Peace offering

Why make things up when there’s enough mystery and weirdness in real life? It’s an approach that has won Yorkshire-born author David Peace plaudits for his novels

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David Peace is an innovative prose stylist whose immersive retellings of recent history are consistently spectacular yet can confound and impress in equal measure. His work often blindsides the reader before leading them, blinking, into the daylight of revelation and a complex plot resolved. If you’re looking for an easy literary ride, you’re looking in the wrong place.

“I’ve always had a reason for writing my books how I write them,” Peace explains from his Tokyo home. “And I don’t just do things for variation or to be awkward – there’s always a reason behind it. And if I want my books to have any merit whatsoever I have to be emotionally invested in them. You can’t just churn them out.” Nevertheless the West Yorkshire-born and raised writer says his latest, Tokyo Redux, is “much more straightforward, possibly the most straightforward stylistically I’ve ever written”.

“There was a period when rather than writing the book I was working on solving the case.”

Set once again in Japan, and rounding out a trilogy opened by Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City, Tokyo Redux begins during 1949 with the mysterious death of President Shimoyama, head of the National Railways of Japan, just days after he served notice on 30,000 workers and with the country under post-Second World War US occupation. Part two sees the death re-examined years later by a private investigator while the city prepares for the 1964 Olympic Games, and the book concludes in 1988 with the American who holds the key to Shimoyama’s demise slipping deeper into old age.

As the author claims, it’s a relatively direct read – reminiscent of classic hardboiled stylists such as James M Cain, Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett – but furthers Peace’s reputation as an innovator who consistently draws the reader deep into a labyrinth of intrigue. Elements of James Ellroy – a writer Peace describes as “a hero” – are ever present, as are Peace leitmotifs such as a repetition of words and phrases, and abrupt, clipped sentences. It’s a murder mystery that challenges the reader with layer upon layer of conspiracy and intrigue.

“Honestly, I can never imagine just what readers will get or understand but, believe it or not, I am my own harshest critic,” Peace explains with a laugh. “And for Tokyo Redux there must be 500,000 words of it that I’ve not used. I was writing it and then I was finding it impenetrable and it wasn’t going anywhere. Each section does have a separate protagonist but it does run chronologically. I did try chopping sections up and having things jump back and forth but that’s an example of me then thinking: ‘That’s not going to work.’

“My earlier books – the Red Riding Quartet, The Damned Utd, Tokyo Year Zero – all came to me very quickly, and I was writing a book a year or something, but for Occupied City things slowed right down. There are sections in that book that I was really proud of at the time: the part where I alternate upright text, italics and capitals where I thought I’d found some new way of writing that you could read down, you could read across, you could read in different ways. One of my editors did suggest I delete that chapter though so, you know! But Occupied City was all about trying to find the objective truth and not actually being able to find it and that style of text was supposed to represent that struggle in searching for, and failing to find, the truth.”

The big personal challenge this time around, for Tokyo Redux, was writing American protagonists, says the author. “I’m a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett so The Glass Key, and Ross McDonald’s great American noir style, were influences. But this book took, on and off, 10 years so lots of other different writers have been coming in and out over that time. And the other problem with working on this book was the fact that it’s about an unsolved case and part of me wanted to solve it. There was a period when rather than just writing the book I was working on solving the case.”

What would Peace say to someone who finds his work, or that of any other inventive novelist, too overbearing?

“I don’t know about you but there are books I’ve bought, started to read, not liked, put away and then gone back to a year later and thought: ‘That’s the best thing I’ve read in ages.’ If my style’s too much for someone, and if they’re feeling of a generous mind, they could put it under their bed for a while then maybe try another time. But some people, my work just isn’t for them and it’s a better world being one full of a variety of styles and it would be a terrible placeif everyone wrote in the same style.” He pauses. “And a truly terrible place if everyone wrote in my style.”

Peace is notoriously dedicated to his craft, writing each day from 7am until 4pm – “It used to be 8am but I don’t have to take the kids to school anymore” – and wholly immersing himself in each project. After growing up around Otley, attending Manchester Polytechnic and spending time teaching English in Istanbul, Peace initially moved to Tokyo in 1994. So concerned was he with capturing the authentic Japanese voice in his work, he didn’t set a book in his adoptive country for over a decade.

“I had this horror of writing about Japan and things I wrote about the country just not being right. And you
do read so many books like that.”

With his family he moved back to West Yorkshire in 2009, for personal reasons. And while Peace admits the move was great for helping his children become truly bilingual and spending time with his parents, he found it hard to replicate the routines and rhythms he had developed for writing. “I was distracted – distracted in a good way, but still distracted.”

By 2011 he was back in Tokyo, with a part-time job lecturing in contemporary literature at the city’s university and a raft of new projects on the boil. The work and plaudits have flowed steadily since.

With Tokyo Redux now published – he actually finished working on the text around two years ago – Peace is happy to discuss future plans. There are many.

“I keep these different boxes with possible books and there’s a Geoff Boycott one with notes and things like that. I just keep chipping away at these things. And at some point I’d like to write another football book because the books that have brought me the greatest pleasure – and I’m not crying the poor tale saying how
I usually have to slave over a computer – have been The Damned Utd and Red or Dead. Spending two years thinking about and writing about Bill Shankly were the best years I’ve ever had. And I have always had a desire to write about the Yorkshire Ripper again but, you know, publishers just say: ‘No, no, don’t do
that again.’

“And I’ve been working on a book called UKDK, which is constantly changing shape but, roughly, is about 1974 to 1976 and the [Harold] Wilson administration and, at least in my mind, it forms a loose quartet with GB84, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead. If we’d had this conversation a few months ago I would have said it would be finished by June but I seemed to get 60,000 words in and then think: ‘I’ve taken the wrong road!’ I would now hope to have it finished by next year.”

Even the most casual Peace reader can’t have failed to notice his novels – as geographically, chronologically and thematically diverse as they are – have one thing in common though: they’re all based on real life events. “President Shimoyama was found dead on the tracks just up the road from where I’m sitting now and that’s one of, if not the most famous murders in Japan. I always find history and real life are things I want to understand before trying to make things up and it’s true that there’s enough going on in the world without having to make things up. I envy fantasy and science fiction writers who can create these places but I always make the same joke: I’ve obviously no imagination.” n

Tokyo Redux by David Peace is published by Faber (£16.99)

Unfinished business

David Peace made his reputation with the Red Riding Quartet, a series of Yorkshire-based novels published between 1999 and 2002, each set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, which began during the second half of the 1970s. Despite completing the books two decades ago, the themes examined still trouble Peace to this day.

“I remember the events happening quite vividly. It’s a funny thing, and I don’t know why because sometimes you write a book and that’s the end of it, but a lot of what was going on around the time of those books has come back to me during this pandemic.

“My son, who lives in Kyoto, was watching the Red Riding films [the books were adapted into a successful three part television series] when he came back to Tokyo and I hadn’t seen them for ages, so there was that, and the recent death of Peter Sutcliffe and these things brought it all back again.” Peace pauses before adding: “When I use the term ‘vividly’ I’m talking about the atmosphere of that time. Thankfully nobody I knew was a victim but I definitely remember that atmosphere.

“The first thing I was going to do when I’d finished the Red Riding books was write another about the Yorkshire Ripper and my editor, Jon Riley, said: ‘Have you not got anything else to write about?’ So I told him I was thinking about writing about the miner’s strike and that’s how GB84 came about.

“But as I was writing GB84 that just put the fury into me when I was looking at what had happened and the betrayal of the miners. And exactly the same had happened with the Red Riding books, looking at how avoidable the deaths of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims were and how badly the police handled that. I do still have an unfinished book about the Yorkshire Ripper and I did go back to that a bit recently, so…”

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