An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Peter May
I’ll Keep You Safe (Riverrun, 11 January 2018)
International, best-selling author, Peter May, has returned to the Hebrides in Scotland with his latest thriller, I’ll Keep You Safe. It will keep you up at night with its lyrical and atmospheric writing and keep you guessing till the very end!
“Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth.” Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times
AUTHORLINK: Mr May, it’s so wonderful to talk to you. Thank you for coming on Authorlink to discuss your writing and your recent best-seller, ‘I’ll Keep you Safe’ – another spectacular, thrilling novel set in the majestic Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
MAY: Hi. Nice to be joining you on Authorlink.
AUTHORLINK: Correct us if we’re wrong, but in a nutshell, your career trajectory reads like this; you were born in Glasgow, and your father was a headmaster. Unfortunately for him, you were kicked out of your final year of school (by a competing headmaster – wonder if he reads your books today…), and so you went off to London with your mates to become a professional musician. When that didn’t work out, you studied journalism in Edinburgh, after which you worked at several Scottish newspapers including the Scotsman and the Glasgow Evening Times.
This led to your break into television and you and a fellow reporter, Alastair Balfour, devised a series based around a newsroom called, ‘The Standard’, which was picked up immediately by BBC Scotland. That led to work in several other television series’, including ‘Squadron’, ‘Machair’ and the Highlands-set soap, ‘Take the High Road’.
This enabled you to publish your first book, ‘The Reporter’ (1978), a novel based on ‘The Standard’. Even though you had become one of Scotland’s most celebrated television drama writers, you decided to take a chance and become a full-time novelist. How do you feel you have evolved as a writer since your first book, (not the one you wrote when you were four ), or are your books too different to compare? Would you have done a few things differently?
As a novelist, I might have liked to have had my success a little earlier, but then rejection and disappointment make it all the sweeter when eventually it comes…
MAY: I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Life is one long learning curve. No one hits the ground running, and the process of life and self-education is an illuminating one. As a novelist, I might have liked to have had my success a little earlier, but then rejection and disappointment make it all the sweeter when eventually it comes – although I would almost certainly have felt differently about that if the success had never come. Of course, my writing has evolved through my various careers as journalist, scriptwriter and novelist, so my work has changed and developed as I grew more experienced. I can look back and see that my dialogue writing, for instance, in my pre-television novels was pretty bad, but transformed by my scriptwriting experience in later books.
AUTHORLINK: That’s very interesting, thank you. We understand you fell into crime writing by accident. One of the first stories you came to write was about genetically modified food and set in China (which started off a six-book series, ‘The China Thrillers’). You were keen to put the story forward and thought it might be best to start it with a crime scene – the discovery of a body in a park in Beijing. Once you had written a successful crime book, your publisher (and your readers) wanted you to write some more, and so you were sort of stuck in that genre. Is there another genre you would like to try? We understand you always wanted to write a clear-cut love story, (which we think is marvelous and wish you would). Do you like other types? Fantasy? Magic Realism?
Yes, I always wanted to write the great love story. But also the great novel, the great thriller.
MAY: While I did read and enjoy crime stories as a young man (Christie, Chandler, Hammett et al), the main focus of my reading was concentrated on the novels of writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Greene, Huxley, and it was very much a novelist that I wanted to be. However, I am not a genre snob, and these days I think there is great writing to be found in nearly every genre. Yes, I always wanted to write the great love story. But also the great novel, the great thriller. And in a way, I think I managed to amalgamate all my ambitions in “Entry Island”, which was a crime story, love story and historical adventure all rolled into one. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that genre is unimportant. The only thing that matters is telling a good story.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, agreed. We thoroughly enjoyed I’ll Keep You Safe. Your writing is seamless and lyrical, and you shine at character development. The atmospheric setting of the Hebrides in Scotland is so ethereal; it’s a character in its self and a wonderful escape. The main protagonist, Niamh, is so real and complex that she comes alive through the pages. Through her, we experience a family tragedy, setting up a business of Ranish Tweed and the love she felt for her husband. How do you drive home a person’s character so well in your writing? Do you have a notebook of observations of people that you carry around with you always? Or are your characters based, in part, on people you know?
…I don’t take notes, but I’m a compulsive people watcher. Characters are shaped sometimes by the needs of the story…
MAY: No, I don’t take notes, but I’m a compulsive people watcher. Characters are shaped sometimes by the needs of the story, although usually it is the character that will determine the path that the story takes. All story derives from character and relationship, so it is important that characters are fully formed in my mind before I start writing. I’m never sure where they come from – possibly amalgamations of people I know or have met. In the case of “I’ll Keep You Safe”, I conducted three lengthy and very personal interviews with island women of Niamh’s generation, which provided me with great insights into the nature and experience of life in the islands for girls growing up in the eighties and nineties. However, I know that my character has fully taken on a life of his or her own when I find myself taking dictation for their dialogue. I don’t put words in their mouths, I’m just a shorthand typist.
AUTHORLINK: That’s remarkable. We also loved how you converged your timelines in I’ll Keep You Safe and how it is mostly written in third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. Why did you decide to present her story this way and not the other way around, i.e. her past told in third person and her present told in first? Do you ever mix the tenses and the perspectives up in your earlier drafts to see what fits the story better?
MAY: I only usually have one draft of a manuscript, because I storyline in detail before I begin writing. Then all that remains is a process of polishing. I am never confused by tense or “person”, because I regard the narrative as a story told by me, the storyteller, and the first-person passages as personal accounts that come straight from the principle character – like getting privileged access to their secret diary.
AUTHORLINK: What was the hardest thing about writing I’ll Keep You Safe? What was the easiest? And what is your favourite part?
MAY: The hardest thing about any book is making yourself start it, then once you begin you get lost in it. My favourite part of any book is the research – and in the case of those books with Hebridean settings, I get to go back to my favourite place on earth – the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
AUTHORLINK: It looks amazing. You once said (Material Witness, 22 August 2013), “I only start to worry about whether the book is any good or not after I’ve written it!” Can you also tell by your sense of enjoyment as you’re writing your book, whether it’s a winner? Have you ever had to recraft a novel from start to finish because you weren’t happy with the final product?
I don’t think you ever know whether or not a book is a winner. Every writer, I think, is be-devilled by doubt…
MAY: I don’t think you ever know whether or not a book is a winner. Every writer, I think, is be-devilled by doubt – it goes with the territory. But you certainly get a feel for a story as you are writing, and sometimes there are big moments in it that simply have you punching the air with pleasure or excitement. That always gives you a good feeling. When I wrote ‘The Blackhouse’, I believed it was the best thing I had ever written. But when it was rejected by every publisher in Britain, as well as my then US publisher, I came to believe that somehow, I was wrong, that I had totally misjudged it. Only with time, and the later unprecedented success of that book, were my initial feelings about it validated.
AUTHORLINK: What are your thoughts on good or bad readers reviews?
MAY: Out of a hundred reviews you can have ninety-nine good ones, but you are always haunted by the one bad one. These days I try not to read any of them.
AUTHORLINK: Are you working on anything right now? Are you able to tell us a bit about that?
My next book is a revised version of one that I wrote nearly forty years ago.
MAY: My next book is a revised version of one that I wrote nearly forty years ago. It had always been one of my favorite stories, and when my editor read it and said that he would love to republish, I revisited it with a critical pen. To my surprise, I found that I really enjoyed it. But I did spend time upgrading pre-TV career dialogue, and now feel that it might be one of the best books I have written. Meantime, however, I am working on an entirely new piece which is set in southern Spain, and as we conduct this interview I am there researching it.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds intriguing! And for a bit of fun, which two well-known people, living or dead would you like to invite over for dinner; what would be on the menu and what searing question(s) would you ask them?
MAY: I would invite Billy Connolly and the late Chick Murray. I would serve tea and cakes, but wouldn’t ask them anything, just sit back and be entertained.
AUTHORLINK: How fantastic – yes very entertaining. Mr May, thank you for your time today. We wish you all the very best success for I’ll Keep You Safe and look forward to your next novel!
MAY: Thank you.
About the Author: One of Scotland’s most prolific television dramatists, Peter May has garnered more than 1000 credits in 15 years as a scriptwriter and script editor on prime-time British television drama. He is the creator of three major television drama series and presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland before quitting television to concentrate on his first love, writing novels.
He is the multi award-winning author of:
- the internationally, best-selling Lewis Trilogy, set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland;
- the China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective, Li Yan and American forensic pathologist, Margaret Campbell;
- the critically-acclaimed Enzo Files, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod, which is set in France;
- and several standalone books, including the multi award-winning, Entry Island, Runaway, Coffin Road and I’ll Keep You Safe