Q&A with The House On Cold Hill author Pete James

The House On Cold Hill is a spine-chilling thriller, coming to Leeds Grand Theatre at the end of April. What better way to find out all about it, than with a Q&A with the original author himself?

What can you tease about the premise of The House On Cold Hill?

The House On Cold Hill was very much inspired by what happened to myself and my former wife in 1988. It’s about a couple: Ollie [Joe McFadden] – who made a very successful business in internet web design and he’s sold it, which is what gives him the money to buy the house – and his wife Caro [Rita Simons], who is a lawyer. They’ve been townies all their lives and they decide to follow the dream so they buy this big old wreck in the country, moving to it with the idea that it’s going to be their forever home and they’re going to spend the next ten years restoring it. Then they find out that they may not the only people living in it!

What’s in store for audiences when they come see the show?

It’s a very modern ghost story that brings in Facebook and Alexa. We’ve tried to become really modern with the whole idea that ghosts aren’t necessarily stuck in Victorian Gothic times so the ghosts in the play can use computers, as they did in the book. Audiences are in for lots of shocks and twists and turns and above all else The House On Cold Hill is a thriller so I hope they’ll be getting some nice scares along the way!

How hands-on are you when it comes to stage adaptations of your work?

What I love about working with [producer] Joshua Andrews and [writer] Shaun McKenna is how we all respect each other’s views and opinions. I’m very hands-on but I know my limitations. I’m an author and I write novels. It’s a very different process making something work on the stage and for me Shaun is a magician. I’m astonished at his vision because transposing a book into a play is really tough. You have to cut down on the characters enormously. I’ll have maybe 20 or 30 characters in a novel but it’s not economical to have more than between five and nine characters in a touring stage play. Shaun has to condense those and also the locations because the House On Cold Hill novel moves around between a graveyard, a vicarage, a school, Brighton and Sussex, whereas with the play we’re confined to the interior of a house.

What do Joe McFadden and Rita Simons bring to the lead roles?

What’s really important with any cast, as with characters on the pages of a book, is that the audiences in the theatre and the readers of the book like them and connect with them – even with the bad people because the best villains are those we care about. Joe and Rita both have a great warmth about them. Instantly audiences will go ‘I like these people’ and then they’ll be going ‘Oh no, they’re in terrible danger’. It’s the same with Ollie and Caro’s daughter Jade [Persephone Swales-Dawson], who is this sweet kid. The more you care about somebody the more you fear for them.

What draws you to the thriller genre?

I’ve always loved thrillers because I think it should be about writing page-turning books. If you go back to the roots of storytelling, Shakespeare’s plays were page-turners with people eager to know what happened next. Charles Dickens is another example of a great writer who wrote real page-turners. I think as a storyteller it’s important to not bore your readers.

What’s your writing process?

I have a favourite place to write, which is the office in my home, but half the year I’m travelling, doing book promotion and research, so I don’t always have that luxury. I can write anywhere and in fact I finished two novels on long-haul flights. [Laughs] Plenty of booze and no distractions. Then when I finish a book there’s normally 24 hours of feeling both elated and also lost because in the seven months it takes me to write a novel I’m sort of anchored to it. I go to sleep each night thinking about the next scene and the next chapter, then when it’s finished I’m going ‘I’ve got nothing to think about’. You send the book off to your editor and then you’re worrying ‘Is it any good? Or have I gotten away with it before and now people will realise I’m not really any good?’

Was branching out into theatre always part of your plan?

I’d dreamed from the age of eight or nine of having a play on stage because I always loved live theatre. My parents had regular theatre tickets at Brighton and I’d go along to plays with them, but I never thought it would happen. I did have a go at writing a play some years ago that almost got put on but I then got sidetracked with filmmaking and my novels. As I say, I’d known Josh and worked with him briefly, then I met him again at a party about seven years ago and he asked ‘Do you have any books you think might work on stage?’ That was the start of this wonderful collaboration.

What have you most enjoyed about getting involved in the theatrical process?

[Laughs] It gets me out of my cave. There’s also the fact that storytelling is an oral tradition. Before books there were travelling storytellers and great writers like Shakespeare wrote plays because it was before books existed, apart from for a tiny minority who could afford them and who could read. So in a way theatre goes right back to the roots of storytelling, with that instant connection with the audience. What I also love is kind of the danger of a stay play. Once a book is finished it stays the same but with a play every single production and indeed every single performance is different, especially if something goes wrong or audiences react differently. I love sitting at the back of the theatre watching the audience and seeing what they react to, and I’ve learned a lot from that. You can’t sit and watch somebody read your book or [laughs] it would be a bit weird if you did.

Why do you think theatre audiences are drawn to spine-tinglers?

There’s a kind of comfort in it because you’ve got the shared thrill and you’re surrounded by hundreds of others so everybody jumps at the same time, then everyone laughs. If you were sitting at home watching a scary movie, with creaking noises and the rain pelting down outside, it’s not quite the same comforting experience. I think the world is a scary place and part of the reason people love reading a good thriller or going to a thriller play is because they can be scared but in a controlled environment. You walk out into the daylight or the nice evening air and everything is a bit better and happier.

Don’t miss this chilling thriller when it comes to Leeds Grand Theatre from 29th April – 4th May.

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