Interview in English of Peter May (VO)

Can you please tell us about which part of Scotland do you come from ? And how was your childhood ?

I was born and raised in the city of Glasgow – the biggest city in Scotland, and one of the most violent in Europe.  I grew up in a middle-class suburb on the edge of the countryside, and so had the time and space to explore my landscape.  During my teenage years I played in a band – initially as a lead guitarist, and then as a keyboard player. I ended up playing in Scotland’s top soul band. I was still at school, but we were semi-professional, and played 5 nights a week all over Scotland and the north of England.

How did you start writing polar ?

I always wanted to be a writer.  I wrote my first story at the age of four, and had my first novel published at the age of 25.  During my twenties I worked as a journalist in Glasgow, then after my first book was published I developed it for television, and went on to become a scriptwriter and producer.  When I quit TV in 1996, and began work on my China series, I fell into the genre of the polar quite by accident.  I decided that the story I wanted to tell in the first of my China books would be best told through an enquiry into a murder.  And so I created a Commissar of police, and a forensic pathologist, and cornered myself in the genre of the polar.  Once you have established yourself as a writer of polars, your publisher and your readers always want you to write more in the same genre.

Peter MayHow is polar considered in Scotland ? Are there many readers ?

Polars are very popular in Scotland, and there are many Scottish writers in this genre.  In fact, the best-selling writer of polars in Great Britain is Scottish – Ian Rankin.  And, of course, there is a great tradition of writing in this genre in Scotland – after all, the writer of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, was Scottish also.

You wrote 6 books which take place in China and in Houston, please tell us about your passion for China…

I first visited China in the early 1980s, not long after the Cultural Revolution, and fell in love with the country immediately.  I knew, even then, that I wanted to write about it.  But it was another fifteen years before I wrote the first of my China books.  The biggest problem was getting access to the Chinese police.  But I was lucky to get an introduction from an American criminologist, and with his backing I became the first western writer to get full access behind the normally closed doors of the Chinese police.  I went on to visit the country about fourteen times, learning much about the Chinese justice system, and being allowed into courtrooms, morgues, and police headquarters all over the country.

You was nominated  as an honorary member of the International association of Chinese crime writers in Pekin’s section, how did your react ?

I was given this honour because I managed to get the Chinese Crime Writers’ Association invited to join the international association of crime writers.  Until then, they had felt very much isolated in the world.  But once accepted into the international fold, their whole approach to the world of polars changed completely.  I was absolutely delighted to be able to help them, because there is enormous interest in the genre in China.  And I was extremely honoured to accept an honorary membership of their organisation – the only western writer ever to have been given such an honour.

Can you tell us about Margaret Campbell and Li Yan who I love ! There are very different characters.

Li Yan is the Chinese detective that I created for the first of my China books, Meurtes à Pékin.  He is typical of his generation, a child of the Cultural Revolution – during which time his mother was killed and his father imprisoned.  But I needed a western perspective, someone who my readers could identify with, and through whose eyes they could see the real China.  And so I created Margaret Campbell, the American forensic pathologist.  Li and Margaret are, in effect, metaphors for their two countries – deeply involved in a love-hate relationship, coming from two completely different cultures and political sytems, but having to find a way of working together.

You won the Readers award 2010 « Les Ancres Noires » in Le Havre for your book « L’île des chasseurs ». You had totally changed your universe ! Why ? Could you tell us about the investigator Fin McLeod.

L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux was a return to my roots.  Here I was, a Scotsman living in France and writing about China.  But I had been away from Scotland long enough by now to be able to look back on it with some kind of perspective.  And so I decided to write about the country of my birth.  I chose the Isle of Lewis, because I lived on the island five months a year for five years while filming a TV drama there during the 1990s.  So I knew the island and its traditions well.  My main character, Fin Macleod, is typical of the young islander – desperate to leave the island as soon as possible, but finding himself having to return nearly twenty years later.  In this case, Fin is a police detective in Edinbrugh, and sent back to the island of his birth to investigate a murder which bears an uncanny resemblance to one he has been investigating in Edinburgh.  But once back on the island, he is forced to confront many things about his past and his acquaintances from childhood – one of whom is the murder victim.

Is there any polar author that you like ?

An American writer called William Kent Krueger, who writes a series of books about a Sheriff who is half native American.  The quality of his writing, and the complexity of his characters, is unusual in the American marketplace.  His books are, I believe, translated into French.

(A voir :

The question of the « Concierge masqué » : what are your habits when you write ? (in the evening ? in the morning ? sitting at your desk ?)

It takes me three or four months to develop my ideas and characters and do my research.  Then I write a very detailed synopsis.  When I start writing the book, I write very fast.  I get up at 06.00h every morning, and write 3000 words (around 18,000 signes) a day.  Sometimes that can take me ten or twelve hours.  The book is finished in six to seven weeks.

Is there any international subject which make you angry ?

The war in Iraq.

Is there a new book will come out ? If yes, which one ?

The follow-up to L’île des chasseur d’oiseaux is already written and will be published in France in September.  I don’t yet know the title in French, but in English it is « The Lewis Man ».  I am currently working on the third book in this trilogy.

And my last question is : what song and music do you like ?

As a musician in my youth I loved all music.  Of course, I grew up with The Beatles who were my heros when I was a kid.  Now, living in France I love the music of Zazie and Francis Cabrel.