Peter May is a popular crime writer. His Lewis-trilogy has become immensely popular and his latest novel Coffin Road has recently been translated into Swedish. His books are of course almost unbearably thrilling crime stories, but somehow the crimes and the police work is almost back staged by the setting. Peter May has an ability to describe the harsh environments of the Outer Hebrides, and the people living there, in a way that really catches the reader.
We are very happy that you could take time from your busy scheduele and answer a couple of questions about your writing and about the intriguing landscape in your books. Firstly, can you tell us a little about what the landscape of the Outer Hebrides means to you?
Peter: The landscape is like no other. In the 1990s, I spent five years in the Outer Hebrides when I was creator and producer of a television drama entitled Machair. We made 99 episodes during that time and we shot scenes all over the islands in every kind of weather. In the process of searching for the perfect location for each scene, the production team and I explored every hidden corner, every part of the coastline, every beach and cliff. We tramped across all the peat bogs and through the interior of the islands, and we looked at every house and outbuilding. I know the landscape, the people, and the environment they inhabit probably better than I know the town I was born in! And although I live in France now, when I go back to Scotland, the Islands feel like “home” to me. They have a very special place in my heart.
The weather pushes its way in to become an additional character,
present in every scene.
How does it affect your writing?
Peter: I immerse myself in my writing, I always feel that I am in there, in the location where the action is taking place. I’ve written stories set in the Far East, Europe, North America. I’ve always visited every location that I write about. I take lots of video so that I can remind myself of the sights and sounds and smells. It’s important to me that I take my readers with me to the place and make them feel that they are right there with the characters. The unique thing about the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is the effect that the place has on everything. The weather arrives after 4000 kilometres of Atlantic Ocean, carried on winds that never cease. On the Isle of Lewis, the land is flat and the horizon is low, so the vast expanse of sky dominates everything you experience. You can see blue sky and rainbows to the west, clouds to the east, rain falling to the north and sunshine in the south – all at once! The weather pushes its way in to become an additional character, present in every scene.
Why do you think there’s such a fascination for remote islands?
Peter: Although an island is a microcosm of any society, its remoteness removes some of the influences of life on the continent. In some ways it can be like a step back in time, people move at their own pace and do things the way the have always done them. Generations of families have lived in the same area and so they are also much more in touch with their traditions and history. And they are more in touch with the environment, too. The power of the ocean is never far away, and the breathtaking beauty of the beaches and dramatic cliffs always make you feel closer to nature. For a storyteller or reader, an island has such strong boundaries – making it not easy to arrive or leave quickly – that every story is concentrated and focused. There is a claustrophobic quality, which can add to the tension. And because the islanders have much stronger ties and relationships to one another, it makes it more complicated for a “stranger’ to fit in easily, which brings another dynamic to the drama.
What is it in the barren and austere that is so appealing – at least on paper?
Peter: Simplicity. It takes us back to basics. People who visit the islands often talk in terms of it being a spiritual experience. When you strip everything back, you can focus on and examine what’s really important, without the abundant distractions of modern urban life.
In your detective novels, the characters are in close contact with nature and spend much time outdoors. Are you yourself an outdoorsman or do you prefer indoor comforts?
Peter: I’ve had my fair share was of being battered by gale force winds and rain on the isle of Harris for my research, as you can see in this youtube video. So for recreation, I much prefer cooking a nice meal and enjoying a wine tasting with friends!
In the blog community in Sweden there are quite a few people planning, more or less seriously, trips to Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. What would you recommend as a “must see” if they do make the trip?
Peter: The Callanish standing stones, the traditional Blackhouses at Arnol and Gearrannan, Uig Beach, Luskentyre Beach, Port of Ness… the list goes on. But the Outer Hebrides make it easy for lovers of my books to find their way around. They have created “The Peter May Trail” and you can visit a website to plan your way around the islands. Lots of photographs and information can be found there. And you can download a PDF all about it.
But if you can’t make it to the islands, there is a beautiful book of photographs by photographer David Wilson, which I wrote the text for. The book takes you to all the locations in the Lewis Trilogy and it’s the next best thing to a visit.
Thank you very much. Lot’s of interesting things to see when we do get there.
Do you yourself have a favourite novel in which a particular landscape appeals to you?
Peter: I don’t know if I would describe it as a “favourite” novel, but the book that stays in my mind for its story being entirely determined by the environment in which it is set, is Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.
Cast Iron – the 6th and final book in Enzo Files-series is just out in the UK and I know that you are researching and preparing for your next novel. Is it possible for you to tell us something about that, as a teaser?
Peter: My new novel starts with a murder in Paris and then takes us back to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I can’t tell you much more about it as I am still working on the research and story. I’ll start writing it very soon.
Something to look forward to! And again, thank you!
Portrait of the authour by Vincent Loisin