Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Blackhouse

Peter May, a Glasgow author who saw sense years ago and moved to the milder climate of the south of France, has an illuminating story to tell regarding his new novel, The Blackhouse.
May wasn't a household name when he wrote the thriller/coming of age story in 2004-5, but he had written several detective stories based in China, had won a lot of critical acclaim, and his books had been translated into several languages.
With The Blackhouse he wanted to do something different. He'd worked as a producer for STV's Gaelic soap Machair during the 1990s, and decided to set his new book on the Isle of Lewis, where he and the TV show had been based. He knew Lewis well, though he wasn't a native, and was particularly fascinated by the annual guga hunt, a tradition that reached back over four hundred years.
The guga hunt involves a dozen men from Lewis sailing to a small rock in the Atlantic and spending two weeks there killing baby gannets, plucking them, smoking the meat, and then transporting them back to Lewis where they are considered a delicacy.
May wove a murder story around this hunt and delved into his own past to come up with the complex policeman Fin McLeod. When he sent it off to his agent he was convinced it was the best thing he'd ever written and his agent agreed.
The publishers, though, sent one rejection after another. Everyone praised the book but no one wanted to buy it. One even gave the excuse that they were already publishing another Scottish writer - as if there was some sort of quota system.
It was several years later that he mentioned the existence of the MS to his French publisher at a trade fair in France. She read it, loved it and bought world rights. Now the book has been published in the UK, in its original English, by Quercus, the publisher who picked up Stieg Larsson's novels. (The similarity between Larsson's chilly, northern mileu and May's Isle of Lewis hasn't gone unnoticed either.)
In the meantime, the book has been translated into several other languages and won literary prizes. A book that British publishers shunned, in other words, has not only found an audience but has been hailed as a great achievement.
So don't be too quick to discount those manuscripts languishing in the bottom drawer of your desk.
* My interview with Peter May is in this week's Big Issue Scotland Magazine. Buy it from a vendor today.


  1. I think the roasting of baby birds theme probably appealed more instantly to a French woman than to us more anthropomorphicising Brits.. I can say that, being married to one of her countrymen. Glad the story finally got to see the light of day though. Quite partial to a songbird myself these days..

  2. The culinary aspect of it never struck me, but you are quite right. The English editors were probably quite appalled at the idea of a hero being in favour of bird consumption