THE BLOG

A Talk With Peter James and Ian Rankin

07/14/2014 06:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

Peter James and Ian Rankin are among the foremost writers in the UK. Internationally acclaimed, their books have been translated into dozens of languages, and are regularly on best-seller lists.

Peter James has written 25 best-sellers. His most famous character is Brighton-based Detective, Roy Grace.

Ian Rankin has written 19 best-selling Inspector John Rebus novels.

Both authors are also involved in other artistic endeavors.

Peter and Ian are being interviewed together since they collaborated on a story in Face Off, a collection of short stories by some of the world's greatest thriller writers.

Ian, your first John Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses was classified as genre fiction. I understand you thought it was more in the realm of Robert Louis Stevenson's fiction. Tell us about that and your views of genre fiction.
I was working on a Ph.D. in the Scottish novel, and was interested in Scottish writers of the past, many of whom wrote dark psychological novels. One is Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburg is still a Jekyll and Hyde city, as are most cities. It's one thing to the tourists and something else entirely if you live there. The darker side is just below the surface.

So, I wrote a book about this darker side of Edinburgh. I thought a cop would be a good way of exploring the city. When the book was published, it went onto the crime fiction shelves. I was surprised; took it off that shelf and put it in the Scottish literature section. The next day, it was back in the crime fiction section. So, I started reading crime fiction. It became clear to me I'd written a crime novel by mistake (Group laughter).

I liked the pace and powerful sense of place in crime fiction. I also liked the strong structure--the beginning, middle and end--the crime, the investigation and the resolution. It all made sense to me. I discovered that everything I wanted to say about the world could be said in a crime novel. So, why would I want to write anything else?

Peter, you've written 11 Roy Grace books and many others. Tell us about your writing process.
I write one Roy Grace novel a year. I try to fit in other things around that. I actually love writing. I'm never happier than when I'm writing. And, I love research. Roy Grace is based on a real- life homicide detective. My home was burgled 20 years ago and I got friendly with the detective on the case. Through him, I started meeting police officers. I found the police world utterly fascinating. I'd been writing supernatural and psychological thrillers at the time. One day, my publisher asked if I'd ever thought of writing a crime novel.

Frankly, I thought there were far too many good crime writers, like Ian Rankin, who had the market cornered. I also thought that an English crime novelist had to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie by writing cozy mysteries. But, American writers like early James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and others, broke that mold. I realized one could write a page-turning police thriller without resorting to that quaint English structure.

Ian, between 1987 and 2014 you've written 19 Inspector Rebus novels; and The Beat Goes On, a book of short stories. You've also written a stage play, literary criticism, and have made recordings. How do you find the time to do all this, and what's your writing routine?
It helps if you're a workaholic and have no other interests in life. (Group laughter). As a writer, your antennae are always twitching. So, anything in your life provides material for your next story. You want to rush back to your office and begin writing.

People say 'That's a prodigious output,' but I'm kind of lazy about writing. I'll do almost anything else. I'll alphabetize my CDs, read the paper, or do the crosswords--anything to put it off. But when I actually start, I write quickly. The first draft usually takes about 40 days. I might be mulling it over subconsciously for weeks or months, but the writing itself goes quickly. Then, there are many drafts before it sees the light of day. A book a year isn't so great an output. We genre writers laugh at these literary novelists who take ten years to write a novel. No, it took them nine years of sitting around moping, and then one year to write the book. (Laughter).

If you become successful, you spend ninety percent of your time not writing; your time is consumed by tours and interviews. Sometimes, I yearn for the days when I was a student and could spend all day writing, every day. But then, nobody was interested. I was writing for the sheer fun of it. It was the excitement of writing a sentence that had never been written before. Just like Peter, when I write, it's the most exciting thing in the world because I'm doing something that's never been done. There are twenty-six letters, and you try to pen a sentence that's never been written before. I think that's phenomenal.

Peter:
That's such an important point Ian made about writing a sentence that's never been written before. I think the worst thing is a cliché. I'll agonize over words. If a cloud is scuttling across the sky, I want a new way of describing it--one that hasn't been done thousands of times. We know there are only so many plots in all of literature--I think there are eight--it's really how you write that makes the difference.

Do any of your hobbies or pursuits infiltrate your novels? I ask because, Peter, in your first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, there's an electrifying car chase.
As a writer, everything you do and everyone you meet become fodder for your writing. I'm a petrol head, which my publisher hates. I've always loved cars and race a 1965 BMW. In my next book, there's going to be a vivid description of a car rolling over because I had a racetrack accident last year. I rolled over at ninety miles an hour. And, I'm very interested in the police world. Probably half my social life is with police officers at all levels, from the chief constable of Sussex on down.

You're also a food critic for a Sussex magazine.
Yes, I travel constantly and eat out quite a bit. The great thing about the publishing world is that on tours, and when dining out with your publisher, you're exposed to fine drink and food. So, it gets into my novels.

In the first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, Roy's wife, Sandy has been missing for years. No one knows why or how it happened. Does she show up in subsequent books?
If I tell you, I'll have to kill you. (Group laughter).

Ian, do your pursuits seep into the Rebus novels?
I'm a frustrated rock star. I'd much rather have been a rock star than an author. When I invented Rebus, I decided he would be a fan of rock music. He listens to all the bands I do, and goes to the concerts I attend. As a result, rock musicians have become great fans of the books. I get emails from Pete Townshend of The Who or members of RDM. Van Morrison contacted me, knowing I'm a fan since Rebus is one. So, I've gotten close to being a rock star by being an author. In a sense, I live vicariously through Rebus.

My other hobby--or habit--is drinking beer in the less salubrious bars of Edinburgh. So, Rebus drinks in the Oxford bar where there's no food or music. It's just booze and conversation.

Rebus drinks quite a bit, doesn't he?
He does. And of course, I have to go there for research. (Group laughter). So, I end up drinking quite a bit there, as well. None of it is tax-deductible, by the way.(More laughter).

Peter, in addition to your prolific novel writing, you've also been involved in 26 movies, either as a writer or producer, including 2005's The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. How did filmdom evolve for you?
I came out of film school in 1970 and the movie industry was down the toilet. You couldn't get a job in television. I got a job as a go-for on a children's TV show. One day, the producer was in a panic because the writer was sick. He asked me to write that day's show. I was twenty-three and I began writing. I then met Bob Clark, a young film director, who was working on a low-budget film. My wealthy uncle in Canada backed the film and it did really well. So, I kind of fell into the film business.

Of those films with which you've been involved, which is your proudest achievement?
The Merchant of Venice. In 2005, when the Roy Grace novels took off, I had to make a decision about my direction. It was a no-brainer. Because when you're making a film, you're dealing with many different egos: three or four producers; the director; the production people; the photographer; the actors, even the distributor. I don't know how Ian feels about the two film adaptations of the Rebus novels.
Ian: The Rebus books were adapted for television years ago. The actor playing Rebus, John Hannah, was perhaps a bit too young and too soft-looking. Fans didn't feel he was up to it. Another actor took over and the fans were happier. But, the TV company decided to reduce the films by one hour per book. That translated to 45 minutes when you included advertising. Basically, they threw away the story. It was very frustrating. So, I got the rights back.

In the book of short stories, Face Off, Rebus and Grace work together on a crime that's decades old. How did you collaborate on In the Nick of Time?
Peter: When I was asked with whom I'd most like to write a story, it was Ian Rankin. I always loved his writing. We met up in Scotland and Ian came up with the story's idea.

The irony of it reminded me of an O Henry story.
Ian: Yes, it's something of a morality tale, isn't it? The problem we had was that Scotland and the south of England are different jurisdictions. How would these cops work together? I thought if we could get a case from the past--a cold case--there was a possibility. Actually, Peter did most of the writing. Of course we had some differences here and there: things like, 'I don't think Rebus would say that.'
Peter: It was quite strange to write a scene for John Rebus. I wondered if I should be doing this. But, it was virtually seamless once we got started.
Ian: I've spoken with other authors involved in Face Off. Some had difficulty making their characters mesh, because they're from very different fictional worlds. But for us it was fairly easy. When we go to conventions such as ThrillerFest, we end up at a bar and say, 'Our characters should get together in a book.' But in the cold light of day, you think that's insane.

Will there be a collaborative novel featuring Roy Grace and John Rebus?
Ian: I haven't thought of it. But this short story has introduced our characters to each other's world--Edinburgh and Brighton.

And criminals often flee to other jurisdictions.
Peter: Right. They don't keep office hours, and they don't obey borders. So this could be the seed of something very good.

Did you always want to be a writer? What did you do before you became a full time writer?
Ian: As a youngster, I was fascinated by stories. I wrote poetry, short stories, and graduated to novels. I wasn't successful until I was in my 40s. I had a lot of day jobs. I was a swineherd in France; I worked in a French vineyard; I was a tax man and a music journalist. I did anything that would pay me and let me write in my spare time.
Peter: From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to write, make films and race cars. I lacked confidence as a child. I never thought I'd write something anyone would want to read. When I was 15, I did win the school poetry prize, which gave me a little confidence. I wrote three novels in my teens that luckily never got published, and never will be. When I was at film school, there was this very posh girl I wanted to take out. I saw an advertisement for a cleaning job, so I took it to have some money to take her out.
Ian: How did the date go with the girl?
Peter: It was a disaster. (Group laughter).

Ian, you've written The Beat Goes On and a stage play this year. Peter, in November, your new Roy Grace novel, Want You Dead comes out. What's the most surprising thing you've learned about writing over these years?
Ian: One thing that's saddened me as I get older is that writing doesn't get easier. When I started, I thought this would be like being a car mechanic. Once you've stripped enough engines and put them back together, you can do it blindfolded. But for a writer, each book is different. It's never the same engine. You want each book to be better than the one before it. You want to make this one the book. We keep going because none of us has written the perfect book--the distillation of everything you want to say about the world. If we ever wrote that book, we could stop.
Peter: The big surprise for me is that people want to read what I've written. It amazes me. The big joy for me is that writing is the least ageist of any career. There are writers at the top of the best-seller list in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I would totally agree with Ian that it actually gets harder because you have to raise the bar as you go along. The nice surprise is that I get a little more confident with the passing of time. Yet, when I sit down for that first page of the first chapter I think, 'I got away with it last time, and they'll find me out with this one.'

Do you feel you're an imposter? (Group laughter)
Ian: I think all people in the creative arts feel that way. Actors say the same thing: 'I can't believe I'm getting paid for this. Eventually, I'll be found out.'

If you could invite any 5 guests for dinner, either writers or figures from history, dead or alive, who would they be?
Peter: I'd like to have Oscar Wilde, Ted Bundy (lots of laughter), The BTK serial killer, and Dennis Rader, the Wichita serial killer. (More laughter). Albert Einstein would be fun, and going back in time, it would be Aristotle. I think they'd talk about dramatic construction. (Yet more laughter).
Ian: I would love to have Robert Louis Stevenson. Bob Dylan would be another guest, but he might be grumpy. So maybe it would be Keith Richards, instead. Also, someone like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday would be fun. I would also love to have the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. And finally, Mary Queen of Scotts because she'd have lots of stories about murders and intrigue. You know, we well-balanced crime fiction writers channel our dark stuff into our books. But, don't interview romantic novelists. (More laughter).

Thank you for being multi-talented artists whose creativity has provided countless hours of enjoyment to so many people.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier