Stephen May’s latest novel, a gripping literary thriller, looks at how the past is never as far away as you might think... He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
Your past always catches up with you, so the old adage goes. It’s an unnerving idea, which is precisely what makes it so fascinating, and it is one which novelist Stephen May has put right at the centre of his latest book Stronger Than Skin, published this week. It is a knotty concept and May teases it out with great skill in an accessible literary thriller that grabs the reader right from the start.
The central character is Mark Chadwick – a nice, ordinary guy in his early forties living in London with his family. He is an English teacher, his wife Katy is a successful solicitor; they have two bright well-adjusted preteen children, a boy and a girl, and are expecting their third. Cycling home on a Friday evening, listening to classical music and happily anticipating an enjoyable weekend, he sees a police car parked outside his house and two officers, one in plain clothes, walking up the driveway. Instantly the mood changes, he knows exactly why they are there.
Instead of going home that night he cycles past his own front door and straight into a twisting, page-turning narrative that moves between two time frames – Mark’s present, evading the police who want to question him about a serious historical crime, and his time as a student at Cambridge in the 1990s when he had an affair with attractive, older – and married – bohemian academic, Anne Sheldon.
“You can do terrible things as a teenager or a young person but how far can you escape from those things and how much are you allowed to change? I wanted to explore the complexities around that,” says May, who lives in Mytholmroyd near Hebden Bridge. He was also partly inspired, he says, by the case of Northern Irish dentist Colin Howell who admitted to murdering his wife and his lover’s husband 18 years after the event – it was dramatised on ITV last year as The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. “That notion of getting away with something and then confessing it much later took hold of me,” says May. “And I wanted to write something that was compelling for the reader.”
He has certainly succeeded in that, but aside from the thriller elements the book is also a wellobserved portrait of a strong, loving marriage; the messiness and rewards of contented domesticity – and how easy it can be to lose all that. “Life is more fragile than we think,” says May. “Things can come out of nowhere and completely derail you. I also think that families are brilliant places for drama; a lot of writers avoid the domestic, particularly male writers, but in families there is conflict, betrayal, compromise, all the drama you could want.”
The book is mostly written from Mark’s perspective, so the reader has access to his innermost thoughts and feelings. “I like the restricted viewpoint of the first person and it helps me to really inhabit a character,” says May. “I had to get to know Mark – he is a bit like me but he is not me – and it took a while to get used to his thought patterns.” He is a complex and multi-layered creation – flawed yet likeable, so as a reader you are on his side as he desperately searches for the evidence that will keep him out of jail. “It there is a link between my books it is that they feature men who are living ordinary lives but then extraordinary circumstances put them under a lot of pressure and they are tested. Mark is a teacher so as an adult he is living a productive and worthwhile life but the mixed-up kid that he was is still there.” Now in his fifties, May describes his own youth as a bit directionless. “After university I had no sense of purpose and I did a lot of low level work, which might have looked like underachievement at the time but I now realise was really research.”
At the age of 29 he qualified as a teacher which he did very happily for ten years – “I left while I was still enjoying it and before I lost my sense of humour” – and since then has written four novels, three stage plays, several short stories, has been co-director of the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank, had a stint as a scriptwriter on Emmerdale and currently works for the Arts Council, doing his writing “in the early morning, late at night and at the weekends.”
Like his previous novels, Stronger Than Skin is primarily an exploration of the male psyche but it is all infused with a winning warmth and humour – and May does a good line in strong women.
Aside from Katy and Anne, there is Lulu, the feisty photographer girlfriend of one of Mark’s expupils who helps him in his quest to clear his name. “My daughter always says that one of the things she likes about my books is that the men are all stupid and the women are all really clever,” he laughs. Overall, what comes across in his work – and his latest novel is no exception – is an authenticity; the characters ring true and the way they relate to each other is entirely believable.
“I think that part of a writer’s job is to look at the world in detail,” he says. “Most writing is looking hard at things and pointing out what other people might miss.”
Stronger than Skin by Stephen May, £8.99 published by Sandstone Press, is out now.
NEW WORK: Mytholmroyd-based author Stephen May whose latest novel Stronger than Skin is out now.