Writer a stickler for research
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
LIFETIME: Peter May has spent a lifetime writing – novels and TV shows.