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Ready for War: David Peace

An online exclusive interview

Photograph by CHARLES GLOVER

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Monday, November 27, 2006

By Steve Finbow

David Peace was born in Ossett, West Yorkshire, U.K. in 1967. He currently lives in Tokyo. In 2003, Granta named him as one of its Best of Young British Novelists. The Red Riding Quartet — Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three — chronicles in muscular and compulsive prose the sordidness of crime, corruption and murder amidst the fear and confusion of the Yorkshire Ripper killings. GB84 explores Margaret Thatcher’s rightwing politics and the violent clashes between police and miners in 1984. In his sixth novel, The Damned Utd, Peace inhabits the tortured, egotistical and addictive mind of Brian Clough, arguably Britain’s greatest soccer manager, during his 44-day stewardship of Leeds United. Peace’s novels, which are often compared to the works of James Ellroy, transcend genre and defy pigeonholing in their explosive mixture of crime, politics, history, humor and horror.

Stop Smiling: Your characters — for example, Edward Dunford in Nineteen Seventy Four — seem obsessed with time and the objects of time: watches, clocks. Is this a narrative device, or does it have a wider, perhaps metaphorical heft?

David Peace: Well, I’ve always wanted each book to be a compulsive read, as though time was running out for both narrator and reader. And, I suppose, it’s also personally how I feel and how I live.

SS: Music punctuates your narrative, from songs played on car radios to chapter headings taken from the lyrics of Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four and the Pop Group. Does music reify a sense of time and place for you?

DP: I think that great music — and also literature and art in general — has the ability to be both of a certain time and place, and yet transcend it. To take an obvious example, I believe Joy Division could only have come from late Seventies Manchester, yet their music speaks to people whenever and wherever they hear it.

As I write, I only listen to music from the particular time and place about which I am writing. I suppose I use the music as a way back to those times and places. In turn, the music and lyrics then permeate the text.

SS: I am listening to the new New York Dolls’ album as I write these questions. I know you are a Ramones fan. Which other bands do you like?

DP: I have a vast collection encompassing all genres, but with a lot of punk (old school and anarcho) and metal (generally black, death, doom or drone). However, as I say, when I’m writing I only listen to the music from the time and place I’m writing about. Right now though, as I’m answering these questions, I’m listening to “Pilgrimage of Blood” by JA Caesar.

SS: Literary language breaks down in your novels, comes to a halt, rhythms of speech, repetition, and streams of consciousness take over. Is this a literary device, or do you think that, when confronted with violence, language is at times insufficient?

DP: Both — but I want the language in my books to reflect the place and time in which the books are set, the way in which people thought and spoke. And, unfortunately, language did break down in those times and places.

SS: Whilst reading GB84 and The Damned Utd, I kept thinking “Don DeLillo, Don DeLillo, Don DeLillo.” I mean that as a compliment — the fusion of history and fiction creating a hypo-history, a story under the surface of the known. Do you think your novels are “investigative” fiction?

DP: Well, I’m not that interested in “make-believe” — I want to know who and why we are. So I’m interested in history, i.e. where did we come from and how did we get here. But, and not to sound ungrateful for the question, I don’t think of my novels as anything other than “my novels.”

SS: Is your fascination with the Yorkshire Ripper(s) because of proximity or did he, like Margaret Thatcher and Brian Clough, define an era?

DP: Again, both. It obviously began because of my own proximity to the events, but has gone on and on and on because I do believe that these crimes — in their totality, as opposed to Sutcliffe — do sadly define the place and time in which I was brought up.

SS: Does your distance from the U.K./Yorkshire help or hinder your writing?

DP: With the Yorkshire books, it was definitely a help to be living in Tokyo; the distance allowed me to re-construct the times and places I was writing about — particularly the language, for example — without the interruption or distraction of the present.

As I began to write Tokyo Year Zero, I did wonder if I might thus be better off back in Yorkshire writing about Tokyo. However, that’s not been the case, and so far, touch wood, it has been much, much easier — in terms of research — writing about Tokyo in 1946, living in Tokyo in 2006. So my latest half-baked theory is that if you want to write about where and when you are from, you should leave that place. Otherwise, it probably doesn’t matter.

SS: Your novels must require a lot of research. Are you a compulsive note taker or do you have a research methodology?

DP: It’s been the same for each book. Basically, I go to the library (at Nagatacho in Central Tokyo) and I read and I read and I read the old newspapers, taking note after note after note about the particular time and place I am hoping to write about, and then, at some point in this process, it’s as though a door opens, and it is possible for me to step from the here and now into the then and there.

SS: Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he did not set out to write science fiction, that he was writing about life in Schenectady. Do you think of yourself as an experimental writer like Burroughs and Ballard? A crime writer like Pelecanos and Mosley? Or closer to Stan Barstow and Barry Hines?

DP: Well, as much as I think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as Crime Writer. But all of the above are writers I have read but, to be honest, I didn’t really come to Pelecanos or Mosley until after I had begun writing; I was much more influenced by Hammett and Ellroy. And also there were the very strong influences of Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond.

Derek Raymond combined the experimental literary novel with the detective novel, just as Ted Lewis combined the detective novel with the “working-class fictions” of Braine, Barstow, et al. So though I wouldn’t put myself on their level, I would like the best of my work to be seen as at least attempting to follow in the tradition of Lewis and Raymond.

SS: Gordon Burn’s Fullalove and Happy like Murderers, like GB84, transgress genre. You have said you read a lot of non-fiction, and cited Burn as a writer you admire. The critics compared the Red Riding Quartet to the works of James Ellroy (and, strangely, Elmore Leonard). Do you suffer from “the anxiety of influence”?

DP: Despite what I said above, and despite the many writers I hold in high-regard, no.

SS: There are elements of the occult in your work, and you are obviously a soccer fan. Like a goalkeeper keeping his favorite towel in the nets, do you have any writerly superstitions, such as putting on your shirt just before you sit down to write? Or, like Nabokov, do you stand at a lectern?

DP: I realized, only recently, that my entire life is governed by ritual and superstition. I am obsessed by numerology and symmetry. To give just one example, I will only send out the finished manuscripts on days which total 9; so, for example, March 25, 2006 because 2+0+0+6+3+2+5=18=1+8+9. But I realize it’s becoming a bit much, and if I could have three purely selfish wishes, one of them would be a complete and unquestioning faith in God (and thus an end to my own made-up rituals and superstitions).

SS: Alan Smith might return to Leeds Untied on loan. Any thoughts on that or on the state of soccer in the U.K.?

DP: Well, I doubt Smith is daft enough to return, and anyway, as I know only too well, you can’t go home again. I support Huddersfield Town and, given the season we are having, I try not to think about soccer in the U.K. anymore (though I still kiss my Town scarf every Saturday night in the hope it’ll mean a win).

SS: How long have you lived in Japan? What brought you here? I find Tokyo to be very noir. What is your sense of the city? Or, like London and NYC, does it constantly surprise you?

DP: I have lived in Japan for over 12 years. I came here on the run from Istanbul where I had been for two years, having fled the UK in 1992. I had a notion that I would live in Japan for a couple of years to pay off my various debts and then move on to Brazil, ending up in Lisbon … but I’m still here.

Thankfully, I have never lived in either London or New York, so I can make no comparison. But I love living in the particular part of Tokyo in which we live (the old East End), and I have become increasingly obsessed with the city and its history. So one day a week, at least, I walk the city in the spirit of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

SS: Tokyo Year Zero, to be published autumn 2007, is the first in a trilogy set in U.S.-occupied Japan. Tell us something about it and why you work on an “epic” scale.

DP: Three novels set during the American Occupation of Japan, 1945-52, based on three true crimes, narrated by three generations of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Tokyo Year Zero is set against the backdrop of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and the Occupation purges of Japanese business, government and police, and is based upon the actual crimes and hunt for Kodaira Yoshio, a decorated former Imperial soldier who raped and murdered at least ten women amidst the chaos of Tokyo between May 1945 and August 1946. Tokyo Occupied City, the second book, is based on the well-known “Teigin Incident”: the poisoning of 12 bank employees during a robbery in January 1948. Tokyo Regained, the final book of the trilogy, follows the investigation into the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the President of the Japanese National Railroads, whose body was found on train tracks on the morning of July 5 1949. All three “incidents” remain unsolved.

I don’t particularly see my work as “epic.” On the contrary, I want the books to be obsessive in their detail and their focus. Three books on the Occupation, for example, allows me to hopefully do that.

SS: What are you planning after the Tokyo Trilogy?

DP: Well, there will be UK DK — which will deal with the death of the left and the rise of the right in the U.K., centred around the fall of Wilson and rise of Thatcher — then The Yorkshire Rippers (plural) — the content of which changes on a daily basis — and then possibly Nineteen Forty Seven, which would be the twelfth and final book.

*****

Having recently relocated from dank London to gingery Tokyo, Steve Finbow offers Seppuku My Heart as his regular forget-me-not to occidentals worldwide.


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