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  • Alistair Braidwood

Whisky, Blood and Rock n’ Roll: An Interview with Doug Johnstone…

After reading and reviewing Doug Johnstone’s excellent Smokeheads (see For Peat’s Sake: Doug Johnstone’s ‘Smokeheads’…) I thought a man who loves writing, whisky and music would be the ideal person to appear on these pages. Mr Johnstone not only writes some of the most thrilling fiction coming out of Scotland, he fronts the band Northern Alliance, writes and resides at Stratchclyde University and his reviews and articles appear regularly in publications such as The List, The Herald and The Independent on Sunday. As if this wasn’t enough he has a previous life in nuclear physics which is, to be frank, just showing off. He was kind enough to answer a few questions. Anyone interested in writing, or reading for that matter, should read on:

SWH: Your latest novel Smokeheads is soaked in whisky and blood, two of Scotland’s more famous liquids. Do you see yourself as writing in any ‘Scottish tradition’?

DJ: I don’t really see myself as writing in any kind of Scottish tradition, at least I don’t think about that consciously, and certainly not when I’m writing. I’m much more concerned with storytelling than prose style (that’s not to say I don’t take the prose very seriously), and I guess there is a long tradition of that from Hogg through Stevenson to John Buchan and more recently the likes of Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh. On the whole, I’m probably more influenced by American writers though, although whether that’s reflected in the kind of things I write, it’s hard for me to really say from the inside.

As for the whole Scottish thing, like I say, not sure about any tradition per se. My books aren’t overtly dealing with politics or class in a way that some Scottish writing has been, although I do think that I’ve tried to look at Scottish cultural identity in the twenty-first century with each of my books, most obviously with The Ossians. Hopefully that hasn’t been too heavy-handed though. That was at least part of my thinking in writing a book based around the whisky industry, to look at our relationship with our national drink in more detail, but overall I’m just more concerned with telling a great story and keeping the reader hooked than anything else.

SWH: How difficult is it not to be overly influenced by your favourite novelists in term of writing style? Does it take time to find your own voice?

DJ: Again, that’s something that’s quite hard to judge for yourself – I’m sure other readers of my work would be better placed to comment on how much my work is in thrall to my influences. I think it does take some time to find your own voice as a writer, a fact that is increasingly being ignored by a traditional publishing industry that is always looking for the next big new thing, at the expense of nurturing writing talent through a number of books.

To begin with when I started writing seriously, I didn’t really have a fucking clue what I was doing. I read a few ‘how to write’ books, but only took from them the stuff that I felt resonated with my own ideas about writing. I certainly didn’t have much idea about plot and stuff like that, something which I hope is improving as I write more books. I feel like the books are getting better as I go along, but whether that’s because I’m ‘finding my own voice’, I dunno really.

SWH: When you start a novel do you know where it’s going to go, or do you take it a page at a time and see how the story develops?

DJ: I can’t think of anything worse than starting a whole novel, a project that’s going to take up maybe a year of your life, and not knowing where it’s going. I spend quite a bit of time before I start writing planning stuff out, although I don’t nail everything down by any means. I tend to have a beginning to the book well mapped out, and I know where I want to get to by the end, but I like to leave a small grey area in the middle, give my characters room to manoeuvre.

I tend to go through it almost like you do in screenwriting, and have it planned out scene by scene, although I don’t go into quite that much detail, and it’s always a malleable plan, in that I revise and revise it as I’m going along and as new things occur to me to add in or take out, or the characters change a little while I’m writing and what I originally had planned is no longer relevant or believable for them.

SWH: Scottish writing seems to me to be in a particularly healthy state at the moment. There are new, varied, writers finding places to publish and live events allowing their voices to be heard. Do you agree with this, and if so why do you believe this to be the case?

DJ: I do agree, I think that the Scottish writing scene is incredibly vibrant at the moment, with a real sense of community and a great spirit. I’m particularly impressed with the big recent increase in live event possibilities, something which absolutely seems to be happening at a grass roots level with things like Words Per Minute, Discombobulate, Golden Hour etc, etc. These events help to nurture new talent and bring everyone along, we all have to raise our game to impress live audiences and each other, but at the same time the people coming along to these events are clearly very appreciative of the stuff they’re being exposed to.

As for the reasons for all this, I think it’s at least partly because of the panic in traditional publishing. The London publishing world seems very narrow-minded at the moment (my own publisher excepted of course!), and Scotland hasn’t been flavour of the month with them for a long time, since Irvine Welsh and all that. I think more and more young and not so young writers coming through are realizing that there are other ways of getting exposure, other ways of working within a writing community. So we get Gutter magazine, Fractured West, Cargo Publishing, and all the spoken word nights I mentioned, people realizing that if they’re going to get anywhere they’re going to have to do it themselves.

As far as I can see, this is only going to get bigger and bigger, especially with the huge surge in digital self-publishing, where writers are able to cut out the middle man of a conventional publisher entirely and get their work out there directly to the readers. There is still a problem with getting noticed in that environment, of course, but that’s where the supportive writing community comes in, hopefully if enough people shout about each others’ work, we’ll all benefit.

SWH: You have been the writer in residence at Strathclyde University. At a time when all the arts are under attack, can you explain the importance, if you believe that is the case, of there being a strong creative presence in the academic world?

DJ: I’m not entirely sure what you mean by a strong creative presence in the academic world, to be honest.[SWH: admittedly not the greatest phrasing. I simply meant the importance of the arts in universities. If only I’d said that.] I don’t know much about the academic world as my position at Strathclyde is not a formal teaching post, but I do believe that creative writing deserves its place on the curricula of universities. The benefits of such courses tie into my previous answer, in that they give prospective writers encouragement and support, and hopefully gives them a clearer idea of how they can develop not only as a writer, but as a promoter of their own writing, which I think is vital in this day and age.

I think the Strathclyde course is particularly interesting, because it’s a joint undergraduate program in Journalism and Creative Writing. In the current financial and cultural climate, I think it’s vital that writers have as many strings to their bow as they can, and if they can view writing in as wide a way as possible, that’s all to the good. Hopefully some of them will actually be able to make a living out of doing what they love and being creative, in whatever form that takes.

SHW: Can you talk about what you’re going to be working on next?

DJ: Well, if you’re talking about writing, I’ve actually finished the next novel after Smokeheads. I’m just going through the copy edit stage with Faber at the moment. It’s called Hit and Run and it’s even more fucked up than Smokeheads. Actually, it’s not as violent, but it’s more psychologically disturbing, I think. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s about a hit and run. I’m obsessed with car crashes at the moment, have been for the last few years, and this is really a culmination of that. It’s also, stylistically, a culmination of my move towards a stripped-back, bare bones prose style, heavily influenced by the classic American noir writers of the last seventy years.

Basically, three young professionals hit someone when they’re driving home from a party, drunk and loaded. They panic, move the body and drive off. The whole book is the fallout from that decision, which backfires and comes back to haunt them fiercely. It’s my first novel set entirely in Edinburgh, I figured it was about time for my take on the city I’ve lived in for the last twenty years. Two of the main characters are journalists, so it’s also a wee comment on the state of journalism in the twenty-first century. But mostly it’s just (hopefully) a white-knuckle piece of storytelling, a psychological thriller that makes the reader really squirm.

Since that novel is finished, I’m in the planning stages of the next one, but very early, nothing concrete yet. I’m also about to release a solo EP in May (I’m in a band, Northern Alliance, who are kind of hibernating at the moment). There will be another EP later this year, as well. I’m also working on a screenplay adaptation of Smokeheads. Kind of.

SWH: Finally, and this is a purely selfish question, can you recommend an underrated or little known Scottish writer, and an unsung malt whisky, deserving of more attention?

DJ: Whisky – Not sure if it’s ‘unsung’ exactly, but I’ve got a great bottle of Japanese whisky in the house at the moment that I’m firing through, Yamazaki. It’s won lots of awards, but I guess outside of the whisky drinking community most people might not realize that Japanese whisky is actually really fucking good, and the best of it is easily up there with the best Scotland has to offer. Apart from that, I’m a real Islay man, the peatier the better. Ardbeg is a real doozy, though my heart is always with Laphroaig.

Writer – again, not sure how underrated she is, but I think Helen FitzGerald is an amazing writer, and deserves much more recognition. OK, she’s Australian, but she’s lived in Glasgow for the last umpteen years and is married to a Scot, so we’ve adopted her. She writers brilliantly dark thrillers which are always laced with comedy, which I think is part of the problem for her in terms of recognition – her books are impossible to categorize. They’re like chick lit for really fucked up sick women, or brilliantly written noir thrillers for people with a nasty sense of humour, or I dunno, they’re just great.

Fans of more literary fare tend to be quite snooty about the kind of thing Helen writes, but like Chris Brookmyre, it takes real skill to walk that high wire, balancing the darkness and the comedy, and to make it convincing. She is a really succinct prose writer, really to the point, which I also appreciate, and her characters are always morally complex, she comes up with real moral dilemmas in her plots which always have the reader wondering what they would do in those circumstances. That’s a pretty neat trick, if you can pull it off. More power to her.

Scots Whay Hae! and Doug Johnstone 16/4/2011

That’s the long and involved way to conduct an interview, here’s the succinct and fun way. Critically acclaimed writer Ewan Morrison talks to, and abuses, critically acclaimed writer Doug Johnstone in the form of animated animals:

For further information on all things Doug Johnstone go to dougjohnstone His books can be bought from scots whay hae! local shop and Amazon. Northern Alliance’s music can be listened to at northernalliancerocks


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