Author Interview: James Runcie on TV adaptations, favourite authors, and a documentary about J. K. Rowling
James Runcie is a popular crime writer. As an author, he's best known for his series of books about the crime solving vicar Sidney Chambers, which has been adapted by ITV into the Grantchester series.
James chatted to Holly Newson about what it’s like to see your work on screen, his favourite authors and what he learnt about writing and fame from making documentaries about J.K. Rowling and Hilary Mantel.
You can listen to the full interview above.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself for anyone who might not be familiar with your work?
I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I started about forty years ago by writing not very good poetry and reading Agatha Christie and thinking about English literature. It mattered to me how stories could transform our understanding of a life.
I was born in Cambridge and lived in a small Oxfordshire village. My father was a vicar and I thought then, very early on, that I was exposed to birth, marriage and death on a daily basis because people used to come when they were ill or when they were dying, or when they were worried or anxious. So I felt very much that our home in the vicarage was at the fulcrum of our community, just like a doctor’s surgery might be, or a school is. And those rhythms of village life have stayed with me and influenced me.
I have always wanted to write different things but I somehow struck upon this idea of writing about a vicar who would be drawn into a world of crime. It’s also a way of being able to tell moral stories. The Grantchester mysteries aren’t really ‘whodunnits’ - though it’s quite interesting to know who has done it I hope - they are ‘whydunnits’. They are 'why do people behave desperately and madly'. So they're moral fables and, coming from a clergy family, they are also kind of sermons.
You’ve had a really varied career as a documentary film maker, a television producer, a theatre director. Have you always written throughout?
Yes, I think television helps me see things visually. I’ve written ten novels now and four plays and I always try to think about 'what is the narrative', 'what is the story?' It’s not so much about being a writer; I think it’s about being a storyteller and a story reader. I think it’s really important to listen and hear stories in order to become a better writer. It can’t be all about you, it can’t be just this relentless self-expression. You have to open yourself up to other influences. So I hope I’ve always been engaged in activities other than writing, in order to help the writing itself.
And do you feel it’s easier to portray stories when they're fact or when they're fiction?
You'd think that 'fact' is more straightforward because you just have to get them right. But of course the interpretation of those facts becomes complicated, and then it’s actually easier to make things up. So that becomes an interesting dilemma. But also, I think it’s all about - you know when you listen to a wonderful piece of music - I mean I’ve just been listening to some Bach - when you listen to something wonderful like that and you think: why is that so wonderful? How does it enrich a life? I have always thought about how can life be better, how can we make the most of it? That’s essentially what I’m trying to do.
You’ve done quite a few documentaries on some very admired authors, such as Hilary Mantel and J.K. Rowling. Did you feel a sort of pressure depicting the lives of such well known and well-loved authors?
Those two are the main people I’ve done and they’re very different. I did have quite a little bit of a warm up by doing films and programmes with Umberto Eco, and I took J. G. Ballard back to China for the first time since he wrote about Shanghai in ‘The Empire of the Sun’.
With J.K Rowling it’s an interesting one because the level of fame is so extraordinary. I spent a year - the last year of Harry Potter, the year she was writing ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ - and I’d never seen so much fame. There was extraordinary pressure on her to deliver. One thing, selfishly, was that it made me not want to be famous because I saw what a devastating invasion of privacy it could be, and saw everyone waiting on her every word and the power of her storytelling. I felt that was an amazing responsibility to work with her and become friends with her. I’m an enormous, enormous admirer of her.
Both of them [J. K. Rowling and Hilary Mantel] I think are... the main thing they have in common is a similarity of ambitions. So J. K. Rowling has this ambition to write seven Harry Potter novels; Hilary Mantel three novels about the Tudors and this extraordinary ambition to define a world - to create and define a world in enormous detail. And they both have an enormous patience, understanding and a desire to get it right. To really try to understand the world they are creating, and they both taught me that no detail is too small.
Do you think that’s affected your work and how you write?
Well, I’m trying to write a novel about Bach at the moment and I look at it and I think, this isn’t Hilary Mantel yet! If I could tell stories with the power and imagination of Jo and if I could tell them in the language of Hilary then I’d be laughing. So they have influenced me extraordinarily.
I think you have to measure yourself up against people when you’re writing, and that can be bad for you, but you do have to look over your shoulder a bit, because why would anyone want to read you when they can read Hilary - so you have to be aware of this and write something worthwhile. But yes, I have been influenced by both of them. Hilary, I am just in awe of. Jo, I just find her extraordinary - the fact that she can write crime fiction as well, bit cheeky I thought! I did ask her, ‘Please for God’s sake, don’t write a detective novel’ and she said ‘I can’t promise you that’.
Do you think she had it in the back of her mind?
Yes! I do think she had it in the back of her mind! And she didn’t dare tell me. She knew I’d be furious. Anyway it’s fine, we’re very friendly about it.
Moving on to the Grantchester mysteries, there are influences from your life - you were born in Cambridge, they’re set in Cambridge; your Dad was a clergyman and obviously Sidney Chambers, the amateur sleuth, is a clergyman. Are there other characters in the books that have been inspired by people in your life or people around you?
There’s one real name. When I was growing up we did have a secretary-cum-housekeeper called Mrs Maguire and so the housekeeper is based partly on her; although, I was very little - I can hardly remember her. Her husband left her and the mistress came round and said, "What does he like for his tea?" and Mrs Maguire recounted, "Well, I said the rudest thing I could ever think of - ‘Harpic!’" - which is lavatory cleaner obviously. That’s the kind of moment I’m trying to describe, a moment that can be comic and tragic at the same time.
So that, and I had German au-pair girls when I was being brought up. Hildegarde, who features much more in the novels than she does in the television series, is a sort of amalgamation of these German women who were in my life. That was quite important because, after the war - I was born in 1959 so these German au-pair girls were in the early 60s – to have a German in your house, I still remember people who refused to enter rooms in which there were Germans.
It was an extraordinary time, and actually one of the things I’m doing in this social history of Britain - because the books move from 1953 to 1977 - is to explore the change in conditions and the nature of forgiveness. But also to explore the change in social conditions, because the death penalty in the 1950s was still extant, homosexuality was illegal, women’s career opportunities were limited and now, of course, it’s all changed.
What were the challenges associated with writing across those different decades?
Well, getting the research right is the basic thing. I’m afraid sometimes, and I’m not really allowed to say this, but sometimes in the television series their turns of phrase, for example, ‘I’ll take that as a no, then’ - which came from the first series - you wouldn't say that in the 1950s. Geordie is particularly fond of saying ‘Christ on a bike!’ which is totally wrong, but it’s funny.
It’s not just them that make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. The first book has a dreadful error where someone is reading Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington two years before it was actually published.
I did a terrible Biblical misquote in one of them, I don’t know how I did it, but I got Mary and Martha the wrong way round which is a really bad thing if you are the son of a vicar. And I don’t know how it got through, but it’s been changed in the paperbacks. So there are always moments.
The challenge is to try and make it as real - back to Hilary Mantel - as real as possible. I do read the Times every day from the 1950s: if I’m setting a story on January 16th 1956 I will get the Times for that day and read it cover to cover in order to try to at least read the newspaper he was reading.
In the Grantchester series, will Book 6 be the final book?
Yes, officially yes, absolutely officially Grantchester Book 6 will be the final book, and we go from 1953 to 1977, so it’s the 25 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It’s that kind of span. I am having a little look at a prequel and we might do some casebooks back in the 50s which balances against the television series a bit. But I think the main narrative, the six-book narrative, is there and set and that’s what I planned. I’m just struggling with Book 6 now, which has a rather dramatic ending which obviously I cannot tell you about.
How are you feeling about finishing the series?
I feel a bit bereft actually, it’s become a form of, not therapy as such, but it’s a world I’m familiar with and I like going into it. I like escaping the modern world. These characters - and of course I might be on the verge of insanity - but these characters are my friends. I love them and I love writing about them and being in their company. I’m feeling slightly bereft and I’m feeling not sure quite what to do. I know I have to do something different, that’s why I am trying to write a novel about Bach, but it will be very hard to say goodbye to them and so, I will tell you one thing, I’m not going to kill him off.
He has to be pre-forensics, that’s the only thing. I don’t really know how to do forensics, so he won’t go much beyond 1977. Up to about 1980 and that’ll be about it. Because as soon as forensics are in, it requires a different level of detection and it doesn’t rely so much on instinct. And his major talent is exploring the gap between what people say and what they actually mean.
Once you’ve got forensics, it’s much easier to find out ‘whodunit’. That’s why you can’t really have a modern, gentleman, amateur detective – because they don’t really need them. Whereas this world [in the Grantchester books] is a world where people tell a clergyman things they don’t tell the police, so he can go where the police can’t. People tell him confessional things which they wouldn’t tell the police. And that’s the gap in which everything’s explored.
You’ve said quite openly in the past that you were conscious of writing the Grantchester Mysteries in a form that would lend itself to television. Did you ever think about writing the script for it?
Now I think that’s too complicated. Yes, I did try and make it easy for people in television by putting six stories in the first book as in a six part television series. I tried to make it pretty obvious that this was meant for television.
I write a book every year, and the thing about writing a book is you don’t get very much in the way of intervention. You have an editor, and a couple of other people, and you get on with it. Whereas with television, it costs so much money, so many people are involved, and you have to keep rewriting and rewriting the script and changing things all the time. The intervention is very high and I just thought I would go crazy trying to write television scripts which I’m not really equipped to do. I would go crazy trying to write the script for a novel I’ve already written while trying to write the next novel at the same time. I would go mad, madder than I already am.
Do you enjoy watching the television series?
Well, yes I do. I like the fact they’ve got the spirit and the atmosphere right. I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the right word. It’s a bit like your brother or sister having gone to Australia for ten years and they come back, and you think ‘Is this still my brother? Is this really them?’ It is recognisably your brother but not as you know it, do you know what I mean?
So there’s something a bit weird, a slight disconnect. Marilyn, my wife, gets very cross with me when I say 'well it’s nothing to do with me'. She says 'it’s everything to do with you, they’re your characters, it’s your world', but in a way it has to become something different. They put in whole new characters: in the second series there’s a character called Margaret. I have never had a character called Margaret, she comes in and she's now a really big character. So you look at it and think 'okay, here we go, off they go, let’s see what they’re doing.'
I have obviously read the scripts, and it’s obviously a nice position to be in because there is always the books. So when people say 'the telly’s not like the books', I can say 'well, you’ve still got the books, it’s just a bonus.'
And in crime fiction, is there any author who you would say is a must-read?
I go from Dostoevsky through Dorothy L. Sayers, past Agatha Christie. Now today, I am currently reading Last Rituals by Yrsa Siguroardottir; and Denise Mina’s Blood Salt Water; Roseanna, which is the first Martin Beck novel; and the person I am most interested in is actually the French writer Fred Vargas and her novel The Chalk Circle Man seems amazing. So Fred Vargas is my top tip at the moment.
Ok, so is there an author you are really into - any fiction at all?
I read every single word of Marilynne Robinson who I think is the finest writer in the world. I particularly liked Gilead and I liked Home and Lila, that trilogy. I think she writes the best prose - I think she is currently the best prose writer in the world, so everything by her. Then I will read everything by Hilary [Mantel], by Ian McEwan, everything by Julian Barnes - generally I do try and read as much as possible. The other crime writer I really like is Anne Cleeves, who writes Shetland, and I’m reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, his current novel.
What I’m admiring of is really good prose. The theory is that there is only a certain number of stories you can tell, officially, whether there are 7 plots or 9, so it’s how you tell a story. My agent always says to me, when I tell him I’ve got an idea, 'that’s fine but it all depends on how you do it!'
Thanks to James Runcie for speaking to us.
Listening Books members can find books by James Runcie in our library catalogue, available on MP3 CD.