INTERVIEW
 
 
An Interview with
Bill James

An accomplished prose stylist Bill James is rightly celebrated for his grimly jocular Harpur and Iles crime books. He has also been in the vanguard of what has become known as Welsh noir with his gritty Brade and Jenkins series set in Cardiff's docklands. Recently James has given us Simon Abelard, a black Welsh spy and next year he will launch a new Cardiff book with a female lead protaganist. So what makes Bill James tick? This interview was completed in November 2004.

By ANTHONY BROCKWAY

 
Can you tell us a bit about your Cardiff background?

Bill James: Impeccable. I was brought up around Grangetown and the docks. We lived in Grangetown and my father's parents and others of his family - my uncles, aunts, cousins - lived not far off over Clarence Bridge in the docks (I used Clarence Bridge as a pen name in journalism for a while). My father worked on a sand-dredger which was in and out of Cardiff, and I'd spend part of my holidays aboard her. I went to school at Grange Council and Cardiff High and afterwards graduated from University College, Cardiff, as it then was. I spent a slice of my childhood with diptheria in what used to be Cardiff's most famous and feared hospital, the 'Sana' - the isolation sanatorium. I left Cardiff to work in London but returned to write and do some journalism and television and have remained in South Wales since.

What inspired you to take up writing in the first place?

Bill James: I always fancied writing, but to think in terms of authorship would have seemed crazily vain, so I decided on journalism, believing that had something to do with writing. It has, of course, but the kind of journalism I became mainly involved with was more like private eye work - getting people to tell you things they didn't want to. Journalism seemed attractive anyway to me as a boy because, in a careers guidance book, I saw that the London minimum weekly wage for reporters was 9 guineas - about £9.50. It seemed so lavish.

Did your career in journalism influence your prose style or approach to writing in any way?

Bill James: The biggest influence on my style probably came when I worked for the Daily Mirror in London. Tabloid style is terse and plain. I think I try for these qualities in the books, though I can fall into wool now and then. On the other hand journalism hates irony - because readers might take leg-pulls literally. But I feel free to do a bit of irony now. Also, many newspaper 'stories,' as news reports are known in the trade, are to a formula. I've had to try and get out of that with made-up stories meant to go between covers.

Before the success of your Harpur and Iles series you wrote numerous books, some of them non-crime - how do you view those early works now?

Bill James: How do I view my early stuff? From a safe distance. I don't think I could be bothered to read it.

Why do you think your Harpur and Iles series has struck such a chord with the public?

Bill James: I hope the books are funny. I hope, also, they surprise. They are not laboriously realistic. Some would say not realistic at all. Luckily, there are people who appreciate that touch of the unlikely, even fantastic. My agent used to go nuts about it. He'd complain, 'Television producers say your books are incredible'. And they didn't mean incredibly good. Just incredible. I'd answer, 'I know'.


In 1976 you wrote a book on the novels of Anthony Powell - it has even been suggested that the Harpur and Iles series is a kind of inverted
A Dance to the Music of Time. Has Powell influenced your approach to series writing?

Bill James: No stylistic influence, I hope, though I do, in fact, love Powell's style: it's elaborate, witty, mandarin, nothing like crime writing. Someone did an article in the Boston Sunday Globe in the US trying to square my interest in an author who writes urbane prose about the upper classes with what I do in my own lowlife books. He thought the relationship between Powell's narrator in A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins, and the villain of the Powell novels, Widmerpool, mirrored the way my detectives Harpur an Iles operate alongside each other. The other Powell influence would, of course, be that he deals in characters who continue through a series, as I do. This can be good for reader loyalty. It can also make readers sick of the same recurring figures. I'm ahead of Powell numerically: his A Dance... is 12 novels; Harpur and Iles will be 22 next year.

Your criminals display good as well as bad qualities and your policemen (Harpur and Iles in particular) are often rather unpleasant. This blurring of the boundaries between good and evil is obviously important to you - what are you hoping to achieve by doing this?

Bill James: I think this makes the writing a bit easier. It gives me more material to play around with - the contrasting qualities in character means, I hope, that they're more interesting. It certainly makes them more interesting to me. It's a risk. One of the standard reasons given for the popularity of crime fiction is that readers can enjoy the excitement of watching illegality, knowing everything's going to be tidied up and good order restored. If you blur, you compromise to some extent this move towards the comfort zone.

Do you think Wales has generally been under written in crime fiction?

Bill James: I write about organised crime, not single murders. I didn't think organised crime would be credible in Wales. We don't have cities like Glasgow, Manchester, London where large scale criminal operations happen. This is good from the point of view of living here; not so good from the crime fiction point of view. But I thought that once the Bay got going, with the huge sums of money involved, then organised crime became a possibility. So, I started the Brade and Jenkins books. Whereas Harpur and Iles are in a nowhere city, Brade and Jenkins are very Cardiff. I have another Cardiff book coming out in January, 2005, with a girl detective leading. It's called Hear Me Talking To You, and appears under my David Craig pen name. Brade and Jenkins get a mention in this one, but that's about all. So, if Wales has been neglected for crime, i'm working on it at the Cardiff end.

There is often a strong sexual element in your books - what's that all about then?

Bill James: Most fiction has sex. It's sometimes disguised as romance or love interest. Where would Madame Bovary be without it, or The End of the Affair, or Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina or Mills and Boon or Lady Chatterley or Anthony Powell?

You've recently created a black Welsh spy Simon Abelard (Split and A Man's Enemies) - how difficult is it writing interesting espionage fiction post-fall of the Berlin Wall?

Bill James: Yes, the Berlin Wall is a loss. But Split takes up that problem head on: it's about a spy who gets fed up because there's nothing to do post-Wall (this was written pre-Sept 11, of course) and who therefore turns his skills to criminality as a drugs dealer. Abelard has to go and net him. A Man's Enemies is about civil war inside the Secret Service caused by ex-officers writing memoirs, as so many of them do now. (Odd Cardiff reference about this book - I called one of the characters Iris Insole - the name Insole taken from the Cardiff estate and pub. Someone wrote to me on behalf of a Mrs Iris Insole wanting to know how I'd picked up this name).

Which other crime writers do you most admire?

Bill James: I don't read much crime, for fear of aping someone else's tone of voice without knowing it. I do remain bowled over by The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by the late George V Higgins, a stupendous US novel (and Mitchum film) which can make that most despised of creatures - a grass - sympathetic.

Outside of Britain where do your books sell best?

Bill James: France does me proud. The Harpur and Iles novel Protection has just won the Prix du Polar Européen 2004 (prize for the best crime novel of 2004). Actually, it means the best published in French. France are working through all the Harpur and Iles books and are only up to Protection, which came out here and in the US in 1988. Seventeen to go.

One of your novels Whose Little Girl Are You? was filmed back in the Seventies - do you think more of your books have cinematic potential?

Bill James: Several books have been optioned for possible film: that is, people pay a fairly minor amount to have the rights of the books for, say, a year while they try to set up finance etc. I think Halo Parade (number 3 in the series) is at present under option. There were also approaches for Split and Astride a Grave.
BBC 1 televised Protection (incidentally, setting it in and around Cardiff, since it was BBC Wales who made it for the network). I don't know that I'm an especially 'visual' writer but some of the characters are reasonably strong and make decent acting parts although, as we've said, none of them are through-and-through virtuous or even entirely likeable, so James Stewart wouldn't have been cast.

Finally, given that you spend a lot of time writing about unsavoury criminal behaviour do you have a jaundiced view of society and mankind in general?

Bill James: I'd like to think I have a comic view of society and mankind in general and that I sometimes get this across. The humour is meant to come from the sight of people struggling towards an objective, even an ideal, and, of course, making a muck of it. For instance, the crook, Panicking Ralph, yearns to make his thieves' kitchen club into something like the Athenaeum. And, for example, Assistant Chief Constable Iles is supposed to represent the law and acceptable behaviour, and is inclined to fall short.

Thanks Bill.

Bill James's latest book Easy Streets is available now from all good bookshops.

©Anthony Brockway 2004

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