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Scottish-born French-domiciled crime writer Peter May has an impressive list of book titles, television screenplays and literary prizes to his name. He is in Dunedin this month to promote his new thriller, Coffin Road, set on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Books editor Helen Speirs asked him about his varied work, his influences and interests, and why there are so many Scottish crime writers.
Q: You started your career as a journalist. When and where was that?
A: I always wanted to be a novelist, but thought that becoming a journalist would be a way to earn a living as a writer until I could get my break. I studied journalism in Edinburgh and got my first job as a journalist with the Paisley Daily Express in Scotland. I won the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year Award when I was 21 and moved on to write for The Scotsman.
When/why/how did you come to start writing fiction?
A: I've just written stories all my life. My father was an English teacher and my mother was a voracious reader, so I was born into an environment rich in books. I was taught to read and write before I went to school. I think becoming a writer was in my genes, because I wrote my first book at the age of four! I know that sounds ridiculous, but I recently dug it out of a box in the attic. It's only six pages long with seven or eight words a page, but it's divided into chapters and the strange thing is, I bound the pages together by sewing them and put a ‘‘cover'' on it. For some reason, I even wrote ‘‘designed in England and made in Scotland'' on the front page!
I wrote stories all through my teenage years and at the age of 18 I finished my first serious attempt at a novel. I sent it off to Collins Publishers and of course received a rejection letter. The editor who wrote to me took trouble and care to reply to me, saying of my writing: ‘‘ . . . we do like it. It has a direct and emphatic narrative style and has an oddly memorable - even idyllic flavour about it. We feel you ought to go on writing, and would like to see anything you write in future - which may not sound very much, but is, I can assure you, a great deal more than we say to 95% of the people who send in their typescripts!''
Those words stayed with me all my life. Encouragement like that is very important.
But there's an amazing coda to this story, because that very editor, a writer named Philip Ziegler, recently wrote the definitive biography of Lawrence Olivier which was published by Quercus, the publisher of my own books. My editor at Quercus was able to arrange a meeting for me with him, and 42 years later I came face to face with the person whose words of encouragement all those years ago, gave me the incentive to stick with my writing and keep trying.
Q: You are also a hugely successful television screenwriter. How did that come about?
A: My first novel [The Reporter] was published when I was 26, and the BBC immediately snapped it up. Although I always wanted to be a novelist, I couldn't resist being involved in the creation of the TV series. So I found myself sidetracked and was sucked into the lucrative world of television writing. I spent the next 15 years creating prime-time drama serials, writing television scripts, storylining and editing scripts. I worked on more than 1000 episodes of drama in that time and it wasn't until the approach of the new millennium that I realised I had to return to my first love, and get back to writing books.
Q: There seem to be a significant number of Scottish crime writers. What is it about the country/psyche that lends itself to the macabre do you think?
A: Storytelling in all its forms has always been very strong in Scottish culture. I don't know if it's the ‘‘macabre'' so much as the effect of living in what is essentially a cold dark place! Scotland certainly has its own distinct atmosphere. But I think the reason that so many Scottish writers are now being published is that Scotland has become fashionable among the London publishing houses. Which is, in itself, a sea change. It was only a few short years ago that one London publishing house turned down The Blackhouse because, in their words, ‘‘we already have a Scottish writer on our list''! Scottish crime writers are getting breaks now perhaps because of the inroads made by the Scandinavians. Some people see links between the Scottish and Scandinavian styles of crime writing.
Q: Is there a sense of collegiality or are you all competitive?
A: Definitely collegiate! The ‘‘Bloody Scotland'' crime writing festival in Stirling every September is one of the most convivial and fun writing festivals around. Where else could you watch two teams of ageing crime writers in football kits fighting it out on the pitch in their annual Scotland Vs England fixture!
Q: Several of your books, including your latest thriller, Coffin Road, are set in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. What is your interest in that area?
A: My close association with the Outer Hebrides began when my wife and I created a long-running TV drama serial [Machair] which was filmed entirely on location on the islands. It ran for 99 episodes and, for five or six years, we lived on the islands for six months out of every year. I was the producer of the show, and as such I was out with the crew from the crack of dawn till late at night. I got to know every square inch, most of the population, and experienced every type of weather: gales, sleet, snow, driving rain and beautiful sunshine (sometimes all in one day!) During that time, those Western Isles of Scotland carved out a very special place in my heart.
When I quit television to concentrate on writing books, I also left Scotland. I wrote a series of six thrillers set in China which meant I spent a lot of time in China doing research. When that series ended, I found myself living in France and thinking back to my days in the Outer Hebrides. There were so many stories I had heard during my time there, I knew it was fertile ground for a book and so I returned to research The Blackhouse.
When I flew back to the island of Lewis after a 10-year absence, it felt very strongly as if I were returning home. It was deeply affecting. And I drew on all those feelings when I was writing the book. Something about the atmosphere of the islands, and the story I decided to tell, made me dig more deeply than I had ever done. When I finished writing The Blackhouse, I was emotionally drained. It had drawn material out of me for which I was quite unprepared.
I felt it was the best thing I had ever written. My agent loved it and sent it off to every publisher in the UK. but what happened next floored me . . . they all turned it down. They said beautiful things about it, but for one reason or another, they wouldn't publish it. I was devastated. I put the book away and it languished in a drawer for several years.
Then by chance, I mentioned the book to my French publisher. She was curious and asked to read it. When she finished it, she told me she loved it, and wanted to buy world rights. What followed was a torrent of praise, writing awards, offers to publish from every country in Europe, and finally a young British publisher, Quercus, which hadn't existed when the book had first done the rounds, stepped forward to publish in the UK. The Blackhouse became a bestseller. When it was published in America it won the Barry Award for Crime Novel of the Year. I went on to write another two books set on the islands. Together they are known as The Lewis Trilogy and they have sold more than 2 million copies in the UK alone.
What is my interest in that area? It's my favourite place on Earth, and it was a real pleasure to return there for Coffin Road.
Q: Coffin Road starts with a man washed up on a beach on the Isle of Harris, barely alive and having lost his memory. It works well as a literary device, whereby the reader slowly pieces the story together along with the main character. Was this the sole intention, or were there other symbolic or practical reasons for this beginning?
A: There is a symbolic reason for the loss of memory. Memory makes us who we are. Without memory, we are nothing. Our history and our experiences define the points of reference that give the building blocks of our personalities their shape. And the same is true of bees. Colony collapse disorder is manifested by the disappearance of whole colonies of bees. Suddenly thriving hives are emptied; for some reason bees don't make their way back home. This is a disaster for the bee colonies, but could be equally disastrous for humanity.
Q: Without giving away too much of the plot, the plight of bees and the environment is a significant - and unusual - thread. Where did that element come from?
A: One of my expert advisers, who has been providing scientific guidance for my books since the late 1990s, is Professor Joe Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He is one of the foremost scientists involved in the campaign to protect agriculture and the environment from the contamination of genetically modified crops and the blanket use of pesticides. Several years ago he was one of the first scientists to address the European Parliament on the dangers to our dwindling bee population, and the repercussions for the world if no action was taken.
At that time, he alerted me to the potential disaster that was looming. Along with other insect pollinators, the bee is responsible for the production of two-thirds of our crops. Without bees there would be widespread famine. Little was known about the reasons for dwindling bee populations back then and research was needed.
A few years down the line and bee colonies have been disappearing in greater numbers all over the world. There are many reasons for this: changes in farming methods which have destroyed their natural foraging habitat; disease, often spread by unregulated transportation of bees around the world; the changing climate.
But above all, the use of a new breed of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The body of scientific evidence that points towards these pesticides as being primarily responsible for the decimation of the bee is now overwhelming. But with many billions of dollars at stake, the agro-chemical industry will go to any lengths to shelve the evidence and discredit the scientists who are bringing it to light.
All great material for a thriller. But even more chilling when you consider what is at stake in reality!
Q: Can you tell me a bit about how, when and where you work, where your ideas come from, how much research and travel is involved.
A: I've written more than 20 books now, and each one has a different origin. Normally I'm touched, or enraged, or intrigued by something I have read in the news, and I go digging around finding out more about the subject and the ideas start to form. Something I love, which came from my early training as a journalist, is research. Most of the books I read are nonfiction books for researching some subject or other. For every book, the research is like an iceberg, most of it is below the surface, but the bulk of it serves to give me the confidence to write about a subject with authority.
I usually write a very detailed storyline before writing the book. I think this came from my days in television where it was normal to write a breakdown of what happens scene by scene before writing the script. I see it as two separate processes. The first process is coming up with the plot and its structure; the second is the writing itself, creating pictures with words, the descriptions, conveying the atmosphere and the characters' relationship and emotions.
After I've written my outline, I can see what and where I still need to research. I make a list of all the locations in the story and I make a point of visiting every one of them. A sense of place is very important in my books, whether it is France, China, or the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I never write about a place if I haven't been there. I like to go and take video of the locations, making notes about what sort of things strike you when you are there: the heat, or cold, the smells etc.
When I get back from my location research I will edit together a short video of each location that I can replay when I am writing the scenes that are set there. Sometimes visiting the locations will cause me to have to change the story outline.
When I'm writing, I get up at 6am and write 3000 words every day, Monday to Friday and take the weekends off. That way I will have finished the book in seven to eight weeks. I do a little editing and fine tuning, but not much.
Q: What writers have influenced you/what are some of your favourite books and authors?
A: I was most influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. A favourite book, and one that made the biggest impression on me in my youth, was The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J. P. Donleavy.
Q: I understand you are a musician. What do you play?
A: I play keyboards and guitar. I recently released an album with my childhood friend. We were in a band together as teenagers. The book Runaway is based on our teenage experiences of running away from Glasgow to London in the 1960s.
Q: Have you been to New Zealand before? What do you know about the place? What are you hoping to do while here?
A: I've never visited New Zealand before. I'm looking forward to it enormously. As for what I will do, well I'm open to suggestions!