Internationally bestselling author, Peter James was born in Brighton, Sussex, England and educated at Charterhouse and then Ravesnbourne Film School. His mom, Cornelia James, was Glovemaker to Her Majesty the Queen, running the business with his late father who was a chartered accountant. Their firm is today run by his sister, Genevieve and her husband, and still supplies the Royal Family. James says, “There is a tenuous but classy link between gloves and one particularly great writer (not that I would dare put myself in his league): Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker!” But James has countless awards to back his case.
James made publishing history. In 1994, in addition to conventional print publishing, Penguin published his novel, “Host” on two floppy discs, and billed it as “the world’s first electronic novel.” It caused huge controversy; he was pilloried on the Radio 4 Today Programme for attempting to destroy the novel, and was front-page news in many papers around the globe, all equally furious! In the following years, James became a media spokesperson for the electronic publishing age, and in 1996, found himself as a keynote speaker at a conference at UCLA on the future of reading, alongside Steve Jobs and the CEO of Time Warner. Now there’s a great fifteen minutes of fame!
A couple of his interests—among many—that we found fascinating were his skiing: he was selected to train for the British Olympic ski team when he was fifteen, but his parents, (probably very wisely, according to James), felt it would be too disruptive to his education. He does however, still ski a lot. He also runs seven days a week two to five miles every day. That’s real dedication. He’s also interested in classic cars, motor racing, and golf.
James’ leap into entertainment started early. He acquired a holiday job at sixteen as assistant to Jack Tinker, the late, great theatre critic, who was then the film critic on the Brighton Evening Argus. The highlight of this was when Jack phoned in sick and told James he had to go and see the press screening of In Search of the Castaways, the new movie starring the then massively famous teenage Hayley Mills, and then interview her afterwards. James says he was “nervous as hell, took along a notepad into which I scribbled illegibly, pretending I was doing shorthand! She was very sweet to me.”
He’s worked in television, with his start in Canada, since 1970. He wrote daily for a half-hour TV program for preschoolers, Polka Dot Door, graduated to writing science programs, and then started his own film company, Quadrant Films. It became Canada’s largest independent feature film production company during the ‘70s.
He’s also worked as Orson Welles’ house cleaner. (Seriously!) He needed money while at film school and got the job cleaning Welles’ London home for ten shillings an hour.
James has films tucked under his belt along with all of his books. In 1979, he decided to concentrate on his career as a novelist, with his first novel, “Dead Letter Drop” (1981) which he says he deliberately keeps out of print. From that point until 2005, he decided to devote his time to being a full-time writer. He divided his time between writing books, involvement in several businesses—including his family’s business—and writing and developing film and television before going back into production itself.
His books have held millions of readers captive across the globe, from “Possession” (1988) to his latest novel, “Not Dead Yet.”
In “Not Dead Yet” (the eighth novel in the award-winning Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime series), “deadly obsession is only the beginning…”
Suspense Magazine is thrilled, proud, and honored to have this time with Peter to find out a little bit more about him and his work. Sit back and enjoy.
Suspense Magazine (S. MAG.): Your latest book “Not Dead Yet” is now out. Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes action?
Peter James (PJ): “Not Dead Yet” centers around a Hollywood movie being shot in Brighton, about the scandalous love affair between King George IV and his mistress Maria Fitzherbert. The producers of the movie hope this will become the new The King’s Speech, but all Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of Sussex CID hopes is that its global superstar leading lady isn’t murdered on his watch in his city.
Originally the Prince Regent (nicknamed Prinny) before becoming King, it was George IV’s royal patronage that turned Brighton into the most glamorous resort in the county, and ultimately the vibrant, edgy city it is today. Among the many achievements of this flawed man was one of the most extraordinary buildings in the UK, Brighton’s magnificent Indian and Chinese-inspired Royal Pavilion.
I’m claustrophobic and scared of heights, so I did have to question my sanity when I was taken up in the roof spaces of this building, where I had to crawl through a two-foot-high hole, and then, on my back, crawl up the inside of its highest dome, in order to examine the fixings of the grand chandelier in the Banqueting Room. This chandelier weighs one and a quarter tons and contains sixteen thousand prisms. George IV was nervous of sitting beneath it. So, of course, I had to bring it crashing down in a key scene in this novel. An interesting facet of the Pavilion’s design is its concealed “double skin” (a network of corridors and passageways enabling servants to move around unseen) and of course, in a Peter James novel, the villain.
In “Not Dead Yet,” Gaia Lafayette, rock supremo turned actress, has fought hard to get the role of Mrs Fitzherbert—a film she believes could win her a coveted Oscar. But not everyone is happy for her. She has begun receiving anonymous death threats in her Los Angeles home, warning her not to take the part. Before she leaves for England to start work on the movie, there is a botched attempt to kill her, which leaves one of her assistants dead. Sussex Police are warned by the LAPD that the killer, who has vanished, will likely strike again.
In all my writing I am a strong believer in an inseparably trinity of character, plot, and research. For my crime novels I try to understand the perspectives of the police officers, the victims and the perpetrators, and the worlds that each inhabit.
Very often my starting point for a book is a true-life event that has intrigued me. Ever since that terrible night when Mark Chapman shot John Lennon, imprinted on the brain of all of us kids of the ’60s and ’70s, I’ve been fascinated by the sinister cult of celebrity stalkers, and with it, the wider cult of celebrity obsession. All the more so since I myself have had a number of stalker fans. Mostly they are pleasant enthusiasts, but for years I had one who really scared me. She would appear at every event I did: bookstore talks, signings, after-dinner speeches, events I opened, anywhere in the UK. This went on for several years. She would even apologize to me in advance if she wasn’t going to be at an event and hoped I would be okay without her presence…erm, well it would be a struggle, but yes, thanks.
It was a chance meeting with a Madonna fan who is a true obsessive that gave me the idea for this novel. This lady, in her early thirties, attractive, living with her boyfriend in the north of England and with a modest job, has been a serious fan of Madonna for as long as she can remember, and spends almost every penny she earns in pursuit of her icons appearances and memorabilia. The two top rooms of their small house have been turned into her Madonna museum, although “shrine” would be a better word. Although she plays down the money she has spent over the years, it is in the region of £300,000. She will buy a front row ticket to every day of a Madonna concert—her last tour cost her £1,300. She will bid to the death on online auctions for costumes Madonna has worn, and has paid over £15,000 for one, with these trophies mounted on mannequins. The ever-growing collection includes autographed posters, shelves stacked with her CDs, framed tickets, concert tour schedules, books, bottled drinks, and every product the icon has ever been involved with. This particular fan is not alone, there are about twenty-five hard-core Madonna obsessives like her, both male and female, connected online, sharing information, sometimes friendly to each other, but sometimes deadly enemies, and always jealous of each other.
Has she ever met her idol, I asked her? She told me that earlier this year she managed to get a seat for the London premiere of WE, the film Madonna directed, as well as tickets to the VIP drinks before, where she inadvertently collided with Madonna. “What did you say?” I asked her. She replied, “Nothing, I was too nervous!”
So what makes someone become so obsessive? And what turns an obsessive into a killer? Through researching with a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, I have found some of the answers, and tried to give insights in this story.
Central to all of my Roy Grace novels is Sussex Police, and frequently police in other countries too—the LAPD in this book, who actually have a celebrity stalking team—called the Threat Management Unit. I met its boss, Chief Moore, who gave me a wonderful line: “You know, Peter, the problem with a lot of these ‘A’ list celebrities, these are high-voltage people who create their own weather.”
One of the joys, for me, of doing research is learning brand new stuff, especially the latest developments in forensics. One of the most intriguing elements in my research for “Not Dead Yet” was learning about the very new field of forensic podiatry. According to my expert, Haydn Kelley, who appears as himself in the story, it really is possible to obtain sufficient data from a single footprint, to enable an expert to identify someone walking along a street by their gait.
Villains may constantly be getting smarter and more savvy; but so, fortunately, are the police. And now there’s a whole new meaning to the term “legging it!”
S. MAG.: “Not Dead Yet” is the eighth novel in the Roy Grace series. How has Roy evolved so far?
PJ: All eight Roy Grace novels have taken space within one year, in real time, although as I write a book a year, I move each one forward a year culturally, to be current. I made this decision for two reasons, firstly because I didn’t want to have to age him a year in each book, as say Ian Rankin did with Rebus, because eventually he would hit retirement age, which is very young in the British police force. Secondly I wanted to show his developing love affair with Cleo, after he finally starts to get over his loss of Sandy, and, as all of us know, those first weeks and months of a love affair are the really intense ones. So Roy gets one promotion during the year, but otherwise, he remains unchanged.
S. MAG.: For fans that are just finding out about the series, would you suggest they start at the beginning or can they pick up “Not Dead Yet” and then go back in time?
PJ: Each Roy Grace novel is written as a standalone thriller, and can be read without needing to have read any previous. However, in the first, “Dead Simple” we learn that Roy Grace has a big mystery in his life. When we first meet him, we learn that nine years earlier, on his thirtieth birthday he came home and found his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, missing. In the subsequent nine years, whilst functioning as a very effective homicide detective, he has hunted high and low for her, even going to mediums, as well as coming under suspicion, and investigation, for perhaps murdering her himself. During “Dead Simple,” he is finally starting to move on, firstly going on a disastrous blind date, then becoming interested in the lovely Cleo, who is the chief mortician at the city morgue. In the subsequent books this relationship develops. Also, relationships between different members of his team develop, too. So a reader will get the most out of my series by starting at the beginning and working through.
S. MAG.: If Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is sitting in front of you, what question would you like to ask him?
PJ: I would ask Roy to think really hard back on his married life with Sandy and to question himself on whether it really was as idyllic as he thought, or had love made him a little blind?
S. MAG.: Which scene or sentence in “Not Dead Yet” do you think captures the essence of the book?
PJ: I guess in some ways the very first line of the book: “Don’t take the part, bitch; take the part and you are dead.” Some of my favorite scenes are with the awful producers of the movie, who will do anything to get the film made, regardless of the fact that they will be altering history! I also love the obsessive fan that Gaia has in Brighton, who has made her tiny house a mirror image of her idol’s home, right down to the marble floor.
S. MAG.: Your first book, “Possession,” came out in 1988. How has the business of publishing changed for you, either good or bad?
PJ: First the bad: I think it is so sad to see the demise of high street booksellers and of libraries. When I started, unless you were an established bestseller, none of the big chains, which dominated the market, would buy a new author’s novels, except very rarely, and then mostly in tiny quantities. So it was the independents, hand-selling books they loved, that really helped me, and countless other authors, start to get known. So that is a real tragedy. The plus is that it is so much easier for an author who cannot get a conventional publisher to self-publish and get substantial sales. We’ve seen some dramatic success stories recently, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I find the e-book market exciting, but have one very big caveat: not many people know that in 1994 the world first electronic novel was my book, “Host,” published by Penguin in the UK and Villard here in the UK. I was pilloried around the world, accused of killing the novel!
S. MAG.: What was your strangest experience at a book signing?
PJ: I’ve had a stalker for ten years in the UK. I do events in the UK at least once a fortnight around the year. This lady used to turn up at every signing and by the same book, over and over—she clearly helped me keep in the bestseller lists! The problem is you get “face blind” in signings. One time, she had changed her hairstyle and I did not recognize her and asked what name she would like in the book. “MINE!” she screamed at me, and then stormed off. Later she sent me a ten-thousand word e-mail, berating me, saying she could not believe she had been my number-one fan for nearly a decade and I couldn’t remember her name! It was a chilling moment. Then I did not hear from her for two years and I thought, “Phew, she’s gone!” No luck. When “Not Dead Yet” came out last summer, I was doing a signing down in Bristol and a copy of the hardcover slammed down in front of me. I looked up, and there she was. “I’ve decided to forgive you,” she said.
S. MAG.: Finish this sentence: If I wasn’t a writer I would be doing _________?
PJ: A lot more motor racing, which is my passion. I drive in around seven races a year, but could happily race every weekend. But equally, knowing what I have learned over the past thirty years of regularly being out with the police, I would very seriously think about joining the police force.
S. MAG.: Do you see a big difference in American readers vs. British readers?
PJ: No, I don’t at all, but what I do see is a big difference between British and American crime writers. Many British crime writers tend to write “puzzle” novels very much in the tradition of the likes of Agatha Christie, with a body in the early pages of the book, and the rest of the story being the puzzle about solving it. Slow-moving and intense. Whereas the top American authors write much more adrenaline-fueled stories, where you are totally gripped—closer to thrillers than to crime novels. I’ve always been a huge fan of the American crime/thriller writers, and that is very much my style of writing.
S. MAG.: What can we expect to see from Peter James in the future?
PJ: I’m currently working on the ninth Roy Grace novel, which will have more of a U.S. setting than any previous ones. It begins in Brooklyn in 1922 with the murder of a lieutenant in the infamous Irish White Hand Gang. The story then picks up in Brighton, England in 2012, and then later moves back to New York where the climax happens. And beyond that I’m already planning Roy Grace ten and eleven. Separately, last year I had my first standalone in a decade, “Perfect People,” published in the UK. It’s a thriller about “designer babies” and I hope this will be coming to the U.S. soon.
We thank Peter James for his time. If you’re like to read more about internationally famous author Peter James, check out his website and enjoy getting to know this amazing author.