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Your Interview: Author Peter James (The Argus)

In our new weekly feature your Interview, we give you, our readers, the chance to ask key figures across Sussex the questions you want answered. This week best-selling author Peter James answers your questions.

Gary Collins: How on earth do you think up your plots? They’re so gripping. Is it a long process to develop a story?

Peter James (PJ): A lot of my plots come from real life from research here and in other countries. I spend time with police in the US, Australia and Germany for example.

The plot for Not Dead Yet was actually partly inspired by my own stalker. It started when I saw this woman at a book event in Glasgow, smiling as if I knew her. Then I started seeing her at events all over the country.

Soon I got a weird email praising what I was wearing and thanking me for smiling at her.

I did reply, at first, but then stopped. She seemed harmless until she sent me a photograph of her Peter James shrine complete with burning candles.

It had all my books, but also secret photographs of me getting into a car or coming out of a restaurant.

So I decided to write a book about my experience.

Also, having worked in the movie business, I often got inspiration from the incredible ego of some of the stars I have worked with like Robert De Niro, Peter Sellers and Elizabeth Taylor.

The paranoia of these people fascinated me.

Dead Like You came directly from a rape case that I’d attended in the North of England.

I transposed that setting to Brighton so an awful lot comes from real life.

Some people meet me after reading me and think I must be some kind of monster but I’m actually quite tame really!

NIGEL GALLOWAY: Do you expect a Christmas card from Martin Amis after Amis Smallbone?

(PJ): I’m not expecting a card from Martin unfortunately!

We used to be classmates doing Oxford entrance at a crammer here in Brighton in 1968. I didn’t see him for 40 years until an awards ceremony in 2010.

I went up and said, ‘you might not remember me, but we were at school together.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t remember you – and you only remember me because I’m famous.’”

I stormed off and wrote on Twitter that I had just met the rudest writer on the planet.

Ian Rankin asked who it was.

I told him and said I was going to get my revenge by writing a character called Amis Smallbone into the next book and giving him a very small penis. Rankin bet me a hundred quid I wouldn’t. He’s now paid up!

In Not Dead Yet, a prostitute teases a character I created called Amis Smallbone about his manhood, comparing it to a stubby pencil.

The gangster he is staying with says, “You’ve always traded on being your dad’s son, but you was never half the man he was.”

I haven’t heard from Martin since, surprisingly.

NIGEL GALLOWAY: Would you say you are you now getting more respect from the literary world?

(PJ): Oddly enough I do think there has been a difference in how I’m regarded, although I couldn’t really care less about what the so-called "literary" world really thinks.

I do think crime fiction is being taken more seriously because ten, fifteen years ago it was seen as a ghettoish genre.

To be honest I’m more bothered about my sales. I’d rather have my gall bladder removed without anaesthetic than win the Booker Prize.

It’s because I’d rather have the approval of my readers than a bunch of elitist judges. There’s a sort of snobbery there that I believe puts many people off the joys of reading.

We are trying to get people to read so it should be a joy, not a chore.

sPA301: Which Argus crime reporter did you base the character in your Grace novels on?

(PJ): Back in about 1992 I spent a fortnight as a fly on the wall shadowing a female reporter at The Argus.

While I was there, there was a male reporter with white socks, a sharp suit and he was always chewing gum.

He was the perfect gumshoe and I thought: “I’m going to put you in one of my books.” Sadly I can’t remember his name.

Phil Mills thought it might be him, but he’s far too nice.

Laura Gillard: What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?

(PJ):There’s two first books really.

Five Go to Treasure Island by Enid Blyton was one of them.

I actually wrote to her asking why none of the children had gone to the toilet for the whole book.

She wrote back saying little boys and girls didn’t want to read about that.

But the book that really blew me away was Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which I read for the first time when I was about 14. If any one book changed my life that was it.

It’s got one of the best opening lines and endings in literature and it turned me on to books for life and made me determined to set a crime novel, one day, in this city.

Aaron Jones: Do you think your novels paint Brighton in a positive light for outsiders?

(PJ): I think I’m doing a huge amount of good for the city and I don’t think I’ve put a single person off coming here.

I get emails from people all over the world who say they want to come to Brighton.

I did get an email from a girl in Holland who said she wanted to come to Brighton but she was worried about the level of crime from reading my books.

But I said Roy Grace would look after her and she messaged me later to say she’d had a great time.

My books have been translated into 35 languages so I think I’ve helped put Brighton on the map.

I try really hard to portray the city accurately – we do have about 20 murders a year.

I think my books are far more realistic than a lot of other crime novels, in part because of the terrific research help I get from Sussex Police.

For me as a crime writer Brighton is a paradise because it’s got such a wonderful dark heart.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s Brighton was quite dark and seedy and when you told people you were from Brighton people would crinkle their nose.

Now I’m proud of being from Brighton – but it’s always had its fair share of violence.

But all the best cities in the world have an active criminal fraternity and a certain frisson of danger.

Bill Todd: What advice would you give to the many thousands of independent ebook authors struggling to build a following?

(PJ): The first thing is you’ve got to write a compelling book and self publishing is certainly an effective way of getting your stuff out there.

But you’re ultimately going to get the most traction by having a major publisher behind you.

Fifty Shades of Grey was originally an ebook but it only started really shifting when a major publisher took it on.

So many writers expect instant success, but along with writing ability, perserverance is a key quality - and you have to promote. It’s like the music business – you’ve got to put yourself out there to get noticed.

I love interacting with my fans. For instance I held a Facebook and Twitter competition to come up with a title for my last book, and we had 10,000 entries! Things like that can get readers engaged with what you’re doing.

People forget that storytelling was once an oral tradition so it’s always been about engaging directly with your public.

Today that’s most easily done through social networking websites. You’ve got to think creatively – and it’s also rather fun.

Marcus Allen: How did you feel when your book overtook Fifty Shades of Grey on the bestseller charts? Did you read it?

(PJ): I’m still giddy a week later, to be honest.

When I was first starting out writing, the idea of getting into the top ten was an impossible dream, so when I got to number one for the first time it was an incredible experience.

This time I thought it wasn’t going to happen because of Fifty Shades but I got a phone call from my publisher while I was in Canada and I was almost crying with joy.

I have read the first one because everyone was talking about it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

My honest opinion was that it was very readable but it didn’t exactly turn me on.

Her powers of description started to gnaw at me after a while and I don’t have any desire to read any of the sequels.

But I suppose it has given me some inspiration. In my next book Cleo asks Roy to bring home some sexy handcuffs but he says they're grubby because he only uses them to lock up criminals!

Would you like to quiz key figures in the county?

Are there questions you would love to get the answers to?

We are giving you the chance to put questions to leading figures, politicians and business people across Sussex as part of a new feature called Your Interview.

Who would you like to see on the spot?

Email your ideas to news@theargus.co.uk or call the newsdesk on 01273 544512.

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