It’s been some time since I blogged to followers of Type M for Murder — since when my life and my career as a writer have been turned on their heads.
After many years in journalism, and then television — as a script writer/editor and producer — I set out, in 1996, to dedicate myself to my first true love, writing books… or, at least, trying to make a living from writing books. But as anyone who has tried to do that will know, it is not an easy thing.
I began by writing a thriller set in China, The Firemaker, and was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal from a publisher in London. Over the next several years one book turned into six, and became my China Thrillers series. It was an exciting time of my life, travelling back and forth to China to research the books, and witnessing at first hand the enormous changes that were taking place in that vast country.
The books were well-received by the critics, and moderately successful in terms of sales. And with onward sales to several countries they just about kept me alive. However, I was spending much of the income they were generating on research, and during that time moved permanently to rural France where the cost of living was about two-thirds of that in Scotland.
After each book, I went back to my publisher with an idea for something different. But each time my editor said, “More China!” Until the seventh time. I had been given permission by the Chinese government to go to Tibet to research the next story in the China Thrillers — a unique opportunity to do something completely different. To my utter dismay my editor said, “No more China.” Sales, they felt, had not been good enough to justify a continuation of the series, and it was unceremoniously dumped.
I offered up an idea for a cold case series set in France featuring an ex-pat Scot called Enzo Macleod. The editor sneered that Enzo, a man in his early fifties, was “too old” to be the lead character in a series. I offered her an idea for a crime novel set in the Outer Hebrides — a remote and wild archipelago off the north-west coast of Scotland which I had got to know well during five years of filming there. She dismissed it out of hand.
Life was getting difficult. There was a dwindling return on the China books, and my savings were almost depleted. My wife and I ran writing courses to bring in extra revenue, and I sat down to write my Outer Hebrides book on spec. I went on an expensive return trip to the islands to research it, and the book became a labour of love. I found myself pouring large parts of my own life into the story and characters, and by the time I finished it was convinced that it was the best thing I had ever written.
Which was when disaster struck. Nobody wanted to publish it. It was turned down by all the London publishing houses. My US publisher dismissed it as “unremittingly sad”, and “without a single likeable character”. In desperation I turned to Enzo, and wrote the first book in that series. Again, nobody wanted it — except for a small American publishing house which had just bought the rights to my China books.
However, the income generated was barely enough to cover my costs, before I was rescued from complete ruin by a publisher in France who bought and published my China books. To my delight they were a big critical success there, gaining nominations for two major literary awards and winning one of them. Sales were just about keeping me afloat.
Then came the financial crash of 2007/8, and the last of my savings (foolishly kept in pounds sterling) were virtually wiped out. I was finally facing ruin, and looking at the remains of my pension to see if retirement was an option. It wasn’t. I was at the end of my rope.
It was at this point, at my very lowest ebb, that one of those transformative moments occurred that you could never foresee. I had a chance conversation with my French publisher at a book fair. I told her that tucked away on a floppy disc in a drawer somewhere was the manuscript of a book which I thought was the best thing I had ever written, but that no one wanted to publish. It was called The Blackhouse. She said she would like to read it and I sent it to her. Six weeks later she phoned to tell me she loved the book and wanted to buy world rights. I nearly fell off my chair. After all, it is unheard of for a French publisher to buy world rights in a book written in English. But I jumped at the chance to get the book into print — even if it was in French.
The book came out in 2009 to a whirlwind of sales and acclaim beyond my wildest dreams. It won several French literary awards and became an immediate bestseller, before being picked up by other publishers around the world — including, finally and ironically, a British publisher (though one which had not been around when the manuscript was originally doing the rounds).
When it came out in the UK The Blackhouse was a sales sensation. Along with the subsequent two books I wrote to turn it into a trilogy — The Lewis Man and The Chessmen — it sold over two million copies. Every book I have written since has been a Top 3 bestseller — Entry Island, Runaway, and my latest, Coffin Road — generating extraordinary sales in very nearly thirty countries. My China Thrillers series has been reissued, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and the Enzo series — remember Enzo, the one who was “too old”? — has now sold more than half a million copies in the UK alone.
So from the brink of failure and financial disaster, my life has turned around, almost faster than I could blink, to make me a bestselling author with no need any longer to worry about how I might finance my retirement! Just a few short years ago I could never have pictured such an outcome — no matter how fertile an imagination I might have had.
And so I guess the lesson for all struggling writers out there is that no matter how bleak things might get, you should never stop writing, and you must never give up hope.
France, October 2016
Peter May was born and raised in Scotland. He was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one and a published novelist at twenty-six. When his first book was adapted as a major drama series for the BBC, he quit journalism and during the high-octane fifteen years that followed, became one of Scotland's most successful television dramatists. He created three prime-time drama series, presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland as script editor and producer, and worked on more than 1,000 episodes of ratings-topping drama before deciding to leave television and return to his first love, writing novels.
He has won several literary awards in France, received the USA Barry Award for The Blackhouse — the first in his internationally bestselling Lewis Trilogy; and in 2014 Entry Island was awarded the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read of the Year, as well as the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year. May now lives in South-West France with his wife, writer Janice Hally.
Please visit: www.petermay.co.uk/