Today I welcome D.D. Johnston, author of several titles including his latest release, The Secret Baby Room.
IDI – First, you’re a male author, but The Secret Baby Room has a female protagonist. Did you find writing that a challenge?
DDJ – Strangely, I found Claire came to me easily. There’s a story about Gustave Flaubert: a correspondent was pestering him to reveal upon whom he’d based the character of Madame Bovary. Eventually, so the story goes, Flaubert retorted ‘Madame Bovary is me!’ I take that to mean that when we write any character, the depth of their personality – their mortality, their fear, their desire, their capacity for love – comes from our own experience of these things, for they are, in a sense, universal. And of course the rest of a character comes from all the people we have known, and I have known women better than men. American men are slightly more open, I think, but Scottish masculinity is a very closed and insecure thing. With most of my male friends, through most of my life, we’ve talked about football and got a bit uncomfortable if anyone’s mentioned feelings. In contrast, I’ve loved women and lived with them and shared secrets with them. So in a way I find female characters easier to write than male ones.
IDI – Interesting concept, although I don’t know any Scottish men to compare American men to.
Favorite author, and why?
DDJ – David Foster Wallace. As a writer, I’m in awe at the range of his talents. He was a ventriloquist who could take on any voice, a prose stylist whose sentences were often long and glorious, a gritty realist who observed all of humanity with compassion, a comedian with perfect timing, a landscape poet who could depict beauty with grand brushstrokes, a satirist who could hold a mirror to our society, and a philosopher whose intellect frequently dazzled. When you asked me about versatility, I included him in a list alongside Tolstoy, Kafka, Joyce, and Camus; compared to them perhaps the only thing he lacked was political imagination.
IDI – What’s the best advice ever given to you, and by whom?
DDJ – It wasn’t given to me personally, but I always remind my students what Gordon Lish said of writing. He said, “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.”
IDI – What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? How has this helped you as a writer?
DDJ – That writing is before all else a complex act of communication. It’s one of the great achievements of humanity, and in historical terms it’s a very recent technology. It’s a magic trick that enables an idea to be communicated from one mind to another, across time and space. And that trick is conducted with only marks on a page, letters, that do not in themselves mean anything. For the trick to work, it needs the skills of the reader and the writer, but it’s the writer who determines the marks on the page, and so it’s her responsibility to make the communication work. The most common problem I see with aspiring authors is that they don’t realize how hard it is to communicate the idea in their head to a reader who may be hundreds of miles away, many years in the future.
IDI – What advice would you give to new/unpublished authors?
DDJ – Be patient. Writing good fiction is a skill that takes years to learn. You wouldn’t pick up a tennis racket and six months later expect to enter the US Open, so nor should you think you can write a good novel without years of practice (and years of reading). It takes time, but there’s lots of advice that can help along the way. Bit by bit, I’m trying to share all the things I wish I’d been told when I started out. If you’re an aspiring author, have a look at this website: http://onlinewritingtips.com
IDI – What is the hardest or most frustrating aspect of writing? Ideas, getting started, writer’s block, re-writing?
DDJ – The hardest thing about writing is that you never ever know whether your stuff is any good. To go back to my tennis analogy, if you did pick up a racket and decide you wanted to enter the US open, then you could go down your local club and quickly get a sense of your playing standard—you would see that, even in comparison to players at your local club, you weren’t very good. But there is no direct way to ascertain the standard of your writing. And so writers—all writers, I suspect—fluctuate between absurd delusions of grandeur and crippling insecurity. And that insecurity doesn’t go away, even when one earns qualifications, publishes books, and receives critical praise. I remember Zadie Smith saying in an interview that, despite her great commercial and critical success, she is racked with doubt whenever she finishes something and needs repeated reassurance from friends before she can send it into the world. One bad review and she, like all of us, will be wondering, “what if it’s rubbish? What if it’s all rubbish?”
IDI – You teach Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire in England, and you run the writing advice website onlinewritingtips.com. How does teaching writing influence how you write?
DDJ – The thing about writing, or any art, is that its magic often defies rational explanation. We can look at a painting or read a
book and know that it somehow works for us or doesn’t, but it would be reductive to try to explain that impact in terms of the extent to which it accords to rules of composition. And yet, as a teacher, this is exactly what one has to do. If I’m reading a student story and it ‘works’, it’s little use just saying ‘wow, that works’; rather, I have to try to explain what structural features make it work so that the student has a better chance of repeating her success. Similarly, when giving critique there’s not much point saying ‘the ending didn’t really work’ because that won’t help the author to rewrite the ending so that it does work. I have to say something such as, most short stories climax when the protagonist does something that would have been out of character for them at the start, and perhaps such a gesture is what this ending is lacking? Now, having learned to think like that critically, I’ve learned to write like that too. My writing has become more structured, more planned. I think about the rules I teach as I work. So it’s lost some of its exuberance and spontaneity, but gained something in technical accomplishment. I can’t say whether these changes have made it better or worse.
IDI – There is a lot of commotion about the effect ebooks are having on brick and mortar booksellers. Do you think eBooks have reached their climax or do you believe they still have room to expand in the market?
DDJ – I’m sure eBooks will continue to expand in the market, especially as they’re marketed to new generations of readers who have grown up with that technology. But I think reports on the death of the paper book are greatly exaggerated. I am a bit of a bibliophile; I like books as objects, but I also think the traditional book is an extraordinarily brilliant technology. I went on holiday to Cyprus last year and saw, in a museum, an ancient book that was 2000 years old. When I walked out, and strolled along the beach, my heart was lifted to see that on almost every sun lounger someone was enjoying a paperback. Bricks and mortar booksellers will survive too although, sadly, there are and will be many fewer of them. The future of the bookstore is to provide something online stores can’t – to become social centers for a literary culture.
IDI – According to Wikipedia, the British newspaper The Morning Star recently described you as one of that country’s most versatile novelists. Why do you keep writing such different books in such different genres?
DDJ – Yeah, they are all very different. My first novel is a coming of age story set in small town Scotland. Then The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub is an experimental, philosophical, postmodernist, historical love story. And now I’ve written a women’s psychological crime thriller. It’s disastrous in marketing terms because it means that with each new novel I’m looking to interest a new target audience. But I don’t regret it. I think many contemporary authors publish too many books. Tolstoy published seven during his life. Camus and Joyce published three. David Foster Wallace published two. Kafka didn’t publish any, although he attempted three. In contrast, John Updike published 28, Philip Roth is up to 27, and Stephen King has published over 50. Now, I don’t believe those three have more to say than Foster Wallace, Kafka, or James Joyce did. So I think there are two problems with authors churning out books that repeat their themes and ideas; not only does it diminish their body of work, it also prevents new voices from breaking through. At 32 I’d published two novels and had exhausted everything I had to say in those genres. One option would have been to publish nothing else, but I love writing and though I don’t make much of my income directly through royalties, publishing is essential to my livelihood in terms of what’s expected of me in my job at the university. So rather than repeat myself, I decided to do something completely different: I went back to a thriller I started writing ten years earlier.
IDI – One last question, everyone has visions of where they see themselves in the future, be it a year or five. Where do you see yourself in five years? Where did you see yourself five years ago? Did you make it there?
DDJ – Five years ago I was trying to publish my first novel and hoping to make a living doing what I love. So I think I made it there, and I try to be happy about that. Five years from now, I’d like to still be teaching and writing. Like most authors, I occasionally dream of a mass readership and a double-page spread in the New York Times, but I neither expect nor long for such exposure. I’m very grateful for the readership I’ve found. Ambition is important, but not as important as contentment and appreciation of what you have.
IDI – That’s a great outlook. Thank you for being here with me today and best of luck with all of your aspirations.
D.D. Johnston’s first novel, Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs, was a Sunday Herald Book of the Year in 2011 and is published in Spanish as Paz, amor y cócteles molotov. His experimental second novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, was long-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize. His suspense thriller, The Secret Baby Room, is published by Barbican Press this July. He lives in Cheltenham, UK, and works at the University of Gloucestershire, where he is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing and a University Teaching Fellow. In his spare time he runs the OnlineWritingTips.com website.
D.D. Johnston’s new novel, The Secret Baby Room, is published by Barbican Press.
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