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I was invited back to talk to the kids and the headmaster said: ‘Don’t tell them you were expelled’
SCOTS NOVELIST PETER MAY ON THE MANY HIGHS AND LOWS OF HIS LIFE
TALKING to Peter May on a video call soon brings about a feeling that I don’t wish him well at all. Not quite wanting the Glasgowborn writer murdered, you understand, buried, like the victim in his latest book beneath a street pipeline, his remains allowed to quietly rot until exhumed by escaping tree roots.
Yet, nevertheless... how can I ignore the fact that he was also once a journalist on The Evening Times and used the Glasgow paper as a springboard to a career in bestseller writing, with almost 30 novels to his name?
How can I push aside the fact that, while most of my working life is spent dialling 0141 numbers, he’s spent the past 20 years researching stories in China, London, the Outer Hebrides – or indeed wherever takes his fancy? How can I possibly like a writer whose name on his book covers is the same size as the title?
And if we’re looking at an actual argument for jealousy-inspired authoricide ? When I tell May I’m looking out of a (badly needing washed) Glasgow living-room window at the sooty-grey tenements across the road, he reveals his front window offers a panorama of the Dordogne valley. “I think it’s about 19 or 20 degrees right now,” he says, smiling and twisting the knife like one of his killers, while no doubt wondering if it’s warm enough to take a dip in his glistening swimming pool. But in the interests of journalism I can’t simply dislike the man. I tell
myself that I need to work out what makes the writer so successful. Like the Scots France-based forensic scientist Enzo Macleod in his latest novel The Night measure of the man.
First, the book itself. The Night Gate is a fascinating piece of storytelling, covering the world of art theft, leaping from the 1940s Nazi attempts to capture masterpieces and Free French attempts to deny them. It invites questions about the value of art, in aesthetic or monetary terms. And running alongside the leap back in time is a present-day murder mystery.
Thanks to great character investment,
May lures you into his world like a silver-bearded siren. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the book. I’ve loved the research, studying books written about stolen art, researching Hitler’s involvement. The trick was to tie the strands together.”
He certainly achieves that. But the ability to come up with clever split framework storylines doesn’t explain the massive success he’s achieved, nor his triumphant career in television as a scriptwriter and producer.
May, who chats in a den surrounded by guitars and keyboards, even managed to make Machair, a Gaelic drama, into a ratings success. What is there about this Glaswegian’s character which allows him to hit so many high notes?
The young Peter certainly had a head start when it came to appreciating what makes a good story. His parents had “genius IQs”, his headmaster father and his mother were both avid readers and their son was reading by the age of four. Soon after he wrote his own little book.
Meanwhile, the young schoolboy devoured the contents of his living-room bookcase; the likes of Huxley, Steinbeck and Chandler. Yet, in high school, the teenager’s dream of a life as a writer wasn’t encouraged. “I remember going to my careers adviser in school, at Eastwood Senior High, and declared I wanted to be a novelist. She laughed.” He adds the word again. “Laughed.” Saying the word twice underlines how, more than half a century on, he still can’t believe the response.
Would it be fair to say May’s school days had too much of the Tom Brown about them? He reveals he was belted hard – and often. “I can still feel the weals,” He adds: “Then I was expelled.”
What? “Yes,” he says, with a reflective smile. “At this time I was in a band called The Haarlem Shuffle, a really good band and we played all over Scotland. And some days I’d come into school dressed from the night before.”
His grin widens. “One day, the headmaster turned and said to me,
‘May, you can take you’re very long hair and great furry coat and never come back’.”
The grin becomes a full-blown laugh: “I’m now listed as a famous former pupil. In fact, I was invited back a couple of years ago to talk to the kids and the headmaster whispered to me, ‘Don’t tell them you were once expelled’.”
Seems May has something of a rebellious streak, he’s a natural contrarian. That’s certainly a good trait for a writer. He continues with his teen life tales to reveal that on expulsion he and his bandmates left notes on their pillows, loaded up their van and set off to London to launch their careers and hopefully enjoy a life of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Sadly, it didn’t work out. (They didn’t even have a demo tape with which to seduce record companies.) But the story would later inform May’s novel Runaway. “Write what you know,” he says, repeating the much-used aphorism. Back home in Glasgow, however, May had to find a job. After taking a journalism course (he reckoned newspaper work would at least allow for a chance to write), the then 20-year-old landed work with the Paisley Daily Express where he went on to win the
Young Journalist of the Year award. (Another reason to hate him.)
On transferring to The Scotsman, working nights in the Glasgow office was compensated with the opportunity to write the hoped-for novel success story. Aged just 26, May hit paydirt when his crime thriller The Reporter was published. Not only did it make him the subject of feature stories, the success captured the attention of Evening Times editor Charlie Wilson, who offered him a job as news features writer. “But because of union rules I had to come in and pretend to be a news reporter,” he recalls. “I felt very uncomfortable because the news editor disapproved of the arrangement. But there was a good crowd of people there.”
MAY could have continued with a successful career in journalism, but if Enzo Macleod were studying May’s mindset he would have realised that the young writer’s need to write fiction was uncontainable.
However, a surprise development took place. TV came calling. In 1978, The Reporter became a BBC TV series, The Standard, starring Patrick
Malahide and Colette O’Neil. “It took me out of journalism, and the novel writing was postponed for another 20 years,” he says.
That wasn’t quite true. May continued to write a few novels yet admits it was hard to deny the allure of TV. “I had an absolute ball and it paid quite well,” he says of his new career, which included writing drama series Squadron.
May went on to work on STV’s hit soap Take the High Road, where he met his future wife Janice Hally, a scriptwriter on the show.
Yet, latterly, May’s affair with television began to cool. “You are always working as part of a team, and that’s a good thing if you spark off the other team members and it’s organic,” he explains. “But if not, it’s hellish. You are fighting all the time. When I was working as a producer it came to be too much about company politics.”
Would Enzo note that his creator was very much his own man, that he believes resolutely in his own instinct and is not always willing to compromise? “I think there’s truth in that,” he says, grinning in agreement. “I’ve always had my own thoughts and opinions and they haven’t always been well received, shall we say. I can remember saying to people in television, more than a few times, ‘Look, if I don’t get this I’m out the f ****** door. That’s it. And I meant it. And they knew I meant it.” Because he had one arm through the sleeve of his coat, the other hand on the door handle. “Yes!” he laughs.
By the late Nineties, May felt so boxed in by the frustrations of the box he and his wife, now living in Glasgow’s west end, quit TV to go back to his major love, writing books. “But despite all the ideas I’d had we couldn’t sell a thing, so
we went two years with no income. I would literally walk the length of Byres Road to get tatties at tuppence a pound cheaper. But that’s when I learned to cook. Mostly Chinese food. And that’s how we survived.”
Did he think this period of desperation was good for the soul? “At the time it’s just hellish,” he says, with a wry smile. “You don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills and you’re often thinking about selling the house. But, yes, I guess it focuses the mind and the imagination.”
It also separates the tough from those who would get going, back to a more secure career. “I think what it does is test your self-confidence in writing. Writing a book is not something you do in an afternoon. And to carry yourself through this period [of zero endorsement or reward] you have to have a certain amount of self-belief.”
May, however, toughed it out and landed a deal to write what would become his China thriller series. “I was doing all the research, going back and forward to China, and the advances I got for the books were tiny. We were just scraping by. We sold some foreign rights and that helped a bit, but then when I had a great idea for the seventh China book, and had permission to travel to Tibet for research, the publisher said they didn’t want any more China thrillers.
“Again, I was high and dry. No contract. No income. I had to come up with something to sell so the book I wrote was The Blackhouse, the murder suspense story set on the Isle of Lewis. And I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. It was pre-Scandi noir invasion and would have fallen into that category.”
But he couldn’t get a book deal for love nor money. “One publisher even said to me, ‘We’ve already got a Scottish writer on our books’. Can you believe it?”
May didn’t give up. He wrote Extraordinary People [the first tale featuring former forensics expert Enzo
Macleod, a Scot living in France], which he couldn’t sell either. “I then wrote Lockdown [the very prescient tale set during a viral pandemic], which publishers also turned down.”
May’s determination, his true grit, was tested to the limit. “So there was this three-year period, putting out all my money on research, no income and things were really desperate.”
Yet he refused to surrender belief.
And eventually his faith in his work was rewarded. May managed to land an American deal for his Enzo books, and a French publisher – quite remarkably – picked up the rights for his Scots novel, The Blackhouse.
It won several literature awards and the book was then bought up by publishers around Europe and in the UK. It became a Richard & Judy Book Club favourite and an international bestseller. “Sometimes you wonder about publishers,” he says, with a little tinge of bitterness, about their judgment.
WHEN Covid-19 emerged, Lockdown was released. He gave the profits to charity. But May’s resolve was tested again recently. The writer had intended to set his new book in the Arctic Circle – until the pandemic put paid to that. However, he still had a delivery date to meet, committed to publishing a book early this year.
What to write about? The answer proved to be on his doorstep. May discovered the Mona Lisa had once been hidden just along the road from his home in south-west France and began investigating the art theft in occupied France. “I learned that so many of the top Nazis seemed to see art as their way of convincing the world they were quite civilised.”
He then grafted on the modern-day investigation by Enzo Macleod. “I had five different story strands in fact, and I wove them together to make a single narrative. It all fell into place.”
Yet, with a career as a novelist secure, didn’t he ever consider a return to television? He smiles. “At one point I did a deal with the BBC for an adaptation of Blackhouse but I wasn’t happy with the way things were developing so I pulled out of the deal and gave them their money back.”
He expands: “There are some books I’ve written that I feel very possessive about. I don’t want someone to f*** them up, basically. I’d rather the books spoke for themselves.”
Couldn’t he have insisted on writing the screenplay, with the say on final edit? “I’d also want to be director of photography, sound recorder – everything,” he says, laughing, aware of his personality.
So what would Enzo make of May? As sure as Hemingway hated adjectives, he is clearly a grafter, a determined individual. He may not be an avowed team player but he plays his own game pretty well.
And how can you hate a man with the courage to go hungry in order to have his words appear between two hard covers? What’s also endearing is his innate sense he believes he’s right more often than not and prepared to fight his own corner. “That’s probably true,” he says, smiling. And that’s probably why he got the belt so much when he was at school? “I think that could well be the case.”
May is taking a break from writing. He’s 70 this year and argues there are only so many times you can go to the well to produce two books a year.
I agree. His prodigious output and the quality of writing demands a rest. “It’s good of you to say that.”
But hang on a minute, Peter, don’t think the jealousy has abated entirely. I point out he still has to contend with the fact he’s a failed musician. “I do,” he says, laughing. “But I haven’t given up.”
A proud smile beams across his face. “I’ve spent this morning working on a new song. And it’s really not bad at all.”