Interview with the master, Part II: Bill James on dialogue, gleeful savagery, and crime fiction vs. detective fiction
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.)
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.
© Peter Rozovsky 2009