Writer a stick­ler for re­search

Whangarei Report - - Entertainment -

Scot Peter May felt at home in Dunedin, find­stony NIELSEN

Some­how it seemed like the stars had aligned for au­thor Peter May’s whis­tle-stop visit to Dunedin. For a start there’s the Scot­tish con­nec­tion, al­though May and writer wife Jan­ice Hally have been res­i­dents in France for some years, he’s very much a man of Scots her­itage. Throw in a pesky, rainy, drizzly day, af­ter a 30 de­gree one the day be­fore, and both Peter and Jan­ice feel right at home.

In per­son May is a gar­ru­lous and forth­com­ing char­ac­ter, the Scots ac­cent cre­at­ing in­stant ap­peal. He’s spent a life­time writ­ing in one form or an­other, tak­ing the plunge into pen­ning nov­els full­time in the late 1990s. His ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, es­pe­cially the dis­ci­pline as­pect of the craft, equipped him well for what was to fol­low. His first novel, The Reporter, was pub­lished when he was just 26 and was adapted into a very suc­cess­ful TV se­ries, The Stan­dard. This prompted a move into tele­vi­sion, a 15-year di­ver­sion, which re­sulted in nu­mer­ous suc­cess­ful pro­grammes and awards, ini­tially as a writer, and later as a pro­ducer. Among many high­lights, to­gether with his new wife Jan­ice, he cre­ated a ground­break­ing se­ries, Machair. It broke the mould by be­ing the first Scot­tish se­ries in Gaelic, with English sub­ti­tles. De­spite his suc­cesses and over 1000 TV cred­its, as the 1990s were com­ing to a close, May opted for a risky move as a full­time novel writer.

May is a stick­ler for re­search and en­sur­ing that he only writes from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. How­ever, as well as tak­ing the plunge into a new less cer­tain ca­reer he chose a to­tally for­eign set­ting for the first novel. Through an­nual vis­its, some­times for months at a time, May had im­mersed him­self in the peo­ple and places in China, at that time still pretty much a closed shop to the Western world. Through a grow­ing net­work of con­tacts he built up a knowl­edge of the homi­cide and foren­sic sci­ence sec­tions of the Bei­jing and Shang­hai po­lice forces, mak­ing him­self fa­mil­iar with their pro­ce­dures and peo­ple. The first in what was to be­come a se­ries of six crime sto­ries fea­tur­ing Bei­jing de­tec­tive Li Yan was The Fire­maker, fol­lowed by an ad­di­tional re­lease each year be­tween 1999 and 2004.

With­out his ties to a day-job for Scot­tish tele­vi­sion, May and wife Jan­ice wisely chose to spend the bru­tal north­ern win­ters in south­ern France, a move they made per­ma­nent when they re­alised they were spend­ing a for­tune keep­ing their home in Scot­land func­tional while not liv­ing there. Nat­u­rally their new lo­cale pro­vided the back-drop for May’s fol­low-up to his six books based in China. Again crime was his cho­sen genre, with un­solved cold cases in France, start­ing with the pub­li­ca­tion of Ex­tra­or­di­nary Peo­ple in 2006. Six seems to be the lucky num­ber for his se­ries on a par­tic­u­lar topic or lo­ca­tion, and he has re­cently fin­ished writ­ing the fi­nal book in what be­came the Enzo files.

May’s ap­proach to writ­ing fol­lows a strict for­mula, again re­flect­ing the dis­ci­pline in­stilled dur­ing his years as a reporter. He re­searches deeply, spends enough time in his cho­sen lo­ca­tions so that he knows them in­side out, all the while mak­ing seem­ingly un­con­nected notes and ob­ser­va­tions which will help him de­liver his story. Once he starts writ­ing he starts at 6am, knock­ing off a daily min­i­mum of 3000 words over a seven week im­mer­sion in the novel.

Sur­pris­ingly it wasn’t un­til 2009 that May tack­led the lo­ca­tion he knows best as the scene for a new se­ries, based in Scot­land’s re­mote Outer He­brides ar­chi­pel­ago. It was here that he di­rected a num­ber of pro­grammes back in his tele­vi­sion days, and where he in­tro­duced his new char­ac­ter Fin Mcleod, al­though the real fo­cus is on the Isle of Lewis it­self. Bizarrely The Black­house, the first in the Lewis tril­ogy, was turned down by Bri­tish pub­lish­ers but hailed as a mas­ter­piece in France.

May has now sold mil­lions of books world­wide, is widely pub­lished and sports a cab­i­net full of lit­er­ary awards from France, the UK, Scot­land and the US. His lat­est crime novel Cof­fin Road is also based in his old haunts of the He­brides and is al­ready a best­seller.

Peter May and Jan­ice Hally were hosted by the Dunedin Writ­ers & Read­ers Fes­ti­val and the Cen­tre for Ir­ish and Scot­tish Stud­ies at Otago Univer­sity. Cof­fin Road, by Peter May; Ha­chette, $39.99

PHOTO/DAVID WIL­SON

LIFE­TIME: Peter May has spent a life­time writ­ing – nov­els and TV shows.

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