Surprise, we had a #ThursdayThrowback review yesterday, where I told you how much I absolutely adored the literary brilliance that is Breakers by Doug Johnstone. If you missed it, you can check it out here. You can grab an e-book version of Breakers directly from the Orenda estore, as well as other Orenda Book lovelies! If you’re more of a physical book reader like myself, you can get transported here to Bert’s Books a superb indie bookseller – if they don’t have it you can request in! Support indies!
Doug Johnstone is a Scottish crime writer based in Edinburgh. His ninth novel Fault Lines was published by Orenda Books in May 2018. His 2015 book The Jump (published by Faber & Faber) was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel. His Orenda birthed books include Breakers, Fault Lines and the upcoming new start of series A Dark Matter out in paperback January 2020!
So you’ve guessed it – well the name of the post gives it away, but today I present to you the Q&A Doug kindly agreed to be a part of. So thank-you Doug and without further or do, check out what he had to say!
Hello Doug and welcome to The Reading Closet, we are almost half way through #Orentober, that’s gone fast. I was introduced to your work by Breakers that completely tugged my heartstrings – it quite frankly broke me. Within the narrative, Breakers many important social themes are identified, such as poverty and crime. Why did you decide to create a novel around these themes in particular?
To be honest, I don’t think it was a conscious decision to write about the theme of poverty and how it links to crime, it kind of came out of the story idea and the set-up, really. I was burgled years ago, and someone small (i.e. a kid) was involved to get through a high window. I always wondered what that kid’s life was like, and so I decided to write a story based around that. It seems weird to me that more crime novels don’t address poverty more directly, now I think about it, because the vast majority of real-life crime is intrinsically linked with poverty, along with drink, drugs, mental health issues and so on.
I agree, especially when you’re given that platform to do so. Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to write about these factors, it was still both eye-opening and hard hitting. You’ve published two books with Orenda Books that I have already mentioned. As Breakers was the most recent to be published, could you talk us through the writing process and did it differ from that of Fault Lines? If so, how?
The writing process was pretty similar for both books, I think. I usually spend about two months planning the book, although ‘planning’ is too fancy a word for it. Making notes, rambling ideas, character studies, plot points, settings, all thrown into a stream of consciousness thing. Then gradually it coalesces into a plot. A first draft usually takes about three or four months, writing at least a thousand words a day, in the mornings when my brain is sharpest. Then another few months to work on rewrites and edits, drafts two, three, four etc. Then my agent’s feedback, then my editor’s, then line edits, copyedits, proofreading and so on. The whole thing takes a year, more or less. By which time I’m usually bursting to write the next one.
Wow, that’s a lot of writing stages, I can imagine it’s a long road that is fully worth it when you get your words bound within a real life book. You’ve said that by the end of the current book, you’re bursting to write the next one. That being said, are you working on anything new at the moment? Can you give us a hint?
I’m always working on something new! But specifically, I have two new books coming out in 2020, the first two parts of a trilogy or possibly a series. They’re about three women from different generations of the same family who have to take over the running of a funeral directors and private investigators when the patriarch of the family dies. The first one, A DARK MATTER, is out in January, and I’m working on the second one right now. They’re very different for me, a real attempt to stretch myself as a writer, but I’m pretty proud of them so far.
I for one am excited to read it! I love a great trilogy / series! I’ll be keeping an update for the booky updates! All authors have their own style of writing, how would you describe yours?
Very concise and direct, I guess. Most of my books are very short, and so far they’ve almost all been written from just a single character’s point of view. That’s deliberate to increase the sense of dread and claustrophobia in the reader. George Orwell said that good writing should be like a windowpane, you can see right through it to the story, and I try to do that. It’s a mistake to think that a book that’s easy to read is easy to write – far from it.
This is my favourite question to ask: what three songs would be on the soundtrack for Breakers?
Well, Breakers is actually one of the few books where I don’t have a lot of music actually in the text. But Tyler, the main character, does listen to ambient electronica and neo-classical music, in an effort to give him some headspace from the shitstorm that is his life. So, with that in mind, how about:
‘Dayvan Cowboy’ by Boards of Canada
‘Svefn-g-englar’ by Sigur Ros
‘Flight from the City’ by Johann Johannsson
I’ve just this moment listened to those tracks, and I think they definitely work! Becoming an author is a journey, right? How did yours begin?
In a very roundabout fashion, really. I was always writing stories at school but never took it seriously, and I studied physics at uni. I was also in bands, and started writing music journalism in my spare time, which I eventually started doing full time when I quit an engineering job. I started taking my fiction more seriously, and I was writing for my day job, so I was really learning my craft already. But it still took a long time to get anywhere. My first novel was about an unsigned band falling apart on a tour of the Scottish Highlands, so a lot of personal experience went into that!
So writing was always a part of your life and it spiralled into a career, you must really love doing it. What is your writing inspiration?
I think writers are wary of answering that because they’re worried that the inspiration will disappear in a puff of logic! The truth is that inspiration for stories comes from absolutely everywhere. It’s like writers have antennas constantly on, on the look out for story ideas. Things overheard on the bus, personal experience, news stories, stuff you’ve witnessed, it all goes in. And other pieces of art or storytelling too, I’m often influenced by art exhibitions or songs or other novels or poetry, whatever. The secret is to find out where the story is, where is the grist, where is the grit. I tend to write about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations, so the question ‘what if’ is always very near the front of my mind.
Everything is a muse! Bouncing off that question, Where is your favourite place to write?
I have an office in the loft of my house where I do the vast majority of my writing. There’s only a tiny skylight, so I don’t have the distraction of a nice view. I have an ancient desk that I got from my old work as an engineer when they were throwing it out, so it’s at least thirty years old but sturdy as a rock. I have the walls around the desk covered in pictures and notes, and a big corkboard with index cards pinned to it for all the scenes in the book. Also up in that loft are my drum kit and a couple of guitars, so whenever I get bored or frustrated with what I’m writing, I just go and make a racket.
That sounds like one cracking place to think about your novels and write. Super cosy and efficient! Starting off as a writer is a difficult process, if you could advise your younger author self, what would you say?
Less is more. Also, write the stories that you’re obsessed with, because if you’re not obsessed with the characters and the story, then how do you expect the reader to be. Oh, and if this is really to my younger self – stop ripping off Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks.
You hear that younger Doug Johnstone, stop with the ripping off! You’ve mentioned two authors there, who are your favourite authors and how (if so) have they positively impacted you?
Oh, so many to choose from, really. Like all writers, I was a reader first, and I’m still a massive fan of so many writers. When I was younger, Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks showed me it was OK to write about my own experience. Then someone like Raymond Carver made it clear that you could say so much with just a few words. More recently, I love so many crime writers, people like Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, James Sallis, Don Winslow. Each of them is writing something brilliant that doesn’t conform to what people might think of as conventional crime fiction, and I love that kind of writing.
I too love crime fiction writers who twist in up and take the thrills to a whole other dimension. Finally, Could you share a random fact about yourself?
I met Kurt Cobain. 1991, they were just breaking, and my flatmate’s brother was Nirvana’s tour manager. We were all in crappy grunge bands ourselves. Nirvana had a night off between shows and played an acoustic set in our local pub in Edinburgh. The place was almost empty. We got a lock-in, Dave Grohl bought me a pint and Kurt asked if I had any Benylin. I didn’t.
So there you have it, Thanks to Doug for dropping by and answering some questions! It’s been grand! Make sure to check out Doug’s books, they really are spectacular! Keep up to date with the #Orentober festivities with the hashtag, there’s lots of book temptation to take advantage of, you never know you might (totally will) stumble across heaps of incredible new reads!