Crime writer Peter Robinson on red herrings, Nordic fiction and fast cars

The British/Canadian writer Peter Robinson has just visited Australia to promote the latest novel in his DCI Banks crime series, When the Music’s Over (Hachette Australia). The series has been made into a British TV series and the next novel – the 24th – Sleeping in the Ground will be published in June. His books have been translated into 20 languages and have won him numerous awards including the CWA Dagger in the Library and Le Grand Prix de Litterature. Daily Review asked him about his writing while he was here.

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You had a formidable tutor at university in the esteemed American writer Joyce Carol Oates. Did she teach or imbue you with one particular strength in storytelling?

No. I was writing poetry at the time, so storytelling wasn’t much of an issue. She gave a lot of encouragement, though.

She is almost as prolific as you. Do you keep up with all her new work and is there one in particular of hers that is your favourite?

She is far more prolific than I am. We thought she probably didn’t sleep. No, I can’t keep up with her work, but I do like the crime novels she occasionally writes.

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You went straight from a taking a creative writing degree to creative writing. Did you even need the course? 

I probably didn’t need the course, but I wanted to be a writer, so I thought it would be useful for me. And it was. Beyond that, it was either journalism or the study of literature, and I chose to study literature.

You have written in all forms but the detective story is your best known form. Were you always attracted to that form or did the success of your first DCI Banks novel dictate your career?

I wrote only poetry between the ages of about 16 and 32 and published quite a bit of it. But I grew interested in crime fiction through reading it, and in the end I found myself wanting to try writing it.

What words of advice would you give a budding crime writer? Presumably it’s not as easy as many people think it is.

No, it’s not. You need the same skills as for any kind of writing, plus some. You also need to develop a thick skin, good work habits and a never-give-up attitude.

How many red herrings is too many for a budding crime writer?

I’d say any more than one is too many for any crime writer. The doesn’t refer to plot twists, though, only red herrings.

Is there a limit to how many quirks a protagonist detective can have?

Not that I’ve ever found. But too many would seem too much. I think it would be obvious.

How disciplined are you as a writer? 

I try to be as disciplined as I can, given the schedule of promotion and deadlines. I like to get as many days as I can without any other demands and work from about eight or nine to five.

Are you a big media consumer of real life crime?

No. I do pay attention to some crimes that intrigue me, mostly ones that can’t be easily solved.

Your next novel Sleeping in the Ground deals with a massacre. Was that informed by any particular incident?

No. It was just something I’d never done before, and the idea of starting a book with such a terrifying event in such a beautiful location appealed to my morbid nature.

Did you have reservations when DCI Banks was optioned for a TV series?

Always. A writer has little or no control over what happens when TV comes on the scene, so it’s only natural to worry they’ll ruin your creation. They didn’t, but there were moments when it didn’t always ring true. In the end, the remaining books proved too long and complex to adapt in the time available, so they started doing original stories based on the characters.

Were you involved in the casting?

No. I was told that ITV would commission the series if Stephen Tompkinson played DCI Banks.

Do you enjoy watching the huge avalanche of fictional crime on screen?

I do watch a lot of crime dramas on TV, maybe too many. I recently binged on whole of The Night Of during a long plane journey.

Who are your heroes in crime writing?

The ones who first inspired me: Georges Simenon. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald.

Any theories as to why Nordic crime has become so huge in the past 15 years?

It’s always been there. Sjowall and Wahloo wrote their Martin Beck series in the sixties and seventies. Also, they don’t make that enormous distinction between crime and general fiction that they do in the USA, Canada and the UK, so there’s no stigma attached to being a Nordic crime writer. And readers are always looking for something new, but familiar.

Why do so many British TV detectives seem to drive such expensive cars? Do smart and brooding cops in the UK all get about in late model Jags and Audis?

I didn’t know that they did. Banks inherited his Porsche from his murdered brother, or he’d probably be driving an antique Cortina or a more recent Ford Focus. It’s certainly not because they get paid a fortune! Maybe they’re just the best cars for being angst-ridden in!

What do you like to do when not working?

Reading, exploring new places, movies and TV, food, wine.

When the Music’s Over is published by Hachette Australia

You can buy the book here

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