Reginald Hill Author Q and A
Reginald Hill Photo
©Miriam Berkley
A Conversation with Reginald Hill

Q: It has been many years since you last visited the United States and met with your many fans on this side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless your popularity in the United States has only grown. Your previous book, On Beaulah Height, was a New York Times and Amazon.Com Notable in 1998. In your opinion, which aspects of your work do you believe appeal to your American readers?

A: I would say that my American fans enjoy the picture and get a taste of life in modern England, which is different from life in the States without being quaint or chocolate boxy. In particular the Yorkshire settings and characters seem to have a strong appeal. But on the whole, the letters I receive from the States don’t differ a great deal from those I get from the UK and what they seem to enjoy most on both sides of the water are books which appeal equally to the intelligence and the emotions. And, regardless of age, background or gender, they all seem to love Andy Dalziel.

Q: Your Dalziel/Pascoe novels have been categorized as British Police Procedurals and crime fiction. In what ways do you feel your writing adheres to the traditions of that genre and in what ways do you feel it is contemporary fiction?

A: Tell a British cop that my books are Police Procedurals and his or her response is likely to be, I wish! They are certainly 'crime novels' and when I look at the great writers whose names appear on the genre's roll of honor, I am happy and flattered to figure somewhere among them. I try to live up to the genre's great traditions of offering a complex puzzle honestly solved. At the same time, my work is fiction and it is contemporary fiction. The function of genres in the arts ought to be a shorthand indication of a broad unity of subject, style or approach among certain practitioners. Only in prose fiction, and much less so I believe in America than in Britain, has it come to imply a value judgement, but usually, I am glad to say, by those whose judgement I value.

Q: In Arms and the Women, Inspector Peter Pascoe is a man of the law and an attempt is made to abduct his wife Ellie Pascoe. In what ways, do you feel that policemen and their families are endangered by the profession that they have chosen?

A: The world is full of weird people and being a cop brings you in touch almost daily with the criminal end of weirdness, so it's only to be expected that some of the danger of the job may spill over into the policeman's domestic life. I have no statistics, but I'd guess that a policeman's home and family are more likely to be the objects of acts of petty malice than most other professions. I am glad to say that, away from the kind of tragic conditions that apply in Northern Ireland, not many incidents get reported in the British press where this malice has moved into the area of physical violence. But it does happen. I heard a senior detective giving a talk recently in which he mentioned that someone he'd put away for murder had asked to see him in prison, presumably to offer further information. The detective did not go himself but sent a subordinate. When asked why, he replied that he would be retiring soon and he did not wish to feel himself in any relationship more personal than required by the strict demands of the job with any of the criminals he’d sent down. This matter-of-fact expression what must be a permanent sense of being at risk chilled me more than anything else he’d told us.

Q: Law enforcement is a popular subject matter in mainstream entertainment as well as a staple in today's news, how realistic do you feel your depictions of the police force are?

A: As I indicated earlier, my books do not set out to be procedurals (which I take to be stories whose narrative structure is based on a detailed and accurate account from a detective’s point of view of the investigation or crime). But judging by the generally excellent response I get from members of the Force and reviewers in journals, I must be getting something right. Interestingly, on several occasions at signings a fan has revealed that he or she is a cop, then gone on to wonder if I'd met their superintendent as the resemblances between him (and on one occasion her!) and Andy Dalziel seem too close to be coincidental!
While trying to indicate the physical and emotional strains of the job, what I omit is the ninety percent of hard work but humdrum routine which makes up most of their working day. I don't glamorize the profession, but I highlight the areas in which individual qualities of courage, intuition and intelligence are at a premium and this is what appeals to the serving detective.

Q: How do you conduct research when working on a new book? For instance, in this book Ellie Pascoe inadvertently becomes entangled with international arms dealers. Do have any special methods for gathering information about such topics or do you have any special sources inside the force for instance?

A: Johnson says wisely that just as important as knowledge of a subject is knowing where to find out about it. I own many reference tomes, I make jottings in notebooks, and I tear articles out of journals, but on the whole I am a serendipic rather than a systematic collector of information. I trust in fate and it's remarkable once I have got a topic in my mind how often relevant items will pop up in my reading of newspapers and books, or on the radio and television. If a necessary area remains a blank, I am happy to leave it so till necessity drives me to fill it in through library research, or consultation with experts, or, in matters of geography say, personal visit. This way I will only find out what I need to know. The danger of blanket research in advance of writing is that, not knowing what you want to know, you end up with masses of material which is strictly speaking superfluous to your story but which, because you've worked so hard to get it, you are tempted to put in. We've all read the kind of novel where the narrative keeps on taking a rest so that so that the author can give us a little lecture. It's like those television plays in which, having spent a lot of time and money on getting on some exotic location, the producer forgets that scenery is background and the whole thing metamorphoses into an artistic centaur, half plodding drama, half ambling travelogue. Selectivity is all. Writing is like painting: a highlight here, a touch of color there, can suggest more than an album of photographs can show.
I do however have friends, mostly fellow writers, who are or who have been members of the police force, and they are unstinting in their help with any questions of procedure. But I never let strict accuracy get in the way of a good story!

Q: You have certainly amassed quite an impressive bibliography of books. Arms and the Women is your sixteenth Dalziel/ Pascoe novel, how has the writing experience changed for you? Do you find it is easier or more difficult to continue a series over time?

A: The Dalziel/Pascoe books form only about a third of my total output, and this variety of writing experience certainly helps to keep the series fresh for me, and I hope for my readers. I think I expected it to get easier as time went on, but in many significant ways it's got even harder. To start with, it seems quite simple: you begin at the beginning and go to the end and the only real decision you have to make is whether to write in the first or third person. The hard part is physical--finding the stamina to write 250-300 pages! But the more you get to know about your art, the more you find there is to know. A book is so many things; an artifact, a dialogue you're having with your reader, a game your playing with your reader, a world in which you and your readers are by turn characters, god-like spectators, voyeurs, transsexuals. All fiction deals in illusion and deception and crime fiction particularly so. Now when I start thinking about a book, what gives me pause isn't the thought of all those pages. Like the trained marathon runner, I know I can do that. It's the variety of possibilities that lie before me, the need to select from an infinity of ways of telling my story the best way. I sometimes get it wrong, begin to suspect I've got it wrong after say 50 pages, refuse to admit to myself I’ve got it wrong for another 50, then say, damn damn damn damn damn! And go back to the beginning. When I can't be bothered to go back to the beginning is when I'll stop.

Q: What are your thoughts about the series that A&E Television has created based on your characters?

A: The pluses about the TV series are that they have used good actors, good directors and good scriptwriters, and they've made some very good shows. The minuses are that TV is too self-absorbed to enter into an equal partnership. You start close and cozy enough but soon you realize you're not getting your fair share of the duvet and one day you wake to find you’re lying at the very edge of the bed, totally exposed to the chill morning air. Now is the time either to get out or get philosophical. I opted for the latter, and have come to regard the TV series as a kind of parallel universe in which characters with the same names as and many resemblances to mine are living lives which occasionally coincide. I view them with an interest which has something proprietorial in it, but which recognizes that unlike the characters in my books, these parallel creatures have passed out of my control. Equally, they have no influence on my creation. I love Warren Clarke (who plays Dalziel) as an actor, but his is not the face I see as I write my books. I can put my hand on my heart and avow that not even in the smallest respect has the TV adaptation affected the way I write about Daziel and Pascoe. But I remain on excellent terms with the production team and so long as they continue to produce high quality tele-plays, we shall remain so. I like to think my input is still influential, but I’m resigned to losing most of the big battles.

Q: You've previously won the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award and the Golden Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers Association and have been nominated for an Anthony Award (to be announced at this year's Bouchercon convention), what advice would you give to aspiring writers in the genre?

A: I only give two pieces of advice to aspiring authors. The first is, when you finish the first novel and send it off, don't sit around waiting for the publishers to roll up at your house in Cadillacs with trunkfuls of money. Start in on the second book straightaway and the chances are you’ll have it finished before you get your first rejection slip. The second is, if and when you get published, horde as many copies of that book as you can get your hands on. Buy up all the remainders. Pluck it from the dime counter of your second hand bookshop. With luck you will find those pristine first edition will prove a better investment than pork futures when you are old and gray and modestly eminent. I took the first piece of advice myself, purely by chance, and am very glad that I did. I didn't take the second and now I scan the crime collectors' catalogs, and see the prices, and feel the pain!

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