THE ex-journalist saw hard times to become a successful author, but now he’s returning to old haunts for his latest novel, writes David Robinson
A long time ago, long before he became one of Scotland’s most successful TV writers and even longer before he became one of its best-selling authors, Peter May was a journalist on this newspaper. In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher asked a crowded Scottish press conference “Who here is from The Scotsman?” it was he, a young reporter from Glasgow, who had to stick up his hand and suffer a verbal handbagging on account of yet another leading article in the paper savaging her policies.
I didn’t know that before talking to him, but I could have guessed that he’d once been a journalist. Because of all the authors I’ve ever read, he’s the one with the most comprehensive website biography. It’s all there, like a ready-made story: all the angles, all the quotes, all the prizes, reviews, interviews and stats, a life laid out before you in three key bullet points.
First, the journalism: Young Scottish Journalist of the Year, with his first novel – about an investigative reporter – published in his mid-twenties. Then the TV years: creating two series for network TV, writing scripts for Take The High Road when it was Scotland’s most successful TV programme, then co-creating the Gaelic drama series Machair. Finally, the books: a series of expertly-researched thrillers set in China, a more light-hearted crime series set in France, and standalone novels such as 2014’s Entry Island that have won the top crime awards in both Scotland and the UK. And, of course, the Lewis trilogy – The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen – which have not only sold nearly two million copies worldwide but boosted tourism to the Outer Hebrides.
May’s latest standalone novel, Coffin Road, is set there too – more specifically, in such a lusciously described Harris that you’ll immediately want to book a holiday cottage there. Aim perhaps for somewhere near Luskentyre beach, on which in the novel’s opening pages, a man is washed up, barely alive and without a clue who he is or how he got there. Somehow, he works out, his life has been connected to the Flannan Islands, 30-odd miles to the north-west, where three lighthouse keepers disappeared more than a century ago in a celebrated mystery. And there’s something else buzzing around his uncertain brain along with the suspicion that he might well have just killed somebody there: whatever he’s doing on Harris, it has something to do with bees.
“I’d wanted to write about bees for a long time,” May tells me from the apartment in the south of Spain overlooking the Mediterranean where he spends the winter months away from his main home in south-west France. Years ago, a Canadian geneticist friend – the first man to address the EU on how pesticides were wiping out bees – had alerted him to the problem. “What was happening,” he noted, “wasn’t that the pesticides were killing the bees directly, but they were destroying their memory – and without memory the bees are lost and the colony dies.”
Already, perhaps, you might get a hint that Coffin Road is more what May’s neighbours in his French hilltop hamlet home near Brieve would call a roman noir than a polar – more of a literary crime novel than police procedural. You’ll already have spotted the metaphorical link between the man washed up on the beach with hardly any memory apart from the bees, and the bees themselves, whose memory has been burned away by pesticides. What you won’t realise until you read the book itself is how effectively May uses the first person present to get inside the head of the half-drowned man or how skilfully he subsequently yanks the plot beyond his readers’ guesses.
There’s another element to May’s work that harks back to his journalism but deepens the impact of his books. Wherever possible, he likes to write from life, to anchor the story as vividly as possible into a real landscape. For the Lewis trilogy, that landscape was the one he knew well from the five months a year he lived on the island for five years in the 1990s while he was writing and producing Machair. But that’s for the broad brush description and the plot: for the detailed stuff, he goes back for a research trip, so that if you stand in the same spot, you can see the same things he’s described.
That, in terms of literary tourism, is catnip. There’s no shortage of tourists using VisitScotland’s free map to key sites in the Lewis trilogy and although it’s hard to quantify the “Peter May effect” on tourism to the island, the rise in booking figures for holiday lets since 2011 is real enough. May’s 2013 book Hebrides, in which his friend David Wilson’s landscape photographs mirror the island odyssey of the Lewis trilogy’s fictional protagonist Fin Macleod, underlined that link even further. Two years and “countless” reprints after publication, and just ahead of its American publication, it’s still one of Amazon’s top three travel and photography books.
On his research trip for Coffin Road last March, May stayed in a cottage overlooking Luskentyre beach. If it had been a holiday, it would have been a wash-out. “There were gales up to force ten when you couldn’t even get down to the beach because the sand would sting your eyes,” he says. “It was sub-zero all the time, with either snow, sleet, or rain. It was just … just … impossible.” Read his description of his troubled protagonist walking in precisely such conditions along the old Coffin Road from the rocky east coast of the island to the cemetery in the deeper soil of the west and you get a sense of what it must have been like. Small wonder that when Stanley Kubrick was shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey the desolate rocky landscape of east Harris stood in for Jupiter.
Yet in 2005, when May wrote The Blackhouse and submitted it to his publishers, nobody wanted to know about a crime novel set in such a remote part of the world. He’d written his China thrillers for Hodder, but financially they’d hardly been successful. “I was just a midlist author, I wasn’t getting big advances, and it was costing me thousands to go to China to do the research for them, so any money that was coming in was going straight back out again.”
We are, I realise, in territory he has hardly talked about. The website biography jumps from success to success: but the story it doesn’t tell – the one he’s telling me now – is no less fascinating.
Each time May has been successful in one field, he seems to have walked away, always without a job to go to, ever nearer the kind of writing he really wants to do. That’s what he did in 1979, leaving a secure job in journalism to be a freelance TV writer, and it’s what he did again in 1988, after eight years of huge success with Take the High Road.
“For two years before Machair came up, we had nothing coming in at all and our savings were dwindling away rapidly. We were living in the West End of Glasgow at the time and I would walk the length of Byres Road to get potatoes tuppence a pound cheaper – because it actually made a difference.”
After Machair, he wrote the six China thrillers, but when, 12 years ago, Hodder lost interest and didn’t want to buy a thriller set on Lewis, he and his screenwriter wife Janice started running a writing course business at their French home to make ends meet. “I really thought we were going to sink then,” he recalls. “We were thinking of downsizing and selling the house when I got a call from a French publisher who was interested in my China books.”
And there’s the turning point, although it didn’t seem like one at the time, because even though the publisher only paid a small (€2,000) advance for each of the China books, they sold well in translation, and when he mentioned to her that the best book he’d ever written – The Blackhouse – was still unpublished, she bought the world rights, then sold them successfully at the Frankfurt bookfair, even finally to Britain.
There’s a coda to that story. In 2011, after The Blackhouse had been hailed as “a masterpiece” by L’Humanité and had the New York Times critic purring that he was “a writer I would follow to the ends of the earth”, and after it had become a bestseller in hardback, paperback and ebook versions in Britain, he received a note congratulating him on its success from his old editor at Hodder. “I wrote back and said, ‘Thanks very much. You might remember that you were one of the editors who turned it down.’”
If revenge comes any sweeter, I’ve still got to hear about it.
• The Coffin Road by Peter May is published this week by Quercus, price £18.99. Peter will be at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, at 1pm on 18 January (£5); Waterstone’s Newton Mearns at 7pm (free but ticketed, 0141-616 3933); the Ironworks, Inverness, on 19 January (7pm, £5), and at Edinburgh Central Library on 20 January (7pm, free but ticketed), www.petermay.co.uk