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Peter James

By Sarah Hutchings

Peter James
This interview with bestselling crime writer, Peter James was first published on The Deckchair website on 25/05/2007. His photograph is courtesy of Macmillan.
How did you get your first break?
I went to Canada after film school, and in 1971 I was working as a 'gofor' - a teaboy and runner - on a daily show for pre-schoolers called Polka Dot Door. One day the writer didn't turn up with a script because he was sick. The producer said, 'I saw on your CV that you won your school poetry prize. Can you write today's show?' I ended up writing the show three times a week for a year - I was 23 years old.
Could you describe your working day.
I divide my week between Sussex and London, but in either it actually starts for me at 6pm with a large vokda martini with four olives, and music - either jazz or opera arias, mostly. I write until around 10pm, then have supper on a tray and watch junk telly - something like Desperate Housewives.  Then I read until around 12.30 (non fiction when I am writing). I get up at 6.20am  and run - 2 -5 miles depending how I am feeling, on my own in London, with the dogs when I am in Sussex. Then at 9.30am having had breakfast and read the Times I read what I wrote the night before, which is normally one complete chapter, or two if very short, do a second draft, then start preparing the next chapter. I break around 1.30pm, have some lunch, get some air, maybe play a game of tennis, then spend a couple of hours on correspondence - mostly replying to fan emails. Then back to work on the manuscript at 6pm. I work six days a week and try to break as much as possible on Sunday, but my email load is so high that I find I'm spending half my Sundays just coping with that.
How does an idea become a novel?
My novels tend to be very research driven as well as character driven. I spend a average of one day every two and a half weeks out with the police, and my original ideas get shaped by my experiences during the researching.  Central to each book is the main character I create, and what he or she would do in the circumstances in which they are placed. I use a three-act structure as the rough structure for each book. Having done that and I start writing, I find the first 20 pages are always the hardest. The next hurdle is page 100. After that the book tends to take on a life of its own.
Which book do you wish you'd written?
'Brighton Rock' by Graham Greene. It is in my view not just the finest novel written about Brighton but one of the finest crime novels ever and it has probably the darkest, nastiest, and psychologically most vicious ending of any novel. It is wonderful.
As a reader, do you always finish a book you've started?
No, I used to, but there are just too many books I want to read. I really need to be gripped by the first paragraph and always bear that in mind in my own writing. But even then, sometimes I am gripped for a while and then lose interest. That happened to me with the huge hit 'White Teeth'. It began brilliantly but half way through I got bored and decided I could not spare more time with this book.
If you weren't a writer, what job would you like to have done?
I think I would have enjoyed being a criminal barrister - I find the law, and the whole criminal world fascinating.
Describe your perfect day.
I wake up and find that my new novel is finished! I pack my suitcase with fourteen novels that I want to read and with Helen jet off to the South of France, to my favourite beach hotel there. I flop out in a lounger and binge read all afternoon. Then I have a fabulous dinner, seafood, fish, white Burgundy, followed by an old Armagnac and a cigar. And just before midnight I get a call from my editor, Stef, telling me she has spend the whole day reading the manuscript and there is not one single correction I have to do!
What keeps you awake at night?
When I am wrestling with a chapter that isn't going right. I'm very instinctive when I am writing and my mind bothers me with problems with my story. So I sometimes get up and go to my study and sit at my computer in the small hours and fret. Whoever it was who said that creativity was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration is right!!!
Why did you choose to live in Brighton and Hove and what keeps you here?
I was born in Hove and lived in Brighton all my childhood. I love the character of the place - its beauty, its seediness, its criminal undertow, and I am hooked on the sea. I could never live too far away from water. When I moved abroad in my early twenties I went to Toronto, which is on a lake the size of a small ocean!
How does living here inspire your work?
Three former Chief Constables have told me that that Brighton is one of the favoured places to live in the UK for premier league criminals. John Street Police station is the second busiest police station in the UK.  Brighton inspires my work in so many ways - and I know that there is a never ending fund of stories and characters here!

This page was amended on 03/02/2012
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