Present tense

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.

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - 4/ART -

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.

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