Angela Crowther in conversation with
James Henry is the pen name for James Gurbutt, who has written four prequels to the late R D Wingfield’s popular Frost series.
He was born in Essex in 1968.
He has a long history in publishing, though he first worked as an accountant before moving into the editorial section of Random House, where he worked with many notable names in the literary industry.
Currently he is writing a series set in Essex.
He works in publishing, and he says he enjoys windsurfing and long lunches.
Angela: So far James you have been involved with writing two series, the Jack Frost prequels and the DI Nick Lowry series. Can you tell me how you came to write the Frost prequels and what your approach was when you started writing them? Were you given a free hand, or did the Wingfield estate impose any restrictions on you? Did you assume that the slightly younger Sergeant Frost’s attitudes and habits were already fully formed, and that your main job was to provide him with cases to solve, or was it your aim to show a character that was still evolving?James: Hi Angela. I knew Frost was one of the nation’s detectives so suggested the idea of a prequel to the estate and publishers. Yes, a slightly younger version of the character Wingfield created, but recognisable. The main difference being that’s Frost’s wife is still alive. We were given a free hand, with the aim, as you suggest, to provide him with cases to solve.
Angela: Is there any prospect of us seeing the young Sergeant/newly promoted Inspector Frost on our TV screens?
James: The books have been optioned for TV, yes. I’m not sure where it’s at right now, it may still be in the pipeline.
Angela: You wrote First Frost with Henry Sutton and then wrote three subsequent prequels on your own. How did you divide the work on the first book between you, and what would you say were the benefits and difficulties of writing a book with somebody else?
James: The benefits are the discussions into how to interpret the various characters; their motives and actions. The difficulties are envisaging where the plot might lead –and what’s in the other writer’s mind – I myself don’t know it until it’s written down, which can be frustrating…
Angela: Were the first Frost prequels the first books you’d ever written, or do you have other, unpublished ones hidden away somewhere?
James: Yes, I never thought I’d write a book. It was a surprise to discover I enjoyed it; I love the challenge of a good plot that can (hopefully) keep people guessing until the end.
Angela: Whilst The DI Lowry series is fundamentally different from the Frost prequels, they do share some similarities, the most striking being the time in which they are set. Both series are set in the early eighties and both Frost and Lowry start off working out of scruffy, understaffed, town centre police stations. On a personal level Frost and Lowry are of a similar age, have, or have had, unsuccessful marriages and use drink or drugs to help them survive their days. How much influence do you think writing the Frost prequels may have had on your subsequent writing and your decision to place your first three Nick Lowry books in 1983?
James: I knew I was comfortable in the eighties from doing Frost, so I stuck with that period when embarking on my own series, to allow focus on creating the characters and their world. Yes, there are the old detective clichés of the broken-down marriages (a cliché is a cliché not without reason), but Lowry is very different to Frost – in my mind at least – for instance, Lowry is (or was) an athlete, he also dresses smartly. Suit and tie every day, whereas Frost is a scruffbag in Wingfield’s books (David Jason’s neat shirt and Windsor knot tie is a TV creation).
Angela: Could you tell me a little about your writing process: are you a meticulous planner, or do you start writing and wait to see how the story develops; at what point do you know how your books will finish? Which bits do you find most difficult and which bits do you enjoy writing the most?
James: No, I don’t usually plan. The writing process for me becomes more arduous, if it’s to reach preconceived goal. I prefer to see what comes as I go, and I enjoy, as you rightly assume, writing about landscape. I love the countryside, and the seasons. Perhaps there’s too much of this at times, slowing the story down… but there it is. The police procedural bits – i.e the important bits – can be laborious. By definition, there has to be elements to a procedural that are repetitive, following a formula is difficult – but it is necessary.
Angela: How did you set about reproducing the customs, language and behaviour of the eighties? What are the most shocking or surprising things you’ve learnt whilst digging out information about the behaviour of police and army personnel of that time?
James: I grew up in the eighties, and though only a youngster then, those early formative years stand tall in one’s memories – or elements of the period do. So being there, I’m not shocked by what find – It’s more a case of what I put in and what I leave out…
Angela: All your books are well over four hundred pages long. Do you write to this length or is your first draft much longer and then edited down - by you or others - to more manageable proportions before the final product emerges?
James: For me, to write all that I want to be in the book seems they end up being that long. And yes, first drafts end up longer, and then are edited down. As an outdoors person, they tend to be rather a lot of exposition about the weather at times.
Angela: We are always told to write about what we know. I believe you trained as an accountant and then moved into publishing. What, if anything, were your links with the police or the military police? Did their presence in Colchester prompt your decision to incorporate two such very different services into your books, or did you do it to rachet up the tension or did you do it for some other reason?
James: Yes, I qualified as an accountant while working for a publishing company – I have decided against writing about that, for now at least. I thought the idea of garrison town and the rival authorities a good idea, so explored that angle. I was light on research, so as not to include any one individual or event. The Lowry books include accumulated hearsay stories I picked up while writing Frost. Collecting tales from people who knew Colchester really well, rather than direct links, although I do have a friend who was in the army, and another who told me of a boxing team once in the police, and one whose father was in CID.
Angela: Normally I might ask which is most important to you, the plot, the characters or the location, but in the Nick Lowry series I get the impression that location stands head and shoulders above anything else. With their wonderfully atmospheric and detailed descriptions your books could almost be used as a guide to central Colchester and the surrounding Essex and Suffolk countryside. Why is location so important to you?James: Yes, and thank you! There are several reasons why location is key for me. First, I wrote four Frost books set in a fictional town created by the original writer – nothing was harder than trying to imagine Denton; the police station, the street layout, the distances between the various towns etc. (Much harder than recreating Frost andMullett themselves). All the time I was working on these books I wondered how much easier would be to write a book where I know the locations.
Second as a reader I always got a thrill coming across a place I knew in a book. All the more so if it’s someone I admire, say Iain Sinclair – reading Downriver a couple of years after moving to the area (circa 1992), I remember they were chasing after a rare book, where the search took them to a second handbook shop in Colchester. I could identify the actual bookshop (on North Hill, long since gone). Strange to describe why that made such a big impression, but it did. Previously I had lived in Billericay (which thus far I have only come across once in literature – George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London).
Finally, my love of the countryside and the sea. It’s impossible not to write about what you love. It’s a tiny bit self-indulgent at times maybe, and doesn’t add to the plot, but does as you kindly say, lend the books some atmosphere.
Angela: You have managed to create a variety of all-to-creditable rogues who live by different rules to the rest of us. Do you find it more challenging to create these characters with their own subsets of language and gratuitously violent behaviour than it is to create policemen and other members of society whose behaviour corresponds more closely with the accepted norms?
James: No, I find these guys very easy to do. There is something of a villain in all of us after all – it’s all a matter of circumstance and self-control.
Angela: By the end of Whitethroat (book three) everything seems to be going downhill for Nick Lowry. Is this trend set to continue, or haven’t you decided yet? Is this an open-ended series or did you did you start writing with an idea of the number of books you intend to include in the series.
James: It has been suggested to me that the books to date form a trilogy; Blackwater the coast, Yellowhammer the countryside, and Whitethroat the town. Unfortunately, since hearing this I have found it difficult to dislodge. And I wonder whether to leave it there. End of an era, so to speak. There are reasons to do so: the PACE Act of 1984 is just around the corner for – Sparks and co, the implications for their methods of policing are significant;
technology is advancing beyond their capabilities (in 1982 The Computer was named Time magazine’s person of the year); Colchester police will (and did) move out of Queen Street to a purpose-built building on Southway.
Angela: Is your writing firmly positioned in the last century or would you consider writing something in the modern day or even in the future?James: For now, yes, I remain unashamedly in the last century.
Angela: How has working in publishing facilitated the process of getting your books published?
James: No. If the ideas and the writing weren’t up to snuff, they’d not be published.
Angela: If you could sit down and talk for half an hour with one writer, alive or dead, whom would you choose, and what would be your first question to them?
James: Lowry’s name is in deference to Malcolm Lowry, whose novel Under the Volcano was an obsession for me in my late teens. I’m not sure I want to meet him though; heroes tend to disappoint. Shakespeare? If only to ask did he imagine his work would endure and/or really write all those plays himself
Angela: Whose books did you enjoy most when you were young?
James: Those I remember clearly as a child are: Richard Scarry, Roald Dahl, The Moomins, James Herriot,
Angela: What are your plans for the future? Do you have a second series or a standalone novel in mind? Would you like to write full time or have a complete change of profession, perhaps one that allows you to indulge your obvious love of the great outdoors?James: I am halfway through a standalone set in 1991, but there’s no urgency… and I have no desire to write full time. A complete change of profession? I’m not sure – it’s a question of balance. I love the great outdoors to escape to – if there all the time would it lose it’s appeal? Possibly not!
Angela: A huge thank you James for such an interesting and enlightening interview.
Angela Crowther is a retired scientist. She has published many scientific papers but, as yet, no crime fiction. In her spare time Angela belongs to a Handbell Ringing group, goes country dancing and enjoys listening to music, particularly the operas of Verdi and Wagner.