Bestselling British writer Peter James visited Helsinki a few weeks ago to promote the Finnish translation of one of his books, Dead Man´s Time, and FREE! Magazine had the chance to sit down with him to have a pleasant talk about many aspects of his long career, not only as a recognized crime author but also about his roles as producer in Hollywood movies, his hobbies, and many other interesting anecdotes that this truly gentleman wanted to share with us:
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you Mr. James! Have you been ever before in Finland?
A pleasure. Yes, I was here on April 2011. Helsinki is a beautiful city and people are very friendly.
Unfortunately I could not assist yesterday due to work to the public event to promote your book translated into Finnish, but how does it feel for you when you have to talk about a book you have written years before and then after that you have already published several others?
It is difficult! This year I have been like in around 15 different countries: Russia, France, Germany, Spain, etc and in every place I go can be 6 months or 1 year behind. Here in Finland is one book behind.
If I am not mistaken since you were very young, your two big passions were writing and cinema. If you allow me to jump back in time years ago when you worked in North America, was it always a shared passion to work in both industries?
Well, I was doing what I could to make a living. At the beginning I was not selling enough books, I made my living writing scripts and producing film and television. Then in 1988 I wrote Possession that became a big success and then I wrote full time for 5 years. Then I was living in the countryside and I was missing the ¨world of people¨. I would speak to somebody in an office and I would think ¨you lucky bastard, you are sitting in an office surrounded by people, by beautiful girls, and I am sitting here with the dog and the rain!¨hehehe. I remember one day I walked through the field with my vacuum cleaner to repairing service just to talk to somebody! Hehehe So I thought ¨I need a life! ¨
In the cinema industry, every film is a battle. The last film I made was ¨The Merchant of Venice¨ in 2003, and you have, as with every film, you always have arguments. You have two or three producers who say ¨this is my film buddy¨, and then the director says ¨actually, it is my film!¨ and then the director of photography would say ¨he is an idiot, I saved the film!¨and then you have the actors that would say ¨darling, it is our film really¨ and then the editor would say ¨the film is a mess, I saved it!¨and the composer would say ¨the film was dead until I put the music on!¨
And what was your role?
Well, you are a ¨nurse¨. And with writing it is just me. Then in 2004 with the first Roy Grace book, I just thought ¨why am I bothering with films?¨
So is it really so brutal the film industry as people could imagine from outside, as you experienced it from inside?
it is really tough, lots of tremendous egos. Money disappears, even in the big studios. I think because of there is so much money involved… In books industry there is so much nicer people. In publishing, people who work there love books and reading. In movies, people love money.
Were you writing since you were young, or was there any breaking point when you decided that apart from the pleasure of reading, you also wanted to take a pencil and write?
I kind of wrote since the time I was 7. Then when I was 15 at school, I won a poetry price. I had a teacher who believed in me and thought that I had some talent, but I had no confidence as a child, I never thought I would amount to anything. I wrote a novel when I was 18 and to my amazement, it got me an agent in NY, that was a big boost, but it took me 10 years until I got my first book published. Then I went to film school and in the 70s in England it was terrible, there was no movie business. It was really hard to get into unions and everything. So I got a job for a daily show in Canada, Polka Dot Door, 6 puppets doing stuff and I was the runner. After 3 months the producer said that the writer was sick and they did not have a show and he had read my CV and asked me to write the show, so I started writing it 3 days a week. I was 22 and for me it was a huge confidence boost. And that was the start. Then I started making horror movie, they were cheap made in Canada. I wrote my first book when I was 28.
You keep a good discipline writing every day and you have been busy multitasking. Do you have enough hours during the day for writing plus all other activities?
Still my best writing time is from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. I have a vodka martini, music, cigarette… I love that. I look forward to that time of the day. Then I read in the mornings and in the afternoons I play tennis or walk the dogs or read emails.
¨I love writing. I think I would write even if I was not paid because I really love learning things about human nature¨
When you have to promote your books and you are on tour, do you still find time to write?
Yes, yesterday for example I had a couple of hours free and I was writing in the afternoon on a plane. I finished my last book on an airplane to Singapore! I feel I can work anywhere.
Your books can be found all over the world. Now, as a bestselling recognized author, what keeps you going? Is there a point where you feel ¨ok, I do not want to write today¨. I know for example that as a hobby you like racing cars, so is writing something that trough the years you enjoy the same?
I love writing. I think I would write even if I was not paid because I really love learning things. One thing I love when I write is that I try to learn about human nature, people fascinate me and criminals in particular fascinate me. So writing a new book is a challenge to learn something about human nature. I think if I would stop writing, then I would then start writing again cause I would miss it so much. What fascinate me the most is trying to make sense of the world where we live.
Do you think that most of the crime writers that become successful can feel a sense of empathy for the ¨bad guys¨ of the books?
I think that the most most successful bad guys in literature are the ones whom you feel something for. For example, Hannibal Lecter, he is quite a monster but we kind of like it. For example Dracula is a monster, but he has got style. Frankenstein is a monster but we feel sympathy as he turns to his creator and says ¨you made me, I did not want to be like this¨. So I think that the best fictional criminals are the ones we feel something about. In real life, all of us… part of the fascination in crime novels is to think ¨what is the difference between a guy who does that and me?¨ All of us, you me and everyone in this office is able of committing murder. We have our bare hands, we have knives in the kitchen, we could get rid of the body and buy in a shop a shovel and some garbage bags… What we have not got as those people is the ability to live with it. We could do that, but after the remorse… we would have to tell somebody. Those ones who do not have remorse are the really dangerous people, and really fascinating ones.
Interesting! You hang around with the police often and do a lot of research for your books. Are you able when you hang around with the police to sleep peacefully and separate what you see from your personal life?
I get a lot of bad dreams a lot of nights. I see stuff constantly that most people are lucky enough not to see, but I always believe that you must do your research. I always remember the second book I wrote in 1982 called ¨bone angel¨I keep it unprinted for 35 years because I felt ashamed. I located a scene in Namibia but I was not there as I could not afford the trip, and then in the first interview I was asked ¨How was it like in Namibia?¨ And I was ¨Well you know, it was hot, there was a lot of sand… hehehe¨. I thought that I had cheated to my readers and promised not to do it ever again. So if I am describing something I want to go there.
How did you come up with the idea of Roy Grace character and his name?
What happened is that I was writing these spy stories that were not selling, I was very upset as with 3 books in a row I was not selling anything. And a friend of mine told me ¨Why are you writing about spies? What could I know about spies? You cannot research about it, you are not John Le Carre who worked in intelligence. You need to write about what fascinates you and that you can access¨. So we got a burglar and a detective came to my house and invited me to hang around with the police, they invited us to a police social night, a barbecue at their house, all the friends were policemen. I thought it was fascinating. Then time later somebody told me about this young homicide detective, his name is Dave Gaylor and when I arrived to his office, it was a mess, every inch was full of files, plastic boxes… I said ¨Are you moving?¨and he said ¨No, these are my dead friends¨. He explained he had been given the job to reopen all the unsolved murderers in the county of Sussex applying the latest advances in recognizing DNA, fingerprints, etc. He said that each of those boxes contained the principle file of an unsolved murder and was the last chance that the victim had for justice and the family for peace of mind.
So we became friends and he helped me in my research of my early books. Then was when my publishers asked me if I had thought about creating a detective as a central character. So I went to Dave and I said to him if he wanted to be a fiction detective, and he loved it! I changed his name, he does not look the same and his wife is not missing, but we work very close, he helps me when I am plotting the book, he tells me how Grace would think and whom I should talk to in my research.
Why the word ¨Dead¨ appears in every one of Roy Grace`s saga titles?
At first when I chose titles like ¨Twilight¨or ¨Alchemist¨, they had no copyright and then somebody else was coming with the same title. So I decided to find interesting titles with the word Dead, original that nobody would have used before. I thought that I should keep it… even people call it now the ¨Dead Series¨.
You have hobbies like racing fast cars and writing about restaurants and food. What do you prefer, a good race or a good meal?
I love racing historical cards. Now I am racing a 1965 BMW. I race mostly in UK but sometimes in other countries too, next year I am going to do Monza and Spa.
Ever had a bad car accident while racing?
Yes, in May last year in 2013 I broke 3 ribs and I had 3 discs in my back. I still have my right leg a bit numb… but I am racing again! I love the atmosphere! It is the only time I relax. When I am at home or playing tennis or at the beach, I am still thinking about my book, but when I am racing is all consuming. I always loved cars!
You were at first line of the battlefront when your novel Host was advertised as the first digital novel. What do you think of this ¨war¨ between digital books Vs printed books?
I think that my first point is always that storytelling is storytelling and does not matter what the media is. Look at Shakespeare, he wrote plays because people did not read novels. Nowadays Shakespeare would be writing novels I think, as it is the biggest way to communicate. The popular printed books have been with us less than 100 years, relatively new. So when Host came out and they called it the first digital novel, although I think there were one or two before it, I became a world authority. I was invited to a speech in 1995 in Los Angeles about the future of the literature, and I was on a platform with Steve Jobs, the President of Time Warner, Nicholas Negroponte who was the director of MIT Media Lab and then me having jet lag thinking ¨what the fuck am I doing here?¨. So I think the digital book will become popular when is more convenient. Ask a child in 50 years time when is used to accessing everything on a screen. We as children were accessing everything on print. There are people who enjoy the feeling of the print and people who enjoy the convenience of a Kindle. Even old people read Kindle as they can do the print bigger, etc.
I have curiosity about your experience working in Hollywood as you have been with some of the most legendary actors and actresses in the world. How is to work with big stars as Al Pacino, etc. Do they have big egos or are more down to Earth that what we could imagine?
Some yes have big egos but some not. With Al Pacino we had a dinner with my partner in NY in November 2004 and with Jeremy Irons, and it was like being with a band of mates. The worst I have worked with was Peter Sellers, and Michael J. Pollard who was in the film Bonny and Clyde… he was… puff! There are a few who were pretty tricky. But for example Charlize Theron was really nice, Robert de Niro was pretty ok but demanding… I think my favorite is Al Pacino and also Sharon Stone, she is fun! We became good friends. I also worked with a Spanish actress, Nadiuska and with others as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Gardner…
What are your plans after your current visit here in Finland?
I am going to Germany on tour there. Then back in England trying to finish my new book and then to America and then Canada and Iceland! I have not been before there in Iceland so I am looking forward to it. I will try to finnish my new book this week before I go to Germany.