Monday, January 19, 2009

At Home with Reginald Hill

AT Home online is a feature of the Mystery Readers International website. Our latest At Home is with mystery author Reginald Hill, one of my favorite writers. His ability to write a unique and entertaining novel each time never fails to delight me.

Reginald Hill's Yorkshire police procedurals feature the blunt but intuitively brilliant Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel and the more reserved Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, along with a cast of fully-imagined characters which expands satisfactorily with each new case. Some of the books in the series include: Dead Heads, A Clubbable Woman, On Beulah Height, Death Comes for the Fat Man.

Reginald Hill has received Britain's most coveted mystery writers award, the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement, as well as the Golden Dagger Award for the Dalziel/Pascoe series. He also writes another mystery series featuring Joe Sixsmith and pens thrillers under the name Patrick Ruell.

JR: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer, and how did you break the distressing news to your family?

RH: Age about 9, I discovered that people actually got paid for making up the stories I loved to read and I thought at that moment, that’s the job for me! After all, I’d been making up stories for years and telling them to my kid brother, and I never got a damn penny from him. Still haven’t.

I don’t think I mentioned it to my family at that stage. And by the time I “grew up” it was just such a part of my career plan that I probably assumed everyone knew about it.

JR: You have two very different series, and you also have stand-alone mysteries. Do you have a preference?

RH: I love the two series, D&P because they provide me with a ready made web of relationships and back stories on which I can build something really complex, Joe S because he provided me with a single voice focus which is often just what I need after a year in the toils of the latest D&P novel! But I should hate to have written nothing but series books. The pleasure of starting completely from scratch is great and I intend to keep on enjoying it.

JR: What are the attractions of writing series novels? The problems?

RH: I’ve touched on some of the pleasures in my previous answer. For me what makes a good series is familiarity without repetition. I hope I’ve never written the same story twice, though it’s perfectly possible to have a hugely successful series by just repeating the same formula over and over again. And no, I won’t name names! It’s a great trick if you can pull it off.

JR: What do you enjoy most about writing -- other than the great reviews, fabulous fans and gazillions of dollars (pounds)?

RH: The feeling that I am the captain of my soul, I am the master of my fate; in other words, you don’t have a boss checking your time-sheet and noting how long you take on toilet breaks. What about your publisher? you may ask. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I have never had any pressure from that source. My main UK editor never hassles me and is quite happy to let me fill in the delivery date section of my contracts with times so far in the future, I shall probably be dead! If this makes me sound like a control freak, my defence is that it’s only myself I’m controlling. And when I finally feel able to hint at a delivery date, I pride myself on never missing it.

Of course the cheering crowds that gather whenever I appear in public, the column acres devoted to my genius in all the more serious journals, and the huge pantechnicons commissioned to bring the royalties to my door, do brighten the odd dull moment….

JR: When you first came up with Dalziel, you probably had no idea that you would write so many books about him. Had you known, is there anything about him you would have made different right from the start? Is so, what and why?

RH: Even if I had, he probably would have been exactly the same. In that very first book he was meant to be a foil to young Peter Pascoe, but when I glance back at it now, I am amazed how already on his first appearance he is assuming control!

JR: You often develop minor characters in your books, such as Sergeant Wield and Ellie Pascoe, how important do you think they are to sustaining your books?

RH: Hugely important because if they don’t develop, how can D&P develop? I hate it in novels, or in life, when function take the place of character. People are more than their jobs. See them once and we may see them as their function, but see them again and you start seeing the man or woman behind the fa├žade. If you don’t you’re not dealing with people but automata.

JR: Why did you choose the surname Dalziel for your hero, a name that most readers have no idea how to pronounce?

RH: It is the name of a university friend from way back, the first guy I knew whose name was pronounced differently from the way it was spelled. He was – still is – a highly civilised, socialised, and cultured being, so naturally when in the first book I created a fat, flatulent, slob of a cop, I thought it would be rather amusing to give him my smooth friend’s name. Of course I’d no idea that nearly four decades later, Fat Andy would still be going strong!

JR: Why did you decide to start another series about Joe Sixsmith a black private eye? Can you answer this in terms of private eye and ethnic detective?

RH: The explanation has less to do with artistic creativity than artistic economy. A long long time ago I wrote a tv play which was successful enough to get me a commission to write another. I obliged with a comedy about a lathe operator who, having been made redundant (this was happening a lot in the early seventies; even more now, of course) uses his severance payment to set up as PI. I got paid for it, but the rotten devils never got round to putting it on. So when I was looking for an idea for a short story a few years later, I suddenly thought, that was a pretty decent plot I invented for that play of mine, seems a shame to let it gather dust forever, so I resurrected it and it got published as the first Joe Sixsmith story, Bring Back the Cat. I found Joe a very attractive character to write about, did a couple more shorts, and when it was suggested to me that maybe Joe could carry a full length novel, I thought, why not? Joe is a very English PI. I don’t think the traditional American model travels well. Joe doesn’t get into fights if he can find a quick exit, he doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t leave a trail of exhausted molls in his manly wake, he’s not even particularly good at the basic detective arts, but he knows right from wrong, has lots of good friends, and above all is blessed with serendipity.

Oh, and he’s black, but not in any heavy, social statement, self-defining kind of way. An ethnic detective? What’s one of them when it’s at home, man? I can hear him say.

JR: Has writing for you become easier or more difficult as the years progress?

RH: In many ways, more difficult. When I started, I could usually only see a couple of ways in which I could tell any story. But as I learned my art, I began to find more and more alternatives – and also to realise that in each case, there was only one way that was right, and I had to find it if I wanted to get to sleep at night. If asked forty years ago how I’d be wring my books now, I’d probably have said I hoped I’d type Chapter One than carry on right through for 100,000 words till I typed The End, with no need for alteration, addition, or excision. It hasn’t worked out that way! I revise more and I take longer than I did in those joyful salad days. Also, let’s admit it, I quite enjoy making life difficult for myself.

JR: Are you happy with the BBC screen adaptation of your Dalziel and Pascoe series? Were you consulted on who should play the parts of Dalziel and Pascoe?

RH: I thought some of the early episodes based on my actual books were excellent. They got some fine script writers and first rate directors on the job. Since they ran out of books (no way a novelist can keep up with the voracious appetite of a successful tv series!) and started working on their own story lines, the series has taken on a life of its own and exists in one of those parallel universes where much is familiar but everything is different! I have no problem with this; nor, I’m glad to say do most of my readers. I was always resolved that the tail was never going to wag the dog, and it hasn’t. But I’ve been eternally grateful to know that the tail is vigorously wagging and helping me and mine to put butter on our bread, and sometimes a bit of jam beside!

JR: What do you think has changed in crime fiction in the past fifteen years of so? In your work? In other's work?

RH: Things don’t change, they move in cycles. The wheel is constantly reinvented but it’s still a bloody wheel. A bit too bloody for my taste in some of the modern serial killer sagas! But the serial killer has been around for nearly a century now. Agatha has any number of them. I suppose that every age gets the crime fiction it deserves, but as basic human nature hasn’t altered much since we crawled out of the slime, it’s all a matter of custom, taste, and fashion. My own work has, I hope, matured in form, but in the end it’s all about good slugging it out with evil, both externally and internally.

JR: Your latest novel in the Dalziel/Pascoe series has been released in the U.S. with a different title than in the U.K. It's called The Price of Butcher's Meat. The British title, A Cure for All Diseases, is taken from a passage in Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne: "We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure for all diseases." This is quoted in the front of the British edition and is very apt, considering that the novel takes place in the seaside town, Sandytown, that styles itself as a haven for those seeking conventional and alternative treatments for whatever ails them. There's quite a controversy going on about the U.S. Title. Did you have any say in the alternate title? What do you think about it? Why was it changed?

RH: My American publishers have changed both of the last two D&P titles. (Death Comes For The Fat Man appeared in the UK as The Death of Dalziel.) The argument in both cases was the American readers would have difficulty with my original titles. In the first case because they don’t know who Dalziel is or can’t pronounce his name anyway, in the second because they may be unfamiliar with the works of Sir Thomas Browne. I had no such concerns in either case. Indeed I felt the argument was certainly patronising and bordered on being offensive! But, let me repeat, this is what American sales “experts” were saying about their own people, so if you feel patronised or offended, they’re the ones you should write to! Why did I go along with them? Because they claim to be expert, and because I’ve always felt if you have a dog, you don’t bark yourself! On reflection, I think I was wrong, and from now on I’m going to be barking.

The Butcher’s meat quotation does have the attraction that it actually comes from Sanditon and I have to admit that when I was looking for a title as I wrote the book, it was the only real possibility I found in the Austen text. But when I ran it past my agent and English editor, they both threw up their hands in horror and suggested I should keep on looking. I then came up with A Cure for all Diseases which felt from the start as if it belonged to the book. The Price of Butcher’s Meat, I decided, wasn’t a bad title, but for a rather different kind of book. However, when my US publisher expressed reservations about A Cure… and learned that The Price of… had been an alternative, they jumped for joy and said it would really suit their market. In Canada however they said, no way, we want to stick with A CURE…

I’m entertained to hear there is controversy. But I hope nobody comes to blows!

JR: Do you have any wild and crazy hobbies or interests that would surprise your readers?

RH: Sciamimicry.

JR: Your house is on fire, you can save only two books: one by yourself, one by another author? Which would you choose?

RH: Mine; the one I’m working on stupid! Someone else’s; probably my first edition of Beddoe’s Death’s Jest Book.

JR: What are you working on now? The page or chapter? How does it fit into the vision for your book?

RH: My latest D&P which is now at the copy-edit stage. It’s called “Midnight Fugue” – everywhere!

JR: Question you wished I'd asked but didn't? Just the question. You don't have to give the answer unless you feel like it.

RH: “Can you make it to Stockholm this year to pick up the Nobel Prize for literature?”


Ali Karim said...

Great insight - and allows me to catch up with Reg's work as I am a little behind


Anonymous said...

I very much like and admire Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe. (Actually we learned to pronounce the name from the BBC America series). And I bet I know who the unnamed author is because I've been muttering about the recycled material.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a series allows characters to develop, add depth and dimension. A very interesting interview!

Jacqueline Seewald
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star/Gale, Wheeler large print
coming in February: THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale hardcover

Pauline Rowson said...

I have been a huge fan of Reginald Hill since 1980. He has been a major inspiration behind my own marine mystery crime novels featuring my flawed and rugged detective, Inspector Andy Horton. I am fortunate to have a hand-written letter from Reginald Hill urging me to continue writing when I was struggling to find a publisher. Thank you for this interview. I enjoyed reading it. Best wishes, Pauline