Interview: Peter May

 

Peter May

Peter May

 

I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

 

As a native Scot, it’s natural you’ve managed to create such a strong sense of place any reader can identify with. What is it about Scotland and the Scots culture you feel evokes such a visceral reaction in your readers? What makes Scotland so fascinating?
Scotland and the Scots are shaped by a hard climate and a hard religion, set against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was that hard religion that introduced universal education, bucking against years of Catholic dominance when the Church liked to keep people in compliant ignorance. The new Protestantism wanted people to read the bible, and so taught them to read and write. As a result, Scotland was in the vanguard of the new enlightenment, its education system turning out scholars and engineers, doctors and inventors, economists and philosophers. Scotland was transformed from a medieval backwater into one of the most forward thinking countries in the world, and the Scots took their ideas and their work ethic with them during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Scotland has a population of only 5 million, the diaspora is around 22 million, and people everywhere can, I think, identify powerfully with the Scot on his journey “home”. In a way “The Blackhouse” is a microcosm of that journey, as we voyage back to the Isle of Lewis with Fin Macleod after 18 years away and share his emotions and the powerful pull of the island.

For me, and certainly for those who live there, the Isle of Lewis is a place of unique beauty and harshness. But I think the themes of exile and return are universal to the human experience, and so in a sense the story could find its setting almost anywhere.

Is there a certain place, time or state of mind you require in order to write? Do you write longhand or typed? What about revisions?
I am a very controlled writer, bringing with me the disciplines learned during 8 years as a journalist and 15 as a screenwriter. These include writing fast, economy of language, working to deadlines, and using dialogue to advance plot and develop character. I work at a computer, touch typing, so it seems my thoughts appear on the screen as they come into my head. I am not even aware of the keyboard as an intermediary. I write a detailed synopsis of my story after several months of research and development, and when I begin the book I rise at 6am and write 3000 words a day. I never have writer’s block, and in the main my revisions are confined to daily tidying and a final polish.

Say you were granted one question from one great writer you’ve admired – living or dead. What would you ask, and of whom (s/he must answer honestly…)?
I would ask Ernest Hemingway why he was so determined to excise the adjective from his writing.

Do you come from a family that appreciated reading and great literature? Were you an avid reader as a child?
My father was an English teacher. Both my parents had genius level IQs and taught me to read and write before I went to school. I always read voraciously as a child, children’s books, naturally. But when I was about 12 my uncle came to live with us after his wife committed suicide. I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

Are you a bibliophile? Do you own an outrageous number of books or does being a writer curtail the need to possess so many? If so, are you the sort to keep them neatly shelved?
I hate to throw books away, so have accumulated an inordinate number of them over the years. My house is filled with groaning (and untidy) shelves of them – I even still have those books from the end of the sofa, inheriting them after my parents’ death.

Kindles, Nooks and other eReaders… Blessing, curse or something else? Do you own an electronic reading device?
I am constantly traveling, and always need and want to carry books with me. The advent of the e-book has been a boon for me personally, allowing me to take with me as many books as I like. I have a Kindle and an iPad. But I do understand the implications for the book industry, and how both publishers and booksellers will face an uncertain future with the surge in electronic publishing and reading. History will determine whether it has been a blessing or a curse.

Will books go away? Any worries on that score?
I don’t worry about it. But I think the traditional book of printed pages between soft or hard covers will vanish eventually from the mass marketplace, to be replaced by the e-book. There will always be a place, I think, for ink and paper, but is more likely to become a niche market. I don’t think there is anything I or anyone else can do about it. It is the march of progress. But I do think that the book will survive the transition and perhaps even flourish.

With all your writing experience and accomplishments, do you ever freeze in the face of the blank screen/page?
Never. As I mentioned, I write 3000 words a day. When my computer tells me I have reached that total, I stop – even if I am in the middle of a sentence. That way I always know what I am going to write next, and so never have a problem re-starting the next morning. My tip to aspiring writers is never finish your writing day at the end of a chapter. Always leave something to latch on to the next day.

Lastly, what’s your next project? Any teasers you’d like to dangle to drive your readers mad?
The Blackhouse is the first in a trilogy, called The Lewis Trilogy. The second book, The Lewis Man, is already out in the UK where it is a top ten bestseller, and the final book, The Chessmen, will be out in January. American readers, I am afraid will have to wait a little longer. I am currently working on a new book that spans the Atlantic – from the Hebrides to Quebec. I am currently on a research trip to Canada. It is, I think, an epic story,  and I can’t wait to get writing.

[Previously published 2012 at BookBrowse.com, rights retained by author.]

An Interview with Adam Ross

 

 

Mrpeanut

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross, Vintage (2011), Review Copy from Publisher/Publicist

 

What does it say about me that I read this book last year and am posting my equally vintage interview with Adam Ross just now? That would be one of those questions I hope no one would ask. So I’m throwing it at myself, in a fit of self-flagellation.

But the answer actually approaches logical, believe it or not. Mr. Peanut is a complex book, so complex a once-over reading isn’t nearly enough to catch all the sneaky and brilliant little allusions, the references to things philosphical, art history, etc. My intention was to read the book through once more, before posting the interview. And at the time that seemed like a logical proposal. Now, looking back, it seems rather lame.

In any event, here it is, finally, my interview with Adam Ross – the original Mr. Peanut:

 

1). Do you practice any writing rituals, any special things you do to prepare?

 

I wake very early, write for three hours. Take a break. Run, lift weights, play tennis, take a jiu-jitsu class, something physical. Eat. Hopefully talk to a human being for a while. Do a second two-hour session. Repeat the following day. Sunday is Sabbath, depending on my wife’s Honey-Do list. This is only when I’m cooking with gas, by the way.   

 

2). Do you write longhand or on the computer?

 

Computer for fiction but I journal longhand.

 

3). Can you recall when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

 

 I’ve been scribbling stories forever, honestly. I nearly bored my third-grade class to death with a 13-page long epic about superhuman mercenaries that I read in its entirety during “show and tell,” which come to think of it now should have been called “show don’t tell.” From there I moved to comics, creating scores of superheroes and drawing my own books. Caught the literature bug at Vassar and it was curtains afterward.

 

4). Were you a bookish child? How about your family? Were there many books in your home, growing up?

 

My mom has an MA in literature, she wrote her thesis on Henry James, so yes, there were books everywhere. But I wouldn’t describe myself as bookish. I was a comic book freak, as I mentioned, and my first passionate reading experience came, really, in high school, when I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series and studied the Bible intensively.

 

5). What is your educational background? Was that a good basis for your writing?

 New York’s Trinity School for middle and high school. English degree from Vassar, followed by an MA and MFA from Hollins and Washington University respectively. I don’t see how writing programs hurt an aspiring writer in any way, though in truth it was the exposure to fully formed artists like Richard Dillard, William Gass, and Stanley Elkin that had more of an impact than anything else on my development.

 

6). What are your biggest challenges as a writer, things you struggle with?

I struggle every time I put words to the page. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s no small thing to write an inspired sentence that becomes a paragraph that becomes a scene, and so on. Like any writer, of course, I want to grow, which for me means I’d like to create on a bigger canvas. We’ll see if I can pull it off in my next novel.

 

7). What do you feel are your writing strengths?

 My father says my dialogue is terrific and most people tell me that my writing is highly cinematic. This is very important to me because I’ve always given credence to Conrad’s mantra about making the reader see.

 

8). In Mr. Peanut, was it difficult separating and then weaving together the plot lines? Did you use any particular method for keeping track of plot points?

It was and there came a period during the last two years of drafting where the whiteboard in my office was covered with the most elaborate outlines that only I could read—P1 and D1 and Mp1 and MD1, bizarre stuff that led my wife to occasionally doubt my sanity.

 

9).  What are you saying about marriage in the novel?

There’s this mysterious, paradoxical way in which marriage distances the lover from the beloved while also making her more vital to the lover. Consequently, we occasionally dream of freedom from the person we depend on most in life. The kind of marriage I’m describing is modern marriage, mind: chosen, willful companionship grounded in that most unstable of emotions: love.  

 

10). Are you, or have you, been married?

My wife, Beth, and I will celebrate our 17th anniversary this August. We’ve been together since 1991 and every day has been bliss, especially after I got her pregnant five months after she gave birth to our first daughter. Yes, in spite of the fact that she was still breast-feeding, we still made time to take long baths together, give each other back- and foot-massages every night, and never, ever fought. Not once.

She also happens to be my best friend on the planet and here comes a whopper cliché: we seem incapable of boring each other.

 

11). Do you feel your book depicts marriage honestly? Is it intended to be realistic?

It depicts a single marriage honestly, the marriage of David and Alice. In his own. In his own novel, David sees aspects of his marriage in the investigating detectives’ marriages, just as they see aspects of their own in his. The Sheppard material, meanwhile, verges on historical fiction: it’s a fact that Sheppard behaved the way he did with his wife Marilyn and his mistress, Susan Hayes. And the astute Hitchcock fan will note that the Hastroll section exactly mirrors the marriages portrayed in Rear Window, including the killer, Lars Thorwald (whose name recombines into Ward Hastroll). So the majority of the book steals data history or another artist reports to us about marriage.

 

12).  How long did you spend researching for MP?

It’s hard to say. A solid year if you combine all the Hitchcock criticism I read as well as the Sheppard material.

 

13). What about Escher and Hitchcock drew you to pull from their philosphies/works?

Those are really two questions. With Escher it was several things. First, his use of tessellation: two connected images that trace the outline of their opposites. I like to say that Mr. Peanut is about three marriages that tell the story of one marriage—an Escher-idea, really. Second, the sudden loss of perspective you experience looking at his work, the ceiling becoming the floor, etc. Marriage can feel similarly emotionally vertiginous. Just ask my wife.

As for Hitchcock, well, there are too many things to enumerate. His obsession with male anxiety and the controlling gaze men try to exert on idealized women, not to mention his obsession with the destructive and saving power of idleness that I noticed in his films when I studied them at Hollins. Idle characters in Rear Window and Vertigo, say, slip into moral hazard but also exorcise themselves of their compulsions during this slide. I use a similar strategy in the novel.

 

14). Are you working on anything new currently? Anything you can share about it?

My short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, comes out June 28. I’m very proud of it. It’s really a companion to Mr. Peanut since the stories were written during breaks from the novel.

 

15). What authors do you admire/enjoy reading? Do you credit them with influencing your writing style?

I’m omnivorous but I love Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro, Joseph Conrad, Nabokov, John Hawkes. In all the writers I mentioned there’s this amazing combination of exuberance, intelligence, and great-heartedness that I aspire to in my own work.

 

Thank you, Adam Ross, for the work you put into answering my plethora of questions. And hopefully you’ll consider late better than never. Either that or you’ll snub me at literary soirees and other events, in which case I will cry quietly into my Diet Pepsi. My life is in your hands.

Visit Adam’s website for a complete listing of his works and a bunch of other cool stuff.

And buy his books. You will love them.

 

Adamross