Saturday 2 April 2011

Doug Johnstone interview: Smokeheads

Smokeheads by Doug Johnstone

Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?

SMOKEHEADS is Sideways with whisky instead of wine, crossed with Deliverance, as four friends go on a disastrous whisky-tasting trip to a remote Scottish island. 

What was your motivation for writing it?

I wrote a big, cumbersome novel before SMOKEHEADS, my attempt at a large, sweeping, mainstream family saga kind of thing. I spent ages on it, and ended up sick of the sight of it. It’s still in the drawer. I wrote SMOKEHEADS as a kind of antidote to that – I wanted to write the fastest, leanest, darkest, funniest, smartest, most violent thriller I could. I’ve been a malt whisky fan for a long time, and I saw the film Sideways and realised there was just as much snobbery in the whisky business as the wine one. At the same time, I was reading a lot of classic noir, and my writing style was getting stripped back to the bone, taking the ‘less is more’ ethos as far as I could. I realised that I could probably combine the two things, and got stuck into SMOKEHEADS. It was so easy to write compared to what I’d been struggling with before, it made me wonder why I’d wasted all that time.

How important is a book's central character?

I think it’s absolutely crucial to create a believable central character that the reader is going to engage with. Note that this is NOT the same thing as making him or her likeable! My most hated comment about books is ‘I didn’t like the main character’. You don’t have to like someone to be engaged with what happens to them. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. My books are all written in the third person but very closely tied into the main characters’ minds, so it’s important to get their psychology right. One of the best comments I ever heard about one of my books was ‘I hated that guy, but I really wanted to know what happened to him next’. On another level, I have noticed that all my lead characters are rather shambolic men, drifting along, whose lives are transformed in some way by strong, independent women. Freud would have a field day with that shit. My strong, independent wife is unavailable for comment.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

It’s quite often hard to tell what the hell you’re good or bad at as a writer when you’re in the middle of the quagmire, desperately looking for a branch to cling onto and pull yourself out. My writing style has changed a lot over the years, and hopefully developed and improved, but it’s hard to say. From comments by other writers I respect, I seem to be decent at description and setting a scene, also my recent stuff has received praise for depiction of action and the sheer breakneck pace and readability of the prose. On the other hand, I know I’m not a great plotter, although that’s something I’ve been working hard at improving. My first two books were more character-driven than plot-driven, but I think that has changed with SMOKEHEADS and the next book, which I’ve already finished. 

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

PRESTON FALLS by an American writer called David Gates. Gates isn’t too well known over here in the UK, but I think both his novels were nominated for Pulitzers or something. He hasn’t published anything in ages, which is a real shame. PRESTON FALLS is the funniest story of a mid-life crisis and mental breakdown you’ll ever read. Doug Willis is a burned out advertising executive who takes a sabbatical to go and do up a house in upstate New York in Preston Falls. Things go very badly wrong, and he gets involved in all sorts of bad shit, but in a hilarious way. The wonder of the book is Gates’ ability to portray the over-thinking mindset of Willis without making it grating or horrific. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – sadly, I think it’s out of print, and there doesn’t seem to be an ebook version either.

What are the biggest problems facing writers these days?

Getting noticed. It’s harder and harder to get a conventional publishing deal these days, as most publishers are absolutely shitting themselves, and seem to have a really reactionary attitude to the ebook revolution, real head-in-the-sand stuff. On the other hand, if writers go down the self-publishing ebook route, there is such a wealth of stuff out there, it’s just as hard to get noticed as it would be to get your conventional print book noticed in a bookshop. It’s probably always been the case that those who shout loudest in the self-promotion field get the most attention, but that situation seems exacerbated these days. I fear that some great little books by less outspoken or more self-deprecating authors might be getting lost in the melee, but I’m not sure what can be done about that.

How do you feel about anyone being able to publish?

I think it’s fantastic, with the proviso from the above answer about the struggle to get noticed. It’s a real democratisation of the whole reading experience, cutting out the middle-man of publishers, and getting books directly from writers to readers – that is truly amazing. It also frees up writers to be much more experimental. Conventional publishing houses expect writers to churn out the same old shit. They’re scared of innovation and change. With self-publishing and ebooks, authors can try different forms, genres, styles, lengths of work, you name it. I think we’re at the start of an astonishing revolution in how we, as a society, consume stories and what kind of stories we consume, so it’s a pretty damned exciting time.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

Absolutely, all the time. Part of that is because I also review books for newspapers and magazines, so I get through a lot of very different stuff, but I would read just as widely anyway, I think. I get a lot of so-called literary novels to review, many of which are unbearable guff, but there are always little gems to be found. I tend to think that there are fantastic examples of great writing in all genres (and I include ‘literary’ as just another genre) – sci-fi, horror, creative non-fiction, poetry, short stories, crime, thriller, romance, whatever. It’s just a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Smokeheads by Doug Johnstone

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