Interview: Author Peter May on The Chessmen, the final part of The Lewis Trilogy
Scottish author on living in France, writing about China and his journey as a writer
The Chessmen, the final part of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, opens with an unlikely but true natural phenomenon. Overnight a loch disappears and a small plane, thought to be lost at sea many years before, is uncovered.
‘It was something that actually happened in the 1950s on Lewis,’ says May. ‘A loch vanished overnight and no one seemed to be able to explain why. At the time it caused a huge amount of interest with journalists coming up from London and the television people arriving.There was a lot of speculation about what had happened, a meteorite had come down and vaporised the water, all sorts of fairy stories. In the end they found it was a bog burst, a peculiar geological phenomenon which is rare but does happen. It was a gift, the draining of the loch and being presented with a plane that was lost and should have stayed lost.’
And so begins a journey into Fin Macleod’s past, to his school and student days, as he tries to find a way to live with the mistakes of his youth and forge a future with his childhood sweetheart and the son he has only recently discovered.
Peter May’s writing career started earlier than most. The Glasgow-born author wrote his first book at a very tender age.
‘My father was an English teacher and I was taught to read and write at a very basic level before I went to school,’ he says. ‘I guess it was when I was four years old that I wrote my first book. I recently uncovered it from a box in the attic and scanned it and put together a little package on YouTube. It’s six pages long with seven or eight words a page. I’ve just written stories all my life.’
Writing those stories has taken May from being an award-winning journalist, to a scriptwriter and script editor for Take the High Road, and co-writer and producer for the Gaelic language soap, Machair, which screened on Scottish Television in the 1990s. With Machair, May spent five months of the year for five years on the Hebrides producing 99 episodes of the soap. At the time he had no thoughts of writing about the islands and had already started writing a successful crime series set in China, although the pressure of producing a soap meant his novel writing took a back seat for a time.
‘At that point I had effectively stopped writing anything,’ he says. ‘My whole focus was putting the show on and I wasn’t writing at all. In a strange way, that break from writing was a good thing, it allowed the well to refill. Having worked in soap for many years, it sucks you dry.’
When Machair finished, May continued with his series of crime books based in China. ‘For ten years my focus was on China,’ he says. ‘I spent a lot of time there researching, developing and writing the China thrillers and it wasn’t until I finished that, and by this time I had moved out of Scotland to live in France, that I kind of stood back and took stock. Filming on the Hebrides had been a very high octane, stressed period of my life, but having that time and distance away, I thought it would be a terrific place to set a dark crime story.’
The Lewis books were not conceived as a trilogy. Rather The Blackhouse, the first in the series, was written as a stand-alone thriller. Initially, May’s manuscript was turned down by all the major crime publishing houses in the UK and he had given up having it published. It wasn’t until May’s French publisher read the book and loved it that it found a British publisher as well. However, its success meant that both publishers wanted a series, something that May wasn’t keen on explaining that the Hebrides weren’t exactly murder central. A compromise was reached when May agreed to write a trilogy which has now ended with The Chessmen.
May’s links with the islands continue with the publication of Hebrides, a handsome and very personal travelogue with stunning photography provided by David Wilson. His next novel, Entry Island, is split between the Hebrides at the time of the Clearances and modern day Quebec.
‘It was a very challenging book to write,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to write about the Clearances but I didn’t want to write a historical novel as such. The e-book will be available from December 5, and the hardback in January 2014.’
Despite his success with his distinctly Scottish trilogy, May doesn’t really feel part of the Scottish crime writing fraternity. ‘Because I live in France, because I was writing about China, because I was writing a series set in France, in a way I felt a kind of distance, as if I was removed from the Scottish scene. In lots of ways, for me, that was a good thing, living in France and looking back, seeing Scotland from a different perspective. I would probably never have written about Scotland if I had stayed there. There is definitely an advantage to being a step away from it and looking back.’
The Chessmen, Peter May, Quercus paperback, £7.99
Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson is published by Quercus on 26 September
The Blackhouse, the first in the trilogy, is being serialised in four parts by Radio Scotland in October. Peter is fronting a one-hour documentary about the trilogy and the islands prior to that.