Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Lewis Man: Peter May in conversation with Gillian Hamer

This was the first book I've read of the Lewis Trilogy from Peter May. I realise now that it is the second book in the Lewis trilogy, but I can honestly say that reading this out of order didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.
This is a stunning murder mystery set in the Scottish Highlands. It opens when a body is pulled from a peat bog, which is firstly assumed to be an ancient archaeological discovery - but an Elvis tattoo found during post-mortem puts a whole new complexion on the case.

We are introduced to ex-policemen, Fin Macleod, back from the mainland after the tragic death of his son. His back story from the first book is quickly and efficiently summarized and we soon understand his dual loyalties when Fin's childhood sweetheart's father is implicated in the murder – and he feels he has no option but to become involved in the case.
This is where the writing really took off for me. The clever way the author weaves together the investigation along with the confused and dislocated thoughts of an old man with advanced dementia was brilliant to read. The reader is torn between compassion and the niggling feeling that all may not be as it seems with Tormond MacDonald – and it is this quest that keeps the reader gripped as the story twists and turns. It is a really clever narrative that would have taken considerable skill to achieve.

The other reason I connected with this story was its location. I’m a strong advocate of bringing location into a novel as a central theme or a character in its own right. May describes not only Lewis but all of the other locations, particularly South Uist and Eriskay, with a skill that makes you ache to be part of the landscape. He also touches on a period of Scottish history that I was previously unaware about – the practice of sending orphaned children from the city slums out to new lives with complete strangers in the Outer Hebrides.
It's such a thrill for me to discover a new name in crime fiction whose writing I enjoy and really connect with. The Lewis Man totally gripped me. The combination of strong location, excellent characterisation, and a clever narrative that takes you through past and present lives with real skill makes this a winner.

I can't wait to look out more novels from this talented author and intend reading the other books in the trilogy as soon as possible.

We are also delighted to have a conversation between this month’s Book Club author of The Lewis Man, Peter May, and our very own Triskelite, Gillian Hamer. So, what did these two crime writers have to say about their love of genre, location and the secret world of gannet chicks!

Location is a vital element of your novels, almost standing as a character in its own right. This is something I connect with strongly in my own writing, but why is it so important to you? And how and why do you choose particular locations?

For me every story starts with the characters.  The plot grows and develops according to what affects these characters and how they in turn affect everyone and everything around them.  Obviously relationships between characters are important, but the world which they inhabit is central to who they are and how they behave.  The location, the weather, the culture and way of life all have a bearing on the people and the story so the setting is always centre stage for me.  My next book takes place partly on the Isle of Lewis and partly in Quebec's Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence.  Although there are certain similarities about island life, the the two locations are very different culturally.  I've written books set in China, France, the USA, and even in the online virtual world of Second Life!

You now live in France (Enzo Files) and I believe used to spend a lot of time in the Outer Hebrides (The Lewis Trilogy) is it important for you to see and feel and absorb a location to be able to bring it across effectively in your writing?

I never write about a location unless I have been there and experienced it personally.  I love research.  As far as my writing process goes, research takes up most of my time.  Visiting locations and soaking up the atmosphere is a vital part of that research.  In the early days when I was writing about China  I made more than a dozen visits there, often for more than a month at a time.  In the early days, I took copious notes about each location and took hundreds of photographs.  When I got home I would get the photographs developed and paste them on large pieces of card, constructing panoramas of each of the locations I was writing about.  I would pin them up on the wall above my desk to take me to the places while I was writing about them.  Times have moved on and it's easy now to take videos with my phone at the locations, so I can record sounds or notes instantly along with the pictures. When I get back from a research trip I construct short videos of each location that I can play on my computer while I'm writing.

In The Lewis Man, you bring out very strongly the different character of the islands - Harris v Lewis, Protestant islands v Catholic. Where did your understanding come from? And how have the islanders themselves responded to your depiction of them?

Some places I know better than others. For example, in the case of the Outer Hebrides, I lived for half the year, every year for five years on the Isle of Lewis.  I co-created and produced a drama series for television that was shot on location there during the 1990s. During the research and scriptwriting I got to know the people, the culture and the customs and during the filming I got to know every square foot  and blade of grass on the island searching for the right locations, and shooting scenes in them.  The books have been better received on the islands than I could ever have imagined.  When The Blackhouse and Lewis Man were published I made visits to Stornoway where I had a great turnout.  And so when The Chessmen was published Quercus arranged a tour of the Outer Hebrides from Port of Ness in the north of Lewis to Lochboisdale on South Uist.  Everywhere I went, the halls were full to overflowing and the warmth of the reception I received everywhere was overwhelming.

You have a wonderful ear for local dialect and a natural ability for bringing this across successfully in your writing. Do you think your background in television script writing was a help in developing this skill?

My years of working in television have had a great influence on my writing, not just in terms of having an ear for dialogue, but in my whole approach to writing.  I "see" very vividly every scene that I write.  I also employ the scriptwriter's technique of drawing up a very clear storyline of the book before I write. In scriptwriting, writing the story and writing the script are two separate jobs each making different demands on the writer and calling for different abilities.  Often, in television the two jobs are done by different people.  I think there are some writers who tell great stories but write badly.  Equally there are acclaimed novelists who write beautifully but hang their writing on flimsy stories.  For me plotting and structure are an important part of a writer's craft and I always work hard to get the plot right before starting to write the book.  An initial draft of the storyline is written very quickly - perhaps 25,000 words in a week.  At that stage the only thing that is important is going with the flow of the story.  I can then stand back and look for flaws - which are much easier to spot and fix than trying to do it in a finished novel that's maybe 120,000 words long.  When I'm happy with the story outline, I start to write the book, with the security of knowing the plot works, and allowing me to concentrate fully on the quality of my writing.

Again I write quickly, I get up at 6am and write 3,000 words per day.  Writing quickly and writing to deadlines is something else I brought with me from television.

You have a wide, varied list of characters across your novels. When developing a new character, where do you start? And what are the important, key points you focus on?

Characters are like people.  You meet them, you make assumptions about them, sometimes you're proved right, sometimes they prove you wrong.  Gradually you get to know them better and often they surprise you.  I have sometimes been criticised for writing characters "warts and all" - some readers get annoyed if the hero has flaws. They want the good guys to be all good and the bad guys to be bad.  To me the characters are human beings.  Heros have flaws and even the bad guys sometimes have a redeeming feature.  During my research, I spend a lot of time living with the characters in my head and getting to know them.

Where do you stand on the subject of research? Love or loathe? And how do you approach, for example, historical details or factual information like police procedurals?

I love research.  I always seem to be interested in subjects that require a lot of research - genetic modification, the Chinese police, forensic pathology, forensic science.  I've heard some writers say they hate research and believe that writing is all about "making things up". I find that the wonderful thing about research is that you set out to find the answer to one thing, and discover a wealth of inspiration that provides you with even better ideas. Research is where I get all my stimulus.  It's also important to me to get my facts right.  I know I'm making up the story, but it's taking place in the real world, so I want to be accurate. For the China Thrillers, I needed to know where the Beijing homicide squad was based, where the guys went to eat at lunchtime, what the inside of the Shanghai police morgue looked like.  

I take research for my Enzo Files books, which are set in France, equally seriously.  When I wrote the second book which is set in the vineyards of Gaillac, I had to visit as many of the 120 vineyards there as I could, talking to the winemakers and, yes you've guessed it, drinking a lot of wine!  In fact I got to know the wines there so well that I was inducted as a Chevalier de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac.

How did you learn so much about the secretive world of the hunt for the gannet chicks?

Ahh! After you have inveigled your way into the world of the Chinese Police, the Guga Hunters of Ness were not so daunting.  I simply did what I always do when I need to know something.  I go to the people themselves and ask them to talk to me.  In the case of the guga hunters I spent hours with them, listening to their stories of the hunt, of their childhoods, of the preparation for the trip and the journey itself.  I also talked at length to the young skipper who takes them to the rock in his fishing boat.  People are usually very open and incredibly helpful when you go to them and ask to learn about the things in which they are expert.  I find that most people are usually very happy to talk to me.


  1. I read Lewis Man just after Christmas and was absolutely bowled over by it. It loved the was the fragile thread of the old man's unravelling memories was woven together with the modern-day police investigation. And the descriptions of the landscape and the changing weather patterns of the Outer Hebrides were just wonderful. I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

    Great interview too, by the way. Thank you to Gilly and to Peter May for agreeing to do it.

  2. Thanks, Kat. It was your recommendation that got me to try Peter's books and I wasn't disappointed. Plus both himself and his wife are both lovely people. Pretty pleased with the interview too!