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An Interview with Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson grew up in Yorkshire, and now lives in Canada. His bestselling, critically acclaimed ‘Inspector Banks’ series has won numerous awards in Britain, the United States, Canada and Europe.

Exclus1ve’s Graeme Shackleford met up with Peter when he was in South Africa last year to promote his latest book, The Price of Love, a short story collection with an Inspector Banks novella at its centre.

EB: For our readers unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us a little about your background, and what you write?

Peter Robinson: I was born in England, and grew up in Yorkshire – Leeds… And for many years I wrote mostly poetry, and then in the mid-80’s, I got the crime fiction bug.  After a few false starts, I came up with detective chief inspector Alan Banks, who’d just moved from London up to Yorkshire.

The first book, Gallows View, came out in 1987, and since then, there’ve been another 18, so I think I’m up to number 19 now.

EB: Joyce Carol Oates tutored you at the University of Windsor when you took your MA in English and Creative Writing.  What was the most valuable lesson you took from that time?

PR:  I think Joyce never tried to teach you how to write, but she did make you feel as though you were doing something important, so I think what I learned from her was more a matter of attitude and feeling about what you’re doing, rather than a nuts-and-bolts thing.  I learned to accept that it actually was possible I could be a writer, whereas we all have our doubts – we still have our doubts – she did teach confidence, or instill confidence.

EB:  19 books, and you still have doubts?

PR:  Every book reaches a point where you look at it and think, “Why on earth did I start this?  In fact, why does anybody ever buy any of my books anyway?”  You’re constantly wracked with self-doubt, that somehow it’s a bubble that will burst one day.

EB:  Have you begun any books that you’ve thought half-way, “Why have I started this?” and then stopped, given up on them?

PR:  No.  I usually get to the point where I start to believe in them again.  It takes someone else to come along and say, “This is garbage, you can’t publish this.”

EB:  What is it that drew you into writing crime fiction specifically?  You said that in the mid-80’s you were bitten by the crime fiction bug…

PR:  It was through reading it, really.  I’d never… except when I was a kid, a teenager, I used to read Enid Blyton, and then I progressed to The Saint, James Bond, Bulldog Drummond and Toff and Sherlock Holmes… Those kind of books.  When I went to be an English student, for years and years, I did my BA, MA, PhD… I was just immersed in literature with a capital ‘L’.  So it wasn’t that I disdained crime writing…  I knew nothing about it – I never read any.  And then, when that was all over, I was at my parents’ place, and it was a rainy day in Leeds, and there was not much to read in the house…  My Dad had this Raymond Chandler omnibus.  I’d heard of Raymond Chandler, so I picked it up and thought, “I’ll have a look at this.”  It had three books in it.  The first one was The Little Sister.  As soon as I’d started reading, I was hooked!  His style, his wit…  I got involved in the stories.  So I read them all, and then I moved on to May Gray, Nicholas Freely… Mostly a lot of American and European writers, not many British writers at that time.  And I just got hooked by the idea of it, and read so much that, by the end, I thought, “I could probably do as well as these… And maybe even better than some.”  It was a challenge.

EB:  Other than a morbid imagination, would you say that a morbid sense of humour is necessary for writing crime fiction?  I’m thinking of an example you once gave in an interview, of a scene in which a woman gets her hangnail caught in a corpse’s sock…  That is chilling and horrific, but it’s also darkly comic.

PR:  Yes, I think the little details like that really make a scene, and at the same time that you’re saying, “Oh, God, no!”, you’re also laughing a little bit because it’s so commonplace and so ordinary.  And, certainly, I think that most of the police people I’ve met have either had or developed a morbid sense of humour on the job.  So there’s often a lot of bad jokes over crime scenes and things like that.  So you try not so much to put that in verbatim, but just to at least give the impression that there is another level to this.  You can’t all sit there and say, “Oh, this is terrible.  Nobody should kill anybody…  It’s awful that this person got killed.”  Well, it IS, but, you know, you have to look at it from other perspectives, and the morbid sense of humour undercuts perhaps a lot of the sentimental human emotions about it.

EB:  Where do you get the ideas for the crimes committed in your novels?  And once you have an idea of what the crime is, do you begin writing the story ‘towards’ the crime, or do you work backwards from the crime, in terms of how the investigation would be carried out?

PR:  I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t know where it’s going to end when I begin, so I usually start with the scene and the discovery of the body, and that victim becomes the character, the focus of everything, because Banks and everyone will ask questions about what is it about this person that he or she ended up in this place in this way.  So you move out from there saying, “Ok, job, friends, family, the last 24 hours, what happened then?”  All that stuff.  And you start to build up a picture, and that picture will often bring in elements that you don’t know at the time are going to be your theme, whether it’s something very current or a good old poisoning or whatever.  I don’t know, at the beginning.  It takes me a while to feel my way into this victim and what his life involved – if it involved, say, people smuggling or drugs, and then that takes you in one direction, and then you meet other people…  Some of them will tell you a little bit, some of them will lie to you…  I’m often as surprised as the readers…  At least, I hope they’re surprised.

EB:  Your novel, In a Dry Season, is set in a drowned village.  Was that based on true events?

PR:  Yes, it was.  At least, the beginning of it was.  There were a number of villages that had been emptied and flooded to make reservoirs at various times in England.  In 1996, there was a drought in England, and a lot of these reservoirs dried up, and you could go there and see what hadn’t been seen for fifty or sixty years – the foundations of the village… There was a little bridge… All this had been underwater for ages, and it was quite eerie.  I was just walking along what was the high street of this village, so my first thought, as a crime writer was, “Ooh, what if they found a body buried here?”  That would be interesting.  And then I started with the idea of recreating the village when it was a thriving, living village, and all the characters who lived there.  And that’s how In a Dry Season started.  It was a great book to write.  I really enjoyed the research and putting the two stories together, and having the person in the past coming up with a different answer to Banks in the present – they can’t both be right.

EB:  The Inspector Banks are the books for which you’re most well-known, but your latest book, “The Price of Love” is a short story collection.  There are three stories in it, involving Inspector Banks, one of them being a novella, filling in the gaps of his life before Yorkshire.  How does your approach to writing a short story differ to when you’re writing a novel?

PR:  It’s completely different.  In the first place, most short stories I write now, unless I’m struck by inspiration, are because people ask me to write for an anthology, and it’s usually anything from six months to a year before they need the story, so it’s easy to say “yes, you can have a story in six months – six months is ages away” and then, of course, the deadline starts getting closer… As you know with deadlines… It’s intriguing because sometimes they’ll give you a vague theme, and a number of stories in The Price of Love were written as my response to the theme I was asked to write about.  In fact, The Price of Love itself is written for an anthology called The Blue Religion, which was edited by Michael Connelly.  And the original idea, it was going to be called “The Burden of the Badge”.  It was going to be to do with cops and the duty that goes with carrying the badge, or in England, the warrant card.  I suddenly thought about this, and thought that I can’t do a straight story like that, so I did a story about a child who finds a plastic police badge on the beach, and it makes him feel closer to his father, who was a cop, who was killed on the job, and it’s all from this child’s point of view.  So what I try to do is try find a different and unique way into these themes that are the overriding ideas in the anthologies.  So all these stories are a little off the wall.  There’s even a dark fantasy in there.  It’s a crime story with a little of the supernatural in it.  So I get to do things I can’t do in novels.  It’s a wonderful sense of liberation and freedom sometimes, but with all kinds of restrictions in terms of time and space…

There’s a lot of Banks in this collection.  How that came about was that the publishers wanted one short story that had was previously unpublished, and they wanted it to be a Banks story, so I started casting around for ideas, and around Christmas 2008, I started writing it, and it kept on going and going and going, and sometimes these things can get a little out of your control…  And it was longer than a short story…  Could it be a novel?  But it went on to a certain point – it was only and hundred and some pages – and I said, “Oh God, it’s a novella!  You can’t publish novellas.”  They’re too long for magazines, they’re too short for single publication…  But, for this, I think it was perfect because it is a short novel, and it’s new, it features Banks…  You can tell people it’s a new, short Banks novel, with lots of other good stuff beside – there are extras for free, like on a DVD, you get all these extras.  I was very pleased with it, and pleased with the way it went.

EB:  Looking at previous interviews, and reviews of your books, something that your readers love about Inspector Banks is that he’s a very human character – he doesn’t just exist to solve crimes.  He has a personal life, and I think the fact that the novella fills in gaps in his life is something that your fans will appreciate. 

Peter Robinson:  Yes!  They find out where he got his scar, which has been a mystery through many books, and he’s always lied about it when people have asked him, so now you get the real story, and why he came up to Yorkshire from London, why and how he sort-of burned out down there.  I pretty much like Like a Virgin – it has that interesting picture of Soho in the mid-80’s, it was a very transitional stage, from Sin City to being cleaned up…  But you never clean up a place like that completely, as I’m sure you know.

EB:  The Inspector Banks novels have many musical references in them, and in The Price of Love, there’s the story, The Magic of Your Touch in which a piece of music is central to the story.  Can you tell us a little of the role music plays in your life and in your writing?

PR:  Well, I’ve always been a great listener, but never a very good player…  Like most kids my age, I picked up a guitar when the Beatles were around, and I even played in one or two bands, just briefly.  We never really got anywhere…  Wrote some songs, got interested in that…  It’s always been the thing that, if I really could do it, but it’s beyond my reach…  I probably would’ve been a musician, but I wasn’t good enough.  I accept that.  And I accept that I can really enjoy just listening.
I wanted a character who has an appreciation of music – I didn’t want to be fixed in just one thing.  Some detectives only like jazz, some only like opera…  I wanted to give him varied tastes.  So, really, he’s not an expert in any, but, he likes listening to a number of different things.  And, sometimes, what he’s listening to reflects what’s happening in the novel, or seems to go with the landscape he’s seeing, or sometimes it’s ironic in terms of what’s just happened.  It goes from Led Zepplin to Puccini, and it’s a lot of fun for me, and people ask me to do playlists for each book, and they go on the website.

EB:  Do you think that the readers’ appreciation of the book is enhanced by them being able to look up the playlist and listen to the music that Banks listens to?

PR:  Yes, I think that’s an optional extra for some readers.  Some don’t care.  I do occasionally get emails from people, saying “Why do you have to put all this music in? I’m not interested, just get on with the story”, but I probably get more emails from people saying, “I’ve never heard of this band before, and now it’s one of my favourites.  Thank you!”  People even give me suggestions for what Banks might like to listen to!  Sometimes they even send me their CDs and say, “I think Banks might like to listen to this!”  So it’s worked out, I think.  I didn’t know, but it’s become a real feature of the books, so I think the playlists do help.  I had an email from someone the other day, who’s taken the playlists that are on the website, and has put them on a streaming music site, called “Spotify”, so anyone can go there and can find the playlist and listen to the music.  They can’t download it, but they can listen to it streamed on their computer, which is an extra, and it’s really nice of this person to do that.  It’s a very good idea.  I’d love to give away CDs with some of the books, but the rights for some of these songs are very expensive…

EB:  Perhaps, in the future, there might be some bands willing to collaborate with you on something like that?

PR:  I can see something like that happening!  Already, in the UK, I’ve done a number of events with English folk musician Eliza Carthy, who’s the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, big English folk people.  I do a short story, and she embeds themes…  She plays fiddle in the background.  The first time we did it, I would stop, and she would sing a song related to events in the story.  We’ve done this about three times now, and we’d certainly do it again, as it’s worked really well.  So, who knows?  There are certainly all kinds of possibilities to combine music with fiction.

EB:  In the afternotes for The Magic of Your Touch, you say that, if you didn’t write crime, you’d probably be writing horror.  Can we look forward to a few more stories with supernatural or horror elements in them?

PR:  Yeah, I think it’s interesting.  I wouldn’t move into fully-fledged horror – that’s other people’s territory, and I like it, but I don’t think that I would be as good at it as I think I might.  I can certainly include elements that appear to be supernatural, or may have other explanations, in non-series books or short stories.  You mentioned The Magic of Your Touch, which was one of those stories.  It was for an anthology called Murder and All That Jazz, and that’s really all I was told.  It had to have something to do with music, jazz, and murder, and I got to my deadline, and I had no ideas, except, vaguely, I was thinking about Robert Johnson’s Deal with the Devil at the Crossroads, and so I started writing and I had no idea where it was going, just this guy walking through this very David Lynch landscape… Eraserhead or something… and meeting this music and being drawn in.  It is a supernatural story, there’s no doubt about it.  At first you can be unsure, but at the end you have to be pretty sure that it is.  It was fun to write.  I really didn’t know where it was going.  It was almost like, “I dare you!  Go on!  Make it supernatural!”  I hadn’t done that before.

EB:  Who are some of your favourite crime writers?

PR:  I’ve been reading a lot of Scandinavian writers.  Stieg Larsson, of course, who is hugely popular.  I’ve just got his third book now, the third one in the Millennium Trilogy, and then, sadly, that will be it.  I like Karin Fossum, who’s a Norwegian writer, and Arnaldur Indridason, who’s Icelandic.  And I try keep up with my friends and contemporaries, like Matt Billingham, and Ian Rankin, who’s moved on from Rebus now to interesting stuff.  Michael Connelly, in the States… George Pelicanos.  They’re some great writers.  I’m not having much time for discovering newer writers, as I used to do.  I like a little bit of spy fiction now and then, too.

EB:  Other than crime fiction, what else do you read?

PR:  I read quite a lot of history and biography, and usually have several on the go at once.  At the moment, I’m reading a social-political history of the 70’s in the UK, and Antony Beavor’s book about D-Day.  I also read a fair amount of contemporary fiction, mostly British stuff.  Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Paul Theroux…  Contemporary writers who do different takes on things.  And often their books involve crime in some sort of way although they’re not crime novels.  Ian McEwan, for example, often has a crime or some central incident which could be a crime at the centre of his unfolding stories.  And occasionally I will reread or listen to some of the classics…  Dickens, especially.  And Thomas Hardy’s one of my favourites.  Graham Green…  Just recently I’ve gotten into audiobooks, on my iPod.  My natural inclination’s still to go for music, but just once in a while I’ll listen to a history or a classic.  I’ll usually fall asleep and wake up in the next decade – miss the hundred years’ war completely!

EB:  Writing crime would mean that you inhabit some fairly dark places.  What do you do in your spare time to balance that out, to get away from the grizzly world of crime?

PR:  I usually watch horror movies (laughs)!  No, it is difficult to get away from it, and what I do like to do is try put a few hours between stopping writing and going to bed, otherwise I lie awake – not so much having nightmares, but thinking about the book.  I used to work late at night, and I found that if I worked until two in the morning, I just couldn’t sleep.  I’d stop, I’d go to bed, but I’d lie awake, just thinking about it.  We’ll go out for dinner, watch a movie – I like all kinds of movies – drink a little wine…  Read…   I often don’t want to read much after a day’s writing.  That’s a bit unfortunate.  And, of course, there’s the travelling! I do quite a bit of travelling.  Walking is sometimes good.  Late afternoon, when I finish my writing – in Yorkshire – I go for a good, long walk…  End up at the pub!  Any place to put it out of my mind for a while.

EB:  What time would you start writing, on an average day?

PR:  About eight or nine in the morning.

EB:  And then is it just a case of sit down and write, write, write?

PR:  Usually, yeah.  It depends what stage it’s at.   If it’s still early stages, and I’m just facing a blank screen and making it up every day, I might not do as much.  I might, sort of, take off at lunchtime and go for a walk then.  But, if you’re in revision stages, and it’s all written, you’re trying to shape it and do corrections, I can keep going from eight until tea time.  I get called away for lunch if my wife Sheila’s around.  If not, I’ll just go make a sandwich and take it back to my office.

EB:  Is there any chance of a South African connection in a future novel?

PR:  There is a South African connection on the first page of the next Inspector Banks novel, which should be out in 2010.

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