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Interview: Author David Peace is riding high, so why does he plan to stop soon?

DAVID PEACE KNOWS THAT HE shouldn't be telling me what he is telling me. He shouldn't be telling me it because it's nothing to do with what we're supposed to be talking about, which is his new novel. And it isn't as though there isn't anything interesting enough to say about that, because there's almost too much.

Let's get something out of the way first. The hype. His publishers are saying 2009 is "the year of Peace", what with Channel 4 showing Red Riding, then The Damned United, his novel set inside the mad, messianic, football-focused mind of Brian Clough, first at a multiplex near you and next month out as a DVD. All that before you even start talking about the new novel, Occupied City, set half a world and half a century away, the one I should be talking to him about and the one he'll be talking about himself at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Of all the writers of literary fiction I have ever interviewed – at this stage, about a hundred – only a handful have ever been in the position Peace is now, their work both critically acclaimed and showing up on the nation's big and small screens. But not one of them has ever told me what David Peace just has.

It's this. That when he's finished the novel he's working on now, he'll write two more. And that will be it. Finis. The end. He won't publish any more fiction after that.

It won't be anything to do with his health. It won't be anything to do with creativity slowly freezing up inside the Peace brain. It won't be anything to do with money. It won't be anything to do with spending more time with his family. Lord knows, it's not a publicity gimmick. Every single reason you can think of is irrelevant.

He just won't do it.

With every other writer I've met, the prospect of not being published is like death. Some can be stoical enough about it: they've always secretly known their moment in the sun is going to pass, that a fresh generation of writers has always been rising up behind them, yearning to take their place. One day, these writers realise, their publisher won't take their calls any more, or their agent might phone to break the kind of news that will herald a slide into the twilight world of the neglected midlist or the limbo of the out of print.

But David Peace has always planned to walk away from the publishers on his own terms. He's not independently wealthy or free from the need to write to make a living. Writing novels has been what he's done to pay his mortgage and bring up his family – first in Japan, now in West Yorkshire –and he has no alternative career plans. So why ever think about stopping?

IN 2006, I WAS THE FIRST JOURNALIST to interview Peace about The Damned United. I didn't mention in the piece I wrote, but even then he told me that he was only ever going to write 12 books.

"I've known for about five years what those books I wanted to write were," he said. "It's all mapped out on a chart on my wall. I can tell you, for example, what I'll be writing two years in the future, even beyond."

I realised then this was an odd thing to say, but it didn't seem half as important as how he'd got inside the mind of Brian Clough to write the best novel about sport I've ever read. So that conversational stitch was dropped, and the our talk drifted off towards West Yorkshire (where we both grew up) and our shared admiration for Stan Barstow, who lived just round the corner from Peace in Ossett, where he wrote A Kind of Loving, and who was the first actual writer either of us ever met.

Back then, the "just 12 books" angle didn't seem as sharp as it does now. Curious, yes, but Peace was only halfway through his self-allotted dozen novels, so the end wasn't as clearly in sight as it is now. So I didn't ask him the question I should have asked: Why?

Across a low table from me in a Dundee hotel, David Peace's face contorts in a wince.

"I'm not saying I'm going to stop writing, just that I'm going to stop publishing novels. That chart on the wall still exists. The schedule hasn't really altered.

"I've got the Red Riding Quartet. Then there'll be another quartet, made up of GB84 (for which he won the James Tait Black prize in Edinburgh in 2005], The Damned United, and two other books I've still got to write. Then there's the Tokyo Trilogy, made up of the two books I've already written and the one I'm working on now. That takes me up to 11. The 12th book will be …" He hesitates.

"I'm making a mistake even talking about it … I think I should talk about them less and write more."

Silence. No way am I going to interrupt. A few bars of hotel lounge Muzak plays into my tape recorder. But I really want to know. I'm as interested in David Peace's answer to this question as I've ever been in the answer to any question I've ever asked any writer. Because how does a writer sum up everything he really wants to do, everything that he wants to get right, everything he wants to say before the curtain falls? What does he put in the last book? What would any of us?

"I think …" Peace slumps forward. "All the time, I'm writing… On the train up. I'm working on the last Tokyo book all the time and I think that ... even to finish that would be an immense challenge .... So to keep writing... Twelve books... To me it doesn't seem a dismissive thing. I think 12 books is a load of books."

The one he is working on now, the final book in the Tokyo trilogy, he says, will be a vast novel. It will pull links together that people mightn't have spotted, give new perspectives, change the way in which the other two books in the trilogy might be read.

And it's the same with the last two books in the second Yorkshire quartet. They'll be bigger, harder, maybe slower. Perhaps, he concedes, the schedule on the chart on the wall won't hold. But isn't there, I press, a date on that chart, a last date when the published writing will stop?

"I'm definitely going to keep it at 12 books," says Peace doggedly. "But I might work for 20 years on that last book. I'm still not confident about the writing. I'm still not writing the book I want to. I'm not there."

Would he ever know if he was? Could he even imagine that feeling of 'there'? Has any author ever known it and finished writing a book and thought they've found where 'there' is? Would Joyce have felt like that when he finished writing Ulysses, for example?

"No," laughs Peace. "I bet he wasn't happy."

But as he talks, I start to understand why he's putting himself under pressure by talking about only publishing 12 novels. The answer isn't directly as a result of what he says, but it emerges anyway, the way things sometimes do, even if the conversation isn't directly about them.

He's limiting himself to 12 books because it's a way of making everything he writes the best it can be, because there won't be second chances any more, and somehow that's because this life is the only one we have and it's limited already, so if you're trying to create something special in it, you've got to put limits on what you will do too.

HE'S AN IDEALIST, IS DAVID PEACE. He writes for the books, not the money. He says "doesn't everyone?", and he knows it sounds nave but that's what he really thinks.

He writes in stripped down, visceral language, pared of adverbs – his books, one critic observed, "give you some idea of how the language would have evolved if the Romans, never mind the Normans, had never invaded".

The prose is repetitive, hard, insistent, worked. The adjective you reach for is incantatory: its rhythms pulse into the brain like a heartbeat's surge of blood.

When he started researching Occupied City, he wanted to solve one of the most horrendous murders in modern Japanese history. In 1948 a man, apparently a doctor acting on the orders of the occupying US forces, asked 16 Tokyo bank employees to swallow medicine that would protect them against an outbreak of dysentery in the area. They did. Twelve of them died.

"I did mountains of research into the case, which is linked to the work of Unit 731 of the bacterial warfare unit in Japan during the war. Maybe I'm addicted to research, but I just ploughed on till I couldn't bear to read another account of what the Japanese had done in occupied China during the Second World War. I had this naive idea that somehow I'd be able to solve the case, because in Japan there's always been this great feeling that the man tried for it was wrongly convicted."

Instead, he says, it felt like trying to shine a torch into the dark, with the dark gradually stifling the beam. A book that had aimed for the clarity of retrospective justice twisted into being about the impossibilities of seeing the past clearly, about its complexities, its myriad interpretations, its ghosts and too-real horrors.

It was the hardest book he has ever written, he says. The saddest too. For it, he fell back on an old Shinto tradition of storytelling: each of the protagonists – two detectives, the souls of the poisoned bank staff, the writer, the maddened survivor, the war criminal, the ferryman across the river of death – enter a circle, sit behind a lighted candle. When the story is finished, they snuff it out.

There are 12 of them. Just like the 12 books Peace will leave behind. And at the end, darkness.

&#149 Occupied City, by David Peace, is published this week by Faber, priced 14.99. David Peace will be appearing at the Edinburgh book festival on Saturday 22 August.

 
 
 

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