‘British literati can look down at crime writing’
Scottish crime author Peter May briefly puts his pen down to speak to The Connexion about writing inspiration, the importance of research, British literary snobbery, and life in rural Lot...
Scottish crime writer Peter May is 67 and still writing, but has only two more books to produce under his present contract. Once they are completed, he says, he will only write for pleasure.
But fans need not panic. It is unlikely he will stop writing altogether, after first putting pen to paper when he was a child and having his first novel published when he was 26.
His first job though was as a journalist, and then television writer and producer for drama series such as Squadron for the BBC and Machair, the first series in Gaelic with English subtitles, set in the Hebrides.
He then turned full time to writing books, and to the Lot in France, which he has called home since 2002.
He is now best-known for his best-selling China Thrillers series, the Lewis Trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides and the France-based Enzo files.
He has won several awards including the Cezam Prix Littéraire, one of the world’s largest adjudicated readers’ awards, the Prix Polar International Cognac and the newspaper Le Télégramme’s Prix des Lecteurs.
Why did you move to France?
I have been coming here more than 40 years. I’m hopeless at foreign languages, but French was the only one I had done in school and so I had that basis.
I couldn’t imagine going to another country and starting from scratch with another language. When I first started coming here on holiday on a regular basis in my early twenties, I thought, ‘this is where I would like to live’.
It’s a different way of life, a different pace of life, particularly in rural France. Food and drink is an awful lot more civilised than it is back in the UK and so are the attitudes to it.
You only have to watch French news on television to see how different the cultural approach is to what is going on in the country.
In Britain, the news is wall-to-wall politics and the only other news is bad news. The French news is very often, oh it’s that time of year when we are going to harvest the walnuts or the violets are in bloom, just now, or here is a piece about an artisan who is one of the few remaining people who restore church organs.
There are always the downside things – road accidents and murders will make the headlines wherever you are, but I think there is a more positive outlook in France than there is in the UK, where good news is bad news.
Is it a good place to be a writer, both in terms of being able to write in a peaceful place, but also in terms of being out there as an author and selling books?
It is a great place to be a writer. Writers are far more respected in France.
There is almost a reverence for writers and artists and musicians. The major difference is that it is much harder to make a living as a writer in France.
I have done book fairs all over France, and I have met a lot of French writers and very few of them, and even those who sell quite well, make a living out of it.
It is very hard to make a living as a writer anywhere, but I think it is more difficult in France.
Because they are paid less for their books?
Things are done differently here. A lot of writers are self-published. You go to book fairs, and writers turn up with boxes of their books and set up their stands and sell their own books.
Very often I get invited to some of the local events, and they say, ‘bring your own books’, and I say, ‘well I can’t. I don’t have them’.
Bookstores sell the books and they get the books from the publishers and it is not how it works. But in France a lot of writers sell their own books.
Do you think the French read as much as the British?
It is a difficult one this. I think the French in general read more, are more literate and they have broader, Catholic tastes.
What you have in Britain are mass market readers, who will buy paperbacks in the hundreds of thousands, or millions even, that you don’t find here.
But it is very genre obsessed. So it is romance, its crime or something else and people will only read their own genre.
In France, people read all sorts of things and are much more interested in reading novels, while people in Britain seem to have just lost the desire to read literature.
Do you think there is less intellectual snobbery here? It is something I noticed when I went to the Brive Book Fair, which is the second biggest in France. People went just because they liked reading, not because they were a certain type of person who thought they should like reading.
Yes, I think that is true. And people take their kids. I have been going to the Brive fair since 2005 and the thing that you notice is the number of kids, and families. The festival caters for all the family.
There are lots of kids’ books and bandes dessinées, that adults read too and right across the genres.
We might talk in a bit about my book The Blackhouse, which was first published here after being universally rejected in the UK.
There are definitely people in the UK, the kind of literary elite, shall we say, that look down their noses at crime, whereas in France crime is regarded as much as literature as anything else and the roman noir, are seen as novels.
Is that why you think The Blackhouse was recognised here, but wasn’t in the UK? Can you tell me that story?
I wrote The Blackhouse in 2005. It is set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides where I had spent five or six years filming a drama series in Gaelic in the 1990’s that my wife, Janice and I had created.
There were all sorts of things poured into that book, not just from the island, but from my own life. There was probably more of me invested in it than in previous things I had written.
Certainly by the time I had finished it, I thought it was the best thing I had written.
And I thought this unique location would have an appeal to the London publishing establishment, but it didn’t.
It just got rejected by publisher, after publisher, after publisher, literally every publisher in the UK. My agent had loved it, but all the editors said, ‘we loved it but we don’t know how we can sell it’.
It was very depressing. I went to write something lighter, to lift my own spirits, and that was the first of the Enzo books, set in France.
This was also, universally rejected, until I eventually found a publisher in the United States for the Enzo books, which, later, were successful in the UK and France.
One day I was at the Book Fair in Brive, and I had a chance conversation with my editor about this manuscript I had sitting in a drawer. She asked me to send it – and about six weeks later, she phoned me and said: “I love this book, and I want to buy the world rights to it.”
She did and it got translated into French and was published here before anywhere else and it just took off.
Do you think one reason for your success is because of the research you do, so the people on the Hebrides recognise their islands, the Chinese police, their China, and the French their France?
Research has always been important to me because I think it is nice if a reader trusts that what the writer is telling them, that the setting they are creating for them is based on an authentic background.
For my China series, I spent several years going back and forth to China doing research and the Chinese police in particular were very co-operative.
I enjoy the research. It’s more fun than the writing. My wife and I have been to lots of places round the world, but usually we find ourselves totally off the beaten tourist track. If we go to Shanghai, people are on the Bund and we’re in the morgue and sitting in the forensics department.
The advantage of being on good terms with the Chinese police was I could get almost anywhere.
I went to see the Terracotta warriors, and I was on the floor with the archaeologists, while everyone else was up in the galleries and weren’t allowed to take photos. It was amazing and got us access to extraordinary things.
I have read that you wrote your first book when you were four. Have you always written?
My father was an English teacher and my mother was a manic reader.
When I was four my parents had taught me the basics of reading and writing and some instinct in me made me write a story, called The Little Elf, which is about six pages long with about 12 words on each page and I made a cover and my mother showed me how to sew it together into a book.
So, I always say, it’s in the DNA. You don’t choose to write, writing chooses you. You are kind of driven to do it somehow.
I have never had difficulty coming up with ideas and I think my journalistic training and the years I spent writing in television, meant I didn’t get precious about writing. I never get writer’s block.
I work very quickly. I develop an idea and do my research up to a point and then I sit down and write a very detailed synopsis of the storyline which could be 25,000 words long.
The story might evolve during the process of writing, but it is basically there, and that is my safety net. So when I start writing, I get up at six in the morning and write 3,000 words a day and the book is usually written in about seven weeks.
It is a bit like taking medicine, you know, trying to get it over as fast as possible.
Many of your descriptions are very evocative. Do you work hard at them?
When I was younger I quite liked the idea of being a film director. When I wrote stories I had very vivid pictures and in a way the stories played out in a visual way in my head and I would write down what I saw.
That has carried on and is one of the reasons why the setting for a book is very important. It is as much a character as the actual characters.
Places have moods, they influence the way people are. Good weather.
Bad weather. All those things affect people and affect plot and the way you tell a story, so settings are important and people seem to enjoy being taken to places.
Do you write for the reader or for yourself? French writer Delphine de Vigan told me she writes for herself.
Some writers do. I worked in television all those years and as a journalist and you are not doing it for yourself.
As a writer you have an ability to do something, but what would you do with a book if you wrote it – would you sit and read it yourself? I’ve never thought of myself as a “writer”.
I’m a storyteller and storytelling is all about your audience, or your reader.
In a way you spark the reader to create the pictures. Storytelling is all about involving your reader, about the process of anticipation.
You are feeding them bits of information and they are speculating and they are going, “is that leading here or is that leading there?”
And they are expecting this is going to happen and then you turn it the other way. So it’s all about this relationship with the reader, I think. I can’t imagine any other reason for writing.
Peter May’s latest publication, The Man With No Face, was published by Quercus, January 2019.
It is a re-release of a book he wrote in 1981, set in Brussels against the backdrop of Britain being part of the EU, and on the eve of a general election, and, so, he says, it could hardly be more topical. It was published in France in May 2019 by Rouergue; La Petite Fille Qui en Savait Trop.
His next book, already written, is about a misfit cop sent into the ex-pat community in the south of Spain to bring back a criminal and will be released in the UK in January 2020, called The Misfit.
A French producer is considering turning The Blackhouse into a film in English and they are going to go to the Hebrides to look at locations, but Peter May says he will not agree to anything unless it is faithful to the book.