I good stead (and taught me never to be intimidated by sommeliers!). She was always passionately supportive of my film-making but even more so by my writing. I was always hugely proud of her, but as we got older she turned from being my mum to being my best friend. Nothing ever shocked her and she taught me so much in life, about style, attitude and hard work. She was also a fantastic publicist for me! God help anyone who sat next to her on a plane. By the time they got off having endured several hours of her lecturing them about my books and demanding to know why they had never read me, they would be making straight for the nearest bookstall! One big regret I have is that she died before I started writing the Roy Grace series, as I know how proud she would have been.
Within 48 hours, my uncle's friends were calling up to ask how they could help me get into the film business - "And by the way, we have a lovely girl called Rachel we'd like you to meet..."
I was 22 and in paradise - caught up in the warmth and love of a Jewish family. Aunt Lilly, my uncle's wife, told me that my mother had left Vienna with her parents and six siblings because of anti-Semitism. Her father had owned a chain of grocery stores and it cost him one store to get each child out. My grandparents settled in Leeds. They thought it was safer to be far away from the English Channel. A younger sister had been raped by a German border guard. Years later she committed suicide by throwing herself off Niagara Falls.
I stayed in Canada and America for six years, coming home to visit my parents. When my father became ill, I decided to stay in England and write. Possession went to No. 1 on the bestseller list, and during a newspaper interview I told a journalist that my mother had been a Jewish refugee. My mother was furious. "Why did you tell them I'm Jewish?" I said we needed to have it out: "You're Jewish, which makes me Jewish. Whether you want it or not, I'm proud of you and our family. It's part of who I am." She'd kept quiet about being Jewish because she was so scared that anti-Semitism could happen again.
R: You went to film school and then worked in the USA. Why did you choose film over books at that point?
PJ: When I was a small child I always knew there were three things I wanted to do in life - write books, make films and race cars! I always felt that motor racing was too frivolous too go into as a profession and that I wanted to contribute something of value to the world. I wanted to entertain people but at the same time I wanted through these media to examine the world and society in which we live. After thirty years of alternating two day jobs - writing and producing, I realised in 2005, shortly after making ‘The Merchant Of Venice’, that actually, I much prefer writing novels. The problem with films is that they are such a collaborative process; it becomes almost like a committee, but up to 20 people who each believe it is their film! For example you have the screenwriter, and very often a second screen writer or “polisher”, the producer – sometimes two or even more. The executive producers, again sometimes two or more, the director, the principal actors, the director of photography, the set designer, the editor, the composer, the distributor and so on. Each and every one of these has influence on the end product. And most normally have egos the size of aircraft carriers. With a book the creative process is utterly pure. There is just myself and my agent and my editor. If I don’t want to change one single word I have written I don’t have to. I love that freedom from the “committee” process of film-making.
R: You wrote a series of standalone books whilst you were still working in film. How did you manage to juggle film work which must be pretty intensive, with writing a steady stream of books?
PJ: It goes back to the time when I was writing novels, whilst working full time in film and television as a screen writer and producer, so I had to make my “Me time” to write. That may mean getting up early or going to bed late, but if you have the passion to do it you will find the time.
R: You’ve talked previously about your publishers asking you to create a detective character. How did you feel about creating a character that would presumably have to last for a series of novels rather than just one book?
PJ: Having read several of my earlier thrillers, in which I had increasing amounts of police involvement, in 2001 my publishers, Macmillan, approached me through my agent and asked if I would consider creating a new fictional detective character, with a view to writing a crime series for them.
A long time before this in 1995, I had been introduced to a young homicide Detective Inspector, Dave Gaylor. I remember entering his office at the Sussex CID HQ on the outskirts of Brighton and finding almost every inch of the work surfaces and floor covered in blue and green plastic crates, bulging with manila folders. I asked him if he was moving offices, and he replied with a sardonic smile, ‘No, these are my dead friends!’
For an instant I thought I had met a total weirdo! Then he explained to me that in addition to his duties as a current homicide detective, he had recently been tasked with re-examining all the unsolved homicides in the country, and applying the latest advances in forensics on them. ‘Each one of these crates contains the principal case file of an unsolved murder,’ he said. ‘I am the last chance each victim has for justice – and I’m the last chance their families have for closure.’
I loved that very human aspect of him, and it is a trait I’ve come to realize is common among good homicide detectives. They bond with the family of the victim and it becomes personal to them. It is part of the reason you often see a detective still pursuing a killer years after retirement.
Dave Gaylor then asked me to tell him about the current book I was working on – a psychological thriller called Denial. Halfway through he interrupted me, asking why I hadn’t thought of the police officers doing this, and that… and why my character had done one thing instead of another…. And I realised rapidly that he had a very big creative bandwidth. Again, that is a trait I’ve come to realize is common among good detectives: A homicide, like any major crime, is a huge puzzle, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of tiny pieces that have to be meticulously and painstakingly put together. But in addition to being scrupulously methodical, good homicide detective are often lateral, out-of-the-box thinkers.
Dave Gaylor and I became good friends and he helped me with many police and psychology aspects of the subsequent books I wrote. So when Macmillan asked about the series character, I went to Dave, who had by now been promoted to Detective Chief Superintendent, Head of Major Crime for Sussex, and asked him how he would feel about being a fictional cop! He loved it, and Detective Superintendent Roy Grace was born!
To answer the part of the question around writing a character who has to last for a series of novels rather than just one book… I really love this element and don't find it restricting. I typically write my Roy Grace novels from three different perspectives: That of the offender, that of the victim and that of the police - Roy Grace and his team. I love writing all three perspectives equally - with Roy and his team it is great for me to meet up with them again - I feel I'm returning to my family! It is very strange, actually, because I have come to view Roy Grace as a very close friend. I don’t go so far as to talk to him, but I feel I know him – and that I am often thinking like him. Every Roy Grace novel is a standalone, and they can be read in any order, although going through from the beginning of the series readers will get more out of the running threads.
R: Was the name “Grace” meant to be meaningful or just a name you chose at random?
PJ: It came about in two halves, really. I wanted my central character to have a warm and easy to remember first and last name. Everyone I’ve ever known called Roy I have always liked, so it was pure name association. For the last name, Grace, I felt the name has so many positive connotations. From state of grace, to graceful, the religious overtone, and particularly the association with crime and justice, where it means a temporary reprieve.
R: How do you research and prepare for each book? Do you have the plot mapped out before you start writing, or do you work more organically?
PJ: For me, research is as important an element in writing my novels as character and plot. I view each of these elements as an inseparable trinity. Each of my Roy Grace novels has its genesis in a true story or in research facts – as indeed do all of my previous novels.
I want to know and understand inside out anything what I am writing about. Whether it is describing a taxi driver, a police diver, a lawyer, a plastic surgeon, or a hairdresser. For example, I spent an entire day last year doing a 12-hour shift as a garbage collector in Brighton. Damned hard work, but it gave me a wonderful character – and invaluable insight into their world for a crucial scene in my book. I remember reading a novel, by a foreign writer set in England, and it started to become apparent to me that the writer had been less than diligent in his research. When I got to the sentence in which his character was driving North along the M25 in the direction of Birmingham, I binned the book. Why? Because the M25 is the famous – or notorious – ring round around London. It doesn’t go anywhere! Instantly I had lost all trust and confidence in the author’s integrity.
As for plotting, I believe that structure is important. Know your ending before you start writing. You wouldn't just get into a car and drive without knowing where you're going. Know your most important plot points. This does not mean that things won't change, but you will never get stuck.
R: I often ask authors about the settings they use and when I first picked up a Roy Grace book, I felt Brighton an unlikely setting, although once I got into the book, it felt quite natural. Why did you choose Brighton, rather than say London, which many authors choose and even prefer?
PJ: For me, Brighton is the perfect place to set my crime novels. Brighton holds the unique distinction as the only place in the UK where a serving Chief Constable has ever been murdered - Henry Solomon, in 1844. In the early 1930s, after a series of three dismembered female bodies were discovered in different left-luggage lockers, Brighton became known first as ‘Queen of Slaughtering Places’ and then acquired the soubriquet of both “The Murder Capital of Europe” and “The Crime Capital of England. The latter is one that Brighton, formerly a town, now a city, has never been able to shake off. For the past decade, year on year, Brighton has held the unwelcome title of “Injecting Drug Death Capital Of the UK”.
A journalist friend of mine recounted how, in a pub in Brighton a few years ago, he asked a fellow drinker at the bar if Brighton had a drugs problem. The man thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “Nah, you can get anything you want here.”
Three past Chief Constables of Sussex Police, as well as the current Commander of Brighton and Hove, have each confirmed to me that Brighton is one of the favoured place in the UK for first division criminals to live in. I have a theory for this: If you were a villain and wanted to design your perfect criminal environment, you would design Brighton! Let me explain my reasoning:
Firstly it has a major seaport on either side – Shoreham and Newhaven, perfect for importing drugs and exporting stolen cars, antiques and cash. To the western extremity of the city lies Shoreham Airport – a small but international airport where there is no Customs or Immigration control. There are miles of unguarded coastline fronting the city, and to either side of it. Very important to all criminals there are lots of escape routes: All the Channel ports, and Eurotunnel. Gatwick, a major international Airport is just 25 minutes away. London is 50 minutes by train. Brighton has the largest number of antique shops in the UK – perfect for fencing stolen goods and laundering cash.
The city has an affluent young middle-class population combined with the largest gay community in the UK, two universities, and a huge number of nightclubs, providing a big market for recreational drugs. It has a large, transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains. And making it easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. It has 100,000 vertical drinking spaces. No surprise that it’s main police station, John Street, is the second busiest police station in the UK.
And of course it is a fabulous city to live in! Very importantly and to my great good fortune, it has not been over-written by other writers. Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (my favourite novel of all time) are the only writers to have delved in any depth into its criminal underbelly.
R: One of the things that strikes me about your books is that many of the scenes have a real sense of menace and some make me incredibly uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of wondering whether I’ll carry on reading. “Want You Dead” was probably the one that I found hardest to read because of this. How do you create this atmosphere and how do you strike the balance between a kind of dramatic tension that’s necessary and making readers so uncomfortable they stop reading?
PJ: That is a hard question as every reader has their own tolerance levels for fear and also for gore. I was surprised at the reaction to ‘Dead Simple’ by several readers, who told me they were claustrophobic and found it hard to keep reading – indeed some could not! One bookseller in New Zealand told me a customer had come back in the day after buying it saying “You have to tell me if he gets out of the coffin, otherwise I can’t continue reading….”!!!
R: We’re now on to Roy Grace number 10, where did the inspiration for this book come from?
PJ: I started with a very interesting and very scary role model to work from – who was, in part, the inspiration for Bryce Laurent. A woman doctor working in Brighton met a 42 year old guy on a dating website. It ultimately turned out he was deeply narcissistic, and had invented his entire background, as well as covering a three-year prison sentence for violence. When she ended the relationship, he stalked her and her parents, rented a flat overlooking hers and ultimately tried to kill her. Even when he was imprisoned he tried to hire a hit man to kill her and her parents. I also had some invaluable help and insight into this kind of dangerous obsessive from Trish Bernal the mother of Clare Bernal, a beautiful young lady who was shot dead in Harvey Nichols by her former boyfriend. When I had created Bryce Laurent I had both a forensic psychiatrist and a psychologist read the manuscript and they also helped me with certain tweaks to make him so believable and multi-faceted.
R: Did you expect the series to go on for this long? Is there a natural end point you have in mind for Grace, or are will it be his retirement?
PJ: I am having huge fun researching and writing these novels and it is such a joy to be able to set them in the city in which I grew up and which I love so much. Ian Rankin has written over 20 Rebus novels, and I could certainly see 20 Roy Grace novels, so long as my readers continue to enjoy them.
R: Even though you’ve been busy with Roy Grace, you’ve also written other novels outside the series. I particularly enjoyed Perfect People, which had a particular resonance for me. Can you tell me more about how and why you wrote this book?
PJ: I’ve always had a big interest in science – and in particular whether advances in science have been so fast they have overtaking our evolution, in terms of our ability to understand and harness these advances. Science may have made going to the dentist a less painful and frightening experience than when I was a child - my dentist back then pedalled the drill himself by foot – but it gave us the ability to create nuclear power and weapons, long before we realized the ease with which nuclear capabilities could be obtained and used by those with evil intention.
Science has given us so many of the technologies that have made our lives so diverse, enriched, comfortable and mobile, but now accompanied by the latter day out of control spectre of global warming.
My idea for Perfect People came from an article I read a number of years ago, written by a genetic scientist who predicted that at some point in the not too distant future, parents would be able to select the genes of their child and literally have “designer babies.” Then, by chance, around the same time in LA, I met the Head of Brain Genetics at Caltech, who told me that his team had just identified the cluster of genes responsible for empathy. “At some point – and I am talking within our lifetimes – parents will be able to choose the level of empathy of their child. You want to have a boy, fine, do you want him to be a gentle child – but he could get trodden on…. Do you want him to be tough, but he could become a bully, or even a sociopath…” Choices we are simply not equipped to make, yet soon will be faced with having to make.
I spent a day with him at the Brain Genetics labs. They were also working on, he told me, identifying the genes responsible for sleep and rest, and he believed that with genetic programming people of the future would be able to get a full night’s rest on just one hour of sleep – effectively giving them another 20-30 years of conscious existence.
Another geneticist told me his team were working on redesigning, through genetics, the human digestive system, and that humans of the future would get all the nutrition they needed from far less food than we currently require.
One major area of research, with enormous ramifications for all our futures, is into the ageing genes. Geneticists have discovered there are genes programmed to age us. At some point they are going to be able to switch of, and possibly reverse the ageing genes. This means that people in the future will not die of old age. If we don’t blow ourselves up or destroy the planet, we may within a few generations from now, never age or die.
Over the past decade the genes responsible for such human traits as hand-eye co-ordination have been identified. Parents of the future will be able to decide if they want their child to be good at sports – and if so which sports. If they want their children to be good at ball games, they will be able to select this.
When I spoke to one eminent geneticist about all the enhancements that would become available, he replied: “Parents of the future will be told a blunt truth: If they don’t want to enhance their kids, then fine. But they’ll need to understand that other parents will enhance theirs. So they will risk their own kids being born into a genetics underclass. Kids who will be left behind in the class room, and on the playing fields, with no hope of ever catching up.
There are undoubtedly many, many positive aspects to genetics – such as the identifying from embryos children who would otherwise have been born with horrific, terminal afflictions such as cystic fibrosis, and work on re-growing severed spinal cord nerves, but at the same time, genetics is starting to create challenges that we are not yet mentally equipped to deal with.
In my novel, when my fictional couple, John and Naomi, arrive on the cruise ship, having committed the money, they are confronted by a bewildering array of choices. The argument put to them by my geneticist character is the central argument of the book. Has the human race benefitted from random evolution? Are we really such a great species, with all our hatreds, inequalities, wars and the way we are destroying this planet. Might it not be a good idea for us to take control of Mother Nature and our destiny?
R: Are there any other stand-alone novels in the pipeline?
PJ: Yes, I’ve started work on another 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.
R: I also read both your “Short Shockers”, which for me are just the thing when I want a quick read at the end of a long day and don’t want to dive into a big novel. How did these short stories come about and will we see more in the future?
PJ: I really love to write both novels and short stories. The big excitement for me with short stories is the ability to explore themes or ideas or grim stories I’ve heard that are not big enough to make an exciting novel, but can make a riveting few pages of story. I have my first print collection, called ‘A Twist Of The Knife’, coming out on November 6th, which incorporates the two electronic collections plus several brand new stories. And they include three that are just two sentences long, and also the story that inspired the Roy Grace series!
R: Tell me about you love affair with Biggles.
PJ: I was an obsessive letter writer as a child. The earliest books I can remember devouring were the Richmal Crompton ‘Just William’ series and Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. I wrote to Enid Blyton when I was seven, saying I had just read and really enjoyed ‘Five Go To Treasure Island’ but I was extremely worried that the Famous Five had spent seven days on this island, and not one of them had gone to the lavatory in all that time. I got a very sweet letter back from her saying that they had all gone regularly, but because she did not think little boys and girls were interested in those kinds of details she had omitted them! I then moved on to Jennings and then Biggles – and fell totally in love with this character, and devoured almost all 93 of the Captain W.E. Johns books. Many years later, when I bought the film rights to the Biggles books, I read them all over again. (I did in fact make the film, in 1985).
R: You became chair of the Crime Writers Association in 2011 and were re-elected in 2012, which must have been a real honour for you. What does the chair’s role involve and what did you do that made your colleagues re-elect you?
PJ: The Chair’s role is wide. Ranging from being an ambassador for the CWA to having to deal directly with problems – the whole sock puppet issue blew up during my time, with one member heavily implicated, and that was an difficult task to deal with. There is the whole financial management of the organisation, which is self-funding, and the need to ensure the CWA is constantly moving with the times, both to enable it to give members the best advice and service and to be attractive to new members. When I took on the role we embarked on an ambition programme of changes, including introducing the CRA, and a big part of the reason I was asked to do a second term was in order to see so many of these changes too. The role of Chair is an active executive role and I think the CWA has come to realize that one year is too short a term.
R: You’re also very involved in a number of charities in Sussex. Is this because you want to “give something back” to society? How important do you think that is in what is a very materialistic world?
R: Peter, thank you again for coming on the Crime Warp. I hope Want You Dead is another success and also look forward to reading A Twist of the Knife and your new stand alone novel too.
PJ: Thank you – I am a great fan of Crime Warp and you do so much for our genre.
R: And before I finally go, a quick reminder of Peter’s newest books:
A Twist of the Knife – a short story collection bringing together all the stories in Short Shockers 1 and 2 which were previously only available in ebook format, plus a number of new short stories, including the one that inspired the Roy Grace series. Published in hardback and ebook on 2 November 2014