Nos4a2 author Joe Hill is well-acquainted with mysteries: before he became a full-fledged thriller, fantasy, horror, & mystery writer, he was a mystery himself. The son of Stephen King, Joseph Hillstrom King chose to rise to the heights of his career with his parentage kept secret. Hill is a genre-bending whirlwind of a novelist, whose works have found mass-market success both in airport bookstores and on screens large & small. Hill’s Hornsstunned audiences with its star, Daniel Radcliffe; the terrifyingly original premise; and all the moral quandaries that come with it. Nos4a2 is currently airing on AMC Sundays at 10 PM, thrilling (and chilling!) viewers with its whimsical nightmare of a setting—the inside of its protagonist’s (and villain’s) minds. At BookCon, Hill gave fans an insight into something almost as scary as Charlie Manx… actually writing your novel.
For many genre fiction writers, one major challenge is explaining how the world got to this point—whether ‘this point’ is a society in which alien clouds hold skydivers captive (“Aloft”) or one in which Polaroids can steal people’s memories (“Snapshot”). Sure, you could have a drunken NPC stumble up to your protagonist and describe the mechanics of the world in meticulous detail… or you could NOT do that and have a better story for it. Hill distinguished what needed to be explained in a story and what could be left alone:
It depends on what the reader needs. In The Fireman, I never got around in the book to explaining where [the human combustion plague] came from. John and Harper have a conversation about it, and one says ‘I like the idea that the ice shrunk and a pathogen got out from under the ice.’ One character thought it was weaponized athlete’s foot… they don’t know, so why does the reader have to know?
Image Via Sharp Magazine
One of the things Hill recommends avoiding is bombarding the reader with a lengthy villain backstory. While we know it’s suspect to wave away a villain’s actions with one depressing childhood anecdote, according to Hill, it can actually slow down the plot. He opened up about the role of Charlie Manx in Nos4a2, perhaps his most ambitious work to date:
I went into the backstory of Charlie Manx and it was an info-dump, a giant dump of information, and it brought the story to a screeching halt… no one cares what life was like for the shark in Jaws when it was a baby. No one cares if the shark’s mom didn’t love him well enough. They just want the shark.
Image Via Tell-tale TV
Of course, that isn’t to say that explanations are the devil (nope, that’s actually Daniel Radcliffe in Horns). Hill merely suggests that they’re something to be cautious about. There are aspects of the story that the reader does have to know, and then there are aspects of the story the AUTHOR needs to know: to clarify, everything. “Only a jackass would publish a book and create these mysteries without knowing [the answers],” Hill explained, “and I realized I was that jackass… I began building more of a history [in my stories] so that I would know for me, so I wouldn’t have to do a lot of shovelling later.”
In Hill’s own words, “explanations suck.” But he’s still pretty damn good at them.
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.
Long story short, I met with the guy, and he was in his seventies, very nice guy, quite obsessive, and he really believed that he’d been given this mission to save the world, and that I was the man to help him get taken seriously. He said he’d been given compass coordinates for the location of the tomb of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s uncle, the first monotheist, which has never been found. As well as the location of the Holy Grail and the location of the Arc of the Covenant. And I said, ‘have you looked for any of these?’ And he said, ‘yes, the Holy Grail is at a place called Chalice Well in Glastonbury.’ Now I’d never heard of Chalice Well before, but it’s a holy site on the edge of this town in Somerset called Glastonbury, which is quite a mystical place, and it’s where Joseph of Arimathea was rumored to have brought the Holy Grail containing Christ’s blood from the crucifixion, and concealed it, as it was an important relic.
He said ‘I was a pilot in the war, I can navigate, I’ve been to exact location, I’ve been looking there and I’ve been metal detecting and there’s something under the ground, and I’ve approached the trustees of Chalice Well for permission to do an archaeological dig, but they won’t take me seriously, but,’ he said ‘Mr James, I think they would take you seriously.’
Anyhow, by sheer, sheer chance the next day I had to go to Bristol which is quite near there, to do a BBC radio interview, and I was just chatting to the presenter at the end of the interview, and out of the blue she mentions Chalice Well. And I’ve always been fascinated by coincidence, and I thought, that is really strange I’ve never heard of the place until yesterday and now I’m hearing of it twice in two days, and I asked her, “What do you know about Chalice Well?” and she said “My uncle is a trustee!” So I thought, wow, I really am the Chosen One to save the world! Anyhow, I told her the story and then I left and I was so freaked out that I found a friend of mine at the time, who was the Bishop of Reading, a very modern thinking clergyman, and I met up with him a couple of days later and told him the story and I said ‘What do you think?’ and firstly he said, ‘Proof is the enemy of faith, in my view, but secondly, you’d need more than three sets of compass coordinates as proof of God.’
He said he would want something that defies the laws of physics, of the universe-a pretty major miracle. I asked him if someone could deliver that, what would happen? He replied,“I think they’d be murdered? Because whose God is it going to be? Every faction of the Anglican, Catholic, Judaic, Islamic churches would be claiming ownership, and then you’ve got atheist countries like China who wouldn’t want a higher power usurping them.” And that is when I thought yes, I have got the makings of a great international thriller here.
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.
Then in about 1996, I was introduced to a young homicide detective called David Gaylor and he was in Brighton, and he’d been put in charge of the cold case team and we just hit it off. I was writing psychological thrillers at that point and he helped me with all the policing aspects. He rose to become the Head of Homicide for Sussex in 2002, just at the time my publishers approached me and said ‘we’d love it if you would write a series with a cop as the central character.’ So I went to Dave, and I said “How would you like to be a fictitious cop?” That was the starting point of Roy Grace. He loved the idea, and we’ve worked very closely together ever since. So when I’m preparing to write a new book, we sit down at the same table in our local pub, and we plan. I’ll write the first hundred pages and he’ll read them and tell me how Roy Grace would think and act. Over the years he’s introduced me to every facet of policing in the UK and around the world. I’ve subsequently been out many time with police in New York, Los Angeles, Russia, Germany and a number of other countries around the world.
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?
PJ: They have all had a lot of meaning for me. I particularly love the one from W.H. Smith, which is the biggest bookselling chain in the UK, had a public vote for the best crime author of all time, and I won that. That was amazing, because that was from the public, from readers. And I think getting the Diamond Dagger award from the UK Crime Writers’ Association was a big moment because that was from my peers. Another that is really special to me was I was given an Outstanding Public Service Award by Sussex Police.
LBMD: What is your advice to would-be thriller writers, or aspiring writers in general?
PJ: Characters. I think that there’s an inseparable trinity in any great thriller of character, research and plot. I put them in that order deliberately, because first and foremost, we read books to find out what happens to characters we meet and engage with from the first page. They don’t have to be ‘nice’ people, but they have to engage and fascinate us. You know, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is not a nice character but he engages.
I put research in second position because people who read are smart. I think when we read we don’t just want to read a great story, we read because we want tolearn something about human nature and the world in which we live, and I think you can tell very fast if an author doesn’t know their subject, if an author’s writing about a lawyer but they’ve clearly never sat in a lawyer’s office, or they’re writing about a gun and they’ve never held one, or someone flying a plane and they’ve never sat at the controls of a cockpit, it’s apparent. It’s understanding what you’re writing about.
Plot is obviously important, but if you don’t care about the characters, and you don’t think the author’s done their research, the plot’s not going to matter because you’re not going to read on.
So in terms of the best tips I can give you, these are:
1. Create engaging characters
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!