For a writer who enjoys nothing more than depriving his characters of their lives, Peter James has lived several of his own. Before he became a very successful crime writer, he was an unsuccessful writer of spy thrillers; and before that a moderately successful film producer; not to mention a student job of cleaning Orson Welles’ London home… (Wow, I’ve done nothing with my life.)
Most of those are stories for another time (although James did give us the amuse-bouche for that event of an escapade involving an egotistical Hollywood star and a stoned rooster). Ably interviewed by Richard Pedley, James was here as a multi-million selling author, but he also proved a fascinating and funny speaker with a plethora of anecdotes and insights from his life as a writer.
For James the three key elements of writing are character, research and plot – in that order. The cleverest twist will count for nothing if the reader doesn’t believe in the characters or the world they inhabit. And regardless of where James thinks his plots are going, his characters sometime have other ideas – but then, if a writer can’t surprise himself then he won’t surprise his audience.
And those characters are often drawn from life, with James taking inspiration from the real policemen he counts as friends. James is a vocal supporter of the police force; they may not be perfect, but he bitterly observed how much damage the current Tory government has done to their resources and morale. In return, he determines to portray them even-handedly, without the hard-nosed, hard-drinking cliches.
Peter James first befriended police officers after his house was burgled, which seems to have set the tone for a writing career blessed by happenstance. His told the story how his novel Perfect People came about after being invited to Caltech to see their work on the genetics of empathy; his new novel Absolute Proof started life almost 30 years ago with a random phone call imploring to James to help the caller share with the world his irrefutable evidence of the existence of God. Although acquiring your own stalker is going a bit far, as James did for 11 worrying years.
Perhaps this full life explains why James has decided to settle down in Jersey, and he won the audience over by singing the island’s praises (after a viewing of his other option of Guernsey was nixed by bad weather). With his penchant for weaving real people and places into his novels, it looks like Jersey is about to get a lot more exciting…
Words: Andrew Davey
Picture: Peter Mourant