Author’s Bookshelf: Peter May

Peter May's Bookshelf (2)

Where’s your bookcase located and what does it look like?

I have bookcases everywhere, on almost every wall. I live and work in both France and Spain. I have studies in both places with multiple bookcases in each. I have bookcases in the living rooms, in the stairwells, in the halls, in the spare rooms, in fact as soon as you come in, you are surrounded by books. The photograph shows the first bookcase that you will come across in my apartment in Spain. I suppose my idea of interior decoration is to cover walls in paintings and books!

What kind of books will definitely not be found in your bookcase?

Probably half of the books I own have been acquired for research over the years: books on genetic engineering, international criminal justice, biological warfare, doping in sports, organ trafficking, people trafficking, wine-making, the Chinese legal system, the French government, Gaelic, bee-keeping. I always seem to decide to write stories that require me to become expert in highly technical or scientific subjects, even if I’m only an expert for as long as it takes to write the book! So you would be amazed at the kind of books that ARE on my shelves. I think I’d have to say: “never say never”… just because a certain kind of book is not found on my shelves at the moment, doesn’t mean it won’t appear there one day. I couldn’t rule anything out.

What author have you discovered and loved recently?

William Kent Krueger is an American crime writer who sets his stories mainly in Minnesota. He has a gift for creating very believable and sympathetic characters, and placing them in vivid and atmospheric surroundings. His recent Barry Award-winning “Ordinary Grace” is especially good.

Where is your favourite place to read?

It would be nice to have the time set aside to have a favourite place that was somewhere comfortable and relaxed, but my life involves so much travelling these days that the place I read most is in airport lounges or on planes and trains. And in a way, “on the road” has become my favourite place to read because it transports me away from the horrors of traveling to another universe, and allows the time to pass painlessly.

Can books change lives? If so, which one changed yours?

I remember as a teenager, reading JP Donleavy’s “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B”. It broke rules and stretched my imagination. It was a marvellous roller-coaster tale of one man’s life, of love, loss, friendship, failure, betrayal and tragedy. The breadth and depth of it had a profound influence on me and inspired me in my writing.

What’s the book you’d choose as your Desert Island read?

Funny you should mention it… “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B”!

What book did you give last as a present and to whom?

I bought Stephen King’s latest book, “Finders Keepers” for my wife.

What are you reading now?

I’m writing at the moment, and I never read anything when I’m writing. There are a couple of reasons for that: firstly, I would be afraid that it might influence me, and secondly, my writing process is a very concentrated one and it doesn’t leave time for anything else. When I’m writing, I get up at 6am each morning and I write until I have written 3,000 words – that might be early afternoon, or might be very late at night, but I don’t stop until I have 3,000. That way, the writing of the book usually lasts about 7 weeks. It’s very intense and to be honest, after spending all day looking at words on a computer screen, the last thing I feel like doing is looking at more words. I usually relax in the evening with a movie or an episode or two from a TV drama from Netflix or iTunes.

What’s your most treasured book on your bookcase?

Philip Ziegler’s definitive biography of Lawrence Olivier “Olivier”. We share a publisher, Quercus, and the reason I have the book is that my editor put me in a taxi and sent me to Philip Ziegler’s house to collect it from him in person.

What makes all of this so extraordinary?

Well, I was very young when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I was writing all through my teenage years, and when I was 18 I finished what I considered to be my first proper “novel”. Even though I suspected that it was too short, I sent the manuscript, unsolicited, to Collins Publishers. And some time later I actually received a reply! Of course it was a rejection, but the editor wrote:

“We have now had our reader’s report on your book PORTRAIT and I have also had a chance of looking at it myself. I am afraid we cannot make you an offer to publish it, mainly because of the extremely difficult length, but also because in the last resort it does not have quite enough merits of construction or style to compete in this ferociously competitive market. But we do like it. It has a direct and emphatic narrative style and has an oddly memorable – even idyllic flavour about it. We feel you ought to go on writing, and would like to see anything you write in future – which may not sound very much, but is, I can assure you, a great deal more that we say to 95% of the people who send in their typescripts!”

It’s impossible to describe the effect that receiving such commendation had on me as a youngster who dreamt of becoming a writer.

That letter gave me the confidence to keep on writing. It inspired me to dare to believe in myself when the odds seemed stacked against me.

A few years after receiving it, I got my first book published and my writing career moved from books to television and back to books but in all those years I never met the editor at Collins Publishing who had played such an important part in my life.

I kept the letter for more than forty years never imagining our paths would cross after all that time. And then his name came up in a chance conversation with my publishers when I discovered that not only was he alive and well, but he had just written a book that they were publishing.

If you haven’t guessed by now… the man who penned that letter to me all those years ago was Philip Ziegler.

When I arrived at his home, he invited me in to share a glass of wine and chat with him while he signed and personalised “Olivier”, his latest book, for me. And I was able to give him a copy of “The Blackhouse” and sign it for him.

So I treasure his book, not so much for its content, but for the man behind it, and the generosity of spirit that saw him take a manuscript by my 18 year-old self from his slush pile, read it, review it and reject it with such constructive encouragement that his words stayed with me for a lifetime.

48310_Entry Island_MMP.inddPeter’s Entry Island has been shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

To find out more on the 2015 Award Click Here.