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Talking Location With author Peter May – France – and the impact of Covid

23rd March 2021

#TalkingLocationWith… author Peter May and the impact that Covid has had on his storytelling

author Peter MayThe Night Gate is a child of the Coronavirus pandemic, born out of cancellation, necessity and confinement. I had spent most of the latter part of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 researching and developing a story for my next book, which was to take place on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. My research trip to the Arctic had been booked for months – flights from Paris to Oslo, and onward to Longyearbyen on Svalbard; hotels on the archipelago, sailing trips taking me past rapidly melting glaciers to the international research station at Ny-Ålesund, and the abandoned Soviet coal mining town of Pyramiden. 

I was due to go in May, returning in June to start writing the book, which I hoped to finish by the end of the summer to meet my contractual delivery deadline. Then Covid-19 entered all our worlds. The trip to Svalbard was cancelled, and I was forced to put my story on ice. But I still had a delivery date to meet, and a hungry readership who had been promised a book in early 2021. I had to begin again, from scratch. But there was an additional complication. I live in France which, like most places last Spring, was in lockdown, or “confinement” as it is known here. So like everyone else I was confined to quarters – unable to travel for research. And I NEVER write about a place that I haven’t been to. So I was forced to think of a story set somewhere I knew, or indeed at sometime in the past which I could research online. And I got the first inklings of an idea. 

LOCATION

For my contemporary locations, I was able to use places I had been and knew well. The village of Carennac, where author Peter Maymuch of the action takes place, lies just across the valley from where I live now, and was home to the first house I ever bought in France. It was a place I had got to know very well across nearly ten years. The house in which the murder takes place is based on the home of a dear, departed friend, Maud Taillard, who provided the inspiration for a major character in one of my earlier books, The Noble Path. 

I was fortunate in being able to revisit some of the other locations in the area during the summer, when Covid restrictions had been eased: Château de Montal, which I have known for more than 40 years; The Tours Saint-Laurent, which tower above my spiritual home of the last four decades, Saint-Céré (in whose Café des Voyageurs I wrote The Noble Path); The Gouffre de Padirac, which is the most visited underground site in France, a network of underground tunnels, rivers and lakes. In fact, the authorities at the gouffre (which more or less translates as a great big hole in the ground) arranged for me to have a private visit after all the tourists had left for the day. I drank Champagne on the shores of an underground lake, lit turquoise from beneath the water. Rock formations in the shape of giant jellyfish tumbled in multitudinous colours from the walls of the cave all around me. We navigated an underground river in a narrow punt and climbed high into rock crevices on rattling metal walkways. 

author Peter May

I drove to Montauban, where I had previously done several book events, to visit the Musée Ingres, where the artworks had resided for nearly two years, as well as the historic Place Nationale with its colonnaded arches on all four sides. It is where my heroine, Georgette, meets up with Hitler’s art dealer, Paul Lange.

I had already written about, or visited, most of my Paris locations, with the exception of the prison at Fleury-Mérogis where Enzo meets up with his former lover, who was also his would-be killer and mother of his son. But I was able to visit it virtually through a stunning series of photographs taken by the French photographer Philippe Blanchot. 

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