Something Old … Something New
This month I’m delighted to speak to two of my favourite crime writers.
One, a legend, who along with Agatha Christie, formed my earliest inspirations to read and then go on to write crime thrillers. We’re thrilled to have a short Q&A with Baroness James of Holland Park – better known as PD James.
And secondly, a crime writer whose novels I only discovered earlier this year. Peter May. I’ve now read two books from his Lewis Trilogy, both of which had me completely hooked. I’m thrilled to have discovered such a new talent to add to my bookshelf.
So, firstly, PD James. A writer who needs no introduction.
But for those of you who aren’t avid crime readers, a writer first published in 1962, introducing investigator and poet, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. She has gone on win a plethora of awards and accolades and published over twenty novels featuring Dalgliesh, and her other protagonist, Cordelia Gray. Many of her works have also been developed for television and film. The most famous being the Hollywood blockbuster, Children of Men, in 2006.
We asked Baroness James about her experience in seeing her writing developed into other formats and her thoughts on the future of publishing.
You have been lucky to see your books adapted not only for television (The Inspector Dalgliesh Mysteries) but also into box-office successes as films (Children of Men). What was your involvement with the adaptations, and as a writer, which format – film or television – gave you the most enjoyment?
It is always an advantage for a writer to have her work filmed or televised as it brings people to the book, but few of us are really satisfied with the result. However, I have been more fortunate than many writers and now look forward to the TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley. Television gives me the most involvement as I am often invited to visit the set during filming, and was indeed at Chatsworth recently with my PA to watch a scene being filmed. This has not so far happened with a feature film and I have to wait until it is released to see the final result.
You’ve been quoted as saying you enjoyed the film version of Children of Men but that the actor, Roy Marsden was not ‘your idea’ of Inspector Dalgliesh. What are the hardest things, as a writer, about relinquishing your rights and letting someone else take control of your work?
I accept that, with a film or TV adaptation I have to relinquish certain of my rights and let people regarded as experts in a different medium take control of my work to a large extent. The hardest thing is when the dialogue, which I have taken considerable trouble over writing, is expunged and the adaptor’s dialogue substituted.
Location seems to play a strong central role in your books, something that means a lot to me also as a crime writer. This has helped bring the books alive on screen. Thinking of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, you seem to favour strong, remote locales. What do you look for in a perfect location for your novels, and what do you think location to brings to the narrative?
My novels nearly always begin with my response to a place and this was certainly true of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient. I do favour strong remote localities where it is possible rationally to limit the number of suspects. In looking for a perfect location I tend to choose a place which I find beautiful, mysterious or unusual, and I think the location is important to the narrative as it increases credibility, influences character and plot, and adds to realism.
You must have learnt a great deal about writing and publishing over your career. What words of wisdom would you impart to the next generation of writers?
If asked for advice I generally give the following: A prospective writer should read widely, not in order to slavishly copy, but to see how established writers exercise their craft. It is also important to increase one’s vocabulary since words are the building blocks of a writer’s talent.
You’ve obviously won so many awards, honours and accolades throughout your career. What, as a writer, have been your proudest moments and achievements?
I have been very fortunate in the public acknowledgement of my success, but I think the proudest moment was when I received a telephone call from my agent to say that Faber & Faber had accepted my first novel.
I’ve read many of your novels over the years, and Death Comes to Pemberley was a change of style and direction for you. What caused that change – and do you have plans for more historical crime adaptations to come?
After the publication of The Private Patient I was wondering whether I had the energy to write a long novel, as detective stories tend to be. It seemed the right time to return to an idea which had been long in my mind: to combine my two enthusiasms – the novels of Jane Austen and detective story writing – to write a crime novel set in Pemberley some six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. It was a joy to write and has been a world-wide bestseller. I have no plan for more historical crime adaptations in the future.
And finally, can I ask how you see the future of publishing? In such a rapidly changing market and technological world, do you believe ‘real books’ will survive or that e-books are the future?
I think it is difficult for anyone, including publishers, to see with any clarity the future of publishing, but I acknowledge that e-books are immensely convenient for long journeys, stays in hospital or holidays when so many books can be transported so easily. And e-books also have a use for reading in bed and for people with poor eyesight. However I believe, and greatly hope, that what you rightly describe as ‘real books’ will survive.
And secondly, we talk to Peter May. First published at the age of 26, his first novel, The Reporter,
was eventually adapted into a thirteen-part television series, which took the author into a lengthy career as a script writer. He has now published five standalone novels, plus three successful crime series: China Thrillers, The Enzo Files and The Lewis Trilogy.
Despite his prolific resume, Peter knows all about the hardship of writing and the difficulties faced as an unknown author trying to break through into the publishing world.
Here he talks about location, research, his plans for the future and his unusual path to publication.
Location is a vital element of your novels, almost standing as a character in its own right. This is something I connect with strongly in my own writing, but why is it so important to you? And how and why do you choose particular locations?
For me every story starts with the characters. The plot grows and develops according to what affects these characters and how they in turn affect everyone and everything around them. Obviously relationships between characters are important, but the world which they inhabit is central to who they are and how they behave. The location, the weather, the culture and way of life all have a bearing on the people and the story so the setting is always centre stage for me. My next book takes place partly on the Isle of Lewis and partly in Quebec's Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Although there are certain similarities about island life, the two locations are very different culturally. I've written books set in China, France, the USA, and even in the online virtual world of Second Life!
You now live in France (Enzo Files) and I believe used to spend a lot of time in the Outer Hebrides (The Lewis Trilogy) is it important for you to see and feel and absorb a location to be able to bring it across effectively in your writing?
I never write about a location unless I have been there and experienced it personally. I love research. As far as my writing process goes, research takes up most of my time. Visiting locations and soaking up the atmosphere is a vital part of that research. In the early days when I was writing about China I made more than a dozen visits there, often for more than a month at a time. In the early days, I took copious notes about each location and took hundreds of photographs. When I got home I would get the photographs developed and paste them on large pieces of card, constructing panoramas of each of the locations I was writing about. I would pin them up on the wall above my desk to take me to the places while I was writing about them. Times have moved on and it's easy now to take videos with my phone at the locations, so I can record sounds or notes instantly along with the pictures. When I get back from a research trip I construct short videos of each location that I can play on my computer while I'm writing.
In The Lewis Man, you bring out very strongly the different character of the islands - Harris v Lewis, Protestant islands v Catholic. Where did your understanding come from? And how have the islanders themselves responded to your depiction of them?
Some places I know better than others. For example, in the case of the Outer Hebrides, I lived for half the year, every year for five years on the Isle of Lewis. I co-created and produced a drama series for television that was shot on location there during the 1990s. During the research and scriptwriting I got to know the people, the culture and the customs and during the filming I got to know every square foot and blade of grass on the island searching for the right locations, and shooting scenes in them. The books have been better received on the islands than I could ever have imagined. When The Blackhouse and Lewis Man were published I made visits to Stornoway where I had a great turnout. And so when The Chessmen was published Quercus arranged a tour of the Outer Hebrides from Port of Ness in the north of Lewis to Lochboisdale on South Uist. Everywhere I went, the halls were full to overflowing and the warmth of the reception I received everywhere was overwhelming.
You have a wonderful ear for local dialect and a natural ability for bringing this across successfully in your writing. Do you think your background in television script writing was a help in developing this skill?
My years of working in television have had a great influence on my writing, not just in terms of having an ear for dialogue, but in my whole approach to writing. I "see" very vividly every scene that I write. I also employ the scriptwriter's technique of drawing up a very clear storyline of the book before I write. In scriptwriting, writing the story and writing the script are two separate jobs each making different demands on the writer and calling for different abilities. Often, in television the two jobs are done by different people. I think there are some writers who tell great stories but write badly. Equally there are acclaimed novelists who write beautifully but hang their writing on flimsy stories. For me plotting and structure are an important part of a writer's craft and I always work hard to get the plot right before starting to write the book. An initial draft of the storyline is written very quickly - perhaps 25,000 words in a week. At that stage the only thing that is important is going with the flow of the story. I can then stand back and look for flaws - which are much easier to spot and fix than trying to do it in a finished novel that's maybe 120,000 words long. When I'm happy with the story outline, I start to write the book, with the security of knowing the plot works, and allowing me to concentrate fully on the quality of my writing.
Again I write quickly, I get up at 6am and write 3,000 words per day. Writing quickly and writing to deadlines is something else I brought with me from television.
You have a wide, varied list of characters across your novels. When developing a new character, where do you start? And what are the important, key points you focus on?
Characters are like people. You meet them, you make assumptions about them, sometimes you're proved right, sometimes they prove you wrong. Gradually you get to know them better and often they surprise you. I have sometimes been criticised for writing characters "warts and all" - some readers get annoyed if the hero has flaws. They want the good guys to be all good and the bad guys to be bad. To me the characters are human beings. Heroes have flaws and even the bad guys sometimes have a redeeming feature. During my research, I spend a lot of time living with the characters in my head and getting to know them.
Where do you stand on the subject of research? Love or loathe? And how do you approach, for example, historical details or factual information like police procedurals?
I love research. I always seem to be interested in subjects that require a lot of research - genetic modification, the Chinese police, forensic pathology, forensic science. I've heard some writers say they hate research and believe that writing is all about "making things up". I find that the wonderful thing about research is that you set out to find the answer to one thing, and discover a wealth of inspiration that provides you with even better ideas. Research is where I get all my stimulus. It's also important to me to get my facts right. I know I'm making up the story, but it's taking place in the real world, so I want to be accurate. For the China Thrillers, I needed to know where the Beijing homicide squad was based, where the guys went to eat at lunchtime, what the inside of the Shanghai police morgue looked like.
I take research for my Enzo Files books, which are set in France, equally seriously. When I wrote the second book which is set in the vineyards of Gaillac, I had to visit as many of the 120 vineyards there as I could, talking to the winemakers and, yes you've guessed it, drinking a lot of wine! In fact I got to know the wines there so well that I was inducted as a Chevalier de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac.
How did you learn so much about the secretive world of the hunt for the gannet chicks?
Ahh! After you have inveigled your way into the world of the Chinese Police, the Guga Hunters of Ness were not so daunting. I simply did what I always do when I need to know something. I go to the people themselves and ask them to talk to me. In the case of the guga hunters I spent hours with them, listening to their stories of the hunt, of their childhoods, of the preparation for the trip and the journey itself. I also talked at length to the young skipper who takes them to the rock in his fishing boat. People are usually very open and incredibly helpful when you go to them and ask to learn about the things in which they are expert. I find that most people are usually very happy to talk to me.
I think your writing has wonderful visual qualities, after the success of Ann Cleeves' location-themed novels recently, are there are plans to commission any of your series for television?
There has been television and film interest in the Lewis Trilogy. Also one of the China Thrillers is shortly to be made into a movie.
In both The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man, a central theme is loss of memory (through trauma or dementia). It feels as if it runs a lot deeper than just a clever way of telling a story. What draws you to characters who have lost a part of their lives?
The Lewis Man was based on my personal experience of caring for my father in the last years of his life. He suffered from dementia and I watched as it robbed him of his ability to express himself and to fully comprehend what was going on around him. What struck me was that he often had very lucid recollections of events from the past.
As for Fin, in common with many people who have had painful experiences, he hides his memories away - it's the only way that he could find to cope and survive.
The real theme of the books is how we are shaped by the past. Every choice, every decision, right or wrong, leads us to where we are today. I think the only way that we can make sense of the present is by examining the past, but that is not so easy if memories are fractured or lost.
In The Lewis Man in particular there is a tremendous assurance in the way you unroll two halves of the story and begin to weave them together. How do you manage juggling the two threads? Did you write (or at least plan out) the 'memory' element of the story first? Was it any easier telling a story this way second time round?
As I mentioned earlier, plot and structure are very important to me. Once I have let the creative process have free rein and poured out the story - or stories - that I want to tell in the book, I work hard on getting the structure right to try to ensure that it all holds together. It was important that the past and present story strands crossed back and forth at the right moments.
You had an unusual path to publication with the Lewis trilogy - turned down by British publishing houses, published first in translation in France and hailed there as a masterpiece before finally being picked up in English. Why do you think the French were more receptive? And why did it take the French public to tell the British publishing industry just how good these were?
There are two things that explain it, really. Firstly, and most importantly, the French do not divide books into pigeon holes labelled "Literature" or "Crime". Yes, they have crime books, and crime writing festivals, but they don't exclude crime books from the category of literature. The French have books known as romans noirs, or "dark novels". And the Lewis Trilogy falls into that category. The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man won the Prix des Lecteurs at Le Havre's Les Ancres Noires Crime writing festival in 2010 and 2012; but The Blackhouse also won the Cezam Prix Litteraire, France's largest adjudicated readers' prize for literature in 2011 and The Lewis Man won the French newspaper le Télégramme's 10,000 euro readers' prize for their favourite book of 2012.
When The Blackhouse first did the rounds of British publishers several years ago, the editors were unanimous about the quality of the writing, the atmospheric, how moving the story was, but they simply didn't believe they could sell it to a British audience. They felt it crossed boundaries between literature and crime - as if crime readers would somehow reject it. Thankfully the British reading public - now that they have finally been given the chance to read the books - have proved those editors wrong!
The second thing is that when The Blackhouse was first presented to British Publishers, it was before the influx of Scandinavian writing. All that "Nordic Noir" has made it more acceptable for crime writers to move their stories at a more thoughtful pace, and to look in more detail at the lives of their investigators. In fact my publisher, Quercus, wasn't even in existence when The Blackhouse was first offered to editors in the UK.
It's no surprise then that they - who published the Stieg Larsson Trilogy - were confident about finding an audience for The Lewis Trilogy.
And finally, for all your eager readers, can you tell us what you're working on at the moment, your next release and your plans for the future?
The next thing on the publishing schedule is a photo companion to The Lewis Trilogy. "Hebrides" consists of 200 beautiful photographs of the locations that feature in The Lewis Trilogy, taken by David Wilson, who lives on the Isle of Lewis. I've written a commentary to go with the pictures, together with a brief history of the islands and my personal history with the place and its people. Quercus have also obtained my backlist and have already brought the China Thrillers out on Kindle. These will also be coming out soon in paperback. And The Enzo Files which have only previously published in the USA will be out in the UK before the end of the year. My next new book will be out in January 2014. Although there will be no more Fin Macleod, there will be a return to Lewis. It takes place partly in the Hebrides and partly in Quebec. My plans for the future are to have a holiday!