Peter James: „I think any book you put down and never want to pick up again was probably not worth reading in the first place”

Articol publicat in:English | Aparut in:Nr. 10 ( martie, 2011 )
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George ARION talks to Peter JAMES

Peter James (born 22 August 1948 in Brighton) was educated at Charterhouse School and went on to Ravensbourne Film School. He spent a couple of years in America, working as a screen writer and film producer. Today he divides his life between his home near Ditchling and his apartment in Notting Hill, London. His interests include criminology, science and the paranormal. He also enjoys motoring, having owned many cars over the years, most notably Jaguars and Aston Martins. Once a year he races, holding a racing driver’s licence.
Peter James has written 25 books, the most recent of which feature Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. His books have been translated into 29 languages. Has written supernatural thrillers, spy fiction, Michael Crichton-style science-based thrillers, and a children’s novel, as well as the introductions for Graham Masterton’s collection ‘Manitou Man’ and Joe Rattigan’s collection ‘Ghosts Far From Subtle’.

***

George ARION: Mister Peter James, you wished to dedicate your life to film. Why did you finally choose to be a writer? Was it the desire to have complete control over what you create and not get tied-up in what the movie industry means?

Peter JAMES: From early childhood I always wanted to be a writer, but I never had the belief in myself that people would actually want to read what I wrote!  So when I started my career it was working in television, then I got a lucky break and ended up writing television and then film scripts as well as producing films.  But you are right about this control:  When you make a movie there are numerous people involved, all of whom demand input:  You normally have two or three producers who believe it is their film.  The director who believes it is his (or hers).  The lighting cameraman who knows it is his film!  The principal actors each of whom knows the film is theirs… and so on.  You just end up with a huge committee approach to the end product and with almost all films your original vision as the writer and creator ends up being compromised.  With a novel it is just me, and although I will of course listen to my editor, I don’t have to change a single word if I don’t want to.  So what is on the page is 100% me.

G.A.: I might be wrong, but I think the experience as a screenwriter has helped you build your books, giving them a cinematic pace.

P.J.: Yes, this is very true.  More than anything in both pace and structure.  Early in my TV writing career I worked in Hollywood for a brief time on a television comedy.  I was told that there needed to be a laugh every 14 seconds, to keep the audience hooked!  And although I laughed at that, it was a serious consideration by the studios.  It made me realize the importance of pace in writing novels, to try never to let a reader’s attention fade.

The other thing I learned was structure.  Almost all movies still follow that traditional theatrical three-act structure.  Although to the reader it seems seamless, there is a strong element of this underpinning the plotting of my novels.

I think when people read, they are not just wanting a good story, but they want to learn something about life and the human condition.

G.A.: How does Peter James the writer get along with Peter James the person?

P.J.: Oh, I think we are pretty good friends!  As a writer, I rarely switch off, because my whole life is research.  I think my friends are wary of me sometimes, and so are new people I meet – sometimes they say “I’d better be careful, otherwise I will end up in one of your novels!”

G.A.: And with the characters you’ve created?

P.J.: My central character, Roy Grace, has a lot of me in him.  Although he is modeled, career-wise, on a real life detective, his thoughts and attitudes are totally mind.  And of course I am very jealous of his beautiful new girlfriend, Cleo!

G.A.: Do you lend them some of your inner structure?

P.J.: Yes, absolutely.  I think when people read, they are not just wanting a good story, but they want to learn something about life and the human condition – so it is this which I put into my stories.

G.A.: When drawing your characters do you start from real-life models? Or are they the sole figment of your imagination? How much do the things happening around influence you?

P.J.: Yes, every character I have ever written is based on a real-life person – but not necessarily in the role I write for them!  For example I might meet a lawyer, or a doctor, or a journalist (like you!) and note down certain characteristics and later, maybe years later, they become a rocket scientist, or a murderer, or an architect or a cop or a cab driver in one of my novels.

I think the villain Ronnie Wilson is one of my favourite creations, as a true failure in life, who acts out the fantasy so many of us have.

G.A.: I have read only four of your books – Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Not Dead Enough and Dead Man’s Footsteps. Is there in these novels a character you keep closest to heart? If so, why?

P.J.: I think the villain Ronnie Wilson is one of my favourite creations, as a true failure in life, who acts out the fantasy so many of us have – of wondering what it would be like to start a totally new life, as a new character in another country.

G.A.: The imagination of a crime writer is getting more and more prodigious. In their books we see crimes more sophisticated all the time, and for catching the villain the protagonists have to rely on many resources that the police have nowadays. This thing is evident in your novels, too. How do you manage to keep the right proportion between the emotions one of your writings stirs and its credibility?

P.J.: I think neither criminals nor the police ever stand still.  Criminals get ever more sophisticated.  For example, the classic house burglars and bank robbers of 20 years ago are now becoming dinosaurs:  Today’s big criminals are into internet fraud.  Yesterday’s burglar might have been after your family silver.  Todays’ is after your identity!  And the police have to keep pace with this.

If he [Shakespeare] was writing today I am sure he would be writing crime novels.

G.A.: Can the mystery & thriller tales be considered the present day’s fairy-tales, in which the clash between Good and Evil is depicted with other kinds of means, and other kinds of heroes?

P.J.: I don’t think so at all.  Good modern detective stories help us to examine the world in which we live.  If you go back through the history of literature you will find “crime” the in the cannon of every major writer’s work:  Shakespeare had a courtroom scene in over 50% of his plays.  If he was writing today I am sure he would be writing crime novels.  Macbeth, Hamlet….

G.A.: What is – in your case – the link between the experience of reading and that of writing?

P.J.: I read constantly, both for research and for pleasure and curiosity.  I am always looking for a book where I think, “I wish I had written that!”  Because that is how a writer learns.

G.A.: Did you have literary role-models?

P.J.: Yes, Conan Doyle, then Graham Greene, and for a while, Stephen King.

G.A.: You narrate of many terrifying events. Did you ever experience one? I hope with all my heart that the answer is no.

P.J.: The most terrifying was in Dead Simple when I asked a funeral director to put me in a coffin and leave me for 30 mins.  I am very claustrophobic and was terrified!

G.A.: When asked “How do you write?” a sly Romanian writer once answered: “From left to right”. I nevertheless take the risk of asking you the same question. How do you come up with the plot of your novels? Starting from the end? Or maybe you don’t know where you’ll end up when you sit down to write a new book?

P.J.: I plan the first 20% in detail and the ending, but I love it when I surprise myself – because if I surprise myself, I will surprise my readers!

G.A.: I asked you the previous question because sometimes I noticed multiple endings in your books. These have given you the title of “Britain’s most subtle thriller writer”. Even so, a well-crafted novel plot, with many traps for the reader, doesn’t automatically give value to that story. It needs to offer a “slice of life”, to become, citing Stendhal, “a mirror carried along a main road” in which the turmoil, happiness and sorrows of the present day people are reflected. Do you know well your fellow earthlings, and are you interested in their anxieties?

P.J.: I have always been fascinated in human nature.  That is why I love to spend time with the police doing my research.  A police officers sees every facet of human nature during the course of his career.  In my crime writing I hope to hold a mirror up to the world.

The problem is that with the kind of terrorism threat posed by the 9-11 scenario people are less comfortable reading about because the kind of person that is today’s terrorist is much less appealing than the kind of person that was yesterday’s spy.

G.A.: In your books, more often than not, the character is a manipulated, betrayed, and deceived person. That’s the way of the world, since the beginning of time. Isn’t some of your characters’ strive to reestablish justice, to make the truth known to everybody a vain effort, since the Good’s victories are so ephemeral?

P.J.: No I disagree! I think that there is a constant struggle in the world between good and evil.  The old saying “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  So it is not ephemeral, it is good people doing positive things.

G.A.: Do you think that the tragic events of 9/11 have changed the face of the thriller novel all around the world?

P.J.: I think the biggest impact on the thriller has been the end of the Cold War.  That had an element of romance and magic about it.  The problem is that with the kind of terrorism threat posed by the 9-11 scenario people are less comfortable reading about because the kind of person that is today’s terrorist is much less appealing than the kind of person that was yesterday’s spy.

G.A.: Hundreds of mystery & thriller books are being published every day. There’s an unprecedented flourishing of this kind of writings. Do you consider this inflation to be dangerous?

P.J.: No, I think that ultimately word of mouth is the key factor and this sifts the wheat from the chaff.

A good book is like a good friend, and you should never tired of reading it again, just as you never tired of the company of a good friend.

G.A.: The supreme test for a book, no matter the genre, is your desire to read it again after some time. Unfortunately, the mystery & thriller genre generates many novels which don’t wake in you the said desire. Should it be enough, do you think, the fact that you have spent a few delightful hours in their company?

P.J.: I think any book you put down and never want to pick up again was probably not worth reading in the first place.  A good book is like a good friend, and you should never tired of reading it again, just as you never tired of the company of a good friend.

G.A.: How does Peter James spend a usual day?

P.J.: Monday – Saturday I get up at 6.20 and go for a 5k run with the dogs.  Then I write from 9.30-1.30.  In the afternoon I walk the dogs, or play tennis.  At 6pm I make a large vodka martini, put on music – jazz or opera – and write until about 10pm.  Then I eat a meal, watching junk tv or a movie.

G.A.: We have almost the same age. You have the chance of writing in a language with international circulation. “Anch’io sono pittore”, I too write, among others, crime novels. What would be your advice for one like me – a writer pertaining to a smaller linguistic area – to make himself or herself known outside his or her own country’s boundaries?

P.J.: I think that writers from many minority languages are now getting widespread popularity through their translated work.  The Scandinavians, for example, now have global popularity.  A key is to be translated into English, of course because the US market, combined with the UK, Canada, Australia and the English speaking Indian market is so huge and dominant.

March 2011

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