Crime and thriller writing phenomenon, Peter James, took to the virtual stage at lunchtime on the second day of the 2021 edition of Leeds Lit Fest.
This relaxed conversation between Peter and Leeds Lit Fest’s Jonathan Straight, gave the audience a unique insight into where Peter gets his inspiration for his bestselling plot-twisting page-turners.
Growing up and early writing experiences
The conversation began with Peter recalling how, as a child growing up in Sussex, he had little confidence in his writing abilities. However, when one of his teachers at Charterhouse School said that they believed in him, his motivation for writing grew. Aged 15, he won a school poetry prize which boosted his confidence further still.
Peter explained that he continued to write throughout his teens, but that an electric typewriter, gifted to him on his 17th birthday by his dad, was really what allowed him to take writing to the next level; especially, he went on, as the typewriter came with the caveat of being taught how to use it. And that involved lessons from a ‘big, burly woman’ who stood over him as he worked. He explained how she scolded him every time he looked at his fingers when typing, and although this was scary at the time, he is grateful for it now as he quickly learned how to touch type – a skill that he uses to this day, helping him to write rapidly and accurately.
Discussing his early writing, he told his audience that he wrote his first novel as a teenager but didn’t get it published. He continued to write, completing a further two novels soon after, but again was unsuccessful. To try and kick start his career, he moved to Canada, where he worked as a gofer on a children’s TV programme called Polka Dot Door. The job involved running errands rather than writing, but Peter saw it as a foot in the door. This worked out because one day, much to Peter’s luck, he was offered a writing opportunity when one of the usual writers was ill. He was keen to jump at the chance, but his agent advised that he should focus his efforts elsewhere.
Peter left Canada and returned to writing novels, this time writing spy thrillers. Whilst he was more successful in getting published, the books didn’t sell as well as he’d hoped. Through conversations with friends, he realised that he should be writing about something that he really knew about and understood – and that was not spies. After lots of conversations and reflection, he came to the realisation that police officers are some of the most experienced people in life and so he took it upon himself to speak to as many as he could in order to write novels based on them and their experiences. Peter became friends with some officers in his local area, who invited him to attend crime scenes and see behind the scenes of investigations. These experiences were insightful, but could also be scary. He provided a few stories of events that he had seen or been involved with, including a shooting event in Moscow.
The Roy Grace Novels
Talk turned to Peter’s Roy Grace novels, which have been translated into thirty-seven languages and have sales worldwide of over eighteen million copies. The novels tell the tale of Detective Roy Grace’s murder detective work, and are set in Brighton, England. When asked about why he used Brighton as the setting for many of his novels, he said that it was a combination of growing up in Brighton and therefore knowing it well, and also inspiration from other writers. For example, as a young man he read ‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene, a murder thriller set in 1930s Brighton, which he said had blown him away. After reading the novel by Greene, Peter had promised himself to write a novel that was ‘at least 10% as good’.
Asked about how he develops the characters in his novels, Peter explained that he uses real world police experiences to support this. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, he said, is based on real life police detective, ‘Dave Gaylor’ who works in Brighton Police as a cold case homicide detective. Peter met Gaylor when the detective investigated his burglary in the 80s. After their introduction, Peter and Dave became friends and Peter realised that what made Dave a great detective was that he was calm and quiet and very intelligent and also very creative, and these characteristics were used to create the fictional detective Roy Grace. Peter and Dave now work together, with Dave checking manuscripts to ensure that there are no false notes – something that Peter explained is really important to him.
Questions from the audience
The conversation ended with questions from the audience. First, Peter was asked why he focusses his writing on murder. He explained that murder fascinates him, as he believes it does everyone. He went on to state that murder is prevalent throughout literature and the reason for that, he said, is that ‘we are all intrigued by what it is that distinguishes between a murderer, and you or me’. He was next asked whether he uses his large following to do good. Peter explained that he often uses his characters as ‘a mouthpiece for things that really annoy’ him. For example, in one of his Roy Grace novels, he included a scene where Roy storms into the hospital to shout about how bad the care was. This resulted in him getting a call from the hospital chief executive saying how they are trying to improve.
Other questions that Peter was asked related to how long it takes to write each novel: The whole process takes just over a year, and that includes all his basic research, which he does in advance of writing, and he then decides on the ending of the novel. For him, this approach prevents writer’s block as it gives the writer direction. He used the analogy of getting in the car without an idea of where to go, to explain why it is important to have a road map before writing. The actual writing process takes about 7 months followed by approximately 4 months of editing.
When asked about how and when he decides on the title of his novels. Peter said that he aims to ‘write the novel and fit the title to it, trying not to make the title sound cheesy’. He is also keen to ensure that his novels have unique titles, so that also shapes what he decides upon.
Finally, Peter was asked for his biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers. He said that it is essential to ‘read, read and reread really successful books that you would like to write, deconstructing them and seeing why they are so good’. As part of this process, it is important to develop characters first as readers need to believe in them and care about them in order to read a book. In his view, a good example of character setting, is from ‘the Human Factor’, a novel by Graham Greene, in which Greene describes characters masterfully.
As a fan of Peter’s writing, I thoroughly enjoyed this hour long conversation, and would encourage others to watch the recording when it becomes available, to learn more about what it takes to become a highly successful UK writer. I am also very much looking forward to seeing the hotly anticipated televising of Peter’s popular Roy Grace series on ITV in the Spring, a series titled ‘Grace’.