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An interview with… Peter May

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Peter May

Peter May – image by Vincent Loison photography

Peter May has had a fascinating career, from his early days dreaming of becoming a novelist, to his current position as a well-known and loved thriller writer.

The next few weeks will see Peter’s latest novel, Entry Island, released in paperback, a sold-out appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and his talk at Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s crime writing festival, held in Stirling.

To celebrate the launch of our expanded literature section, we were very lucky to get the chance to ask Peter some questions – from his inspiration for the Lewis Trilogy, to the hot gossip on his next two projects! And of course, what he misses most about Scotland, from the patter to curries!

You’ve said in the past that you wrote your first book when you were just four years old. Did you always plan to write novels one day?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer.  I wrote all through my teenage years.  When I was 18 I completed a 50,000-word novel.  Of course, it was never going to be published, it was just part of the learning curve, but at least I knew I could tackle lengthy works.  I sent the next book that I wrote to Collins publishers and, although it was rejected, I received an extraordinarily encouraging letter from an editor named Philip Ziegler.  They were his words of encouragement that gave me the confidence to pursue my writing.  By a strange quirk of fate, 42 years later, Philip Ziegler is still going strong, and being published himself.  His latest book, “Olivier” is the definitive biography of the actor Lawrence Olivier, and is published by Quercus who also publish my Lewis Trilogy.  So a few months ago I was able to meet in person for the first time, the man whom I have always considered to be my first and most important mentor (you can read about that meeting, here: ).

I was 26 and working as a journalist when my first novel was published, but instead of catapulting me into a career as a novelist, it took my life in a completely different direction.  The book became a television drama series produced by the BBC and it led to me spending the next fifteen years in television.  It was a non-stop, adrenalin-pumping period of my life learning the various crafts involved in creating serial drama for television.  More than 1,000 episodes bear my name in one capacity or another, as creator, scriptwriter, script editor, storyliner and in the end, producer of prime-time drama. It was demanding, thrilling, sometimes hilarious, at other times heart-breaking, but ultimately creatively exhausting.  In the end it was a relief when I finally took the decision to leave television and get back to what I had always wanted to do – write books.

I have now written 20 novels, and the incredible success of the Lewis Trilogy has come quite late into that journey.  What is ironic is that I would never have written it if I hadn’t spent time in the Outer Hebrides on the television drama serial, “Machair” which I co-created and produced.

Your time working in television in the Outer Hebrides, later inspired you to set The Blackhouse there. Can you tell us more about how this came about? What came first the setting or the plot?

I had just finished a period of several years spent travelling to and from China to research and write a series of six thrillers involving a Chinese homicide detective.  I was living in France, thinking about the next book I should write, and perhaps it was because I had been away from my homeland for so long that my thoughts turned to Scotland. I had spent more than six years researching and producing “Machair” – a 100-episode Gaelic drama set on the Isle of Lewis.  For five of those years, I had spent five months a year living in Stornoway and travelling the length and breadth of the island with the film crew as we shot the series entirely on location.  I knew how unique the atmosphere of the island would be.  So the setting came first.  I then had to put my mind to the plot but I knew that the story potential was rich. There were things that I knew about that we were never able to use in “Machair” but which remained with me – such as the Guga Hunters, the Homers, The Iolaire disaster – and these inspired story elements in each of the books in the Lewis Trilogy.

Has your time working in television in Scotland inspired or affected your writing?

My years of working in television definitely affected my approach to storytelling.  I develop the outline of a plot in the same way as I would for a screenplay.  I visualise each scene and write a very detailed synopsis.  The synopsis runs to between 20,000 and 30,000 words – so that’s about a quarter of the length of the whole book.  Although it seems very long, it’s a lot easier to review and handle than a full-length manuscript, so it’s much easier to change anything that isn’t working.  It means I can be sure that I have the dramatic shape of the story right and I have the chance to solve any problems before I sit down to write the book.  It seems to make sense to me, because “story” and “writing” are really two different things.  In television it wasn’t unusual for one writer to write the story outlines, with another writer writing the script – they were seen as two different jobs, requiring different creative processes or abilities.

Peter May - image by Writer Pictures/Angus Blackburn

Peter May on the Isle of Lewis – image by Writer Pictures/Angus Blackburn

The Blackhouse was originally a stand-alone book, but became a trilogy, and your most recent book is also set partly in the Outer Hebrides. Did you find it difficult to use the setting in four books?

When someone becomes known as a crime writer, publishers and booksellers expect all future books to be in the same genre. The Blackhouse had a crime in it, but as far as I was concerned the crime was nothing more than a vehicle to tell the personal story of Fin Macleod, his life and his upbringing on the island.  The problem came when everybody – readers and publishers – wanted to read more about Fin.  I was completely against creating a series of crime books that went on endlessly, as it seemed entirely unrealistic for an island where there is only one murder per century!  However, I was persuaded by my French publisher that a trilogy would be finite and would satisfy everyone.  Although a murder investigation forms the basis of each of the plots, the story that unfolds in each book is still very much that of the lives of different individuals, with a historical thread that takes us back in time. Of course in the latest book, Entry Island, the historical part takes us right back to the middle of the 19th century.

Your novel Entry Island is set in Lewis at the time of the Highland Clearances. How did you go about researching this?

There are several excellent books by historians about the Clearances, and about the struggles endured by the first forced immigrants to America and Canada.  I steeped myself in the facts and then talked to experts on both sides of the Atlantic who were passionate about the subject and able to bring certain elements to life for me.  I travelled to Quebec and the Madeleine Islands, and in the Eastern townships near Montreal met some elderly ladies who were Gaelic speakers, and able to remember stories told to them by their grandparents about the experience of first arriving as settlers in Canada.  On Grosse Ile, in the St Lawrence river, the quarantine station has been preserved and is open as a museum allowing visitors to get a real sense of what awaited people who arrived from Scotland and Ireland off the disease-ridden boats.

The Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

The Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

How have the islanders in the Outer Hebrides responded to the books?

The books have been more warmly received on the islands than I ever imagined possible.  I knew that I was being presumptuous, writing at times in first person as an islander, when I was born and brought up in Glasgow, but I do try hard to get into the skin of my characters.  At least Fin Macleod was closer to me than Li Yan, the Beijing homicide detective that I had written about in my China Thrillers!  The years I spent on the island during the filming of Machair, working alongside writers, actors and crew from the Outer Hebrides had, I hoped, helped me to understand what it meant to be brought up on the islands. So I was determined to try and make it as authentic as possible.  However, I was unprepared for the response I’ve had.  Last year, in an effort to give something back, I persuaded the publishers to back a tour of the Hebrides and I travelled from Ness in the north of Lewis to Lochboisdale in South Uist.  I gave talks, met readers, and signed books in community halls, libraries, and hotels, and everywhere we went, the venues were packed.  It was extremely heartening to hear how people had identified with the books and enjoyed them so much.  When my wife and I created Machair, all those years ago, the point of it had been to bring the language and culture of the islands to a wider audience, to give it recognition, and in doing so, to keep it alive.  Well, in a way the books are doing that even more successfully than the TV show did.  They are taking the islands to a worldwide audience and inspiring people to find out more and to visit.  Everywhere I go in France, people are constantly coming up to me to tell me that they have either just come back from the Outer Hebrides, or are just about to go!

You’ve also produced a photographic book, Hebrides, which shows the islands from Detective Inspector Fin Macleod’s point of view. Was this more for fans of the Lewis Trilogy, or was it something you wanted to do to highlight the Hebrides for its beautiful scenery?

The cliffs, the beaches, the machair, the peat bogs, the ever-changing weather, dramatic light and huge skies, are ever-present in the books, creating a unique atmosphere and dominating the lives of my characters.  I tried to convey it all in my descriptions, but David Wilson’s photographs achieve the same effect in an instant.  “Hebrides” seemed like the ideal companion for the trilogy, but it stands alone, too, and perhaps people who visit and love the islands will pick up the photographic book, and also get their introduction to the Lewis Trilogy!

Now you live in France, what do you miss most about Scotland?

Curries, you can’t get a decent curry in France, but you can always get a good curry in Scotland!  Seriously, though, I probably miss the patter most.  The instant wit, jostling for position, topping each other’s jokes, making fun of each other, finding humour in the darkest of situations – it’s a frame of mind and it’s not always understood in other cultures!  There is nothing like Scottish humour and being among your “ain folk”.  Fortunately nowadays, Facebook and Twitter keep me connected with that online.

What’s going to be your next project?

I have just finished writing my latest book.  It involves a group of boys from Glasgow in Scotland, who run away from home to go to London in 1965 and come back several weeks later with their tails between their legs – and an awful secret.  Fifty years later they get together as old men to make the return trip – the only way to unburden themselves of that secret and see justice done.  The book tells the stories, in parallel, of both trips.

Peter May - image by Writer Pictures/Angus Blackburn

Peter May on the Isle of Lewis – image by Writer Pictures/Angus Blackburn

Do you have any plans to set any of your future books in Scotland?

When I handed over my manuscript last week, I told my publisher that I needed a year off and that I didn’t even want to start thinking about another book.  But, can you believe it, almost the moment I finished writing my last book, the first stirrings of an idea for the next invaded my imagination.  If the idea turns out to have potential, then it’s highly likely that I will be returning to the Western Isles which would provide the perfect location for the story.  But I can’t say any more than that.

You’re coming to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bloody Scotland this year. What do you enjoy most about attending these events?

The Edinburgh Festival is a great place to meet readers at the signing after the event and to hear what they have to say about the books.  Bloody Scotland is a very convivial festival, in a great location, where readers and writers get the chance to mix and socialise before and after events over the whole weekend. Above all? I just love being able to come back to Scotland and talk in my native tongue, it’s a lot less stressful than doing live TV or radio in French!


You can find out more about him in our Peter May profile, explore the inspirational Outer Hebrides and discover other great writers who feature Scotland in their work in our Scottish literature section.


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