Peter James is a literary powerhouse. One of the biggest names in thriller writing in the UK and overseas, James has won an award for either his writing or his public service almost every year since 1999. Now get ready for some big numbers. James is the author of over thirty-five books, his books have sold 19 million copies worldwide and have given him twelve consecutive UK Sunday Times number ones, as well as number ones in Germany, France, Russia and Canada, and he is also a New York Times best-seller. Not only that, but James’s books have been translated into no less than thirty-seven languages. All in a day’s work! His books have been adapted for film, TV and the stage, and he shows no signs of stopping. James is back with his explosive new novel Absolute Proof, and I was lucky enough to catch up with him and pick his brains about the book, his inspiration and what exactly is the key to a great thriller!
Laura-Blaise McDowell: Can you tell us where the inspiration for Absolute Proof came from?
Peter James: Basically, I had a phonecall out of the blue back in 1989, this elderly guy, who said ‘Is this Peter James the author? Thank God I found you, it’s taken me two weeks, I’ve phoned every Peter James in the phonebook, in England.’ And he said, ‘I’m not a lunatic, I was a bomber pilot in the second World War, I’m a retired university academic. I have been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and I’m told you’re the man to help me get taken seriously.’ He then went on and said, ‘my wife recently died of cancer, she was also an academic, and before she died we made an agreement that I would go to a medium and try and communicate with her, and I did this, and instead of my wife, a male came through and said he was a representative of God, and God was really concerned about the state of the world, and felt that if mankind could have faith reaffirmed, it would steer the world back on an even keel. And as proof of this, he’s given me three pieces of information that nobody knows. And he said the author Peter James is the man to help you get taken seriously.’ So that was the kind of starting point.
LBMD: Wow. It’s such a good story, and such an amazing seed for a story, because so often when writers are asked where the inspiration for a book came and they say ‘Oh, you know, I was looking out the window the a train, and it just came to me,’ this is so fascinating and intense compared to that!
PJ: I know!
LBMD: The book obviously deals with the existence or lack thereof, of a higher power, obviously a sensitive topic which is one of the key issues in the book. Have you received any backlash since its publication?
PJ: Do you know, it’s extraordinary, I haven’t, at all. I mean, I’ve been waiting for it, and I’m sure there’s going to be. Just before the book was published, the Archbishop of Canterbury heard about the book, as I did some research with some of his team, and he invited Lara my wife and I to drinks at Lambeth Palace in London and he said, ‘tell me about the book,’ so I told him and I asked him ‘What do you think would happen if there was absolute proof God existed?’ and he smiled and said ‘Well I’d be out of a job.’
But no, I haven’t had any backlash or any hate mail from anyone, but rest assured, it will come. The book’s being published around the world, including Russia, which surprised me that they would publish it, so I think there’s plenty of time yet. I did take a huge amount of trouble, and part of the reason the book took so long to write, was I felt I wanted to learn about all the world religions and didn’t want to offend any religion in the writing of it. So that was a major part of it, trying to tread a very fine line between portraying religions accurately and at the same time not being rude about any of them.
LBMD: You’ve written over 35 books, the majority of which are part of a series, including the Roy Grace series, for which you’re best known. But Absolute Proof is a rare standalone. How do you find the experience of writing a stand alone novel compares to series installments?
PJ: I love both in equal measures. I love writing my Roy Grace novels because Roy has his his kind of core team; best mate Glen Branson, very politically incorrect detective Norman Potting, who is always upsetting people, Roy’s wife who runs the mortuary in Brighton… And every time I start a new Roy Grace book it’s like sitting back down with a bunch of old friends. I’m thinking I’ll turn around and I’ll say ‘Hi Roy, how have you been? Hi Norman, how are you doing? Who have you upset this week?’ But with the Roy Grace books, because I’m a stickler for accuracy, everything I write has to be checked against what would actually happen in terms of police procedure, etcetera, not to seem pedantic in any way, but I like the idea that any police officer could read the book and go ‘yeah, that’s actually how it is.’ So the research takes a long time and I have to write a Roy Grace book every year. Whereas normally with stand alones, they’re much more free flowing. Obviously with Absolute Proof, research and understanding the world religions was critical, but after that, I could just do what I liked. Quite strange actually after researching that book for the best part of twenty-four years, I actually wrote it in two and a half months, the fastest time I’ve actually written a book, because I just had it all in my head, and I didn’t have the constraints [of a series].
LBMD: Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is the character you’re best known for, and you’re a patron of the Sussex Police Charitable Trust, and have donated police cars to the Sussex Police. How much of yourself is in Roy Grace and where did your interest in policing begin?
PJ: It began back in 1981, and I’d recently got married and I had my first book published, which was a kind of not-that-great spy thriller, and we got burgled and a young detective came to take fingerprints, and he saw my book and he said ‘if you ever want research help from the police, give me a call.’ He was married to a police officer, and my then-wife and I became friendly with them, and they invited us to a barbeque at their house, and they had about a dozen friends and almost all of them were types of cops, right across the spectrum: traffic, response, homicide, and I just found them fascinating to talk to, and over the next few years we got to know them better and better and got to know more of their friends and when they realized I was genuinely interested and not just out to get a story I could sell to the newspaper, they started inviting me out on patrol! And I just began to realize, spending more and more time with these guys, that from a writer’s perspective, nobody sees more of human life in a thirty year career than a cop. That’s what really intrigued me about it, was just all the different insights to human nature that police officers get.
LBMD: Your books have been adapted for stage, film and TV. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of seeing your work adapted, and if you have a preferred medium you like to see it adapted to?
PJ: I’ve had four of my books adapted to the stage, which I absolutely love. But I think television mini-series, today, are the way forward, and give books much more of a chance to breathe than with the time constraints of cinema. Absolute Proof is in development as a television mini-series, as is the whole Roy Grace series, and a number of my other books, so I see that as the future.
LBMD: You’ve won awards either for your writing or public service almost every year since 1999. Is there a particular award that meant a lot to you?
LBMD: What is your advice to would-be thriller writers, or aspiring writers in general?
2. Research every aspect you are going to write
3. Know the ending that you want to get to – I find this enormously helpful – it may change as I approach it but it gives me a vanishing point on the horizon to aim at
4. Think of a series of high points for your book – and make sure each one is bigger than the previous one
5. Write something 6 days a week – it is crucial to get into a flow – find an amount that you can write each day, whether is is 200 words or 2000 words, and rigidly stick to them because that will get you into a rhythm
6. Have fun – if you enjoy writing that will come through in the pages!
Get your copy of Absolute Proof here!