Clare Johnston is a journalist and content specialist, and a frequent contributor on radio and TV, having appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Kaye Adams Programme and comedy satire show Breaking the News on BBC Radio Scotland, along with STV2’s Live at Five. She is a former editorial director of Press Association Scotland and commercial editor and columnist with the Daily Record. She is currently working with the DC Thomson media group and supports businesses with communication and content creation. Clare is based in Edinburgh.
1. How did you get started writing?
I’ve worked as a journalist for my entire career so writing is something that I’ve done since university. There was a period of time though when I was working in a senior management job for a news agency and no longer wrote as part of my job. I soon found that I really missed writing. It coincided with my kids being babies and I would put them down to sleep at 7pm and found myself aching to put my mind to creative use. That’s when I started to write in the evenings.
2. What drew you to write a novel
I had toyed with the idea of writing a novel for a long time. It seemed a natural progression for a professional writer, and around 20 years ago I started work on a YA novel about a young fan who became pregnant in a one-night-stand with a rock star, but I never finished it. A few years later, my cousin sadly died at a young age and it really got me thinking about the afterlife. I have also had a few experiences where I have felt contact with loved ones who have passed away. The combination of events inspired From the Outside.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
At one point, before kids, I was reading so much it would be almost impossible to say who had most influence. I couldn’t read enough. I am a huge admirer of Ian McEwan’s work, and also prolific writers like Jodi Picoult – a master of intriguing plots – and Anita Shreve. But I enjoy a real range of work – books like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita stand out – so I think I have probably taken on a mix of influences as well developing my own style through years of writing features and newspaper columns.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
My path to publication has not been a straightforward one. From the Outside was the first full novel I ever completed but is not my first published novel – that was the political thriller Polls Apart, published in 2011.
I got an agent for From the Outside very quickly, before the novel was actually finished, but he was struggling with his workload and that relationship sort of fizzled out. I soon found that while I would receive compliments about the writing style from agents, there was a view that this novel, narrated from the afterlife, didn’t fit neatly in a box which is becoming increasingly important in publishing. After Polls Apart was published I took on a really busy job with a newspaper group where I was also a weekly columnist so I just didn’t have time to juggle everything and I stopped looking for a publisher for From the Outside. It was only a couple of years ago when I listened to an interview with Man Booker-winning author Marlon James, who said his novel has been rejected nearly 80 times, that I thought, “I’m going to give From the Outside another push.” I had exchanged tweets with the publishing director at Urbane and so I dropped him a note with a copy of the manuscript. A year later he told me they wanted to publish it. Sometimes life makes you wait for the right opportunities.
5. There are many interesting characters in your novel, do you have a favourite one?
Because of the circumstances in which I wrote it, From the Outside is incredibly close to my heart as are each of the major characters in it. I reserve special love for the twins Ben and Harry though. Both are very flawed individuals, but also relatable and loveable in their own ways.
6. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your novel?
From the Outside didn’t require significant research, though there are always factual elements that you want to check out about places that are mentioned. In the time between writing the novel and it being published the world had moved on and I found myself having to swap mentions of Blackberry phones for instance, to iPhones. There was also a very famous block of flats in Edinburgh called The Fort that were referenced in the novel, but they got pulled down a few years ago so I had to change that as well.
7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
None of my characters are based significantly on any one person, but there are reflections of people I know or who I’ve met along the way. Ben, who is crippled by a lack of self confidence, and Harry, who is almost similarly crippled by his ego, represent extremes of my own personality, though I err towards Ben.
8. If you can, would you give us a sneak peek into any future novels you might have planned?
Yes, I’m working (painfully slowly) on a novel about sex trafficking at the moment, again set in my home town of Edinburgh.
9. If you had the opportunity to write a novel with any writer alive or dead, who would it be and why
I think that would have to be Ian McEwan. I could learn so much from him and I bet he tells a really good story down the pub too!
10. Do you have words of advice you can share with anyone who is interested in writing a novel?
I was one of those writers who just sat down and got started without planning out my novel in any great detail. That proved to be a daft approach because I then changed my plotlines multiple times and had to work my way back through the entire novel over and over again to make sure everything stacked up. But it was my way of learning and I think the novel benefitted from the rewrites. I have a colleague who has just written a crime novel and she more or less studied it as an art form for years before she attempted her own work. She took her time and produced a really strong piece of work so there are so many different approaches and you just have to do what works for you. It can be hard to keep the motivation up when you have many thousands of words to write so I say, just get started and keep going, even if it’s an hour a day. You never know where it will take you.
When internet millionaire and philanthropist Harry Melville dies in a car crash at the age of forty four, the lives of his wife, Sarah, and twin brother, Ben, are thrown into turmoil.
Harry seemed to have it all; a close-knit family and a happy marriage – along with all the trappings of wealth. Yet as he recalls his past from the afterlife, a story emerges of the unspoken and bitter jealousies between brothers and of an unhappy wife burdened by loneliness and guilt.
When Ben takes over the running of Harry’s charity foundation he begins to find purpose for the first time in years. But the arrival of a talented young artist brings a series of revelations that expose Harry’s complex and dual personality in full. As he learns his part in the suffering of those he left behind, is it too late for Harry to make amends?
A tale of regret and redemption in this world and the next. From the Outside looks at the futile rivalries that can destroy sibling relationships and the lost opportunity for happiness when ego is allowed to reign over emotion.
From the Outside Amazon Page