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PETER MAY - Chinese Whispering

Written by Ayo Onatade


Peter May is no ordinary crime writer. Born in Glasgow in 1951 he has a passion for Chinese food and some of his favourite recipes can be found on his website. Sadly, the picture on his website fails to show the twinkle in his eyes that is evident while I interview him. An author of more than 9 novels before the publication of The Firemaker in 1999, Peter May is an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writers Association. His latest novel, Chinese Whispers, is available from New English Library in paperback from Jan 2004.

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Ayo: For readers that don’t know much about you, would you like to start off by giving a bit of background information about yourself? I know that you have been a reporter, a scriptwriter, an editor and a television producer - how did this all come about?

Peter: Um, a long story. I guess when I was a teenager I started writing my first book. I don’t know why I wanted to write, but I did. And when I was at the point of leaving school I wanted to do something, make a living as a writer. But nobody could tell me how. I went to all the careers advisors and asked them how could I make a career as a writer and none of them knew; you couldn’t take a university course for being a writer. Eventually I found a sheet of paper in one of those careers advisory rooms that was an application form for a one-year full-time course in journalism run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. And I thought, ‘journalism!’ - I hadn’t thought about journalism. So I did the course and got a job in newspapers at the end of it: local newspapers for two years - I won Scottish young journalist of the year award in 1973 - then I moved to the Scotsman for 5 years, and I was at the Glasgow Evening Times for about another year after that. During that period I wrote my first published book which was about a journalist. They always say write about what you know so I did. At the same time I was getting accepted by a publisher, I developed a drama for television. I was very lucky because the first show I attempted to sell was accepted by the BBC. They made a 13 part drama series out of it called The Standard and I started getting into television. One thing led to another and I started writing soaps for television such as Take The High Road. I finished on that in 1988 – a long time ago.

Ayo: Would you agree that having such varied jobs has helped you in your writing career?

Peter: Oh yeah, I think what ever you do brings experience. It’s all grist to the mill, stuff you can use. I used all my experiences as a journalist, not just to write about a journalist but also as a journalist. During my years as a journalist I think I met four out of five Prime Ministers, and covered all sorts of stories from gangs of youths tying Alsatian dogs to railway lines so that their heads got cut off, to old ladies whose roofs were leaking who were not getting any help from the council. It introduces you to a fantastic array of different kinds of aspects of life and that’s great for me.

Ayo: Some would say that there is a subtle difference between thrillers and crime novels. How would you class your books?

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Peter: I think they might besomewhere between the two. I am not sure that publishers like that very much because they like you to put things in boxes don’t they? Even the Crime Writer’s Association now have got a separate prize for thrillers: The Ian Fleming Award. I don’t know, I like to blur the distinctions. It is horrible to be put in a box and feel that you have to write something that conforms to some kind of formula that people think is appropriate. I guess I am drawn to the thriller but there is also an element of police procedural in my stuff as well. So it’s definitely somewhere between the two.

Ayo: What were you looking for as a novelist that made crime fiction so attractive?

Peter: Well nothing at all, funnily enough. I never set out to write crime fiction. I spent 20 years in television writing soap operas and human drama. None of my previous books had been crime novels, it was the particular story that I wanted to write: the first of the China books about the genetically engineered rice. To tell that story I needed to start off with a murder, which was investigated, which unravelled the rest of the story. In doing that I had to create the police officer that was going to investigate and also create the American pathologist. And so when Hodder bought Firemaker they said we’ll give you a two-book contract if you will write another one with the same characters. I wasn’t about to turn down a two-book contract. It was always intended to be a one off but it turned into a series. I’ve just finished writing the sixth. So I’ve been put in that box haven’t I?

Ayo: Were you a big reader of crime fiction yourself before you started writing?

Peter: I liked reading thrillers, I liked a good thriller, but I think I could describe myself as having fairly catholic tastes when it comes to reading. I did probably the biggest amount of reading in my twenties and I read anything from Hemingway to Graham Greene to just about everybody. The thing that always attracted me was a good story. It didn’t matter whether it was a crime story or a human story. It didn’t matter how small or big the story was. As long as it’s a good story and engages your emotions then that’s what’s important.

Ayo: Do you still find the time to read?

Peter: Not as much as I would like. I find that most of the reading I do these days is research reading, which can be very dry. But I do try and take a week or two weeks a year where I take a holiday and go to Cyprus or the south coast of France where I take a suitcase full of books and all I do is sit and read all day. Now that for me is a holiday. Nothing else to do except read a book, nice wine, nice food, just sit in the sunshine and read. The rest of the year is too stressful; I’ve got to read this, I’ve got to read that, things that I have to read.

Ayo: Who would you consider your influences to be and did they influence your style of writing?

Peter: That goes a long way back. I think probably my two biggest influences were Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway as a young writer when I was starting out, and I think anyone who has ever written crime is influenced by Raymond Chandler - I’m no exception. In terms of more contemporary writers I enjoyed a lot of the early Michael Crichton books because I thought he had a great narrative way of telling a story. I think it has gone now, but the early stories are good. He went through a purple patch around about the time of Disclosure, which I thought was one of the best books I had read at that time, absolutely page turning.

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Ayo: One of the things I’ve noticed when reading all your books is that you manage to destroy a lot of myths about the East in your novels. Did you set out to look at the clashes that take place between the East and the West? Or is it just a coincidence?

Peter: No, I think if you are going to set a series of books in a country which, certainly as far as the West is concerned, is still controversial in terms of its human rights and its politics, you cannot avoid those issues. You have to address all the cultural differences between east and west, you have to explode some of the myths on both sides. I have also tried to keep out of politics. It is always about people and I am not an apologist for any regime anywhere in the world. It is always about people.

Ayo: In most books, especially if they have been written in foreign climes, politics always seem to come into play somewhere. For example, right at the end of Barbara Nadel’s latest book Harem, set in Istanbul, the police office says something to the effect that he can’t tell his fellow colleagues what went on because it is all around politics.

Peter: Sure, because politics always affects every aspect of life. But the thing that you find if you go and spend any time in China is that politics is the last thing on people’s minds. People in the West are obsessed with China because of communism and human rights. For people in China politics is not an issue. There are more pressing issues like putting a roof over your heads, feeding your family, making sure people have clothes on their backs. It is a developing country and there is still a lot of poverty, particularly in the rural areas. The economy is growing at such an incredible rate that there is a whole new breed of nouveau riche in China. It’s quite extraordinary to see.

Ayo: I’ve noticed that you managed to achieve what very few novelists who write books set in foreign countries do, which is to get all the nuances right. I love the way in which you manage to seamlessly weave the different aspects of Chinese culture into the books. How hard was it when you first started and has it now become a lot easier?

Peter: It’s hard because initially I was addressing a culture that was new and alien to me. I had done a lot of reading before I went; a huge amount of reading about the history, and the culture and I read all sorts of quirky books aimed at, for example, businessmen going to China, how to deal with the Chinese on all sorts of very basic levels. It’s quite different from how you would expect to deal with people from the West. So I went with that background and I was lucky enough to encounter a host of placid people who welcomed me in and who introduced me to the real culture behind the written face of China. Then I felt that I was getting under the skin of China and getting that sense of the differences culturally, politically between east and west. That was one of the reasons that in the very first book I had two characters, the American and the Chinese, as I wanted to reverse the stereotypical thing of the little Chinese woman and the macho American guy.

Ayo: For those readers who have not yet been introduced to your work, give me your perceptions of your two main protagonists, Li Yan and Margaret Campbell.

Peter: They are people from radically different cultural backgrounds who share a common goal in terms of criminal investigation and that is what helped breach the cultural gap. Of course in the process of that they are two people who have fallen in love with one another. But it’s not an easy relationship. She is not an easy person to like and I get some people saying to me oh, I can’t be bothered with Margaret Campbell she’s a pain in the neck. I say she’s a real person for me, she is not a cipher, she’s a real person and she can be sharp and grumpy.

Ayo: She is in an alien culture and she has to adapt. For example in Runner she is pregnant and the way in which the Chinese treat pregnancy is totally different from the way we in the West would. The Chinese see it as a much more sacred event and cosset the mothers, whereas here mothers go out to work and do whatever they want right up until their final day.

Peter: The Chinese wrap them in cotton wool and wrap them in even more cotton wool once they have had the child. Although there’s a strange contradiction in China that very often the woman will still be riding their bicycle right up until she has the baby. Riding a bicycle is such an integral part of their way of life that it is not something that they would necessarily think about whereas a pregnant woman in the west almost certainly would not ride a bicycle after a certain time.

Ayo: So how do you see your characters developing?

Peter: I don’t know. I have already written the next book and I don’t want to give away what happens in that. They have plans to get married and she ends up having the baby. This is where the soap background comes in, because it is never a problem coming up with the next storyline, the main focus of the book, but the background development between the characters - that’s the real soap training when you have taken them to a climax, if you like, as you would at the end of a series. Where do we go from here? They will never have an easy relationship, put it that way.

Ayo: What makes a character real for you? Do you work out everything about them or do you just let it flow?

Peter: I will profile them in advance. I’ll think about them a lot, I’ll do background on them. But when it actually comes to writing, I guess this is the television writing in me again, I just let them talk. I find that if you have thought about them and you’ve got a clear enough idea in your head of who they are, you don’t need to put the words in their mouths, they speak for themselves. So you just put them in whatever situation develops and they will respond the way they would respond. It is an odd process in that in some way you feel that you are not quite in control.

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Ayo: Some writers often say that they feel that their characters get away from them. Is that the case with you?

Peter: They don’t get away from me no, because ultimately I always put them in these situations. I will drop them in there, but how they respond, how they react, they do that themselves.

Ayo: Do you see yourself sticking with this series for a while or are there other unrelated projects in the pipeline?

Peter: I don’t know. I have written six. If I were going to do more then I would be looking at going back to China again this autumn, but with the SARS situation the way it is I may be reluctant to go. I have also thought about where I would take them, where I would go, so if I decide to go down that road I have plans. I have also been working on other thoughts over the years but that’s still fairly embryonic.

Ayo: Can we talk about The Runner? What was your starting point or inspiration for this novel?

{short description of image}Peter: The Beijing Olympics. Two summers ago when they were nominated and the voting was taking place I thought this would be a great background for the book, so I was hoping they would get it. I was watching the announcement on television and they got it and I thought yes, right, okay down to business. That was one point. Obviously then it had to be thought through and that led me into looking at athletics and as part of it I looked at the whole doping background, everything that had happened in East Germany in the 70’s and 80’s. While I had been aware of that I had no idea of the extent of it. I read so much about what athletes got up to, not just in East Germany but also across the whole spectrum and it left me feeling very cynical. I manage to enjoy watching athletics still, but when someone crosses the finish line now I’m wonder what they’re on: sprinters, distance runners as well.

Obviously you have read The Runner so you know that I also went into the whole genetically engineering issue. I had discussed this scientific possibility with my genetics adviser, a Canadian professor of genetics who had advised me previously, and between us we had come up with this as being a viable possibility. I had just finished writing the book when I read, to my astonishment, an article about a bunch of scientists in Scandinavia who were working on exactly that. They figured that by the time we got to the Beijing Olympics there would certainly be a number of athletes who would have been genetically modified by one means or another, to produce whichever hormone is required to enhance their performance.

Ayo: I find it very distressing at times when I read things like that.

Peter: It is. It’s terrible. The honest athletes are out there and they strive hard, they work hard and they are never going to get anywhere because the cheats are going to win.

Ayo: In April 2001 a number of Chinese athletes were banned because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Were you conscious of that fact when you were writing The Runner?

Peter: Oh yes. The Chinese had a very bad record right through the nineties particularly when the Chinese swimmers were caught. There were all sorts of huge scandals and the Chinese Government were really embarrassed by them, particularly as they were looking at how it was going to affect their bid for the Olympic Games. So they have had had major crackdown. Huge punishments for athletes and coaches that are caught involved in this in any way. It totally opened up its doors to the International Athletics Federation and all the international doping procedures and random testing. I am sure that it still goes on, but no more than anywhere else.

Ayo: I take it you have some interest in athletics.

Peter: I have always been interested and have always watched athletics during the European Championships and the Olympics. I wasn’t a huge athletics fan but I enjoyed it, particularly if Scottish athletes were involved. But doing the research really brought me up hard against the unpleasant side of it. The athletics and the Beijing Olympics is only one side of the book because there is also the club and the Chinese mafia - the triads - and the fact that they had spread up from Hong Kong back into mainland China. A friend of mine, an American who is a photographer, told me about a club that he had been asked to take photographs of in Shanghai and it is what I described in the book. I went to Shanghai to see this club and it is just unbelievable opulence. This is really big time nouveau riche in China, effectively a high-class gambling den, all stocks and shares and world markets. Membership costs a million dollars and once you are in there they give you five million to play with. You have to see it to believe it. I transported that to Beijing and put my own twist on it. But the fact that a place like that could exist in modern times struck me as being something that people could be surprised at.

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Ayo: Contemporary World Police? How did you become involved in this?

Peter: This is my column. Well it is a weird thing. The first book Firemaker has been translated into Chinese and it is being serialised in a crime magazine in Beijing at the moment. People who had been involved in helping me with research and who were involved in crime literature in China put me in contact with a publisher and a production company who were interested in publishing the books and producing them as a TV series in China. Which is very flattering as I have come in as an outsider and they had written to me and said we think it would be a great promotional thing for the book Firemaker because this Contemporary World Police thing is read by hundreds of thousands of cops in China.

It is a monthly magazine and they wanted me to write a column in it, which basically discussed my research for my books, how I found the Chinese policemen, how I compared them with the police in the West, and methodology and all that sort of stuff. They thought it would be a good promotional thing and the publishers and the magazine were keen for it and it has just taken off from there. So I’m columnist for a Chinese police magazine. A bit bizarre, but I don’t get paid for it. But I think for me every time I go back it means I am known to everybody in the police. If I go looking for information it is a lot easier.

Ayo: You mentioned earlier that you have just finished the sixth novel. Is it called The Lie, if I am not mistaken, or has the title changed?

Peter: That was a working titleit is now called Chinese Whispers .

Ayo: Are you allowed to say anything about the book? I have got to ask.

Peter: Well I can tell you that the inspiration for it came from my research trip to China for The Runner. While I was there I met an American based in Beijing and he is a polygrapher vastly experienced in the United States. He was out there developing lie detection techniques for the Chinese and I thought he was an interesting character as well as the subject being an interesting idea. So I started exploring that in a bit more detail and came across a technology that supersedes the lie detector. Lie detectors are a bit hit or miss. It’s not really a science, it’s really much more to do with the psychology of the person asking the questions. So I came across this other system called the mer-mer. It is an anachronism for memory and encoding related multifaceted electrodes phonographic responses. It works in a 100% of cases and they call it brain fingerprinting in the United States. The question that you have to ask, and I‘ll ask you, is what does a criminal always take with him from the scene of crime. Every single time, without failure? His memory of what happened. It is there without fail because the brain is like a videotape, it records it all. It is there in the brain and what they have done is develop this process that can read certain waves emitted from the brain.

For example, if you have just murdered your boss who is lying in a pool of blood and they show you photographs of the crime and they are reading your brain’s response, you recognise that. You have an absolutely automatic response; you have no control over it. But your brain recognises it and it’s readable. If your brain does not recognise it there will be no evidence. It is a great way of clearing people as well. It is not just a way of saying this person is guilty because he has guilty knowledge in his head, but also this person is not guilty because they have no guilty knowledge. They tested it extensively with the F.B.I and the C.I.A and in 100% of tests to date they have been successful. They have actually had a couple of murderers released from prison on the basis that they have used this on them and they have found them to be innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing.

Ayo: One last question. What are your views on the evolution of crime fiction over the next 10 years?

Peter: What I would hope for is good stories, good story-telling. I think story telling is what it is all about. That is what people read stories for, and I think that the more we look at human stories and the human condition. Crime is a great way of examining the human condition because it is looking for flaws under stress effectively and crime is always stressful, both for the perpetrator and the victim. So a crime story of any kind is putting the human condition under a microscope in a very stressful situation and that’s great, because that’s where we get under people’s skins and into people’s heads and the stories. I hope that the trend will continue to be good story-telling.


*Chinese thriller series featuring Li Yan and Margaret Campbell

*Chinese Whispers (2004)

*The Runner(2003)

*Snakehead (2002)

*The Killing Room (2000)

*The Fourth Sacrifice (2000)

*The Firemaker (1999)

The Noble path (1992)

Hidden Faces (1981)

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