Friday, May 07, 2010

Peter May for Authors @ The Teague

We just hosted international mystery and thriller author, Peter May, for Authors @ The Teague. He is on a two-month book tour in the United States for his books. When he and his wife, Janice Hally, arrived, they never expected it to be so warm in Minneapolis. It was 65 degrees there. Now Seattle was wet, and windy, and he said that felt like home since they're Scottish.

His publisher is Poisoned Pen Press, and they did a house swap with Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald. They're staying in the house in Scottsdale, and said they think they got the better part of the deal. Peter and Janice live in France, and it snowed just twenty minutes from their home yesterday.

Peter said he's promoting his books because there was a rush of books out at one time. The China Thrillers have six books, and the fourth Enzo Files book just came out.

But, May began by talking about his standalone, Virtually Dead. It's set in the parallel virtual world of Second Life, a world accessed through the Internet. There are 14 million inhabitants of Second Life. In their time there, they can buy and sell goods, property, real estate. It's a major occupation. The world has its own economy, its own currency. People have made millions of dollars there. Trading goes on there. Everything in this world also exists in Second Life, libraries, bookstores. People have the opportunity to be creative. They can modify their avatar to look like anything. If you're old, you can be young. If you're disabled, you can lose the disability. You can be anything. May said he saw a show about criminals using Second Life to launder money.

Three years ago, Peter May joined Second Life under the name Flick Faulds. Flick had long silver hair as May did then. He created his own detective agency, and was amazed that he was flooded with clients. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the requests involved infidelity. May said he had to learn to be a detective in Second Life; he had to track people, take photos.

So, that led to the book, Virtually Dead. Michael Kampinsky is a crime scene photographer whose wife died six months earlier. He's taking it very hard, and his therapist suggested he might want to participate in her group therapy experiment in Second Life. Michael found that real life crime scenes were replicated in Second Life, and people were actually killed. Someone is bumping off people in real life in order to steal their Second Life money. When a huge amount of money was deposited in Michael's Second Life account, he was tempted to keep it.

Virtually Dead was a diversion for May, a little different from his series. For fifteen years, he's been writing two series. There are six books in his China thriller series. They're set in contemporary China, and they feature a Beijing cop, Li Yan, and an American pathologist, Dr. Margaret Campbell. Their stormy relationship is a metaphor for the relationship between the U.S. and China. There are culture clashes, but they have a genuine personal relationship. They work together to investigate crimes in different areas of China. The settings of the books change. In France, a movie producer is making the third book into a movie, and they hired Peter and his wife, Janice, to write the screenplay. However, they changed the setting, which took some work to change.

(Picture: Janice Hally & Peter May)

Snakehead, the fourth book in the China Thrillers series, is set in the United States. It's about illegal immigration, Chinese brought across the world. Their families promised enormous amounts of money for them to come, but when they arrive, they're thousands of dollars in debt, and their families are in peril. The book is set in Texas, most of it in Houston. Dr. Margaret Campbell, the American pathologist, is now working in Texas. Beijing detective Li Yan is working for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.

May said when he first started writing, he took lots of photos, then pasted them up on sheets so he could see them. He used that method for the books set in China. Then, when it came time for the U.S., he used a digital camera, and made video so he could listen and see Texas.

When May first started writing the China Thrillers in the late 90s, there was nothing to research about the Chinese police. There was nothing available. He spent a long time trying to get inside the Chinese police. Finally, he heard of Dr. Richard H. Ward, an American criminologist. In the 90s, he taught criminal justice students from all over the world at the University of Illinois. He had gone to Shanghai, and trained the top 100 police in China. Finally, May connected with him when Dr. Ward was attending an international convention on terrorism in Paris. They met for lunch, and May must have passed an invisible litmus test because Dr. Ward was able to open channels in China. Doors opened for him to do research in china. He had full access to police departments. He asked for, and was granted, access to places no Western writer had ever been.

May told a fascinating story about the police morgue in Shanghai. It looked like a Swiss chalet, with green lawns. It was a brand new facility, state of the art, with viewing rooms. The chief pathologist ended up in one of the books. He asked May if he'd like to see a body, and May said no. But, the pathologist said, you've come a long way. I think you should. So, he had two attendants bright a body of a young man. The body had been completely opened up. May asked what he had died of, and he was told the man had been executed the day before. When asked why they did an autopsy if they knew he'd been executed, they answer was, to harvest the organs. That was the kind of information May was looking for. After that, Peter was feeling a little queasy, but the pathologist said, fine. Let's go to lunch.

Peter said he met with the Chinese Crime Writers' Association, and was made an honorary member, the only Westerner to receive that honor. He met a crime writer from China who was born the same day, and same year as him, and they ended up in the same profession.

May said he's finished the China Thrillers, but he receives emails asking for more books because readers want more about the characters. But he said he's finished, because he said every series has a sell by date.

By this time, May was living in France, and wanted to set something there. Then, he wouldn't have to go so far for research. He would have the chance to see parts of the country that he wouldn't normally visit, and he could research there. So, he created Enzo Macleod, Scottish like him. He had a ponytail like May did at the time. He lives about an hour away from May's home, but all resemblance stops there.

Macleod was a Scottish forensics pathologist, who fell for a woman he met in France, Pascale, and left his wife for her. But, she died in childbirth, leaving him with a baby daughter. He spent the next twenty years raising her, and the first book, Dry Bones, starts at that point, when he meets his estranged daughter from his first marriage. Enzo has not been working in forensics because his French is not good enough, but he's teaching biology. At a dinner party, he rashly bet that he could solve the seven best known recent cold cases in France, ones that had been written up in a bestselling book by a French journalist. Enzo Macleod says he will use the latest technology to relook at cases, and solve them.

The Enzo Files deal with the investigation of those cases. The fourth book is Freeze Frame. May just finished the fifth book.

May said he loves the research almost more than writing the books. The second book in the Enzo Files, The Critic, dealt with the vineyards in France. He said it's important to him to get the facts right. He wants the backgrounds accurate because readers trust him to not get the facts wrong. He said he has to make huge sacrifices for the books. He had to drink so much wine for The Critic.

Book five is set in the world of French cuisine. May spent three days in the kitchen of the top chef in France, Michel Guérard, a three star Michelin chef. His restaurant is so popular, reservations must be made six months in advance. There are twenty chefs working in the kitchen. May said he watched, and saw how professional it was, like a well-oiled military operation. He said he's been in other kitchens that were chaos. There was no chaos in this kitchen. May said it was such a sacrifice to have to eat so much French cuisine for the research.

Freeze Frame, the fourth Enzo Files book, has received the best reviews so far of May's books. It's set on an island off the coast of Brittany, Ile de Groix. The island has historical military significance. A medieval fort guarded the entrance to the point, and spices were brought into the port. During World War II, it was a major base for U-boats. The Germans used the fort to guard the base. Ironically, the Allies launched an air raid on the submarine base. The base was never touched, but the town was totally destroyed. The town is totally new, since none of the old town remained.

Freeze Frame is reminiscent of the Golden Age of mystery. It has an insular island environment. It's about a man who knew someone was going to kill him. He left clues for his son, and knew those clues would allow his son to unmask the killer. But, his son died soon after he did, and the killer was never found. This is where Enzo comes in. He's the last hope for the dead man's daughter-in-law. He explores the islands, and the relationships there.

Sometimes location suggests the story. It took May four to five months to develop the storyline. He had done the preliminary work, and then he went to the island. He discovered the medieval fort, and a crevice in the cliffs called Trou de l'enfer, hellhole. These suggested important locations for the story. The time of year when May was there was also important. He was there at Halloween, when characters were running around, skeletons, and ghosts, and skulls were hung in windows. It added a sense of color, so he set the story then.

May ended by repeating that it's fun to do the research. He links places and people he's met in the course of his research to his books.

In answer to a question, he said it is expensive to travel to do the research. He worked as a screenwriter for TV, and was well-paid. He quit to be a writer. The money in the bank subsidized him while he was starting to make a living as a writer. And, he said he was stupid enough to choose China as a setting. Each trip cost $5,000-$6,000. But, the people he meets, and his experiences add authenticity to the books.

He was asked if he knew all seven of the cold cases before he wrote the Enzo Files, and peter said had ideas for the first five. The last two are developing, and they'll bring the series to a climax.

With the China Thrillers, the first book was supposed to be a standalone. But, a British publisher wanted to publish it, but she said she'd buy it with one caveat; she wanted another one with the same characters, and she'd give him a two book contract. May said he saw it as one book, and he didn't know how to do that. However, he had written serial dramas for British TV, so he knew he could develop the characters.

May said he met his wife, Janice Halley, when he was working as a scriptwriter. She's also a scriptwriter. They worked on a series in the Gaelic language, the ancient language of Scotland. Scotland spent millions to preserve the Gaelic language and culture, and the series was part of that. He did a series on the Hebrides Islands, and they lived there for five months, for five years. According to May, it's a bleak existence on the island of Lewis, where they lived, with no trees.

It's a backward and primitive society, particularly in the form of religion. They have an almost medieval form of extreme Presbyterian Protestant religion. Any form of entertainment is viewed as the work of the devil. On Sundays on the island, nothing is open. They even chain up kids' swings. At the time they were there, there was no way off the island on a Sunday. You can't even hang out the wash on that day. The joke was, if you're going to Lewis, don't forget to set your watch back 200 years.

May said that each year, twelve men from Ness, in the Hebrides, make a voyage to harvest young birds, gannets. They do that once a year, and it has become a rite of passage. By an Act of Parliament, they're allowed to kill 2,000 birds.

Peter wrote a mystery, The Blackhouse, a novel about the Hebrides that sucked the life out of him. He thought it was the best thing he ever wrote. His agent liked it. But, it was rejected by every major publisher. However, eighteen months ago, his French publisher asked him to send it to her. Six weeks later, she bought the world rights, paying more for it than she had for the China Thrillers. It came out last October in France, gaining him the best reviews ever there. His publisher bought the foreign rights, which included English. Then she took it to Frankfurt, the big international book fair. She sold it all over Europe. Six German publishing companies had a bidding war. It sold to Italy and Spain.

There's a small British publisher call Quercus. It was founded by a couple men who said they were only to publish books they loved. Their instinct was good, and their first book went to #1. They've published prize-winning books, and they published the Stieg Larsson trilogy. They wanted Peter's book, The Black House, to be part of a series. Finally after negotiation, they agreed that he would make it a trilogy, using the same setting and some of the same characters in the second and third books. So, The Black House will come out next year in the U.K.

Peter May brought a wide-ranging group of books, covering China, France, a virtual world, and, finally, the Hebrides, to the latest Authors @ The Teague program.

Peter May's website is


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sounds like a fascinating talk! I love that he took photos to help him write.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

It was a fascinating talk, Elizabeth. Very funny at parts, even though it was a serious subject. We really enjoyed him as a speaker.

Anonymous said...

Lesa, this was so interesting. I bought several of Peter May's books when I was at the Poisoned Pen. I have VIRTUALLY DEAD and also a couple of the China series. I'm very partial to mysteries set in China. Sounds like another successful event!

Lesa said...

It was another terrific event, Kay, and tomorrow I'm hosting Jenn McKinlay, author of Sprinkle with Death and Cut to the Corpse. (We're bringing mini-bites as a treat, bought from the bakery down the street.)

carl brookins said...

Great that you did this, Lesa. I've been a fan of the man's books ever since the first one hit the US. I've even reviewed most of 'em. On line and in print. I really like the writing, I like his style, (even in a kilt) and I really like his wife too!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Carl. This means a lot, coming from you, since I've always admired your work. I'm reviewing Freeze Frame tomorrow. It was a pleasure to host Peter. And, you're right. Janice is very nice as well! (That's why I included the picture of the two of them together. She deserves a little credit, as his webmaster.)