Monday, June 29, 2009

Interview with the master, Part II: Bill James on dialogue, gleeful savagery, and crime fiction vs. detective fiction

In Part II of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Bill James talks about dialogue, jokes, crime writing versus detective writing, and a parallel that a fellow writer drew between his books and Jacobean drama. He also makes a surprising choice for the Harpur & Iles character with whom he identifies most closely.

Click here for a Bill James bibliography, including non-Harpur & Iles books. Click here for books he has written under the name David Craig. Under his own name — James Tucker — Bill James wrote a study of the novelist Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time.

(Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)

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Q: Ken Bruen told an interviewer in 2004 that “I abandoned British crime years ago except for Bill James, who I love. ... His Iles and Harpur series is magnificent.” Peter Temple called you “a star.” John Harvey and Val McDermid are just two more crime writers who have rhapsodized about your work. What in your writing so attracts your fellow writers?

A: I don’t know why these writers think well of my books, except where they’ve published their comments. But I’m very grateful. I’d like to think it’s the jokes, two or three of which during the twenty-five novels are original. Well, two. John Harvey in the Guardian said the novels had a Jacobean drama feel to them. A sort of gleeful savagery, I think he meant.

It’s not all praise from other authors. Someone said the books were lightweight. I don’t think it was meant as a compliment, though it could be a half-compliment. After all, what’s the opposite: deadweight, overweight? Another writer-reviewer said, `Not much detection here.' Guilty, my lord. I think I’m a crime writer, not a detective novelist, although my two principal characters are detectives. They have other things to do.

Q: Panicking Ralph Ember is a drug dealer. He is at various times a coward, a blowhard, and a cheater on his wife. He also vies with Iles as the most memorable character in the series, and he is pretty likable, even charming for all his faults. Tell me about the genesis of Panicking Ralph. Why does he work as a character? And what makes him so lovable?

A: Ralph has pathetically and comically unachievable ambitions, like most of us: he hopes to change his lowlife club into the Athenaeum. He takes fright easily, as do many of us. He strives to keep up appearances, as do many of us. A French interviewer asked me if I was Colin Harpur. I said, no, I’m Panicking Ralph. Perhaps readers also feel an affinity.

Q: One distinctive feature of your dialogue is the elliptical cross-talk mainly between Harpur and Iles, but also between Harpur and other characters. They talk around each other, answering questions the other did not ask, ignoring ones that are asked. Talk about this technique, your models (if any) for it, and what it adds to the characters and the books.

A: I tend to get bored reading books where the dialogue is very sequential and reasonable. I like the talk to obscure at least as much as it tells. I don’t want the reader dozing off, so I introduce the seeming breaks from sense. Sub-Pinter? Again, guilty, my lord. Opaque dialogue can be an avoidance of a troublesome topic. The reader would spot that it’s troublesome, which means the dialogue is doing its job while appearing not to. People may be obsessed with their own concerns and will try to dominate the conversation to get these across, despite the other person’s probable wish to do the same. We get a nice helping of chaos, evasion, dead-ends, just like at home.

Q: You’ve said that you wrote the first book, You’d Better Believe It, without planning to write a series. What got you thinking about a series?

A: The first book got very few reviews and they came late. I’d already started another, The Lolita Man. The title rang literary bells. The critics woke up. It had a bucketful of good notices. Iles had appeared and seemed ready for development. Even then, I certainly wouldn’t have expected the books to go to number twenty-six (this autumn – Hotbed).

Q: The most recent Harpur and Iles novel introduces a new character and omits a familiar one. Why the changes? Was it a stroke of mischief to write a book in which Harpur does not appear and call that book In the Absence of Iles?

A: Yes, I suppose a kind of mischief. I’d introduced a new detective in a book called Tip Top, written under another of my pen names, David Craig. This is Esther Davidson. I wanted to give her another outing, and brought her over to the Bill James stable. She features in another book due out in Britain in September, Full Of Money.

Incidentally, you mention Anthony Powell. In Full Of Money a couple of crooks are big Powell fans. One of the baddies has done a lot of jail and needed a long novel for distraction. Powell`s twelve-volume work, A Dance to the Music of Time, suited. He refers to it as A Dance to the Music of Doing Time.

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(Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Bill James here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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14 Comments:

Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Enjyed this interview immensely, especially the witticisms. A Dance to the Music of Doing Time just about cracked me up.

Pinteresque obscurity is fine in crime-fiction, but in old-fashioned detective-fiction, straighter Q-and-As are perhaps needed to know whodunnit and whydunnit.

June 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment; you are a woman of rare sensibility. Recognize the wit, and you've recognized an important feature of Bill James' writing. I laugh out loud when I read his books.

You may well be right about the antipathy between elliptical language and whodunnits. One often has a strong, lingering, ever-present suspicion about whodunnit in a Harpur & Iles book, but certainty? No, James is not much interested in that:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."

June 29, 2009  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Brilliant interview, what a pity he could not attend Crime Fest although John Harvey did him proud.

June 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I figured that Mr. James was going to be dropped from the program because he could not attend. Had I know John Harvey was going to talk about him, I'd have shown up.

Thanks for the kind words. I've enjoyed James' answers the more I've thought about them. I especially enjoyed his analysis of dialogue and of his reasons for giving Harpur and Iles the flaws he did. It's a treat to see the intelligence at work behind the books that I have enjoyed so much.

June 29, 2009  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

A sensational interview, Peter. If I were told I could only read five writers for the remainder of my life, and I had to name them at that moment, both Bill James and Anthony Powell would be on the list. (Trollope, too.) But I had no idea James loved Powell.

I only wish someone had cast Ian Richardson, in his forties, as Iles -- brilliant, unstable, handsome, dressed to the teeth, and oozing menace through a quarter-inch glaze of class. Don't know who should play Harpur, though, or -- maybe the best part of all -- Ralph. (Or Mansell, for that matter.)

Thanks a lot. I just loved this.

June 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're quite welcome, and thanks for the kind words. When dragooned into taking part in a recent meme, I listed books 7 through 16 of the Harpur & Iles novels among books or movies I could read or watch again and again.

James once said that he sought to do in the Harpur & Iles books what Powell had done in A Dance to the Music of Time -- chronicle the life and times of a certain class in British life, though a diffent class, of course. He does that in those middle books expecially and with Ralph Ember especially.

I don't know who could play Iles, just as I was surprised when I heard that one of Ken Bruen's Brant and Roberts was being filmed. Who could capture Brant's ferocity in a movie suitable for family viewing? Brant vs. Iles -- There's a King Kong vs. Godzilla for our time. No accident that Bruen is a big Harpur & Iles fan.

Nice to see Mansell Shale get a mention. He's often overshadowed by Iles, Harpur, Ralph and even Jack Lamb, but some his scenes with Alfie Ivis are precious, and James gives him some good lines in Pix, the most recent but one H&I novel.

June 29, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Excellent IV Peter with an intelligent and thoughtful guy. Thanks for this.

June 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As above, you're welcome, and I hope you'll read some Bill James if you haven't already. His thoughtful discussion of some of his books' highly distinctive features was a joy. There are some gems in that interview, I'd say, and I hope you'll enjoy the books.

June 30, 2009  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Thanks for pointing me to this. I was most taken with his "sub-Pinter" remark.

I've been a Pinter fan for eons, and I never noted the similarity. Real conversation doesn't always make sense to outside observers. Pinter gets called "absurdist" sometimes, and I've never thought it was apt. The dialogue seems odd because we're not in on the speakers' code.

The comparison makes me love James all the more.

August 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never seen or read Pinter. I never for the idea that he was as much fun as James is.

August 25, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

If you get a chance, give 'The Homecoming' a look. Plays are stripped down, so you can read it in half an hour. It's got a noir-ish sense of dread to it. It's my favorite play.

August 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A sense of dread can be good fun. Thanks.

August 26, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Apparently I read this back in August and promptly forgot about it. I'm guessing that I just forgot it was YOU doing the interviewing, because I hadn't been following you as long. Anyway, good job, again. It was well worth a re-read.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I realized you had read it when I say posted a comment in August. Hooray for archives!

December 25, 2012  

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