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My Writing Life: Peter James

Author Peter James.
  • 13 November, 2023

Peter James writes crime fiction and is the creator of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, now a hit ITV drama starring John Simm as the troubled Brighton copper. His latest Roy Grace thriller, Stop them Dead, is out this month. He’s had 19 Sunday Times No. 1s, achieved global book sales of over 21 million copies to date, and has been translated into 38 languages. His books have also been turned into stage shows.

1. What book should every writer read?

I think this is an impossible question to answer because books are so subjective and of course there are different genres – no “one size fits all”.  A budding romantic novelist will get more out of reading a superlative novel like, say Pride and Prejudice than from, say a spy thriller.  Similarly a budding crime writer will learn far more from reading a truly brilliant novel in that genre, such as  Silence of the Lambs.  An easier answer to give is “What author should every writer read?”  I would say Graham Greene – classic, but still modern today – I cannot think of any author who can so brilliantly describe a character that you feel you have known all your life, in just a few words. The Human Factor is of of his finest novels, as is The End of the Affair and Brighton Rock.

2. What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you started your writing career?

Winston Churchill’s great maxim, that “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Believe in yourself and just keep going.  Your first book may never get published, nor your second, nor perhaps your third. But one day, if you have the faith, the talent and that essential piece of luck, your whole world might change.

3. What is the best advice you’ve ever received about your writing?

I wrote three novels in my late teens which, luckily were never published! But I desperately wanted to publish a novel before I turned thirty; I read an article in The Times in 1977, that said following the vacuum left from Ian Fleming’s death years earlier, there was a shortage of spy thrillers – so I thought I would try and write one. I did, and to my amazement Dead Letter Drop was published, in 1981. To my immense disappointment it sold less than 1,800 copies!  I wrote a second spy thriller and a third, and each sold even less than the last one!

At a party I poured my heart out to novelist, Elizabeth Buchan, and she gave me a piece of life changing advice:

“You will never succeed as an author unless you write firstly, what you are passionate about, and secondly, what you can learn about, inside out. You can never know the world of spies without having been in it, like Ian Fleming or John Le Carré. People who read, by their very nature, are intelligent, and they can tell whether a novel has a ring of authenticity or not.”

A picture of the front cover of Peter James's book Stop Them Dead.A short while later my then wife and I were burgled. A young Brighton detective, Mike Harris, who had come to take fingerprints, noticed my books on a table.  He gave me his card and told me to contact him if I ever needed research help on police matters for any future books. We became friendly with Mike and his wife, Renate, also a police officer, and through them got to know many more officers. I found, because I made a big effort to get not just my facts right but the whole culture of the police world right, that I was being increasingly invited to see different aspects of policing for myself, from an insider standpoint. That was the point at which I decided to write crime thrillers.

4. What is the most underestimated challenge about being a professional writer?

When I was a teenager and becoming a writer was just a dream, I was an avid reader of thrillers. But I found, to my disappointment, that most of my then favourite authors seemed to get lazy as they became increasingly successful, their books getting fatter and less exciting, almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to edit or their editors were too nervous to criticise them. I made a promise to myself that if I was ever lucky enough to have any writing success, I would do everything I could to raise the bar with each novel.  And that is a real challenge!

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

5. What was the proudest moment of your writing career?

Undoubtedly the first time I hit No 1 on the Sunday Times hardback list. I had tears in my eyes I was just so thrilled and overwhelmed that it had finally happened – it had been my dream for so long.  And it still feels just as good every time it happens!

6. What is your typical writing day like?

My whole writing day is back to front… It stems from the time when I was first 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.  My writing day starts at 6pm in the evening, when I mix a large vodka martini, with four olives, put on some music, such as the Kinks or Van Morrison and get into a zone. I try to ensure that whatever I’m doing, I leave myself time to write 1000 words 6 days a week. Around 8.30pm I finish, have dinner with my wife, Lara – we take it in turns to cook. The next morning, usually after a 4-6 mile run, I will edit what I wrote the night before and expand those 1,000 words into around 1,500. When I’ve done that, I plan my evening’s writing session. I break for lunch around 1.30 and in the afternoons I play tennis or do strength work in the gym or catch up on emails, or do interviews like this one!

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