David Peace: Occupied City

In his latest novel, the author of 'The Damned United' explores serial killers in dysfunctional societies, but David Peace tells Claire Allfree he's keen to return to the sporting life for his next project

David Peace looks a bit out of place in the white cool upper-story office at Faber in London. Dressed in casual black, with a pair of almost comically large black specs perched on his pale shaved head, he looks more like a nervy, etiolated physics student rather than a cult literary phenomenon. And yet the self-effacing author of the blood-soaked Red Riding Quartet (which recently produced a landmark piece of TV) and The Damned United, about Brian Clough's 44-day reign at Leeds United, is friendliness incarnate, eager to talk even though it's quite clear he finds fame both humbling and cumbersome.

If the 42-year-old Peace has the slight air of a small animal blinking in the sunlight that's partly because his leap in profile has almost happened without him. He's just returned with his wife and two children to the Yorkshire town of Ossett where he grew up (and the loose setting for his Yorkshire Ripper novels), after 15 years in Tokyo. "No one knew me at all when I went out," he grins, his Yorkshire heritage clearly audible in his soft, flat vowels. "Now people stop me in the street." There's a touch of anxiety about this: being in Japan allowed him to get on with the job of writing. And as you might guess from the intensely imagined interior worlds summoned in his compulsively violent novels, writing isn't just something Peace does for a living, it's something that inhabits his very being.

There's a hint of this in his new novel Occupied City, the second in a trilogy based in distraught, burnt-out post-war Tokyo, and like the Ripper novels, based on a true crime. The first, Tokyo Ground Zero, was about the serial killer Kodaira Yoshio, who in 1946 murdered several prostitutes. Set among the same shattered, wounded streets, Occupied City pieces together the investigation into the 1948 Teikoku Bank massacre, in which a man posing as a doctor from the occupying forces pretended to administer a dysentery vaccine to 16 bank employees, and instead poisoned them with cyanide, killing 12 instantly. Hirasawa Sadamichi was convicted of the killings but many in Japan believe he was innocent (he died on death row of natural causes in 1987). Once again, Peace lends his account the now customary, brilliantly rendered quality of a sweat-soaked nightmare, using savagely broken, staccato prose that has the insistent monochrome of a migraine. But this time, in reference to Akutagawa's short story "In a Grove", the novel frames the narrative voices of 12 characters (including two detectives, a survivor, an American scientist, Hirasawa, and a writer obsessed with solving the crime) within an old Shinto ghost-storytelling framework in which "the writer" uses a medium to raise the anguished voices of the dead. It's part lament, part exorcism, and part febrile investigation into a writer's relationship with his story.

Peace took two years to research the novel, including ploughing relentlessly through the gut-churning transcripts published by the Soviet Union relating to Unit 731 and Japan's lethal human experimentation with biological and chemical weapons in China, which forms part of a conspiracy theory surrounding the murders. "I found it almost overwhelming," he admits. Yet he dismisses the idea that the overwhelmed writer in Occupied City is meant to represent himself. "I was more interested in the different ways people and cities can be occupied, and that included the way a writer can be occupied by a story as well as the other way round." But it's clear that he too is haunted by the occult presence of history that sits just beneath the skin of a city.

For a start, he is chuffed when people compare the fragmented, incantatory language of his novels with that of T S Eliot's elegiac, radical, post-First World War masterpiece, The Wasteland, a work that, like much of Peace's writing, is thematically concerned with ruin and redemption. "Eliot was a massive influence on me when I was younger," he says. "What's struck me now is that Eliot was obsessed with Noh drama. When he was writing the play Sweeney Agonistes he wanted to somehow combine music hall with the drum beat of Noh theatre. And that was something I was thinking through the writing of both my Japan books – the drum beat that sounds like a death ritual, a funeral rite."

More literally, Tokyo's own recent, turbulent bloody history has affected Peace deeply. "The eastern side of Tokyo, where I lived, was bombed particularly heavily in 1945," he says. 'They filled the canals with the ashes of the dead, and then they turned the canals into roads. And my house overlooks the Sumida River near where many people were burned during the 1923 earthquake. Maybe it's just me but when I walk down the street or along the river in Tokyo I can't forget what I'm walking on."

Peace's gravitational pull to the darker recesses of history, humanity and suffering has been well documented. He has often spoken of going to bed as a child in Yorkshire when the Ripper hysteria was at its height worrying that his mother might be next. Crimes that stalk the dreams of a community are what draw him, but it's the condition of that community that really interests him. "You could compare Peter Sutcliffe with Kodaira in the sense that both sets of murders occurred in spaces that allowed these things to happen," he says slowly. "For example, the industrial decline and huge recession in the 1970s in the North of England created a lot of wasteland. When people chose not to read social, political, economic reasons into crime, I would ask them to look at the spaces in which Peter Sutcliffe killed his victims. Similarly, with Kodaira: the economic and social conditions of post-war Japan allowed him to kill these women. Both – to a greater or lesser degree – were inhabiting landscapes that had been defeated. And I know there's a desire to move on, in Yorkshire and certainly in Tokyo, to leave these narratives of defeat behind. And I can understand that, and I might not have written these stories if I felt that there had been a proper informed discussion in the first place; but there never is. It just doesn't suit the powers that be to have these discussions.'

In that respect, Peace is unquestionably a political writer, even if he has only written ostensibly about politics in GB84, his multi-narrative factional novel about the 1984 miners' strike. He always writes about real events because he is interested in the version of history that sits just beneath the ostensibly "true" one; the alternative founding narratives built from myth and memory. Sometimes this can backfire. He was recently embroiled in what he describes as legal shenanigans over the footballer John Giles, who took legal action against Faber over Peace's depiction of him in The Damned United. "I know he and the Clough family don't care for the book," is all Peace will say about this (although interestingly he implies he himself doesn't care for Peter Morgan's film starring Michael Sheen – he's only watched it on a laptop. By contrast, he worked closely with the producers of Red Riding and pays tribute to the way they leavened the extraordinary violence by digging out a sadness buried deep in the original novels).

More fundamentally, he is interested in the relationship between history and power. "I deliberately left Tokyo out of the title of this new book in order to make it a book about occupation on all sorts of levels," he says. "It's part of our condition as individuals to be occupied by memories and dreams, some of which are true and some of which are not. But we are also occupied on a more political level; by capitalism and the manifestation of capitalism. Advertising is the most obvious example. I also think our whole relationship with history is shifting very quickly. Much of popular culture is predicated on the erasure of history. Perhaps we can't cope with it. I also think we're becoming desensitised to it. But then to get back onto my capitalist conspiracies: it wouldn't be good for us to be contemplating this stuff when we could be out shopping."

He doesn't think, once he has completed the final novel in the Tokyo series, that he will write another true- crime novel. When asked if writing about serial killers and massacres has changed him in someway, he replies, with a typical refusal to self-dramatise, that it does occasionally get him a bit down. Instead, he wants to write next about Geoffrey Boycott. He moved back to Yorkshire because he wanted to be closer to his parents (his mother was seriously ill last year), but looks faintly astonished when I ask him whether it feels good to be home. "I wouldn't say I felt at ease but then I didn't before and I didn't in Tokyo."

This echoes the condition of many characters in Peace's novels: you could argue his grand subject is alienation, coupled with profound psychological, social and cultural damage. "Yes, I do feel alienated from where I am living, but I would say that we are all alienated whether we admit it or not. That's what we've become because of the landscapes we live in. I wouldn't say it troubles me..." He looks suddenly deeply pained and uncomfortable. "I don't know."



'Occupied City' is published tomorrow by Faber & Faber



Well red: From Yorkshire Ripper to Year Zero

Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000)



This fictionalisation of the Yorkshire Ripper case in the Jubilee year of 1977 is the second in the Red Riding Quartet that documents a decade of fear in Yorkshire. Swaying between themes of morality and corruption, this is a world in which the heroes, including a copper and a burnt-out hack, are indistinguishable from the villains.



Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002)



The last in the Red Riding Quartet, Peace's Yorkshire crime fiction traces characters' lives once the case of the Yorkshire Ripper has been solved. It is interspersed with retrospective narratives unfolding police corruption and shocking truths in the North of England. The three prior novels are intertwined, with catastrophic noir force.



GB84 (2004)



A bleak and extremely well-researched narrative of the miners' strike in 1984, which has been criticised for its obscure use of language and complex plot-lines. Using a variety of tools, including newspaper reports, it portrays the personal effects of decisions made beyond the control of the workers, under the Tory government.



The Damned United (2006)



Brian Clough, manager of Leeds United in 1974, is the protagonist in this highly crafted book, which is a fictionalised version of his 44-day stint. Hubris and ego lead to discord mapped by the character's self-awareness. The internal workings of Clough's mind substantiate much of the text, simultaneously humanising and rewriting his life.



Tokyo Year Zero (2007)



The first in the post-war Tokyo trilogy is a sharp departure from prior Yorkshire-set tales. It describes the moral collapse of a society through crime and deprivation. In 1946, detective and protagonist Minami is trying to unravel the mystery of the murder of prostitutes in demoralised imperial Japan. Ruth Gillbe





Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?