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PETER GUTTRIDGE's Dirty Dozen Q&A

Written by Mike Stotter

Peter Guttridge


Peter Guttridge writes a satirical crime series featuring the love-lorn yoga-obsessive Nick Madrid. Reviewers have been generous although his favourite review is one he doesn't understand - is it good or is it bad? - “this is a funny novel masquerading as a very funny novel.” Peter is currently the crime critic for The Observer and the director of the Brighton Literature Festival.


Book Jacket, Cast Adrift

It's welcome back, Nick Madrid. A new publisher, a new title, do you feel a little nervous?


I feel VERY nervous, partly because I’ve been living with this latest Nick book for about four years. I wrote half of it and a long synopsis (something I normally avoid) for my then agent somewhere around 2001. It was intended for Headline, who had published the first five in the series. My new agent was determined to get me more money. I’m not sure what happened in the negotiations with Headline but the upshot was that, rather than give me more money, the publisher dumped me!



In turn, I dumped my agent then set about finding a new publisher and new agent. I got the publisher - David Shelley at Allison & Busby - before I got my new agent (although, as is the way with these things, my new agent still got 15% of the advance…). In the meantime I’d started work on a non-comic thriller that was taking up much of my time and attention.



This is a long-winded way of saying that carrying on the Nick book after such an absence from it was difficult. Stuff that had seemed hilarious several years ago didn’t seem so now because I’d lived with it for such a long time. I just have to trust that it is as funny as it seemed when I first wrote it…


Book Jacket, No Laughing Matter

As your novels are comic capers, where do you begin in terms of ideas, plottings, settings?


It varies from book to book. Early in the series I was vaguely trying to set one book abroad then the next in England but Nick and Bridget are such globe-trotters that this notion has fallen a bit by the wayside. Most of the books have been based in some way on my experiences as a journalist, often involved in some way with the movie industry. With Cast Adrift I wanted to revisit the madness of Hollywood - it’s such a great source of cheap jokes! I was trying to think of the most unlikely film that Nick and Bridget could get involved in. Pirate movies had been bombing at the cinema for some time. Musicals weren’t even being made. So I thought a pirate musical would be a good wheeze.



The musical, actually, is what I came up with first - lines from daft songs. (“I’m feeling topsy turvy/Is it love or is it scurvy?”).



Of course, by the time I got round to continuing with the book, Pirates of the Caribbean had been a massive hit (Mr Depp should have won the Oscar), as had Moulin Rouge, so some of the earlier parts had to be rewritten.


Book Jacket, A Ghost Of A Chance

Cast Adrift must have had its genesis with Gilbert & Sullivan, so was it difficult to get away from the opera and concentrate on your characters?


I was aware of The Pirates of Penzance but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it so the plot wasn’t a problem. In a funny way I was actually influenced more by two movies I like: Ed Wood by Tim Burton (that dashing Mr Depp again) and Bowfinger by Steve Martin. I loved the humanity of the films and the way a bunch of losers won out (more or less). I felt the same about Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. I enjoyed assembling a bunch of characters who were either wannabes or last chancers. Then I cast them adrift - literally - to see if they could make good. I was stupidly pleased with multiple meanings of Cast Adrift - a movie cast, cast adrift etc.


Book Jacket, The Once And Future Con

So what's with the yoga angle?


You know, I’m getting too old for this astanga vinyasa yoga shit! I’ve been doing it for about ten years. Last night, I did a class led by a friend of mine that was virtually for beginners - and it nearly crippled me. I got Nick into doing it, originally, because I thought someone witnessing a murder whilst trapped in an unfeasible yoga position was funny. Problem is, yoga becomes a one-joke thing - getting stuck in a position - so I’ve had to go more and more into Extreme Yoga to keep it funny.



But I like keeping Nick doing the yoga as it’s also an indication of his gentle character. (Not that yoga practitioners are necessarily gentle - there are a lot of VERY competitive men and women doing astanga. They eyeball each other as they step on to their mats for their 90 minutes of merging with the cosmos. Who is merging the most!)



In the next book, Nick goes off to India to study in Mysore with Patthabi Jois, the man who in real life created astanga vinyasa yoga. (Jois was supposed to have discovered some Sanskrit documents in the nineteen thirties dating back centuries. And aliens killed Kennedy.)


Book Jacket, Foiled Again

You've published a number of novels now - are there common themes in all of them?


My main theme seems to be the underdog doing okay - it’s most overt in this new novel, where I’ve taken a bunch of losers and let them come good. I spent three or four years in the early eighties in Hammersmith and Fulham programming, among other things, music hall and variety shows. At the prices we could pay we got mediocrity or people at the fag-end of their careers. I remember the agent for radio ventriloquist Peter Brough slipping me a fiver to keep the lights low when Brough was on stage - after all, on radio he hadn’t needed to worry about his lips moving. There were elderly Spanish dancers with terrible bunions hobbling around the stage; saxophonists who ran out of puff halfway through a tune; and magicians with their pockets stuffed with rubber pigeons. It was funny but I also really felt for these people.


Other themes include friendship and the horrors of modern society - plus childish jokes, of course.


 

How did you first get published?


It was a long process, I can tell you that. I spent my twenties writing The Great Book whilst doing a weird range of jobs, from barman to sewage worker. (You want a guide to the London sewers? I’m your man.)



The Great Book never got finished and I lucked into journalism in my early thirties. I wrote about music, comedy, film and books for ten years and didn’t have the time to write any fiction. When I hit 40, I thought it was time I got on with novel-writing. I came up with the idea for my first novel, No Laughing Matter, as a result of my regular visits, as a journalist, to the Montreal Comedy Festival and an odd incident I’d experienced during a yoga class.



I’d written a halfway decent thriller the year before. I say halfway decent because it was decent enough to attract an agent but not decent enough for her to send it out. Now I did 40 pages and a synopsis for No Laughing Matter. She sent it out; Headline liked it and offered me a three book deal. I was up and running. Well, trotting.


Book Jacket, Two To Tango

Our sense of humour is virtually the same, but why go for comic crime when it's a notoriously hard place for publishers to market?


Stupidity probably - I didn’t know it was a hard market to crack. When I started, mainstream comic novels were best-sellers - Bridget Jones, Nick Hornby and Bill Bryson’s factions. And the year before I was published Chris Brookmyre had sold well with his debut comic crime novel. But even when I realised, I was happy to carry on because I had a niche. As a reviewer [the crime fiction critic for The Observer] I see just how many crime novels are published each year. It’s very difficult to stand out in that crowd. But with comic crime there’s maybe fifty of us - the odds are better!


 

Your next novel is "the Brighton book". Details please.


The working title is “Dead of Night” but I’m looking for a better one. And this is me being stupid again - trying to stand out in that crowd I just mentioned. I’ve wanted to write something that doesn’t depend on the gag for some time. In “Foiled Again”, the fifth in the Nick Madrid series, there’s a whole central section about the black-shirts in the thirties that doesn’t have a single joke. Although I love writing comedy, I really enjoyed writing that in a different mode too.



I’ve lived near Brighton for around fifteen years and different aspects of its history really fascinate me, as does contemporary life there. So I conceived the idea of a trilogy that would be both contemporary and set in the past. “Dead of Night” is the first of these. The contemporary story concerns a high-flying Chief Constable trying to make sense of - and get revenge for - his abrupt fall from grace. The historical story concerns the famous 1934 unsolved Brighton Trunk Murder Number One. (Number Two - that of Violette Kay - was solved.)



I’m really excited about it, but it’s also taking an age because of the research - police procedures for the contemporary story and me trying to solve the Trunk Murder! My agency is being very patient - well, at least that’s how I interpret the fact I haven’t heard from it for months. I’ve done about 400 pages that will need to be whittled down. No publisher yet but a number have expressed interest in the synopsis.


Book Jacket, A Ghost Of A Chance

As it being your first stand-alone - do you prefer it over series characters?


Well, when I conceived the first Nick Madrid/Bridget Frost book I assumed it was going to be a standalone too. Even when I knew it was going to be a series I crammed everything into No Laughing Matter so writing number two was difficult. But after that I’ve enjoyed writing my series characters and seeing the way they have developed. And now, of course, I’m thinking that my Chief Constable might well appear in the other two in the trilogy.


Book Jacket, No Laughing Matter

Are you influenced/inspired/in awe of specific other writers?


How long have you got?



My influences: Carl Hiaasen, who effortlessly demonstrates in each of his novels how ridiculous you can dare to be. Non-crime: Laurence Sterne, Damon Runyan, Wodehouse, S J Perelman, Woody Allen, P J O’Rourke. Two hilarious novels about crime that really influenced my approach were PS My Cat Is Dead (don’t remember the name of the author) and William Goldman’s “No Way To Treat A Lady” about the Boston Strangler.



Inspired by/In awe of: among crime writers more usual suspects - Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark’s Parker series, George Pelecanos, James Ellroy, Rankin, McDermid, Reg Hill, Peter Lovesey, Andrew Taylor, Minette Walters, Sayers, Christie, Grisham etc etc.



Non-crime: Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, John Fowles, Lawrence Durrell, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, Donna Tartt’s Secret History, Jorge Luis Borges, Haruki Murakami … and I’ll stop now because I’m getting pretentious.


 

Okay: you practise yoga crime critic for The Observer, what other pies have you got your fingers in?


Too many things as I try to make my net income match my gross habits. The main thing I’m doing on the side is acting as Pope-in-waiting. Or Dalai Lama-in-waiting. Or anything-in-waiting, really. (Well, maybe not lady, unless I’m paid enough.)


Peter Guttridge

After the "Brighton" book, are there more Nick Madrid adventures in the pipeline or other stand alones?


I’ve already started the 7th Nick Madrid/Bridget Frost novel - well, okay, I’ve jotted down some notes. They’re off to India - Nick to do his yoga in Mysore, Bridget to take an upmarket tour of Rajasthan. And on the tour the tourists start getting knocked off, one by one. It’s Agatha Christie meets Jewel In The Crown. Ha!


For further information check out Peter's website:

www.peterguttridge.com


  

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Peter Guttridge



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