Peter May is a mystery writer with journalism training that supports his passion for writing. He has extensive contacts inside the law enforcement community, including China, amply reflected in his novels. Although he lives in France with his award-winning wife, Janice, he travels extensively in the U.S. When he comes your way, don’t miss an encounter with this charming Scot. I am pleased to present his answers to my questions.
When someone asks you what kind of books do you write? What’s your answer?
When did you know you were going to be a mystery writer?
When my publisher told me I would have to change my name to write in another genre.
Tell us a little bit about your family background.
My Great Aunt Belle was a direct descendant of the famous Scottish outlaw, Rob Roy Macgregor; my father's great, great uncle was a disinherited earl; my parents have both gone to the great library in the sky (where, I am sure, they still cast a critical eye over my latest offerings); my wife is the award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Janice Hally; and my daughter insists I will never be a grandfather.
What is your educational background?
I got kicked out of school, and after a year selling cars in the university of life, studied journalism in Edinburgh.
What did you read as a child?
When I was eleven, my uncle's wife committed suicide and he came to stay at our house, displacing me from my bedroom. I slept on the sofa in the living room, and woke up each morning to look at all the books on the shelf beside it - Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner, Walter Scott, John Steinbeck, Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Strange names, and even stranger titles - Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath, The Case of the Black-Eyed Blond, Sunset Song, For Whom The Bell Tolls... Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I started reading them, working my way along the shelf. I was far too young for them, of course, but since I didn't know that I had no preconceptions. And in a way, these books shaped the rest of my life.
What’s your daily routine when you aren’t touring?
Research reading, cooking, wine-tasting, relaxing in the garden.
How much touring do you do?
I tour the States once a year these days. But since I live in France, and my books are published here, I get invited to book fairs all over the country, and usually do ten to twelve events a year.
What surprised you most about the writing community once you became a part of it?
The camaraderie, I guess. That shared sense of vulnerability and isolation.
What’s the hardest thing about being an author?
The next book.
Do you blog? How frequently? Is your blog a group or single effort?
I have a blog, but generally only keep it up to date when I am touring in the US - partly to keep a record for myself, and partly to keep friends and family (and readers) in touch with where I am and what is happening.
How frequently do you organize or participate in book tours?
My wife organises my annual book tours in the States. She is brilliant at it, producing a "book" with a daily itinerary, all our travel tickets and arrangements, car rental, hotels etc. She now knows the US hub airports by heart and most of the booksellers, and can plan a mean tour.
What kind of events or signings do you do?
In the States I talk to readers at as many independent mystery stores as I can fit into my itinerary - which can be as many as twenty. In France, almost every town has its own annual book fair. Authors are invited to attend, and all expenses are paid from the public purse. These events usually consist of contributing to one or more round table discussions in front of an audience, and sitting at tables piled high with your books to sign for readers. The biggest events can attract as many as a quarter of a million people over the course of a weekend. In Paris it is nearly half a million over four days.
In a typical year, how many times did you appear for your book?
Anywhere between 30 and 40 times.
How many fan conferences such as Bouchercon will you typically attend in a year?
Living in France, it is a very expensive business going to these events, so I try to arrange my US tours to coincide with one of the fan conferences - usually Left Coast Crime, although I have also been to Bouchercon.
Do you like to travel?
I love to experience different places around the world, although I hate the actual mechanics of travelling.
What surprised you the most when you became a published author?
How little promotion and support a writer receives from his publisher. My first book was published more than 30 years ago. I was very excited, waiting to hear from my publisher what my promotional itinerary would be, what newspaper and radio interviews I would do, and what papers I would be reviewed in. But when the book actually appeared, it seemed to vanish into a black hole. It had very few reviews, there was virtually no promotion, and I did one single radio interview. I quickly learned that if you wanted to achieve a profile for yourself and your books, you were going to have to do it yourself.
Do you think you’ll change direction or spread out a bit? Write a different kind of crime novel? If so, what kind?
I think it is quite hard to change direction as a writer, once you are establish in a genre. Publishers, and readers, always want more of the same. However, I have recently written two very different types of crime book - one set in a virtual world, the other a slow-burn psychological thriller set on a remote Scottish island. I found the latter very hard to sell in the UK, but my French publisher has snapped it up, buying world rights, and it will be published in French even before it appears in English.
Especially since 9/11, how do you respond to the accusation that you are trying to make money on a phenomenon in society we call murder? Or heinous crime?
I have always enjoyed reading crime books and thrillers, as well as movies of the same genre - something I have in common with many other people around the world. I write what I enjoy reading, and fortunately a lot of other people enjoy reading what I write. So I make no apologies for that. But, in the end, a crime story is only ever a vehicle for an exploration of the human condition. Which is what writers have always written about. An interesting coda to this is that one of my China Thrillers, "Snakehead" won a French literary award where the judges were panels of prisoners in French penitentiaries. I felt it was quite an accolade for a crime writer to get the thumbs up from criminals.
If you could be anything else in the world, have any other career, what would it be?
A professional musician.
What career would you least like to do, if writing was to become impossible?
I once worked as a civil servant in the UK, calculating the interest in the bank books of investors in the Department of National Savings. I sat in a huge shed, with hundreds of other people, having to achieve a target of ten bank books an hour, monitored by eagle-eyed senior functionaries. I had to ask to go to the toilet. After three months, I stood up one morning and simply walked out, never to return. I find it hard to imagine a worse job.
Have you ever collaborated on a novel? Would you consider it?
No, and no. As a script writer and story editor on TV series and serials, I worked as part of a team. Which was stimulating, and fun. But, for me, novel writing is a singularly solo occupation.
Who are the authors who you feel have had the most influence on your writing career.
The four most influential writers who shaped my style and ambition were Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, H. E. Bates, and J. P. Donleavy.
Tell us one or two authors or books you absolutely universally recommend.
The most inspirational book, I think, that a writer can read is Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast". The only book I was ever moved to read twice was J.P. Donleavy's "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B" - which made me both laugh out loud and weep copious tears.
Who is your favorite mystery author?
I think one of the best mystery writers around today is William Kent Krueger - simply for his marvelous characterisation, sensitivity, and observation of the human condition. These are qualities I rarely find in many contemporary mysteries and thrillers.
Where do you want your career to go?
I spent twenty years writing for television before turning to writing books full time. I would love now, to see some of my books adapted for the screen - big or small. I am fortunate in that the first of my China Thrillers series, "The Firemaker", is to be made into a movie - a French/Chinese co-production made in English for the international market, and directed by award-winning Chinese director Wang Chao. The third of my Enzo Files series, "Blacklight Blue", is currently being developed as a TV movie.
Who is your publisher? What’s your current book?
My US publisher is Poisoned Pen Press. My current books are "Blacklight Blue" (the Enzo Files), and "Snakehead" (the China Thrillers). The second of the China Thrillers, "The Fourth Sacrifice", is also just out in paperback. The fourth Enzo book, and my virtual thriller will both come out early next year.
Are you agented?
I have literary agents in New York and London.
What’s your take on the rise of electronic publishing?
An interesting development that could ultimately free the writer from being tied to a publisher.
What’s your favorite word?
"Smirr". It's a Scottish word meaning rain so fine that it is almost a mist (the Scots have more words for rain than anyone else in the world, I think). The reason I love it is that it always confuses the hell out of my English editors.
What’s your least favorite word?
"But" - particularly when following the phrase, "I loved your book".
If you could change one thing about the world what would that be?
While adjusting my bikini and freshening my lipstick, I'd put in my tuppenceworth for world peace.
Tell us about your upcoming book or other project.
The fifth book in the Enzo files is in the early stages of development. I have also been commissioned by a French publisher to write a short story of around 12,000 words using only the Latin-based vocabulary of the English language in an attempt to create something written in English that can be read by the French. It is an interesting idea, and I am going to use it as a vehicle for revisiting my characters from the China Thrillers series, Li Yan and Margaret Campbell.
Thank you for an interesting and insightful interview.