Digging Into Crimes: A Conversation with Peter May

By MaryAnne KoltonJune 16, 2013

Digging Into Crimes: A Conversation with Peter May

MARILYN STASIO of The New York Times wrote, “Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth.” Should you choose to dip your toes in the overflowing pool of May’s dazzling, melancholy, and gloriously cerebral fiction, you will soon see what she meant. To read the three books in the Lewis Trilogy is a mere beginning .


MARYANNE KOLTON: Happy family? Who encouraged you to read and what were your boyhood favorites?

PETER MAY: I wrote my first book when I was four years old. My father was an English teacher, and he and my mother taught me to read and write before I went to school — at a very basic level, of course. But no sooner did I have these basic tools in my hand, than I used them to write a story called "Ian the Elf." I sewed the pages together, and colored in a front and back cover. So clearly, writing was there in the DNA.

I recently rediscovered that first manuscript in a box of stuff that came from my parents' house. I scanned in the pages to make a very short slide show, which can be seen here.

I wrote and read a lot as a child but did not become seriously interested in books until I was about 11 or 12. My uncle's wife had committed suicide, and he came to stay at our house. I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the couch in the lounge. At one end of it was a bookcase filled with my parents' favorite books. Since I was always awake early, I used to lie there and look at the books. They had exotic titles like Eyeless in Gaza, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Cloud Howe, The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde, The Big Sleep. And the writers had weird names like Aldous Huxley and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. They became very familiar to me as I stared at them every morning, never drawing a distinction between what might be classed as "literature," and the court and crime mysteries of bestsellers like Erle Stanley Gardner or Raymond Chandler.

Then one day I started reading them and worked my way along all the shelves. I was too young for many of the books, but read them all the same — cover to cover. They had a profound effect on me, and probably laid the foundations for the writer I was to become.

MAK: And then you became a journalist who veered off into television scripts creating two major series for the BBC, The Standard and Squadron, while also becoming one of Scotland's most celebrated television drama writers. What motivated you to leave fame and fortune behind and change course again to become a novelist?

PM: Making your life rich is all about changing it when it becomes too comfortable or predictable. I remember sitting on the night shift in the newsroom of The Scotsman newspaper, watching an old journalist sneaking out to the pub on the pretext of going to buy matches. He would do it several times a day. Everyone knew where he was really going. During the war, he had been part of the British assault forces invading southern Italy. But he had been working for The Scotsman for 45 years, and here he was sneaking out to the pub, losing himself in drink, and treading water until he could retire and die. He was a sad and pathetic figure, and I vowed then, that I would not be working in the same job 45 years later. And so I have always followed my heart and changed course when I felt it was time — even if that meant walking away from security and a good income. I had always wanted to make a living as a novelist, so the time was always going to come when I would make that leap.

MAK: Next we find you in China. Why China?

PM: I had harbored an interest in China since my first trip there in the early 1980s. It was a country I had always wanted to write about, and when I came up with the idea for a story based around the genetic modification of the food that we eat, China seemed like the ideal location given the lack of controls there at that time on scientific experiments and trials. And so my researches took me back to make an in-depth study of daily life in order to create an authentic backdrop to the book, The Firemaker. When my publisher wanted more books set in China with the same characters, that kicked off an extended period of several years when I was travelling back and forward to China and around the country to research them.

MAK: Please talk a bit about the Lewis Trilogy. Was it always meant to be a trilogy?

PM: The Blackhouse was never meant to be a trilogy, but a standalone book. However, after its highly successful publication in France, where it won several literature awards, the book was bought up by publishers around Europe and in the UK. I then came under pressure from my French and British publishers to turn it into a series. I declined on the basis that the Isle of Lewis did not make a fruitful location as a setting for a crime series since the average murder rate there is one a century. I also felt I had told Fin's story. However, the publishers continued to press, and a compromise was reached — I would write a trilogy, another two stories exploring those areas of Fin's life not touched in The Blackhouse and digging into crimes which had their roots in the past, building on the theme of the past coming back to affect the present and the future. And so the Lewis Trilogy was born. For The Lewis Man I drew on actual historical events — the sending of children from orphanages on the mainland to families in the islands — and the personal experience I garnered of Alzheimer's while caring for my father. And for The Chessmen, I took as inspiration my years of playing in a rock group as a teenager, as well as drawing once again on the real life tragedy of the Iolaire — a ship bringing island soldiers back from World War 1, which sank within sight of the island with the loss of more than 200 lives.

MAK: This from The Lewis Man:

After about fifty yards, the land dipped down, cliff giving way to crumbling peat and shale, sheltered from the sea's assault by a towering cluster of rocks that stacked up from the shore. A ragged path led down at an angle to a protected shingle beach, almost hidden from the sea itself and nearly impossible to reach from either side. Only a matter of feet away, the ocean vented its anger all along the rocky shallows, the roar of it muffled by the stacks that kept it at bay. The clearest of water gathered in pools among the rocks below them, and the spray blew high over their heads.

Regardless of the lack of crime on Lewis Island, you've created a sense of place with wondrous depth and interest. Is this imagined or is it all really there?

PM: I never write about a place I haven't been to, and when I write about it I describe it as it is. That applies to all of my China Thrillers: I visited all the locations such as the Shanghai Police morgue, Beijing homicide department's forensic science laboratories, the American ambassador's residence in Beijing, and it was the same with the Enzo Files series. I went down the catacombs hundreds of feet below Paris streets and to all the other locations that I have written about. So yes, of course, the Hebrides exists as I describe it in my books. The only liberty I have taken is in creating the fictitious village of Crobost (where Fin grew up) — although everyone on the island would recognize the place I based it upon. The annual guga hunt is also fact. The only change I made was in renaming the rock from Sula Sgeir (Gannet Rock) to An Sgeir (The Rock).

MAK: In a review in The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio says:

May handles the split framework of this intricately plotted story by deftly adapting his style to the sensibility of the storyteller. There’s a melancholy tone to the chapters that return to Macleod’s lonely boyhood: the death of his parents that left him an orphan at a young age; the girl he loved from his first day at school and lost to his best friend; the schoolyard tormentors who made his life a misery; the dark yet joyful enchantment of the island and the sea.

Will you expound a bit on her term “split framework”?

PM: The "split framework" refers to the two story strands that intertwine through the book. Both strands are from Fin's perspective. One is set in the present day while he conducts his investigation; the other is the story of his childhood and set in the past.

Fin's past is a jigsaw puzzle, and we get to see pieces of it when memories are sparked for him by visiting locations on the island, or meeting people that he knows. I felt it made sense to tell those stories from the past from inside Fin's head, so they are written in first person to distinguish them from the present day police investigation that is told as most books are, in third person. As the book progresses we get a clearer picture of who Fin is, and how his life experiences have shaped him.

What binds the whole trilogy of Lewis books together is how the past has a bearing or an influence on the present and the future. We can all think back and remember when we made a hasty decision, or took the wrong choice at a crossroads, but life moves on quickly and no matter what regrets we might have, we have to live with them. What was done can't be undone.

Fin has spent most of his life having to bottle up his emotions. He has buried a lot of his pain and is not good at expressing himself. When Fin's parents are killed he says:

It occurred to me, sitting there, that one day I would die too. It was not something I had ever thought about before, and it nudged up against my grief for space in my little locker of horrors. But you can't dwell on the thought of your own death for long, and very soon I banished it altogether by deciding that since I was only eight it was a very long way off, and I would deal with it only when I had to.

We soon discover that Fin has coped with all the painful events in his life by putting them away in his “little locker of horrors.”

In the second book in the trilogy — The Lewis Man — one of the central characters is an Alzheimer’s sufferer. I based a lot of it on my experiences caring for my father. I watched first-hand his frustration and confusion as his memory fractured. I also saw how easy it was for people to dismiss him, as if he ceased to have feelings simply because he wasn't able to express them. I've been extremely touched by the number of emails that I've received from readers who are carers of a relative, or workers in homes for the elderly, who had been moved by the exploration of the elderly man's thoughts and emotions in The Lewis Man.

We jump to conclusions about people. We meet a moody young man or a silent and immobile elderly person, and cannot possibly know all the things that they have been through: the love they have felt and expressed, the losses or pain they have suffered, the sacrifices they have made. Their histories can't be seen. We don't stop to consider or make allowances; we simply judge them on how they look or behave to us today. It's no one's fault. It's just life. 

So the "split framework" tells two interlinked story strands, one is set in the present day, the other allows us to enter a character's head and find out about the past and how it has influenced or shaped the present. Inevitably there comes the point when the past and present converge, and finally we get the full picture.

MAK: From The Chessmen:

A grin of something close to embarrassment split Whistler’s face. “Ach, it’ll be a bloody wild goose chase, I’m sure. But I was always fascinated by the story I heard once about a man who knew these valleys like the back of his hand. Got lost one time in a fog, and fell into a hidden cave among the boulders. There were steps down into it. And inside it he found a stash of rusted old swords. Dozens of the things. He couldn’t carry them himself, but he was sure he would find his way back with his friends to bring them down to the village.” Whistler shook his head, “He never did. No matter how many times he looked, he couldn’t find that cave again. No one ever doubted him, though, and there was a lot of speculation about where the swords had come from and who put them there.”

There seems to be a fine scrim of magical realism running through all three of the Lewis books. Would you agree?

PM: If magical realism means that things magical or supernatural are simply accepted in a down-to-earth way, then that's true. On the islands, folklore and mythology are accepted as part of life. People are living on land that their ancestors inhabited; they are buried close by. I'm sure that leaves them far more in touch with the past and the "spirits" of the past than we are. In France, a person's patrimoine — the land where their family originated and where generations of them were brought up — is very important to them. I was speaking to a winemaker a couple of weeks ago who said he was the 18th generation of winemakers to be making wine in that part of Burgundy. His ancestors had lived in the same place and tended vines in the same fields for centuries. That sense of continuity is true of the people on the islands of the Outer Hebrides. These people have a special relationship with the place — they have a real sense of being rooted there, a part of nature, secure, maybe that makes them more philosophical about accepting the unknown and things that can't be explained. 

MAK: Are you as disciplined as you appear? When you are frivolous, what’s involved?

PM: My weaknesses are good food, good wine, and good company, and living in the part of France where I do; I get plenty of opportunities to fall prey to my vices. My interest in China extended obviously to include its cuisine. During the research for the China Thrillers, I picked up a lot of authentic recipes and so I cook a lot of Chinese food. My research for the Enzo Files in France also led me to spending three days in the kitchen of Michelin three-star chef, Michel Bras, and when I set one of the books in the vineyards of Gaillac, I tried to visit as many of the 120 winemakers in the region as I could in order to taste their wines. (I take my research very seriously!) In fact, I became so expert on the wines there, that all my hard work was recognized by the fraternity of L'Ordre de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac who inducted me as a "Chevalier!"


Mary Anne Kolton's author interviews have appeared most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Herald de Paris, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City Center, Prime Number, and January Magazine.

LARB Contributor

MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in myriad literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, and Connotation Press, among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was short listed for The Glass Woman Prize. Author interviews have appeared most recently in the Herald de Paris, Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City CenterJanuary Magazine, Word Riot and Prime Number. MaryAnne can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • Funambulism: An Interview with Colum McCann

    Colum McCann is appearing at a LiveTalksLA event at William Turner Gallery, Bergamot Station, June 18 at 8pm.) COLUM MCCANN'S CAREER of nearly 2 decades has demonstrated a fascination — an obsession, almost — with gaps: between continents, between eras, between ...

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.