Peter Robinson: ‘I wrote many unpublishable books before Banks’

The novelist behind the popular TV detective talks about bad poetry and even worse novels

Peter Robinson has spent more than 24 years with DCI Banks, the murder detective who is the central character of his novels, so he knows him well. “When I’m writing about Banks, I don’t want to push him if it doesn’t register. I can sense resistance if a scene doesn’t work – I realise I’m trying to force the issue when it doesn’t work. I am writing about somebody who is going through the same world as I am, doing a job that forces him to look at the world differently. ”

Banks and Robinson make a return today in Watching The Dark, the detective’s 20th appearance. Robinson produces a Banks saga a year these days, a multiple award-winning series. It is all a far cry from his early struggle to find his place as a writer. “I found it surprisingly easy to get published with Banks, but not easy to get to a point where I wrote something publishable. I wrote three of four unpublishable books before Banks, all crime novels based on American private eye novels like Raymond Chandler. My private eye was a Leeds social worker. It was a bad idea, don’t ever try it. I think in order to learn to write a novel, you have to write a bad one. It is all very well writing short stories but until you have written a full novel...”

The 62-year-old splits his time between Canada and Yorkshire, where Banks is stationed. Living with the same character for so long isn’t restrictive, he says, rather it is liberating. “It is good to have those boundaries, it is like having 14 lines in a sonnet, what you can do within that is interesting.”

Robinson found his boundaries as a suspense writer from the frustration of being a bad poet. His early writing years were spent trying to improve as a poet, being taught by Joyce Carol Oates. “She didn’t so much criticise as point you in the direction where she thought you should be. She had a pile of books next to her door and, on the way out of class, she’d pull out a relevant one and say, ‘I think you should read this.’ She’d do that rather than criticise line by line or word by word.”

It was reading crime fiction that “thrilled” him and made him realise what he wanted to write. “I always knew I wanted to write. As a child, I would write stories, mainly retelling the stories that I had liked. I was influenced by writers like Ross Macdonald. I suppose it was that I wanted to get social realism into my books.”

Thanks to an ITV deal, Banks is a TV character too, making his debut in 2010 and drawing in a strong audience (6.6m or thereabouts). Robinson didn’t expect the TV incarnation of his well-established character to be the same. “It is two different worlds for me. I see it as a different story entirely. I do read scripts and occasionally make comments, sometimes they even listen to me,” he says. “I don’t try to get involved too much. I think I was lucky that I had mine commissioned later on, I think you develop a realistic attitude to what the show is going to be.”

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So, after living with him for so long, what is Robinson’s grand plan for Banks? Does he even have one? “No, I struggle on from one book to the next. He’s had a really bad time recently, so I wanted to make the more recent one about him doing something for himself, proving to himself he can still do things.

“A good crime novel is, of course, a page turner but it is also about mystery, suspense and vicarious thrills. I value human dilemmas over a quickly moving plot. I want interesting believable people rather than a whodunnit.”

Peter Robinson will be talking about his new book Watching The Dark at Swiss Cottage Library on Tuesday (August 21) at 6.30pm. Tickets are �3 and available from Waterstones in at the O2 shopping centre either in person or over the phone at 020-7433 3299. Ticket proceeds will go to the Swiss Cottage Users Group.