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INTERVIEW: Interview with Peter in The Big Thrill magazine
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Peter May is the author of several standalone novels and two series:
the award-winning China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell;
the critically-acclaimed Enzo Files, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod, which is set in France.
One of Scotland's most prolific television dramatists, he garnered more than 1000 credits in 15 years as scriptwriter and script editor on prime-time British television drama. He is the creator of three major television drama series and presided over two of the highest rated serials in his homeland before quitting television to concentrate on his first love, writing novels.
Born and raised in Scotland he now lives in France.
His novels have a large following in France. He is the recipient of two French book prizes and has been nominated and shortlisted for several others. His latest book, is the first of the The BlackhouseLewis Trilogy, and had its worldwide premier publication in France as L'Ile des Chasseurs d'Oiseaux.
see full biographical details
- Biographical details
- producer credits
- writing credits
- current projects
INTERVIEWS with Peter:
- radio scotland (transcript)
- shots magazine
- South China Morning Post
- Interview with in Suite101 magazine
- Carl Brookins talks to Peter
- The Big Thrill - interview by Karen Harper
ARTICLES about Peter:
- "Exotic Fraternity" by Mathew Lickona
- "Ordinary Mortals" by Mathew Lickona
- British newspaper: The Daily Mail
(right click to download PDF)
- VIDEO:TV interview with Barbara Peters
- CLICK HERE to visit Peter's VIDEO ARCHIVE
featuring clips from:
- his research in CHINA and FRANCE
- talks which he has given
- interviews in French and English
From the beginning...
May's childhood dream was to be a novelist and he spent his childhood and teen years writing.
Scottish Young Journalist of the Year
Journalism seemed like a reasonable career choice for a writer, and no sooner was he in his first post than he won the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year Award at the age of 21.
But the pull of fiction continued, and every spare moment was spent on creative writing. His dedication was rewarded with the publication of his first novel at the age of 26. The novel was to become a major BBC television drama series and change the direction of his writing career.
One of Scotland's Most Prolific and Popular TV Dramatists
May left journalism and began writing television drama. By the age of 30 he had created two major TV series, The Standard and Squadron, for the British television network, the BBC. He went on to garner more than 1000 TV credits in fifteen years and became one of Scotland's most successful television writers, creating and writing prime-time drama serials for both BBC and ITV in the UK.
In his homeland, he guided the top-rated Take the High Road as script editor and scriptwriter through its most successful era, when the show regularly topped the viewing charts in Scotland and achieved an audience of 6 million viewers across the UK.
In the 1990s, he co-created the ground-breaking Machair, the first ever major drama serial in the Gaelic language, which he also produced. Machair was described by Kenneth Roy, the television critic of the broadsheet Scotland on Sunday as:
"quite simply the best thing to have happened to television in Scotland for a long time."
In spite of the fact that fewer than 2% of the Scottish population can speak Gaelic, the show - subtitled into English - achieved a 30% audience share and made it into the Top Ten of programmes viewed in Scotland.
Award-Winning China Thrillers
With the approach of the new millennium, May quit television to return to his first love, novels, and embarked on a series of thrillers which took him half-way across the world. Peter May made annual trips to China, spending months at a time there, building an extraordinary network of contacts.
He gained unprecedented access to the homicide and forensic science sections of Beijing and Shanghai police forces and made a painstaking study of the methodology of Chinese detectives and pathologists.
His outstanding China Thrillers series of books, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and Forensic patholigist from Chicago, Margaret Campbell are now published worldwide. The books have been short-listed in France for Elle Magazine's Best Crime Novel in 2005 and the Prix Polar International in 2008. In 2007 Snakehead won the Prix Intramuros.
Member of Chinese Crime Writers Association
As a mark of their respect for his work, Chinese Crime Writers in the Beijing Chapter, made Peter an Honorary Member of The Chinese Crime Writers' Association. He is the only Westerner to receive such an honour.
Critical Acclaim for "cerebral" Enzo Files
His latest series of books, The Enzo Files, is set in France. Hailed by author Steve Berry as "intelligent... and ingenious", several reviewers have praised the cerebral nature of the cold case investigations tackled by the Scottish forensic scientist Enzo Macleod. Realism and humour also feature and the endearingly flawed hero has deen described as "a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau".
Research and Factual Accuracy
May only writes about settings and locations that he has actually visited personally and continues to take his research seriously for the series set in France. Just as research for the China Thrillers meant trips to places such as the Shanghai police morgue and the American Ambassador's residence in Beijing, research for the Enzo Files has taken him from the Paris sewers to Michelin 3-star restaurants (he recently gained access to the kitchen of France's top chef, Michel Bras, to spend three days shadowing him in his work).
Chevalier de l'Ordre de la Dive Bouteille
The second in the Enzo Files series, The Critic, tells a story set in the world of French wine production. The research involved May picking grapes by hand, studying the process of wine-making from vine to marketing, and taking a formal wine tasting course. As a reward for his efforts, he was inducted as a Chevalier de l'Ordre de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac in December 2007 in recognition of his knowledge and support of the wines of Gaillac.
Professional Private Eye
In search of a new setting for his 2010 thriller, Virtually Dead, May entered the virtual world of Second Life in 2007, creating his own avatar, Flick Faulds, to explore the metaverse. Faulds set up a detective agency to help May in his research, handling dozens of Second Life investigations for real (paying) clients. The cases ranged from stalking and “griefing”, to fraud and infidelity, and enabled May to gather invaluable background and insights for his book.
Background to May's Latest Work: The Lewis Trilogy
The Blackhouse is the first of three books planned to be set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
May's link to Lewis and the Gaidhealtachd is a personal one. For five years in the 1990s, May spent five months each year in the Outer Hebrides during the making of the 99 episodes of Machair. As producer and creator of the drama serial, he was in charge of a 70-strong cast and crew living and working on the island.
The landscape and the life there had a profound effect on May and have provided the inspiration for his Lewis Trilogy, and his connections were renewed when he returned to research the new books.
"The Blackhouse is a crime novel of rare power and vision.
It is a murder mystery that explores the shadows in our souls,
set in a place where the past is ever near the surface,
and life blurs into myth and history."
The Blackhouse was first published in France as L'Ile des Chasseurs d'Oiseaux and won Les Ancres Noires Prix des Lecteurs at Le Havre in 2010. It has been nominated for two other French book awards due to be announced in October 2010.
The Blackhouse will be published in the UK and around Europe in 2011.
Peter May is married to writer Janice Hally and lives in South West France.
AWARDS AND NOMINATIONS
17th International Celtic Film and Television Festival 1996FRENCH AWARDS
In 2007, May won the French Book Award, the PRIX INTRAMUROS for the French edition of his China Thriller Snakehead, at the 2007 Cognac "Polar&Co" Festival. This unusual award is decided by juries of detainees in French Penitentiaries.
In 2010, May won the French Book Award, the PRIX DES LECTEURS at Le Havre's Les Ancres Noires book festival for L'Ile des Chasseurs d'Oiseaux the French edition of The Blackhouse. This award is decided by juries of readers in 23 libraries in the area around Le Havre who vote on a shortlist of 21 books during the year. It was the first time in the history of the award that the winner was the unanimous choice of the voters.
PRIX DES LECTEURS
LE HAVRE 2010
Le Ancres Noires
WINNER: THE BLACKHOUSE (L'Île des Chasseurs d'OIseaux)
CEZAM INTER CE 2011
French national literature prize, winner to be announced
Shortlisted: THE BLACKHOUSE (L'Ile des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux)
PRIX POLAR INTERNATIONAL
Salon Polar & co
Shortlisted: THE BLACKHOUSE (L'Ile des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux)
PRIX DES LECTEURS
VILLENEUVE LEZ AVIGNON 2010
Festival du Polar
Shortlisted: THE BLACKHOUSE (L'Ile des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux)
PRIX POLAR INTERNATIONAL
Salon Polar & co
Nominated: CHINESE WHISPERS (L'Eventreur de Pékin)
Salon Polar & co
WINNER: SNAKEHEAD (Cadavres Chinois a Houston)
PRIX POLAR INTERNATIONAL
Salon Polar & co
Nominated: SNAKEHEAD (Cadavres Chinois a Houston)
GRAND PRIX 2006
Category: Best Crime Novel
Nominated: THE FIREMAKER (Meurtres à Pékin)
Category: Best Drama Serial
The FRASER Award 1973
Scottish Young Journalist of the Year
1996 - Present
RESEARCHING AND WRITING NOVELS
The China Thrillers series - set in China and America
The Enzo Files series - set in France
1993 - 1996 FREELANCE TELEVISION PRODUCER
1979 - Present FREELANCE PROFESSIONAL WRITER
Writing credits follow.
1978-79 GLASGOW EVENING TIMES
News Background Writer
* Researched and developed feature articles on news items of current interest.
* Wrote articles and analysis of political figures in run-up to General Election.
* Member of political team covering the 1979 General Election.
1974-1978 THE SCOTSMAN
* Wrote news and feature articles across the spectrum of Scottish public life, working from The Scotsman's Glasgow office.
1971-1974 PAISLEY DAILY EXPRESS
News and Features Reporter
* Winner of the 1973 Fraser Award for Scotland's Young Journalist of the Year.
1970-1971 EDINBURGH COLLEGE of COMMERCE
Course in Journalism
1969-1970 ANDERSON'S (NEWTON MEARNS) LTD.
Trainee Car Salesman
1969 DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL SAVINGS
* Worked for three months in the ledgers department calculating interest on savings accounts.
Machair (1993 - 1996) Gaelic Drama Serial
Produced by Scottish Television and broadcast by Scottish and Grampian. During May's term as associate producer and producer, the series shot 99 episodes and was shortlisted in the category of Best Drama Series at the Celtic Film Festival of 1996. Having been Associate Producer since the series began in 1992, May took over as Producer in 1993 after the first two series (26 episodes). 'Machair' was shot entirely on location on the Isle of Lewis.
The Blackhouse (2011) Novel.
First of the planned Lewis Trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The Blackhouse is described as:
"...a crime novel of rare power and vision.
A page-turning murder mystery that explores the darkness in our souls, and just how difficult it is to escape the past."
Virtually Dead (2010) Novel.
A standalone thriller set in the metaverse of Second Life featuring crime-scene photographer Michael Kapinsky.
Freeze Frame (2010) Novel.
The fourth of the Enzo Files series takes Enzo to a remote Breton island and room that contains the last secrets of a murdered man.
Blacklight Blue (2008) Novel.
The third of the Enzo Files series sees Enzo facing the most serious threats to his life and his family.
A Vintage Corpse (first published as The Critic) (2007) Novel.
The second of the Enzo Files series, featuring Enzo Macleod. The Critic involves the death of a wine critic and is set among the vineyards of the Gaillac region of South West France.
Dry Bones (first published as Extraordinary People) (2006) Novel.
The first of the Enzo Files series. New series featuring Enzo Macleod, a Scottish biology professor teaching in a university in France. As the result of a bet, the former forensic scientist gets involved in applying the latest technology to some of France's most famous unsolved murders.
Chinese Whispers (2004) Novel.
The sixth in the China Thrillers series pits Li Yan and Margaret Campbell against an unscrupulous foe who could prove to be their deadliest enemy yet - a serial killer who calls himself the Beijing Ripper. The media and terror-sticken public are demanding a fast result and Li Yan, the head of Beijing's serious crime squad, finds himself in the spotlight.
The Runner (2003) Novel
The fifth in the series of China Thrillers. Li Yan and Margaret Campbell are back in Beijing to solve a series of murders which threatens the future of international athletics as the city prepares to host the 2008 Olympics.
Snakehead (2002) Novel
The fourth in the China series, follows Beijing cop, Li Yan, and Chicago pathologist, Margaret Campbell to the USA. The Hodder & Stoughton hardback was on the shelves from January, 2002. The Coronet paperback out in May, 2002.
The Killing Room (2000) Novel
The third in the China series, following the investigations and relationship of Beijing cop, Li Yan, and Chicago pathologist, Margaret Campbell. The hardback was published by Hodder & Stoughton in December, 2000, and the Coronet paperback appeared in May, 2001.
The Fourth Sacrifice (2000) Novel
Sequel to The Firemaker. Published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in January, 2000, followed by the Coronet paperback in May.
The Firemaker (1999) Novel
Dark eco-thriller set in Beijing. Researched and written during 1997. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in May, 1999.
Machair (1992 - 1993) Gaelic Drama Serial
Gaelic drama serial produced by Scottish Television. Wrote sixteen scripts during the first three series, and co-storylined the first thirteen episodes.
The Noble Path (1992) Novel
Novel set in South-East Asia during the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Published in the UK by Piatkus.
Take The High Road (1980 - 1992) Drama Serial
Scriptwriter/Story Editor/Script Editor
Drama Serial produced by Scottish Television. Script Editor between 1981 and 1986, and Story Editor between 1986 and 1988, when the show was at the peak of its success, being broadcast twice weekly in all ITV regions and regularly achieving afternoon audience figures in excess of six million. Between 1980 and 1992, wrote more than 200 episodes.
The Ardlamont Mystery (1985) Dramatisation
A single play dramatisation of a real-life murder produced by BBC Scotland for the BBC Network as part of a series titled MURDER NOT PROVEN.
Squadron (1982) Drama Series
Produced by BBC London for the Network, this was a drama series of ten one-hour episodes about an RAF rapid deployment squadron.
Hidden Faces (1981) Novel
Published was a political thriller set in Brussels published in the UK by Piatkus.
Fallen Hero (1979) Novelisation
This was a novelisation of the Granada television series of the same name, written by Brian Finch. Published by N.E.L.
The Reporter (1978) Novel
A novel based upon characters created for the BBC television drama series, THE STANDARD. Published by Corgi.
The Standard (1978) Drama Series
Made by BBC Scotland for the BBC Network, this was a thirteen-part drama series of one-hour episodes set in a newspaper office.
The first of Peter's new Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, will be published in the UK. It has already been published to critical acclaim in France, winning Le Havre's Les Ancres Noires, Prix des Lecteurs.
Meanwhile, Peter's French series "The Enzo Files" continues, with the fifth written and due to be published.
(transcript of interview between James MacPherson and Peter May, with book review by Austin Lafferty)
J MacP: Scottish author Peter May's new book The Killing Room is published this week and in the style of his previous books, it's a thriller set in China's underworld. Well, Peter joined me to talk about his new book, and told me what it was about.
P May: The Killing Room is the third in a series of books set in China. The first was called The Firemaker. It featured a Beijing detective named Li Yan and a pathologist from Chicago called Margaret Campbell. The second was a book called The Fourth Sacrifice which featured the two of them again. And The Killing Room is the third so far in the series.
J MacP: As you say there, the third book featuring Li Yan and Margaret Campbell. What is it that draws you to China and crime?
P May: China, specifically because I first went there in the mid-80's on a day trip up from Hong Kong and was absolutely blown away by the place. It was in the midst of change even then - following the cultural revolution, which really finished mid to late seventies - and ever since then, I wanted to go back. I'd been drawn to the place. I'd read a lot about it and eventually I came up with a story that had a natural setting there, so I went back to research it.
J MacP: It must be hard for a Westerner to portray an accurate picture of Chinese culture, is it?
P May: It is. It seems very arcane from the outside, very difficult to get into. I was very fortunate because I made contact on the internet with an American called Dr Richard Ward who was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Chicago, Illinois, at that time. A leading criminologist, he had trained the top 500 police officers in China over a considerable number of years and he was able to give me introductions that really, as an outsider, I could never have been able to achieve. So I went there with his "calling card" and that introduced me to so many people. I made so many friends... I was taken to the opera... I was taken to banquets... I was made an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writers Association. I was drawn into the society by them and by my own attraction to the place.
J MacP: This clash of East and West is a theme in your books, do you find that particularly fascinating?
P May: It is, particularly in the light of the fact that people in the West have such an erroneous view of China. China has such a vast history, and such a complex recent history, and there is a huge amount of media antipathy towards it. I think people have a quite erroneous view of it, and part of what I wanted to do was to try and show people China as it is, today. China has changed so radically even in just the last ten years - especially since Tiananmen - it is what they like to call a socialist market economy. It is such a different place than the Wester perception that I thought it was great material for me to pit one against the other, to start exploding myths, to bring sombody from the West and put them in a Chinese situation and create a situation in which both sides were learning and sparking off one another.
J MacP: So, Peter, what are you working on at the moment?
P May: Well, oddly enough, the fourth. It's the same two characters, but this time, set in America. I had to work quite hard to contrive a situation where they would both naturally occur together in the United States and I think I've managed to achieve that pretty successfully. I'm actually writing that book as we speak.
J MacP: Peter May there. Well, to review The Killing Room, I was joined by lawyer Austin Lafferty. I asked him if he had been drawn into its gruesome world.
Aust L: I was... very much. Speaking, wearing my criminal lawyer's hat, I've been at Post Mortems and I've been involved in cases - I'm currently involved in a case - where dissection of a body is a central point in the whole thing. And I have to say it's done really quite well here. I've marked out some of the bits, quite graphic, it's not gratuitous, but it is very clearly detailed. Just let me read you: "She detailed the missing lungs, and sectioned the neck before moving down to the stomach and intestine, noting the absence of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas, finding nothing abnormal until she began pawing her way through the retroperitoneal fat to make sure the kidneys were really absent" ...Now you can't get more graphic than that!
J MacP: Yes! Super! Now were you held by the plot, and in the true tradition of the thriller, surprised by the ending?
Aust L: I certainly was! I started off here, knowing that I was going to be a book reviewer and I thought, 'I'm going to be tough. This is going to be... I'm going to rubbish this... look for faults.' And I started off trying to do that, but it's a book that gathers momentum. It draws you in, and of course I ended up doing that thing of sitting through till quarter to two in the morning to finish it because eventually I couldn't put it down. And yes, I thought I had guessed a couple of possibilities early on, but I was not prepared for how it came out. Obviously I'm not going to spoil it, but there are a couple of things, a couple of people flagged up where you'd say, 'Oh aye, he's not quite right... I don't fancy the look of him, at all...'
J MacP: As a lawyer, you'll know one or two things about the seedier side of life. What did you think of the picture it conveyed of the inner workings of solving crime?
Aust L: I thought it was very good. Because I recognised the business of - and this will chime in with one of your other jobs - the business of detectives all sitting in a room and all looking at one another and thinking, 'What the Hell are we going to do next? We've got a city of 14 million people and we've got to find one guy and - oh - we've got nothing really to work with, Boss...' And then they all light up cigarettes! And that is the way crime is solved!
J MacP: I thought we were just acting when we did that! What about the setting? Were you convinced by the atmosphere of China emerging from its past and grappling with capitalism not to mention corruption?
Aust L: Yes. I mean I read that, and I got something from it. I felt that there was an amount of padding in there and the political stuff was just a wee bit flagged up, but the skill of the author is such that I don't think it ws overdone. It was there. And it jumped out at you, but at the end of the day, once you've seen how the book is resolved, how the plot is resolved, you say reluctantly, 'Yeah, that was an element. The political thing was an element in it.' But as you're reading through it begins to annoy you until the very end and you say, 'Okay, I'll let him away with that.'
J MacP: There's a real tussle between East and West in it. Not just the relationship betweent he main characters of Li Yan and Margaret Campbell, but in attitudes towards things like food. What did you make of that?
Aust L: I liked the food, I have to say! It was beautifully described. Obviously some bits are familiar and some bits aren't. I mean when it started off, one of the bits that I put a dog-ear in the page was when he tried to describe Sushi. Now we all know what Sushi is, it's about cold, wet fish, and I thought, 'Oh no, he's going to be labouring the point about the food, but in fact once we move to Beijing and Shanghai, we find that what he's describing is much more exotic, much more interesting, and actually does grab your attention and you say, 'I wonder what that tastes like,' because he does describe it well.
J MacP: Yes! So... for listeners who like a good thriller, would you recommend The Killing Room?
Aust L: I most certainly would recommend it. I'm not a thriller reader as you know - from a previous programme - I'm a science fiction reader, but this was definitely worth reading. and my wife, who is a thriller reader was desperate to grab it from me and take a right good look at it.
J MacP: So... do you see it being made into a TV series?
Aust L: Yes! Oh definitely! This is crying out for it! Apart from anything else there's a long pan down the river in Shanghai... and the beautiful Chinese countryside... and the old houses... and so forth, yes, it's very visual. The story is - you could tell better than I how televisual it is, but it looks to me as if it could be easily made - a lot of strong characters in it... it's got to be very visual. It's a fantastic story with a really brilliant ending... and chases... and human interest... all the right ingredients for television... but what part you'd play in it, I don't know!
J MacP: Well I was just going to say, Austin, why don't we club together and buy the rights to this one! Thanks very much Austin... Austin Lafferty. And The Killing Room, by Peter May, is published by Hodder and Stoughton.
N Your latest novel The Killing Room is the third in the China series. Can you give us a quick plot summary?
P The Killing Room is set in Shanghai and it opens with the discovery of 18 dismembered female bodies in an excavated building site. Li Yan, one of my main characters, had been working on a similar unsolved case in Beijing. He is called down to Shanghai to see if there is a connection between the cases. Forensice pathologist Margaret Campbell - my other central character - is back in the US. Li reckons he needs her expertise, so she comes back to China to help with the investigation only to discover that the officer running the case, a rather attractive female, has her claws very firmly in Li.
N It's obvious from reading your books that research plays a large part
P Yes, I tend to stumble upon ideas that I don't know much about so I have to research like crazy - using the Internet and experts who are prepared to advise me. I have several wonderful people around the world who do that - my pathology advisor in America, my criminology advisor who gave me all my ins in China... Once I've done the basic research and development of the plot, I write the storyline - then I go to where the book is going to be set, and do my detailed research. This year I got a digital video camera, so now I can be sitting working on a certain location, double click on the video document and see it with sounds as well.
N What's the strangest, creepiest or most bizarre thing you have experienced or discovered in the course of your research?
P When I was being shown the mortuary in Shanghai, they wheeled out the newly autopsied body of a young man who had been executed the day before. It makes you feel very human, very vulnerable, to see someone so young, so dead and so totally butchered. His face was screwed up in pain, or fear, or both. In China they execute you by shooting you in the back of the head, so presumably that was the anticipation of the moment frozen there on his face.
N In the first two novels in this series the city of Beijing is almost a character - alive and kicking - how important is a sense of place in your novels?
P I know that when I read a book I love to feel that I am being taken somewhere I haven't been or experienced before. Not many people get to make the kind of journeys I write about, so I like to feel that I can take my readers with me and that they get to feel the sun on their skin and smell the stench from the gutter. It makes the story all the more real for the reader if they can really sense and feel the same things that the characters do.
N When one of your main characters, a forensic pathologist, performs an autopsy, the details are very precise. Where did you get all the information?
P From my advisor, Dr. Steve Campman, who is currently working with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland. The FBI calls on him to do all sorts of stuff. He's a great guy, pathology obsessed, and with a fantastic sense of humour - I think you have to have to do what these guys do. So I just pump him for all the details I require by e-mail, and he's very graphic and very precise in return. The first time I ever used him was for the burns autopsy in The Firemaker - he faxed me a 40 page detailed description of a regular autopsy along with a fictitious autopsy report specific to my requirements.
N How do you discover your main characters? Are they made up from people you know or meet or are they purely fictitious?
P Both Margaret and Li are composites of different people. Li came from almost the first meeting we had in China, at the public security university. There was this tall, ugly-looking Chinese guy who was part of the welcoming committee. He never actually opened his mouth the whole time. Then later he took us on a tour round the campus and what had initially appeared to be this grim, humourless man, turned into a personality, eyes full of life, fun and humour. He was also unusually tall for a Chinese - and he became my physical model for Li.
N On the front cover of The Fourth Sacrifice the book is promoted as being as thrilling as Patricia Cornwell. Do you think your work is similar?
P I dont think so. The only similarity is that we both write about a female forensic pathologist. But I think my publishers see the comparison as a selling point.
N To end our interview, can you give us a taste of what you're working on at the moment?
P The fourth novel in the China series. The working title is Snakehead. It features Li and Margaret again, but this time the action takes place entirely in the U.S. Margaret has taken on the post of Chief Medical Examiner of Harris County, which takes in most of Houston, Texas. Li has become the Criminal Justice Liaison at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. The story idea was kicked off by the incident in Dover last June when a refrigerated truck full of dead illegal Chinese immigrants was found by customs.
INTERVIEW WITH SHOTS MAGAZINE
with Ayo Onatade
Peter May is no ordinary crime writer. Born in Glasgow in 1951 he has a passion for Chinese food and some of his favourite recipes can be found on his website. Sadly, the picture on his website fails to show the twinkle in his eyes that is evident while I interview him. An author of more than 9 novels before the publication of The Firemaker in 1999, Peter May is an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writers Association. His latest novel, Chinese Whispers, is available from New English Library in paperback from Jan 2004.
Ayo: For readers that don't know much about you, would you like to start off by giving a bit of background information about yourself? I know that you have been a reporter, a scriptwriter, an editor and a television producer - how did this all come about?
Peter: Um, a long story. I guess when I was a teenager I started writing my first book. I don't know why I wanted to write, but I did. And when I was at the point of leaving school I wanted to do something, make a living as a writer. But nobody could tell me how. I went to all the careers advisors and asked them how could I make a career as a writer and none of them knew; you couldn't take a university course for being a writer. Eventually I found a sheet of paper in one of those careers advisory rooms that was an application form for a one-year full-time course in journalism run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. And I thought, 'journalism!' - I hadn't thought about journalism. So I did the course and got a job in newspapers at the end of it: local newspapers for two years - I won Scottish young journalist of the year award in 1973 - then I moved to the Scotsman for 5 years, and I was at the Glasgow Evening Times for about another year after that. During that period I wrote my first published book which was about a journalist. They always say write about what you know so I did. At the same time I was getting accepted by a publisher, I developed a drama for television. I was very lucky because the first show I attempted to sell was accepted by the BBC. They made a 13 part drama series out of it called The Standard and I started getting into television. One thing led to another and I started writing soaps for television such as Take The High Road . I finished on that in 1988 a long time ago.
Ayo: Would you agree that having such varied jobs has helped you in your writing career?
Peter: Oh yeah, I think what ever you do brings experience. It's all grist to the mill, stuff you can use. I used all my experiences as a journalist, not just to write about a journalist but also as a journalist. During my years as a journalist I think I met four out of five Prime Ministers, and covered all sorts of stories from gangs of youths ying Alsatian dogs to railway lines so that their heads got cut off, to old ladies whose roofs were leaking who were not getting any help from the council. It introduces you to a fantastic array of different kinds of aspects of life and that's great for me.
Ayo: Some would say that there is a subtle difference between thrillers and crime novels. How would you class your books?
Peter: I think they might be somewhere between the two. I am not sure that publishers like that very much because they like you to put things in boxes don't they? Even the Crime Writer's Association now have got a separate prize for thrillers: The Ian Fleming Award. I don't know, I like to blur the distinctions. It is horrible to be put in a box and feel that you have to write something that conforms to some kind of formula that people think is appropriate. I guess I am drawn to the thriller but there is also an element of police procedural in my stuff as well. So it's definitely somewhere between the two.
Ayo: What were you looking for as a novelist that made crime fiction so attractive?
Peter: Well nothing at all, funnily enough. I never set out to write crime fiction. I spent 20 years in television writing soap operas and human drama. None of my previous books had been crime novels, it was the particular story that I wanted to write: the first of the China books about the genetically engineered rice. To tell that story I needed to start off with a murder, which was investigated, which unravelled the rest of the story. In doing that I had to create the police officer that was going to investigate and also create the American pathologist. And so when Hodder bought Firemaker they said we'll give you a two-book contract if you will write another one with the same characters. I wasn't about to turn down a two-book contract. It was always intended to be a one off but it turned into a series. I've just finished writing the sixth. So I've been put in that box haven't I?
Ayo: Were you a big reader of crime fiction yourself before you started writing?
Peter: I liked reading thrillers, I liked a good thriller, but I think I could describe myself as having fairly catholic tastes when it comes to reading. I did probably the biggest amount of reading in my twenties and I read anything from Hemingway to Graham Greene to just about everybody. The hing that always attracted me was a good story. It didn't matter whether it was a crime story or a human story. It didn't matter how small or big the story was. As long as it's a good story and engages your emotions then that's what's important.
Ayo: Do you still find the time to read?
Peter: Not as much as I would like. I find that most of the reading I do these days is research reading, which can be very dry. But I do try and take a week or two weeks a year where I take a holiday and go to Cyprus or the south coast of France where I take a suitcase full of books and all I do is sit and read all day. Now that for me is a holiday. Nothing else to do except read a book, nice wine, nice food, just sit in the sunshine and read. The rest of the year is too stressful; I've got to read this, I've got to read that, things that I have to read.
Ayo: Who would you consider your influences to be and did they influence your style of writing?
Peter: That goes a long way back. I think probably my two biggest influences were Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway as a young writer when I was starting out, and I think anyone who has ever written crime is influenced by Raymond Chandler - I'm no exception. In terms of more contemporary writers I enjoyed a lot of the early Michael Crichton books because I thought he had a great narrative way of telling a story. I think it has gone now, but the early stories are good. He went through a purple patch around about the time of Disclosure , which I thought was one of the best books I had read at that time, absolutely page turning.
Ayo: One of the things I've noticed when reading all your books is that you manage to destroy a lot of myths about the East in your novels. Did you set out to look at the clashes that take place between the East and the West? Or is it just a coincidence?
Peter: No, I think if you are going to set a series of books in a country which, certainly as far as the West is concerned, is still controversial in terms of its human rights and its politics, you cannot avoid those issues. You have to address all the cultural differences between east and west, you have to explode some of the myths on both sides. I have also tried to keep out of politics. It is always about people and I am not an apologist for any regime anywhere in the world. It is always about people.
Ayo: In most books, especially if they have been written in foreign climes, politics always seem to come into play somewhere. For example, right at the end of Barbara Nadel's latest book Harem, set in Istanbul, the police office says something to the effect that he can't tell his fellow colleagues what went on because it is all around politics.
Peter: Sure, because politics always affects every aspect of life. But the thing that you find if you go and spend any time in China is that politics is the last thing on people's minds. People in the West are obsessed with China because of communism and human rights. For people in China politics is not an issue. There are more pressing issues like putting a roof over your heads, feeding your family, making sure people have clothes on their backs. It is a developing country and there is still a lot of poverty, particularly in the rural areas. The economy is growing at such an incredible rate that there is a whole new breed of nouveau riche in China. It's quite extraordinary to see.
Ayo: I've noticed that you managed to achieve what very few novelists who write books set in foreign countries do, which is to get all the nuances right. I love the way in which you manage to seamlessly weave the different aspects of Chinese culture into the books. How hard was it when you first started and has it now become a lot easier?
Peter: It's hard because initially I was addressing a culture that was new and alien to me. I had done a lot of reading before I went; a huge amount of reading about the history, and the culture and I read all sorts of quirky books aimed at, for example, businessmen going to China, how to deal with the Chinese on all sorts of very basic levels. It's quite different from how you would expect to deal with people from the West. So I went with that background and I was lucky enough to encounter a host of placid people who welcomed me in and who introduced me to the real culture behind the written face of China. Then I felt that I was getting under the skin of China and getting that sense of the differences culturally, politically between east and west. That was one of the reasons that in the very first book I had two characters, the American and the Chinese, as I wanted to reverse the stereotypical thing of the little Chinese woman and the macho American guy.
Ayo: For those readers who have not yet been introduced to your work, give me your perceptions of your two main protagonists, Li Yan and Margaret Campbell.
Peter: They are people from radically different cultural backgrounds who share a common goal in terms of criminal investigation and that is what helped breach the cultural gap. Of course in the process of that they are two people who have fallen in love with one another. But it's not an easy relationship. She is not an easy person to like and I get some people saying to me oh, I can't be bothered with Margaret Campbell she's a pain in the neck. I say she's a real person for me, she is not a cipher, she's a real person and she can be sharp and grumpy.
Ayo: She is in an alien culture and she has to adapt. For example in Runner she is pregnant and the way in which the Chinese treat pregnancy is totally different from the way we in the West would. The Chinese see it as a much more sacred event and cosset the mothers, whereas here mothers go out to work and do whatever they want right up until their final day.
Peter: The Chinese wrap them in cotton wool and wrap them in even more cotton wool once they have had the child. Although there's a strange contradiction in China that very often the woman will still be riding their bicycle right up until she has the baby. Riding a bicycle is such an integral part of their way of life that it is not something that they would necessarily think about whereas a pregnant woman in the west almost certainly would not ride a bicycle after a certain time.
Ayo: So how do you see your characters developing?
Peter: I don't know. I have already written the next book and I don't want to give away what happens in that. They have plans to get married and she ends up having the baby. This is where the soap background comes in because it is never a problem coming up with the next storyline, the main focus of the book, but the background development between the characters - that's the real soap training when you have taken them to a climax, if you like, as you would at the end of a series. Where do we go from here? They will never have an easy relationship, put it that way.
Ayo: What makes a character real for you? Do you work out everything about them or do you just let it flow?
Peter: I will profile them in advance. I'll think about them a lot, I'll do background on them. But when it actually comes to writing, I guess this is the television writer in me again, I just let them talk. I find that if you have thought about them and you've got a clear enough idea in your head of who they are, you don't need to put the words in their mouths, they speak for themselves. So you just put them in whatever situation develops and they will respond the way they would respond. It is an odd process in that in some way you feel that you are not quite in control.
Ayo: Some writers often say that they feel that their characters get away from them. Is that the case with you?
Peter: They don't get away from me no, because ultimately I always put them in these situations. I will drop them in there, but how they respond, how they react, they do that themselves.
Ayo:Do you see yourself sticking with this series for a while or are there other unrelated projects in the pipeline?
Peter: I don't know. I have written six. If I were going to do more then I would be looking at going back to China again this autumn, but with the SARS situation the way it is I may be reluctant to go. I have also thought about where I would take them, where I would go, so if I decide to go down that road I have plans. I have also been working on other thoughts over the years but that's still fairly embryonic.
Ayo: Can we talk about The Runner? What was your starting point or inspiration for this novel?
Peter: The Beijing Olympics. Two summers ago when they were nominated and the voting was taking place I thought this would be a great background for the book, so I was hoping they would get it. I was watching the announcement on television and they got it and I thought yes, right, okay down to business. That was one point. Obviously then it had to be thought through and that led me into looking at athletics and as part of it I looked at the whole doping background, everything that had happened in East Germany in the 70's and 80's. While I had been aware of that I had no idea of the extent of it. I read so much about what athletes got up to, not just in East Germany but also across the whole spectrum and it left me feeling very cynical. I manage to enjoy watching athletics still, but when someone crosses the finish line now I'm wonder what they're on: sprinters, distance runners as well. Obviously you have read The Runner so you know that I also went into the whole genetically engineering issue. I had discussed this scientific possibility with my genetics adviser, a Canadian professor of genetics who had advised me previously, and between us we had come up with this as being a viable possibility. I had just finished writing the book when I read, to my astonishment, an article about a bunch of scientists in Scandinavia who were working on exactly that. They figured that by the time we got to the Beijing Olympics there would certainly be a number of athletes who would have been genetically modified by one means or another, to produce whichever hormone is required to enhance their performance.
Ayo: I find it very distressing at times when I read things like that.
Peter: It is. It's terrible. The honest athletes are out there and they strive hard, they work hard and they are never going to get anywhere because the cheats are going to win.
Ayo: In April 2001 a number of Chinese athletes were banned because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Were you conscious of that fact when you were writing The Runner?
Peter: Oh yes. The Chinese had a very bad record right through the nineties particularly when the Chinese swimmers were caught. There were all sorts of huge scandals and the Chinese Government were really embarrassed by them, particularly as they were looking at how it was going to affect their bid for the Olympic Games. So they have had had major crackdown. Huge punishments for athletes and coaches that are caught involved in this in any way. It totally opened up its doors to the International Athletics Federation and all the international doping procedures and random testing. I am sure that it still goes on, but no more than anywhere else.
Ayo: I take it you have some interest in athletics.
Peter: I have always been interested and have always watched athletics during the European Championships and the Olympics. I wasn't a huge athletics fan but I enjoyed it, particularly if Scottish athletes were involved. But doing the research really brought me up hard against the unpleasant side of it. The athletics and the Beijing Olympics is only one side of the book because there is also the club and the Chinese mafia - the triads - and the fact that they had spread up from Hong Kong back into mainland China. A friend of mine, an American who is a photographer, told me about a club that he had been asked to take photographs of in Shanghai and it is what I described in the book. I went to Shanghai to see this club and it is just unbelievable opulence. This is really big time nouveau riche in China, effectively a high-class gambling den, all stocks and shares and world markets. Membership costs a million dollars and once you are in there they give you five million to play with. You have to see it to believe it. I transported that to Beijing and put my own twist on it. But the fact that a place like that could exist in modern times struck me as being something that people could be surprised at.
Ayo: Contemporary World Police? How did you become involved in this?
Peter: This is my column. Well it is a weird thing. The first book Firemaker has been translated into Chinese and it is being serialised in a crime magazine in Beijing at the moment. People who had been involved in helping me with research and who were involved in crime literature in China put me in contact with a publisher and a production company who were interested in publishing the books and producing them as a TV series in China. Which is very flattering as I have come in as an outsider and they had written to me and said we think it would be a great promotional thing for the book Firemaker because this Contemporary World Police thing is read by hundreds of thousands of cops in China. It is a monthly magazine and they wanted me to write a column in it, which basically discussed my research for my books, how I found the Chinese policemen, how I compared them with the police in the West, and methodology and all that sort of stuff. They thought it would be a good promotional thing and the publishers and the magazine were keen for it and it has just taken off from there. So I'm columnist for a Chinese police magazine. A bit bizarre, but I don't get paid for it. But I think for me every time I go back it means I am known to everybody in the police. If I go looking for information it is a lot easier.
Ayo: You mentioned earlier that you have just finished the sixth novel. Is it called The Lie, if I am not mistaken, or has the title changed?
Peter: That was a working title it is now called Chinese Whispers .
Ayo: Are you allowed to say anything about the book? I have got to ask.
Peter: Well I can tell you that the inspiration for it came from my research trip to China for The Runner . While I was there I met an American based in Beijing and he is a polygrapher vastly experienced in the United States. He was out there developing lie detection techniques for the Chinese and I thought he was an interesting character as well as the subject being an interesting idea. So I started exploring that in a bit more detail and came across a technology that supersedes the lie detector. Lie detectors are a bit hit or miss. It's not really a science, it's really much more to do with the psychology of the person asking the questions. So I came across this other system called the Mermer. It is an acronym for: memory and encoding related multifaceted electro-phonographic responses. It works in a 100% of cases and they call it brain fingerprinting in the United States. The question that you have to ask, and I'll ask you, is what does a criminal always take with him from the scene of crime. Every single time, without failure? His memory of what happened. It is there without fail because the brain is like a videotape, it records it all. It is there in the brain and what they have done is develop this process that can read certain waves emitted from the brain.
For example, if you have just murdered your boss who is lying in a pool of blood and they show you photographs of the crime and they are reading your brain's response, you recognise that. You have an absolutely automatic response; you have no control over it. But your brain recognises it and it's readable. If your brain does not recognise it there will be no evidence. It is a great way of clearing people as well. It is not just a way of saying this person is guilty because he has guilty knowledge in his head, but also this person is not guilty because they have no guilty knowledge. They tested it extensively with the F.B.I and the C.I.A and in 100% of tests to date they have been successful. They have actually had a couple of murderers released from prison on the basis that they have used this on them and they have found them to be innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing.
Ayo: One last question. What are your views on the evolution of crime fiction over the next 10 years?
Peter: What I would hope for is good stories, good story-telling. I think story telling is what it is all about. That is what people read stories for, and I think that the more we look at human stories and the human condition. Crime is a great way of examining the human condition because it is ooking for flaws under stress effectively and crime is always stressful, both for the perpetrator and the victim. So a crime story of any kind is putting the human condition under a microscope in a very stressful situation and that's great, because that's where we get under people's skins and into people's heads and the stories. I hope hat the trend will continue to be good story-telling.
Click here to visit SHOTS, The Crime and Mystery Magazine
SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
Sunday, February 8, 2004
Crime and Nourishment
by Alister McMillan
A SCOTTISH NOVELISTwill spend today in France writing advice for mainland cops as part of a column for Beijing's Contemporary World Police magazine.
If Peter May begins to question his qualifications as a voice for Chinese police, he could always tell the magazine that his new novel, Chinese Whispers, has just been released, before fleeing for a few months of promotion. But May, 52, says he can wait until summer to flog Chinese Whispers. Until then, he feels obliged to repay the capital's police for providing material for his books.
May has been writing for the national magazine, published by the Chinese People's University of Public Security, for 12 months. But he fell behind while polishing Chinese Whispers and hopes to finish 12 columns before promotional duties start in the Netherlands, where translations of two of his books have just been released.
"The magazine wants me to write about what I've experienced with the Chinese police," he says while sitting in front of a screen full of research material at his home in the village of Puymul, near Toulouse, southwest France.
A crime writer who sets most of his books in Beijing is at least qualified to entertain police, he jokes. "Crime novels are always about people pushed to the edge - ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Cops face so many of these experiences.
"Chinese people have had a huge interest in western crime writing since 1912, when Sherlock Holmes was first published in Chinese."
Chinese Whispers revisits his two central characters, American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell and Li Yan, head of Beijing's Serious Crime Squad.
The couple are called in to catch a serial killer dubbed the "Beijing Ripper" by a panicking public. The killer mimics the methods of London's Jack the Ripper to butcher prostitutes.
May fell in love with China 20 years ago, when he visited Hong Kong for the first time and took a day-trip to Shenzhen. "Things hadn't changed that much in Shenzhen since the Cultural Revolution. To western sensibilities it was extraordinarily different to anything I'd experienced before. I was fascinated by it and wanted to go back."
But the opportunity didn't arise until 1991, when he began to consider setting a novel in China. "I did a lot of exploration and travelling," he says. "I developed a story that I thought would make a one-off book. But my publisher offered me a two-book contract on the basis that I set the second book in China with the same characters, which had never occurred to me. I went for it. Then they offered me another two-book contract, so I had a series."
In pushing him to stretch his series, publisher Coronet probably had an eye on May's history as a scriptwriter for 1980s television serials such as The Standard and Squadron.
May laughs at the similarities between writing soap opera and creating serial killers for the page.
"I like the serial element of developing characters over a long time. The challenge and the pleasure for me has been in developing those main characters and their relationship. That definitely comes from having written television dramas, where you have the opportunity to develop characters over hundreds of episodes.
"There's certainly now a big fashion for serials. Publishers are always looking for the series potential in a book."
Depicting cross-cultural love within the mayhem of police work has proved less dramatic than continuing to use Beijing as his setting, he says.
Watching China for 13 years allows May to lace his narrative with the capital's cosmopolitan march towards the 2008 Olympics, touching on traffic, the smell of coal briquettes and the destruction of hutongs. The pace of change makes long stays in Beijing a necessity.
"I've done six China books now, and I look back at the previous books as being almost historical records. The whole fabric of Beijing has changed. It's unrecognisable to me now. When I go back I always check out the locations I've used. Last time, I couldn't find the headquarters of the Serious Crime Squad, which I've been writing about for five years. I just couldn't find it. It took me about an hour. A new highway had appeared out of nowhere. All the buildings around it had vanished, replaced by a huge apartment complex - all in just one year. It's just changing so extraordinarily fast. All I can do in the books is try to convey that sense of radical change."
After working for 35 years as a car salesman, journalist, television writer and novelist, May says the China series is his best work.
The key to writing about a place most western readers would find intriguing lies in colouring his characters with the details of everyday life.
"China obviously has an exotic quality for the westerner. But there's so much nonsense disseminated about China. People in the west don't really have a clear idea of what China is about and what Chinese people and modern Chinese society are like. I wanted to accurately portray a contemporary Chinese setting in a way that would be educational and interesting for the western reader.
"Politics in China is not something that I have dealt with at all. The point has been to show people in their lives as their lives are. Politics is really about what people want their lives to be rather than what they are.
"I haven't shied away from some of the issues that impinge on everyday lives. One of the simple things that one wouldn't think about at all in the west is that a serving police officer in China is not allowed to marry a foreign national. I based about half of The Runner on that basic restriction.
"One deals with the things that impinge on people. It's political in the small sense rather than in the grand sense of the future of the country."
May's seventh China book has been put on hold while he writes his first about his native Scotland. The "dark crime novel" set on the isle of Lewis, near the Hebrides, will spin off an ancient yearly custom involving 10 men who row to a rock in the middle of the Atlantic to slaughter 2,000 gannets.
Maturity, he says, helped him realise that he needed a change from the China series for a year. "I've been writing since I was a teenager," he says. "I was first published when I was 24. I started writing my best stuff when I was in my mid-40s. It's hard to say that you enjoy writing ... I still get a big kick out of it, but sometimes it can be very hard.
"Life experience and experience of writing give you a greater command over what you're writing. When I started the China series I was reaching a point where I felt I could do justice to the things I wanted to write about.
"An apprenticeship in writing and life gives you the experience to be able to do it more than once. Some people only have one book in them. They don't have the reservoir of technique to be able to go on and do different work."
ONE-HOUR TV INTERVIEW
WITH BARBARA PETERS
in 6 parts (10 minutes each)
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featuring clips from:
- his research in CHINA and FRANCE
- talks which he has given
- interviews in French and English
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