Interview: Peter May

 

Peter May
Peter May

 

I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

 

As a native Scot, it’s natural you’ve managed to create such a strong sense of place any reader can identify with. What is it about Scotland and the Scots culture you feel evokes such a visceral reaction in your readers? What makes Scotland so fascinating?
Scotland and the Scots are shaped by a hard climate and a hard religion, set against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was that hard religion that introduced universal education, bucking against years of Catholic dominance when the Church liked to keep people in compliant ignorance. The new Protestantism wanted people to read the bible, and so taught them to read and write. As a result, Scotland was in the vanguard of the new enlightenment, its education system turning out scholars and engineers, doctors and inventors, economists and philosophers. Scotland was transformed from a medieval backwater into one of the most forward thinking countries in the world, and the Scots took their ideas and their work ethic with them during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Scotland has a population of only 5 million, the diaspora is around 22 million, and people everywhere can, I think, identify powerfully with the Scot on his journey “home”. In a way “The Blackhouse” is a microcosm of that journey, as we voyage back to the Isle of Lewis with Fin Macleod after 18 years away and share his emotions and the powerful pull of the island.

For me, and certainly for those who live there, the Isle of Lewis is a place of unique beauty and harshness. But I think the themes of exile and return are universal to the human experience, and so in a sense the story could find its setting almost anywhere.

Is there a certain place, time or state of mind you require in order to write? Do you write longhand or typed? What about revisions?
I am a very controlled writer, bringing with me the disciplines learned during 8 years as a journalist and 15 as a screenwriter. These include writing fast, economy of language, working to deadlines, and using dialogue to advance plot and develop character. I work at a computer, touch typing, so it seems my thoughts appear on the screen as they come into my head. I am not even aware of the keyboard as an intermediary. I write a detailed synopsis of my story after several months of research and development, and when I begin the book I rise at 6am and write 3000 words a day. I never have writer’s block, and in the main my revisions are confined to daily tidying and a final polish.

Say you were granted one question from one great writer you’ve admired – living or dead. What would you ask, and of whom (s/he must answer honestly…)?
I would ask Ernest Hemingway why he was so determined to excise the adjective from his writing.

Do you come from a family that appreciated reading and great literature? Were you an avid reader as a child?
My father was an English teacher. Both my parents had genius level IQs and taught me to read and write before I went to school. I always read voraciously as a child, children’s books, naturally. But when I was about 12 my uncle came to live with us after his wife committed suicide. I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

Are you a bibliophile? Do you own an outrageous number of books or does being a writer curtail the need to possess so many? If so, are you the sort to keep them neatly shelved?
I hate to throw books away, so have accumulated an inordinate number of them over the years. My house is filled with groaning (and untidy) shelves of them – I even still have those books from the end of the sofa, inheriting them after my parents’ death.

Kindles, Nooks and other eReaders… Blessing, curse or something else? Do you own an electronic reading device?
I am constantly traveling, and always need and want to carry books with me. The advent of the e-book has been a boon for me personally, allowing me to take with me as many books as I like. I have a Kindle and an iPad. But I do understand the implications for the book industry, and how both publishers and booksellers will face an uncertain future with the surge in electronic publishing and reading. History will determine whether it has been a blessing or a curse.

Will books go away? Any worries on that score?
I don’t worry about it. But I think the traditional book of printed pages between soft or hard covers will vanish eventually from the mass marketplace, to be replaced by the e-book. There will always be a place, I think, for ink and paper, but is more likely to become a niche market. I don’t think there is anything I or anyone else can do about it. It is the march of progress. But I do think that the book will survive the transition and perhaps even flourish.

With all your writing experience and accomplishments, do you ever freeze in the face of the blank screen/page?
Never. As I mentioned, I write 3000 words a day. When my computer tells me I have reached that total, I stop – even if I am in the middle of a sentence. That way I always know what I am going to write next, and so never have a problem re-starting the next morning. My tip to aspiring writers is never finish your writing day at the end of a chapter. Always leave something to latch on to the next day.

Lastly, what’s your next project? Any teasers you’d like to dangle to drive your readers mad?
The Blackhouse is the first in a trilogy, called The Lewis Trilogy. The second book, The Lewis Man, is already out in the UK where it is a top ten bestseller, and the final book, The Chessmen, will be out in January. American readers, I am afraid will have to wait a little longer. I am currently working on a new book that spans the Atlantic – from the Hebrides to Quebec. I am currently on a research trip to Canada. It is, I think, an epic story,  and I can’t wait to get writing.

[Previously published 2012 at BookBrowse.com, rights retained by author.]

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