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August Crime Author Interview – Doug Johnstone

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1.How did you get started writing

I’ve always written stories for as long as I can remember, but I never really did anything with them, just left them in a drawer or sometimes sent them off to competitions, but never heard anything back. I ended up going down a science route, studying physics and working as an engineer, then gave all that up to become a music journalist. When I did that, I found more motivation to get back to writing fiction, and started writing my first novel. It’s a roundabout way of getting into writing novels, as opposed to the studying English route, but it’s worked out OK in the end.

2. What drew you to crime fiction

I didn’t realise I was writing crime fiction, and even now I’m not so sure! When you say crime people think of police procedurals, and that’s not what I write. If you say thriller they think of James Patterson, and that’s not me either. I try to write about everyday people getting into extraordinary situations, and that’s where the crime element comes in. All good storytelling should contain an element of conflict in it – that’s what makes readers keep turning the pages – and crime fiction does that best of all. I’m really interested in writing about people getting embroiled in stuff and losing control, and what better field for that sort of stuff than crime fiction?

3. Which crime writers past or present have influenced your style of writing

I went through a phase a while ago of only reading classic American noir writers – people like James M Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashiel Hammett etc. I think that influenced my style of writing up to a point – I certainly favour short, sharp stories, a pared down prose style, and a less-is-more approach to writing. As for modern writers, the likes of Allan Guthrie, Megan Abbott, Sara Gran and Gillian Flynn are all doing fantastic things in crime writing, coming at the genre in new and interesting ways, and all are highly recommended.

4. Where do you draw your inspiration behind the storylines of your books

From everyday life, hopefully. Really you can get inspiration for a story from anywhere – the local newspaper, some chat down the pub, a bit of gossip on the internet, your own life. As a writer, it helps to be attuned for the juicy stuff – you should always be asking yourself “what would it feel like to be in that situation?” Like my most recent novel Gone Again is about someone’s wife going missing. That stemmed from my own life as a househusband looking after two young kids, I just thought, what the fuck would I do if my wife didn’t come home one day and no one knew where she was?

5. Did you find it hard to get publisher interest when you first started writing

I didn’t know anyone in the publishing industry at all when I first started. I wrote my first novel then bought the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and emailed every editor and agent that seemed to do the sort of stuff that I had written. I got a lot of rejections, over two dozen publishers and over fifty agents. But two of the editors said they would like to see anything else I wrote, which was enough of an impetus to start writing the next novel. When I had that done, I sent it to those two editors, and they both offered to publish it. It is hard to get attention, of course, and I guess I got lucky – it’s a war of attrition, you just have to keep plugging away, improving your craft, making yourself and your work as presentable and publishable as possible, and hoping that your manuscript lands on the right desk at the right time and the person is in the right mood. I know that’s not all that encouraging, sorry, but it is tough out there.

6. Did you find the experience of writing your first novel an easy task or a quite daunting one

Daunting, definitely. I had NO IDEA what I was doing when I started writing my first novel, and in fact I totally re-wrote it after I became published (with a different novel). It took a long time and a lot of trial and error, but that’s really the only way to figure out what you are trying to do, what kind of writer you want to be, what it is you want to say, etc. Embrace the mistakes and learn from them. And that doesn’t stop with the first novel – that process keeps going with every book. You’re always learning, hopefully improving, struggling to make your story the best that it can be, plagued by self-doubt, all that usual writer guff. Stick at it though, and you will get better.

7. Do you prefer setting your books in the cities or in the rural villages

I don’t really have a preference for either. I’ve had five novels published, and a sixth one coming next year, and they’re split fifty-fifty between urban and rural. The important thing is to try to bring the setting to life. My first three novels were in rural Scottish settings, and that brings a different energy to the prose and a different feeling to the story. My most recent three are all set in Edinburgh. I think for a while I avoided setting books in Edinburgh (where I’ve lived for over twenty years), as it’s such a well-mapped city in literature, but in the end I figured that my Edinburgh is different from Ian Rankin’s, Muriel Spark’s, Irvine Welsh’s etc, so fuck it, and I just got on with it. I think I’ve had enough of Edinburgh for a while, though, and the next one is going to be in a small town – back to the insular creepiness of rural Scotland for me!

8. The books you write are all stand alone novels have you ever wanted to write a sequel to any of them if you could

The next one coming out is loosely connected to my fourth novel Hit & Run, but it’s not really a sequel. I’m not that interested in writing sequels or a series of books, maybe if I come across a scenario and a central protagonist I want to spend more time with, that might happen. But generally, the central characters in my novels go through such a monumental clusterfuck situation in the novel that it would be hard to revisit any of them and not have them be total basketcases!

9. What kind of research did you have to undertake for your books

Iain Banks said he wrote novels so that he didn’t have to do any research, and I kind of go along with that. Having said that, I do visit everywhere that appears in the novels – I don’t walk around with my notebook out jotting stuff down, but I try to soak up the atmosphere of a place if I’m going to be using it as a location. As for the other stuff, I tend to use a lot of my own life and my friends’ lives as backstory and stuff like that, hopefully it lends an amount of authenticity to the story. That’s been most apparent in Gone Again, I guess, which is very similar to my own life at home and my relationship with my son, at the start of the book anyway.

10. Are the characters in your books based on any real life people

There are elements that are, but it’s usually a mix of different traits from different people. I try to make my characters as lifelike as possible, but I suppose all authors do that, so that’s nothing out the ordinary. Again, with Gone Again, because so much of the background is similar to my own, a lot of people equate me with the main character Mark. There are similarities, but also differences. In the end, I suppose I use real people as jumping off points for characters, accentuating some facets of their personalities and getting rid or changing others.

11. Since you have started writing crime novels have any known authors given you any advice

My agent is Allan Guthrie, who is also an amazing Scottish crime writer, and he’s given me plenty of advice on my writing, he’s probably been the biggest influence on my writing style and subject matter over the years. If I had to sum up all his invaluable advice, it would be ‘less is more’.

12. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa

See my answers above – yes, all the time. The central characters of all of my novels so far have elements of my own personality in them – that’s the only way I can really write convincing fiction, I think. But my next novel out in 2014 has a twenty-year-old woman as its central character, so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes down.

13. If you can can you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned

Yeah, the next novel is called The Dead Beat, and is due out in June next year. It’s about a trainee journalist called Martha who winds up being the obituary writer for a newspaper in Edinburgh. Bad things start to happen, both professionally and personally, and she has to try to sort it out and stay alive.

14. Have you been surprised by the success of your novels

When I first started writing novels, part of my motivation was that I wasn’t seeing the world as I knew it around me reflected in the books I was reading. It’s a cliché, but I was really writing for myself, the kind of book I would like to read. So I thought my books would only be of interest to a few mates, really. I am continually surprised, amazed and delighted that people are reading my work and connecting with it –it’s an incredibly humbling experience.

15. As a blossoming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share

It’s rather banal advice, but just stick at it! It’s incredibly easy to become discouraged or succumb to self-doubt, but just keep plugging away, keep trying to improve your writing, and hopefully you’ll catch a break or two along the way. Keep writing and reading as much as possible, it’s only by writing that you can improve, and it’s only by exposure to other writing, good and bad, that you can see where you might fit into the storytelling world. Hope that help

For more Information on the Books by Doug Johnstone you can check out his amazon author page at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doug-Johnstone/e/B0034PCMZO

You can read his own blog at http://dougjohnstone.wordpress.com/

Here are some events that he has coming up:

1st August, Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe

Blackwell’s South Bridge, Edinburgh, 6pm, Free but ticketed.

I’m doing a 15-minute slot alongside a brilliant and eclectic list of other writers – Helen Grant, Catherine Deveney, Regi Claire and Peter Kerr. More info here:

bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/editorial/shops/instore_events_view.jsp#Edinburgh

15th August, Edinburgh International Book Festival

Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, 6.45pm, £10.

This is a joint event with the amazing Laura Lippman. Gonna be a doozy! More info here:

http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/doug-johnstone-laura-lippman

14th September, Bloody Scotland

Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, 6.30pm, £7.

A joint event with Gordon Ferris and Gordon Brown. Tickets and info here:

http://www.bloodyscotland.com/men-on-a-mission/

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One response to “August Crime Author Interview – Doug Johnstone

  1. Pingback: There’s been a murder – interview | doug johnstone

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