This week we reviewed Entry Island, Peter May’s new stand-alone thriller, which combines a contemporary murder-mystery with a story set during the infamous Highland Clearances. Feel free to refresh your memory of that delightful review here, or, er, alternatively, you can scroll down a notch. Your choice, entirely.
I’m delighted to say that Peter – who wrote the Lewis Trilogy, and also writes the Enzo Files and his China thrillers, was happy to answer some questions about Entry Island.
Entry Island reads very much like a companion piece to the Lewis Trilogy – how did the novel come about?
I had always wanted to write about the Highland Clearances, a kind of ethnic cleansing which had taken place in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel. So I had to find some way of making a contemporary crime story link with events of the past. Entry Island is the result, with the contemporary end of it set in Quebec, Canada, and the historical element set in my old stomping ground of the Hebrides, which themselves suffered during the clearances. So, although the story and characters are quite different from the Lewis Trilogy, I didn’t quite leave the islands behind.
Although a crime novel, Entry Island has a very effective interlinked storyline about The Highland Clearances, did you consider writing a straight historical fiction?
The answer to this one is probably found in the answer I gave above. And is an emphatic no. I am a writer of contemporary crime fiction. But, of course, as with so many things in life, the answers to our present predicaments often lie in the past – which was very much a theme of the Lewis books as well.
Entry Island features another isolated island community. What is it about these locations that attracts you as a crime writer?
I like the places themselves. There is something unique about an island setting, and I know that as a mainlander I always feel a sense of arriving somewhere very different when I fly into an island or arrive by ferry. But as settings for crime stories they offer the writer closed communities where even small frictions can blow up into full scale murder, and we all get the chance to place our human frailties under the microscope.
Your protagonist Sime’s strong sense of a link with his ancestor is never-explained, but the past often haunts the present in your fiction – what attracts you to this idea?
It starts off in a small way – the realisation that things we have done, and decisions we have made, sometimes many years before, can come back to haunt us. Hindsight is a chastening experience, and regret is so often its companion. As a writer you try to reflect those emotions that we all share as human beings, and with that sharing comes the recognition that we are not alone in them, and a bond is created between writer and reader.
The same thing applies at another level – the realisation that we are who we are and where we are today, because of the decisions made and actions taken by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them. To truly know who you are is to know where you came from. And I think there is a danger that in the 21st century we really are starting lose those connections with the past.
I love the experience of new places. I hate the tiresome processes of getting there, but it’s always great to arrive. I have always been fascinated by far flung and exotic locations, ever since I read the Tintin books as a kid. And so I travel where I am drawn, and write about the places I end up.
There’s a strong sense of melancholy that runs through your work – is writing a cathartic process for you?
I didn’t used to think it was. I used to just write stories, and take delight in the language and entertaining people. But as I have got older I find that I am digging deeper and deeper into myself, perhaps (if only by proxy) attempting to understand what we call the human condition – at least as it affects me. And it’s hard to write about such a thing without addressing the fundamental sadness of lives that invariably end in death, and are often wasted on the way. I don’t know if it’s cathartic, but I often end up weeping in front of my computer screen.
You’re a prolific author, but you also research your books thoroughly – how do you manage to fit it into your schedule?
Research is much more fun than writing. You get to travel around the world and discover fascinating things. As a young writer you are always told to write about what you know. But the more you write the further you have to cast your net, and the research skills I learned as a journalist have certainly come in handy. For me there are three distinct phases to the creation of a new book – research and development, storylining and writing. Each has its place and is equally important.
You’re a novelist, but also a TV and screenwriter – how do these different writing disciplines inform each other?
I brought with me the disciplines of storylining and dialogue from my years as a scriptwriter. Understanding the structural processes of the former, and the importance of the latter in taking forward story and character have, I think, made me a better writer of novels.
What’s next for you?
A crazy year of touring and promotion that looks like taking me halfway round the world. A new book, in which I have already engaged myself on the research and development. And if I’m very lucky, the chance to put my feet up for five minutes!
Peter’s also did one of Crime Thriller Fella’s Intel Interviews more specifically about his writing process. Feel free to take a gander at that when you have a minute. You will not be disappointed.