Top author Peter left writing till he was 40

Simon Yaffe finds author Peter James to be a master of his trade...

THERE is nothing like immersing yourself in research when writing a book. But for author Peter James, fiction almost became reality.

The best-selling novelist's new tome Not Dead Yet tells the tale of rock superstar Gaia - who is the target of an obsessive stalker.

And the stalker would like to see her dead.

Peter has his own stalker - but, luckily, has not been the recipient of a death threat.

"I give a lot of talks at libraries and independent book shops as I am very keen on supporting them," he said.

"This woman kept smiling at me in the audience, but I didn't recognise her.

"She vanished like a ghost, then turned up in Bristol and Ipswich at book signings doing the same thing.

"She later emailed me saying I looked nice and, when I didn't reply, she asked why she hadn't heard from me.

"I was receiving up to 390 emails per day.

"She emailed me pictures she had of me coming out of restaurants and she basically had a shrine to me in her home.

"Two-and-a-half years later, I was doing a signing in Birmingham and there she was standing right in front of me, staring.

"She slammed a copy of my new book down and told me she couldn't believe I had not recognised her, but that she had decided to forgive me!"

The police advised him to be vigilant but he hasn't, luckily, heard from her since.

Amiable and articulate, Peter is one of the UK's most treasured crime and thriller novelists.

His Roy Grace detective novels have sold more than three million in the UK and 11 million worldwide in total.

The series has been translated into 35 languages.

But he came into writing arguably late, at the age of 40.

Brighton born-and-raised, Peter had a previous career as an established film producer and scriptwriter.

"Being Jewish in the film business is a huge advantage," the 63-year-old admitted.

But he didn't even know he was Jewish until he was a pupil at the Surrey-based public school Charterhouse.

Peter recalled: "My mum kept our Judaism completely hidden until I was 13.

"During my first term I was walking past 10 other pupils and they started shouting 'Jew, Jew' at me.

"I wondered what they were talking about and then it happened again the next day.

"The third time it happened I jumped over the wall to get to them and beat the c**p out of one of them.

"The guy I beat up was later killed in a plane crash and I remember punching my hand to the air in revenge."

Peter confronted his mother, Cornelia, who admitted that the family had "some Jewish blood".

But he subsequently found out that his Vienna-born mother, whose maiden name was Katz, was one of six children of Russian and Polish parents.

Her father got them out to Switzerland in 1938 on the eve of Kristallnacht and Cornelia eventually made her way to England.

And she became the official glovemaker to the Queen.

Princess Elizabeth, as she was known before she ascended to the throne, began wearing Cornelia James gloves after her wedding in 1947 - and still does.

Designer Norman Hartnell labelled Peter's mother as "the Colour Queen of England".

Peter's sister Genevieve still runs the glove company. Cornelia had studied fashion design in Vienna and, after arriving in Britain, taught soldiers how to make gloves to deal with injured hands.

"It may sounds strange now, but I was embarrassed about what my mum did - she was always on Woman's Hour and other radio shows," Peter said.

"But I have realised what a fantastic career she had."

She married Jack, an Anglican, and died 25 years ago.

Peter said: "I did an interview with the Daily Mail and I told them my mother's story and that we are Jewish.

"My mother, on her death bed, questioned me as to why I was telling the whole world about it.

"She said she wanted to apologise for us being Jewish, but that she kept it hidden because she was scared that the Nazis would rise up again and that the British were antisemitic. But I am so proud to be Jewish."

After graduating from London's Ravensbourne Film School in 1970, Peter ended up in Canada.

His maternal uncle Josef Kates, who designed the world's first automated traffic signalling system, had emigrated to Canada.

Peter went to Toronto to visit his uncle, who was chief scientist and adviser to the Canadian government, and his family.

He remembered: "I arrived at my uncle's on a Friday night and there was a Shabbat table laid out - not that I knew what Shabbat was at the time.

"I began to love the whole warmth of the Jewish community, its intellectual aspect and I just felt comfortable among Jewish people.

"In many ways, I regret that I didn't have a Jewish upbringing."

While in Canada, he was introduced to his uncle's friend, theatre impresario Ed Mirvish, who was also Jewish.

The contact led Peter into the film industry, albeit his first tentative steps was making tea and running errands on a low-budget Canadian film called Polka Dot Door.

He began to work in children's television and on horror films, mainly as a producer.

Among the stars he has worked with were Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz. He also produced the 2003 film The Merchant of Venice, which starred Pacino, Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

Therefore, he has a fair idea of how demanding famous actors can be, something which he has put to use in his latest book.

"What I noticed is that they crave public adulation while at the same time trying to be shielded from it," said Peter.

"Al Pacino is one of the nicest people on the planet, but a lot of them have tremendous insecurity about themselves - that is why they act the way they do.

"There is also a hierarchy of greatness."

Peter, who divides his time between his Notting Hill flat and the South Downs home he shares with partner Helen, wrote his first Roy Grace novel in 2005.

He is based on a real detective inspector whom Peter met in Brighton called Dave Gaylor.

The two became friends and Peter discussed the plot

and details of each book he writes.

"We plan the plot together," Peter continued. "Dave gives me invaluable authenticity."

Peter, whose research has also taken him to Los Angeles and prisons, does not believe there is a downside to starting his literary career at 40.

He said: "The great thing about writing is that it is completely non-ageist.

"If you look at the best-seller list, invariably two-thirds or more of the authors are more than 50 and 60."

A film adaptation of the Roy Grace series is in development.

Peter said: "Some of my other books were adapted for television, but I was not too enamoured of them.

"This time I am working on it myself and I have hired a screenwriter."

Not Dead Yet is published by Pan Macmillan, priced 18.99.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph