Q&A with Peter May

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Interview by Harriet

H: Runaway is quite a different kind of book from your most recent novels, being both less dark (or perhaps dark in a different way) and not set on an island! What drew you to the settings, the plot and the characters?

Peter: Hard for me to answer this in isolation. I think my answer to the question below will cover these points.

H: Knowing that you were born and brought up in Glasgow, like your central character Jack, I wondered how much of your own experiences and character went into the making of the novel?

Peter: Runaway is without doubt the most autobiographical book I have written to date, since it is entirely predicated on my own life experience of running away with fellow band members from Glasgow to London in the late sixties. The Glasgow locations are all real, as are many of the London settings. The characters are very much composites of boys I played in various bands with in my teens, and even the chase down the motorway by two of the fathers was based on reality. However, beyond that, reality ends and fiction takes over.

H: Was there any particular reason why you chose 1965 for the historical sections of the novel, other than the convenience of the fifty-year gap?

Peter: Our own actual runaway year was 1969, but I very much wanted to explore the landmark half century between 1965 and 2015, and in writing the book look at how much, or how little, Britain had changed in fifty years – a sort of state of the nation.

H: You are well known for the amount of historical research that goes into your novels, and this one is clearly no exception. I was particularly interested in Dr Robert (could he be the one who appears in a song by the Beatles?), and in the highly radical psychological experiment of JP Walker, which is clearly based on the real life and work of RD Laing. Was this something you knew about already and wanted to explore?

Peter: Dr Robert was indeed named after the eponymous character in the Beatles’ song. There are many rumours and myths surrounding the true identity of the character in the song, so I created my own, fictitious version of him, as it seemed entirely apposite for the time. And RD Laing was very much the inspiration for the psychiatrist in the book. I think most people in Scotland, of a certain age and education, have heard of Laing, though its hard to imagine a psychiatrist becoming a media celebrity today. I did considerable research into his background, during which I discovered that my wife had been at school with his son, and that Laing and I had been taught piano at the same Glasgow music school.

H: Although Runaway is billed as a crime novel (and obviously it is in one sense), the novel also explores the crazy optimism of adolescence and contrasts it with the physical and psychological effects of aging. Was this your intention when you began the novel, or did it just emerge as the writing went on?

Peter: I think Runaway is probably quite an unusual crime novel, in that there are no detectives, private or otherwise and no investigation into a crime. But it does open with a murder and end with its resolution. I have very much enjoyed pushing at the boundaries of the genre over the last few years, and this possibly pushes further in that direction than I have done in the past. I like the French idea of the Roman Noir – a crime book which is also a novel, or vice versa. And in this book I wanted to explore, as you say, the eternal optimism of youth set against the disillusion and disintegration of age. But I also wanted to take a look at how today’s generation views yesterday’s people, which is why I included Jack’s grandson in the return journey. But I never ‘busk’ the writing of a book (as I did with music when I was penniless on the streets of London). I think through my stories and characters very carefully, and plan my books in detail before writing – an approach, I think, I probably brought with my from my years of writing for the screen.

H: Finally, what writers have inspired you? And who would you recommend people should read?

Peter: My earliest influences were Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, H.E. Bates, and most notably J.P. Donleavy. Recently I have enjoyed reading  an American crime writer, William Kent Krueger, and in particular the novel he published last year called Ordinary Grace. The book I have most enjoyed in recent years was Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books editors. Read her review of Runaway here.

Peter May, Runaway (Quercus: London, 2015). 9781780874555, 424 pp., hardback.

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