Saturday, May 10, 2008

Peace Be With You

A writer whose work I’ve enjoyed over the years for its sheer poetry is Yorkshire man David Peace (Tokyo Year Zero), who now spends most of his time in Japan. The Guardian today looks closely into Peace’s work and his writing life. Its piece begins:
One of the most heartening features of the recently announced, Richard and Judy endorsed, Galaxy British Book Awards was the presence of David Peace on the shortlist for author of the year. Peace was named in Granta’s 2003 list of the best young British writers and has gone on to build a reputation as an original new voice, but it was still a surprise to see him up against such writers as Ian McEwan (who won the prize), Doris Lessing, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Khaled Hosseini. First, Peace is usually--if potentially misleadingly--described as a crime writer. More interestingly, his work, with its ultra-terse dialogue, disturbing interior monologues and dark subject matter, would by most measures be regarded more as avant garde than daytime TV fare.
Although Peace’s most recent books stand a bit outside the crime genre, he is probably still best known for his Red Riding Quartet of novels (beginning with Nineteen Seventy Four), which were published from 2000 to 2003. Those stories covered the years 1974 to 1983, and charted the traumatic impact the “Yorkshire Ripper,” aka Peter Sutcliffe, had on the inhabitants of Northern England. As The Guardian remarks:
Taking the story of the Yorkshire Ripper as subject matter for his Red Riding quartet was the next step. “Millions of people were directly affected by the Ripper manhunt. It seems that nearly everyone in the north has a story about that time: their fathers being pulled over by the police, walking past murder sites on the way to school.” While he says he wasn’t baying, he was part of the mob outside Dewsbury Magistrates Court when Peter Sutcliffe appeared there after his arrest in 1981. He was also a witness to the miners’ strike a few years later, “but when I came to write GB84, I realised just how much lip service I had paid to it all. I knew that people were losing their houses and so on, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I met people whose lives had been ruined, and I do wonder whether it would happen now. Would people in productive pits, with good money and prospects, go on strike and lose their houses and savings for people they didn’t know in unproductive pits? I doubt it, but you can’t help but admire those who did.”
One of my early assignments for Crimespree Magazine was to interview author Peace, in tandem with Martyn Waites (White Riot). The results of that exchange appeared in Crimespree Issue No. 2. In case you missed reading it, I’m happy to offer an excerpt here in which I talk with Peace about crime fiction, his fondness for comic books, and his student days at Manchester Polytechnic.

Ali Karim: Considering the intensity of your Red Riding Quartet, did you have a fractured childhood or upbringing?

David Peace: Only really the fact that I was born and brought up when and where I was, which was during a very strange time in Yorkshire.

AK: I understand that your parents were teachers, so were you brought up in a bookish home?

DP: Yes, my dad was a very big fan of writers such as Alan Silltoe, John Braine, David Storey--all the angry Northern writers, and these were the writers that I read early on. But actually, in truth, it was Marvel Comics that I read first, before the Northern guys. It is quite interesting as a friend of mine went to a James Ellroy reading in New York, and Ellroy actually talked about his love of Braine, Sillitoe, and Northern writers. Another aspect of those writers is the use of regional voice and that much of that work I mention can be viewed as the precursor to the regional crime novel of today. I wonder if writers such as Sillitoe, or John Braine, had not been published, whether we would have such interest in regional crime/mystery novels?

AK: I can see the influence of those writers from the 1950s, 1960s in your work, and also where some of the anger and desperation originates.

DP: Yes, in Nineteen Seventy Four, [the character of] Eddie is very similar to the character in [Braine’s 1957 novel] Room at the Top, and so the influence of those writers is definitely in my work.

AK: You mentioned Nineteen Seventy Four. But the follow-up, Nineteen Seventy Seven [2001], was probably the most difficult book for me to read--perhaps your darkest, your most disturbing.

DP: A lot of people say that, but it is my favorite book. It is the book I’m most proud of. It was actually written when my father-in-law was dying of cancer, and I did write it in hospital wards, and I don’t know if it was that, that contributed to its final flavor.

AK: How difficult is it mixing fact with fiction? Do you encounter any particular legal issues?

DP: I think GB84 [2004] was slightly more problematic. I clearly indicate that all my work is fiction, based on facts.

AK: I read that you studied at Manchester University and--

DP: Manchester Poly.

AK: [Laughing] I was at Liverpool Poly. Anyway, what did you study and what was the time like?

DP: I studied English Studies. It was one of those typical polytechnic courses where you spent most of your time on topics relating to war and culture and not much English; in fact, not much use in getting a real job. [Laughing]

AK: So how did you get Nineteen Seventy Four published, as I understand you had a series of rejected books in your third drawer?

DP: Lots, in fact. ... In fact, one of the reasons why I went to teach abroad was that I couldn’t get my books published. I wrote Nineteen Seventy Four purely for myself, to amuse myself in Tokyo. My dad came out and he read it, and told me that I should give it another go and submit it. He also brought some books by some new British crime writers and told me that he thought that Nineteen Seventy Four was better than those he had just read. I read them too and felt the same. I went to Serpent’s Tail first, as I admired what they were publishing--Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos; in fact, they had just published the early Nick Stefanos novels at the time.

AK: I am a big fan of George Pelecanos, and he also writes with one eye on the social and political environment he sees around him. In fact, he was one of the reasons why I picked up your work, because he recommended your book Nineteen Seventy Four.

DP: Actually, George Pelecanos was very kind to read it and give me a quote.

AK: Going back to my previous point: One thing you do share with the works of Pelecanos is your awareness of the political and social fabric in crime, and the interrelationships between these themes. Why is this backdrop important to you?

DP: Well, I didn’t purposely put it in, it just happens, I guess, and is a part of the way I was brought up. I can’t divorce those themes from my work. I really don’t think you can separate crime from society. If you do, you just exploit crime as a plot vehicle; and not referencing why it occurs is wrong, in my opinion.

AK: GB84, you’ve said, is first and foremost a crime novel. So could you tell us a little about it? And the title is somewhat Orwellian. ...

DP: GB84 I like to describe as a cult history of the [1984-1985 British] miners’ strike, the hidden secrets told from the various viewpoints of that strike--the top, the bottom, the left, and the right of that period. There is within the book, a traditional crime narrative, but there is also the fact that you can never say that the miners’ strike was not a criminal period in our history. OK, it may not appeal to, say, Colin Dexter fans if they view crime novels as puzzles. But may well appeal to others.

AK: In a similar way, is politics not integral to crime fiction?

DP: Yes, I would agree. Politics is everywhere, including in the crime novel. ... In the words of Stokely Carmichael, “everything is political.”

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