Best-selling writer Peter James talks to David J Howe about films and thrillers.
Peter James is a quietly spoken man, friendly and unassuming. He burst onto the genre scene with his novel Possession in 1988 and since then has written a further eight novels, each bringing him greater acclaim as one of the top British thriller writers of his generation. With his latest novel Denial about to be published in paperback, and a television adaptation of one of his earlier novels, Alchemist, about to hit the small screens, I visited him at his gorgeous Sussex home to find out more about the man and his work.
‘Writing and film-making was what I always wanted to do, right from a really early age,’ explains Peter once we are settled down with tea and cakes. ‘In the early seventies I met up with the producer/director Bob Clark who was finishing off Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (released in 1972), and was trying to raise the money for a film called Dead of Night. I helped him with this and we shot the film in Florida and it was eventually released in 1973. I’m still quite proud of that. We also made a number of initially low budget horror movies, and also a huge underwater adventure movie, The Neptune Factor, which featured Ben Gazzara, Walter Pidgeon, Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine in the cast.’
Peter is however best known for his supernatural and scientific thrillers, but before these were published he had written several other books: spy thrillers and a movie novelisation. The path of his writing was changed when, having become bored with the spy books, he turned his attention to something which he believed was easier to research: the supernatural. ‘The 20 year old son of some very good friends was killed in a very bizarre car accident in France,’ he explains. ‘His parents started to go to a medium and became convinced that they were making contact with their dead son and then asked if I would be interested in writing a non-fiction book about their experiences.
‘I started reading as much as I could on the subject and also spoke to mediums and people who went to them. I became fascinated by the question of “evil” spirits and even went to Broadmoor jail to observe some of the really evil prisoners. I spent a morning in an assessment room with Dennis Neilson and a few others, including a very nice-seeming man who I later learned wanted to be a woman and so had cut the breasts off his girlfriend so he could wear them himself. I thought it would be very interesting to turn the whole myth of spirits around on its head. Suppose someone goes to a medium expecting to make contact with their late son, who’s going to say I’m alright here, Auntie Doris sends her love and so does Aunt Maud, but instead they discover that he was a total murderous creep in his life and not the nice boy that they thought. Or alternatively that they’d been listening to an evil spirit masquerading as their son. This then formed the basis for Possession which was the fastest book I’d ever written. It was quickly picked up and suddenly I went from being totally unknown to being in print in twenty-two languages within about two months.’
The majority of Peter’s early books meld supernatural subjects with those of science and medicine, and all present their subjects in the context of an effective thriller. It’s not really surprising then, that many of them have been picked up as film and television projects with, to date, two having been realised and transmitted, and a third due for transmission in the not too distant future. I wondered what themes Peter was exploring?
‘What I’m trying to do is to examine the world around us as it’s something that fascinates me. Why are we here? What happened before we were born? What happens after we die? I’m fascinated by science and what it means to us. These are the domains that I want to explore and with each book I pick a subject that interests me and learn about it and then find a way to incorporate that into a story. With Prophecy – made as an episode of the TV series Chiller and starring Sophie Ward and Nigel Havers – it was an interest in ouija boards, spirits, and the idea that buildings can “remember” stressful events from the past. With Host it all started in 1970 when I went to MIT to make a TV documentary for a Canadian station and interviewed Marvin Minsky, who was at the time a lecturer in computer science. He said “we’re close to replicating human consciousness in computers and when we do that’ll prove by definition that God does not exist.” That started me thinking about the whole area of computers and artificial intelligence. I had also been interested in the science of cryonics ever since I heard that Walt Disney had been frozen when he died in 1966. Some time later I realised that if you married those two things together: the AI aspects of computers, and the preserving of physical bodies through freezing, then you really could live forever: freeze your body and take a back-up of your brain onto a computer. That was the basis for Host.’
Host was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company and developed as a mini-series directed by Mick Garris – who had at the time just finished an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. ‘There were simultaneously two approaches about Host,’ reveals Peter. ‘One from ABC television and one from William Friedkin (The Exorcist) to do it as a feature film. We went with the TV mini-series in the end as we felt that if you sell a book to a film company – and I’ve sold every book I’ve written! – then they end up in development hell and you never see an end product. Whereas with television there is a far better chance of it actually happening and thus being able to sell more novels off the back of it.’
The most recent of Peter’s novels to get the TV treatment is Alchemist which blends black magic elements with a story of intrigue and corruption in a large drugs company. ‘I was talking to someone who used to work for one of those companies and I thought about the power that they have: the power over life and death. It apparently costs something like 300 million pounds before you can start trials on a new drug. What happens if you get to third stage trials, and you discover that one in fifty people might die from the drug … what do you do? You’ve spent all that money …
‘When I first wrote the novel, I did it as a straight thriller, with no supernatural or black magic elements at all, but my then editor at Gollancz, the late Richard Evans, felt that it needed something to make it acceptable to my readers so I added in those sub-plots. Then, when film rights in the book were offered to America, I was asked to take all the black magic stuff out as it would be easier to sell. So I did a version of the book as I had originally intended, as a straight thriller. Then the original book was sold to Red Rooster Productions in the UK and I heard nothing from them until about half way through shooting in 1998 when they sent me a script. To my amazement all the black magic plots had been removed. I phoned them up and said that if they’d spoken to me a year ago, I could have saved them time and sent them a more appropriate version of the novel.’
Alchemist marked a turning point in Peter’s writing. Not only did he move publishers for his next novels (to Orion Books) but he also decided to move more towards the mainstream thriller than the supernatural horror story. The Truth dealt with the topic of surrogate babies while his latest novel, Denial, concerns the kidnapping of a psychiatrists’ wife and the police’s battle against time to find her.
‘I wanted to get away from the more visceral horror,’ Peter muses. ‘Not that I’d done a lot of that, but I wanted the horror to come more from the circumstances and plotting, and I also wanted to write thrillers rather than horror novels. I hope it worked. In Denial for example, the tension comes from the fact that the reader knows more than the characters do – like who the kidnapper is, for example.
‘They seem to be successful as I’ve had more fan mail from these two books than before, and they seem to be selling really well. I still love the supernatural but I don’t think I have anything new to say about it. At the moment science is turning me on more. I also think some of the issues that are emerging are terrifying in themselves: people being able to design their own children … what’s happening with research into disease and organ replacement … anti-aging developments … decisions as to where we’re going as a species. These are big issues and I’m not sure we have all the right answers. I’m fairly convinced that sometime soon, death is going to become an option rather than a certainty. Think about it … now that’s scary.’
David J Howe