Saturday, 11 June 2011

INTERVIEW: Peter Guttridge

As you may have gathered I’m a person who loves to read and whilst I haven’t previously had the pleasure of read any of Peter Guttridge’s novels (The Brighton Trilogy or the Nick Madrid series) I have heard the name in passing due to his reviews in the Observer which when a cheeky mail landed asking if we’d like to interview him, we couldn’t find a way to say no.

What you discover about Peter is that he’s a man who loves life to the full, he loves to write, he loves to teach and for a man with perhaps terminal logorrhea, there’s no greater reward in life. Here we chatted to him about his loves, whether talent is enough and perhaps most telling the seduction of the written word…

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Peter Guttridge: I've met only one writer - Patrick O'Brian, the late author of the Master and Commander series featuring Aubrey and Maturin - who could write a first draft of a novel as a final draft. So I don't believe in the gifted bit. All writing is rewriting - and that's hard mental graft. So am I driven to write? Am I afflicted? Definitely yes to both those questions. It is laborious work, usually painstaking, often nightmarish as I try to make things work. But it's also an absolute pleasure. I've done office jobs, I've done blue collar jobs and writing novels - on a laptop anywhere I happen to be - is definitely better.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

PG: When I was a kid in Burnley, Lancashire I was writing ghost and horror stories in my freezing cold bedroom. (I was heavily into Dennis Wheatley - remember him?) As a teenager listening to Leonard Cohen and Dylan and Joni Mitchell I was scribbling dire poetry which I now look at if I ever need reminding I'm a pretentious idiot. Wanting to write novels kicked in when I was at university - but it took me another 20 years to get one published.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

PG: I don't think it's true at all, although it's a thought provoking comment. The short story is a specific (and admirable) art-form but just because you're brilliant at that doesn't mean you're going to write a good novel or screenplay or whatever. I approach my short stories - I've had half a dozen published and I'm just completing a collection set in Mexico - in a totally different way to my approach to novels. My novels are within the crime genre. It has conventions. The reader has expectations. The short story is a liberation - it has no conventions. That makes it both frightening and exciting for the writer.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

PG: You are going to have your mind messed with big time - but in a good way! I've written my Brighton trilogy - City of Dreadful Night, The Last King of Brighton, The Thing Itself - so that each novel stands on its own - but each novel also re-interprets the other novels. You think you know what's happening? You don't.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

PG: The Last King of Brighton, the second in the trilogy (the third comes out in October) is the making of a gangster in the 60s - with pop music thrown in - and his inevitable downfall now.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

PG: Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is a must have but Thomas Pynchon (as mysterious and reclusive as J D Salinger) would have me standing on the bookshop doorstep because he doesn't write that often. His Gravity's Rainbow is, in my view, the greatest novel of the 20th century.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?

PG: I'm ten novels in and it depends on the novel. My Brighton trilogy evolved in a weird way. Its starting point is the unsolved Brighton Trunk Murder of 1934 but until the end of the second novel - The Last King of Brighton - I had no idea who the murderer was. Then he came into my head, fully formed and takes centre stage in book three (The Thing Itself). The plotting though I pretty much worked out in advance. Whatever works is fine with me!

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

PG: I'm a yoga man - totally relaxing - but I'm a traveller and a reader and a movie buff. Just back from Madrid - fantastic. Last book I read was Tough Trip Through Paradise by Andrew Garcia, a non-fiction account of a westerner dealing with the Nez Perce indians in 1878-1879. I was bought a Kindle for my birthday and the first download on that is my mate Reg Hill's standalone thriller The Woodcutter. Enjoying it. Last night I watched a preview DVD of Lars Von Trier's fantastic (literally) The Kingdom TV series.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

PG: Seeing hawks and falcons (I think that's what they are) hovering over motorways (I drive a lot) with incredible wing-spans (the birds not the motorways) - guilty pleasure because I should have my eyes on the road...

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

PG: I miss having pets. I used to have three cats. When one was a kitten my dad said it was a female so we called it Phoebe. It was a male and thereafter a total rogue, I'm convinced because of his name. He once disappeared for a year, travelling some 120 miles from home. How? Character traits in my novels come from friends not felines.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

PG: The Last King of Brighton is the eponymous title of my lead character, John Hathaway, a gang boss. He was great because he's so horrible but also has a heart.

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

PG: In the new Brighton trilogy there are several principal protagonists and I'm not like any of them. In my earlier comic crime series the protagonist was a yoga-loving, loser in love journalist who was lousy in bed. Moi? Well, three out of four...

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

PG: Yoga is a major part of my life and it featured in my first six novels. Travel is also reflected in the books (and its tax deductible...). Love of history - I did a history degree an age ago - also figures.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

PG: My sick imagination.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

PG: I have logorrhoea - so no writer's block. But I'm also a pro - I write every single day whether I have anything t say or not. It's the only way.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

PG: I write every single morning but when I'm near to completion I'm up in the middle of the night or writing through day and night. Which is probably why I'm single...

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

PG: I love listening to music when I'm writing but usually it can't have words. However, for my latest, The Last King of Brighton, which is half set in the Sixties pop scene, I played songs from that period all the time.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

PG: That talent would be enough. It kind of is enough but I also see loads of people with connections who have it really easy.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

PG: Writing is even more seductive than music. No explanation needed.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

PG: The next novel is a novella set in 1916 in Brighton and on the South Downs where Sherlock Holmes and a certain Belgian detective meet and solve a crime together. I'm going to try to do it as a Kindle original and see how the market works. After that - ghosts in a Sri Lankan hotel..

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

PG: Yours, the National Archives, Find My Past, Air Miles (that travelling) and AA route planner (that travelling again).

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

PG: No, I taught myself over many years. And now I teach a lot of writing classes and the first thing I say to students is "only do one". The best way to learn writing is to write (and read).

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

PG: Self-beiief. Most agents are stupidly subjective so if one doesn't like it - move on to another. Nobody criticised me before I was published because I didn't show my work to anybody other than professionals. If I felt their critiques were true I changed things. If I didn't, I marked them down asa limited and ignored them!

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

PG: There is no worst. I'm answering these questions in the middle of a working day, sitting in a cafe overlooking a beautiful river, drinking a glass of wine, bathed in sunshine. Writing makes that possible. What is not to love?

To keep up to date with peter please visit his blog.

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