Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Asterix in Scotland: an interview with Doug Johnstone

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. Earlier this year we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

I have some further terrific interviews 'in the can' already, which will be published soon. Among them will be AK Benedict, Marnie Riches, and VM Giambanco, so lots to look forward to. If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome multi-talented Scottish scribe Doug Johnstone to Crime Watch. I first met Johnstone thanks to the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival back in 2014, where he was a key part of Scotland's 13-1 victory over England in the football match. Luca Veste will still be having nightmares about how many goals Johnstone put past him... At last year's festival I saw Johnstone showing off his sublime musical talents at the Coo (you can find video evidence online, and he's also released two EPs). Throw in the fact he's got a PhD in nuclear physics, and it almost seems unfair that Johnstone is also a heck of a talented crime writer. His books have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize and the Last Laugh Award, and he's been a #1 Amazon bestseller.

An accomplished freelance journalist, Johnstone's debut novel, TOMBSTONING, was released in 2006 and centered on a man who'd escaped his hometown after his best friend's mysterious death, only to return 15 years later for a school reunion, where another person to take a dive off the cliffs. Last week Johnstone's eighth novel, CRASH LAND, was published. A psychological thriller set in Orkney, where a man who's looking to escape has his life upturned after stepping in at the airport to help a 'mysterious and dangerous' woman from some unwanted attention.

But for now, Doug Johnstone becomes the 161st author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I’m not really one for heroes or detectives, as it happens, and in general I prefer stand alone stories to series, so that’s a bit of a tough question! But I’m a huge fan of James Sallis, and I think his John Turner trilogy of books is just about perfect writing. Across three books – Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek and Salt River – Sallis creates this brilliant, amazingly deep character, an ex-army, ex-cop, ex-con, ex-therapist, just trying to hang on to whatever life he has left in a small town outside Memphis. These are crime novels full of existential doubt and longing, all about how we live our lives and how we fit into the world. Amazing stuff.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I was a huge fan of the Asterix books as a kid – loved everything about them. I learned everything I now know about history and geography and national stereotypes from those daft books! And I especially loved Asterix in Britain – the French view of Britain was hilarious, brutally funny. Goscinny and Uderzo really didn’t pull their punches with the humour. And of course the books were full of punch ups and drunkenness, so very cool for a kid.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I think in keeping with a lot of other crime writers, I didn’t even realise I was writing crime until someone else pointed it out. I was always writing short stories as a kid, literary things, rip-offs of my heroes like Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks and Raymond Carver. They were pretty terrible.

The first novel I wrote (the second to be published) probably wasn’t crime fiction at all – The Ossians is about an unsigned band falling apart in a mess of drink and drunks in the Scottish Highlands. The novel that was published before that, Tombstoning, was probably crime but again, I never realised it.

I also have another novel that has stayed in a drawer since I wrote it around 2008 – a big, sweeping family saga thing that is mostly crap. That’s why it’s in the drawer. I’ve cannibalized bits of it for other books, so I don’t think it’ll ever make it into print, even with a reworking.

And as for articles – well, I was a freelance arts journalist for many years before I was a published author. I started as a music writer, interviewing bands, reviewing shows and albums, then moved on to anything, really, everything from lifestyle pieces to restaurant reviews. So there’s lots of my writing out there somewhere in various forms!

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Two main things, music and football. I’ve been a musician since I was a kid, and have played different instruments in various bands over the years. These days I still write songs and record them, playing all the instruments myself and singing. It’s a fun thing to do, different to the writing for me, a release and a relaxation, though it’s still something creative. I have a batch of songs ready to go at the moment, actually, just trying to find a bit of down time to record them. It’s good, because I usually bring my guitar along to book events and play songs there too – usually loosely connected with the subject matter of the books. It helps make the event a bit different, and it means folk don’t have to listen to me prattle on forever about my bloody books.

And I play football regularly. I have a couple of weekly games of local seven-a-sides, and I’m also one of the main organizers of the Scotland Writers Football Club. We’ve been going since 2012, and we play local friendlies and occasional international matches against other writers teams. We’ve been to Rome, London, Vienna and Gothenburg to play football, and we always combine the football with a literary event of some kind. It’s a great way to meet writers from other countries, experience other literary cultures, have a few beers and kick each other in the shins.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I live in Edinburgh, which is a very familiar city for tourists. But I live away from the town centre, out east, in Portobello. Visitors should come to Porty and visit the beach – we have an amazing, long, sandy beach with views over the Firth of Forth to Fife and beyond. The promenade has bars and cafes, there’s sailing and rowing clubs, and even some brave souls swimming in the North Sea. Nutters.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Well, I’ve been told more than once that I look a bit like Jeremy Renner, so he would be the Hollywood choice. But I’m Scottish, so maybe James McAvoy or Martin Compston could play a younger me?

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Probably my last book, The Jump. It was the hardest to write in terms of the subject matter, as it’s a book about suicide, but it was the most personal thing I’ve written, and I think that meant that it had a bigger emotional impact on the reader, hopefully. Every book is fatally compromised in some way – you never manage to achieve what you set out to do in a novel, but it feels like with The Jump I got the closest that I’ve managed with my writing so far.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Well, I was crazy busy as a freelance journalist under various deadlines, and we had a brand new baby in the house at the time, so it’s all a bit of a sleep-deprived blur. I remember getting the phone call from the editor directly, because I didn’t have an agent at the time, and just grinning like an idiot. I think I went for a walk along Portobello beach to clear my head and just think. Shout at the sea, stuff like that. Then later on, nappy changing, bottle feeds, trying to get our son to sleep, then crashing out. Oh, the glamour.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I did a wee mini-tour around a festival in central Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, and southern Poland – a couple of years ago. It was great, we were treated very well, but of course it all happened in foreign languages I didn’t know at all, with translators, which was hard work for them and us. The weather was glorious and the towns we visited were beautiful, but they wanted us to read for half an hour straight. Fuck that. I did a couple of short stories then played some songs, which went OK. Then we got questions from the audience. For some reason the publicity had made a big deal about the fact I have a PhD in Nuclear Physics, so I kept getting questions about modern developments in physics, about which I know absolutely nothing. Also, it was in the build up to the Scottish independence referendum, and the very first question I got on the first night in Brno was ‘What’s your opinion on Moravian independence?’. Erm. Lovely people and places, but a strange few days, right enough.

Thank you Doug. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch

You can read more about Doug Johnstone and his books at his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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