The sense of place is very important in my books

Peter May is a novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of the bestselling Lewis trilogy.

The history of the famine in the Hebrides is partly similar to the Irish famine. Yet, here in France we know less about it. Is this widely known in Scotland?

Much more is known about the potato famine in Ireland largely because the effect on the general population was far more severe. In Scotland, both charitable and government organisations created relief committees which endeavoured to ameliorate the worst effects of the famine. And while it was the famine in Ireland that triggered the mass exodus of immigrants to the New World, in Scotland it was the clearing of people off the land, in what was known as the Highland Clearances, that created the flood of immigrants leaving Scotland.

What triggered the writing of the novel?

I wanted to write about the Highland Clearances. There are many books on the subject, but none which dealt with it in fiction. My problem was that being a contemporary crime novelist I did not want to write a historical novel. I solved that problem by creating a present-day crime story set in the Madeleine Islands in Quèbec, where many Hebridean Scots cleared off their land ended up. And that way I was able to create a link between past and present.

Do you do a lot of research before starting to write? Do you usually visit the places you are writing about in your novels?

Research is a key part of my process. In developing an idea from the first thought, I do a great deal of research which in turn feeds into that development. And when the idea and characters are fully formed, I visit the locations where the story will be set. The sense of place is very important in my books, so I never write about a place that I haven’t been to.

Isn’t the insomniac investigator the perfect character for a mystery writer?

The insomniac investigator was perfect for the purposes of my story, because one of the effects of insomnia is that although the sufferer can’t sleep at night, he will frequently cat nap for short periods, during which he will dream vividly. And in dreaming of the past, this allowed me to explore my character’s memory of what had inspired the dreams, thereby leading him to a recollection of stories told to him in childhood by his grandmother.

A love story crossing centuries: is this your French side or did you find inspiration in myths and legends?

I have always been drawn to stories about relationships between lovers, and always wanted to write the great love story. In many ways, I felt I achieved that ambition in the Lewis Trilogy. But, of course, my experience of French literature and culture has also shaped that ambition, so I think it would be fair to say that France, in part, inspired the story of Entry Island.