Welcome to the four hundred and forty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with memoirist, non-fiction and fiction author Johnnie Johnson. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Johnnie. Please tell us something about yourself.
Morgen: I did, although I’m not sure I’ve ever been (but heard good things), but only around a third of visitors to this blog are from the UK so always handy to know. How did you come to be a writer, Johnnie?
Johnnie: My writing has been through three major phases. I was at my prolific best in the 1930s when, as an eight- or nine-year old, I began a series with RinTinTin, the wonder dog, as my hero. He was actually a star on silent films and I guess that I must have heard about him from my father or mother. My RinTinTin got about all over the place. He caught criminals in China. India and Mexico and perhaps other places though I can’t remember the precise locations. But I do know that he leapt at the villains’ throats when he apprehended them but I’m not sure now if he handed the criminals over to the proper authorities. Sadly, time has erased the whole RinTinTin canon from my mind. I don’t imagine that he did much in-depth investigation and I don’t recall if he was accompanied by anyone so his travel arrangements are obscure. Nevertheless he did cross continents and never failed to get there in time. I probably wrote a dozen of these stories, each about 400 words, something of that order. And I did try my hand at another genre. These were westerns and the background came from the cinema – Buck Jones and Tom Mix were great cowboy stars of that period – as well from my father’s reading which included writers such as Zane Grey.
When I got to grammar school I packed up writing. Truth to tell, at the same time I more or less gave up reading, save for comics. We had the wonderful comics in those days, all with several short stories and only a minimum of illustration. We actually read a lot and we used to swap copies with each other. Funnily enough, girls had fewer comics aimed at them and it’s rather odd as they were much more inclined to read than the boys.
We had the Adventure on a Monday and the Wizard on a Tuesday; I don’t think there was anything on a Wednesday but on Thursday there was the Rover and on Friday, the Hotspur. Until 1940 there was the Skipper and when that closed I used to buy the Champion. I can still remember several of the major characters in these comics: Strang the Terrible; the boys at Red Circle School; Rockfist Rogan; Joe Cover and Middle Wicket Mulligan. I’m sure if I tried I’d remember others. All great stuff and although there were villains aplenty, fairness and justice always conquered. What remarkable writers produced these stories, week after week. Can you imagine churning out adventure after adventure, always struggling to find a new angle?
At my grammar school our English teachers were not enthusiastic about literature. They spent rather more time on clause analysis which I never understood and which I believe was a waste of time. When people yammer on about grammar these days I’m unsure what they are talking about: do they want a return to those dead exercises or do they simply mean parts of speech? Sorry, Morgen, I’m getting carried away.
Morgen: No apology needed, I’m enthralled.
Johnnie: To move on, my second phase as a writer was in my 40s when I started a novel but I was so busy at work that I could write only at weekends. After a long time plodding on, I regularly forgot what I’d written in the preceding weeks and months and so very often spent time re-reading the narrative, attempting to find out who was who and what they were doing. Eventually I gave up.
Phase three began when I retired at the age of sixty. Since then, I’ve written about twenty-five books. Some fiction, some non-fiction. Most have been conventionally published, others self-published. Most are on paper but there are three e-books.
Morgen: Wow, what a memory you have, to remember the days the magazines came out. Let’s start with your non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Johnnie: I’ve always enjoyed reading and studying crime and disorder. I read history at university and it always struck me as odd that they never touched on crime as a major feature of the human story.
As a consequence I’ve written a lot of true crime, commissioned by publishers such as the History Press and Countryside Books and there have been other companies I’ve done stuff for. I’ve been commissioned to write about ghosts and disasters as well. I’ve self-published a book on superstition. That’s another area which tells us so much about out forefathers. It’s absolutely fascinating. These are the footnotes of history but they are most revealing.
My most recent book, A Virgin in the Philippines, is really based on a collection of emails sent to friends in the UK and the USA. In a sense it’s the easiest book I’ve written as I wasn’t aware that it was going to be a book. But last winter when I was in the Philippines it struck me quite out of the blue that here I had all of this great material just waiting to be published. And it’s in e-book form only but it seems to be selling pretty well. I have to do all the marketing which I dislike. But I expect you’re going to ask me about marketing later.
Morgen: I have a writing friend, Lae Monie, who’s a big fan of true crime… and marketing, yes, we will be touching on that ‘necessarily evil’. So you’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, do you write under a pseudonym?
Johnnie: When I write non-fiction I am WH Johnson. I stick to WH because I’m dissatisfied with my parents’ choice of first names. If only they’d called me Clint or something like that. My two published novels (one of which is in e-book form only) I wrote as Allen Makepeace, taken from the maiden names of my grandmothers.
Morgen: Ooh, I’m going to have to work out what the W stands for now… I have a couple of ideas. You’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Johnnie: When you reach a certain age – and I long ago reached a certain age – it seems foolish to hang around for publishers and agents to make up their minds. There just isn’t time for that.
Morgen: I’m only 45 (three weeks tomorrow ) but went the eBook route (after a dozen agent rejections). You mentioned that three of your books are available as eBooks…
Johnnie: Yes, the two novels, And Such Great Names as These and Winter Hunt and the travelogue, A Virgin in the Philippines. Perhaps I ought to say that And Such Great Names is also in paper form. Oh yes, and The History Press has brought out my Sussex Murders as an e-book.
Morgen: Great… I love crime fiction and will be spending my birthday weekend at a crime / humour conference. Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Johnnie: I tend now to read e-books. And I have my newspaper delivered to my Kindle so I don’t even have to get out of bed to pick it up off the doormat. What a wonderful invention.
Morgen: Isn’t it great and I love the text size increase function (the downside of staring at a screen all day). Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Johnnie: I have complete control of my self-published books for the cover and title. And yes, the cover is very important. Years ago I showed a publisher one of my self-published books and he laughed. It was principally white with a one-inch strip in bright red down the left side. I thought it rather arresting but he was less enchanted. It was the white he was laughing at. It would discolour sitting on the shelves, he said. And, he went on to tell me that the title was too small as well. Until then I don’t think I’d realised how important a cover is.
Nowadays I see the most wonderful covers. When I go to Goodreads and sites like that there are the most wonderful covers and I have to admit some brilliant pieces of writing too. But what normally alarms me when I go on sites like that is how confident everyone is on the marketing side. They are so young and they are really slick at these tasks. Of course, they have the advantage over me as I have never completely mastered the computer.
Morgen: The internet is great at elusions – maybe they octogenarians too but just act like youngsters. Sorry, you were saying…
Johnnie: Earlier this year, when I was working on A Virgin in the Philippines, I went into an art shop in Cabantuan in Luzon and asked if they knew anyone who might do me a cover. Within a few days I was in contact with an artist, Leonardo Malgapo. We met and my nephew translated what I wanted and Leonardo took a photograph of me and off he went. A week later he turned up with the cover as you see it here. Actually that’s not absolutely correct. He didn’t put in the title. I had to have that added by a printer. But it was all much easier – and cheaper – than it would have been in the UK.
I wonder what you think of the title, A Virgin in the Philippines. I thought it was pretty snappy. I thought that those interested in porn might be interested as well as those who were keen on travelling and Asia. It’s quite a humorous book.
Morgen: <laughs> What are you working on at the moment / next?
Johnnie: I seem to be spending so much time marketing A Virgin that there’s little time for writing although at present I am negotiating with a former underworld figure who wishes me to write his biography.
Morgen: Wow, that sounds like it could be fun. Do you manage to write every day?
Johnnie: I do something writing related every day. By that I mean I either blog or perhaps do a review but most likely I’m trying to flog my books.
Morgen: But not a hard sell, hopefully. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Johnnie: No, never. I don’t understand it. In the novels particularly, I’ve sometimes stopped and wondered where to go next but I don’t stay stuck for long. I just continue writing, going on wherever the path takes me in the hope that the problem will work itself out. It’s like being lost in the woods and you don’t know where you are. Well, I just go for the path I fancy and it’s remarkable how often I get on track again.
Morgen: I’m the same but then I don’t have the luxury of so much spare time that I can dawdle. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Johnnie: Well, the basic edit is proof reading and I’d say that it’s well worth getting someone to proof-read for you because you’ll miss your own errors. My late wife used to proof-read and she was a wizard at it and she picked up the slightest little typo. Well, they’re not all typos. Sometimes there are missing words. You read through your manuscript two or three times and you never notice things like that, missing words, I mean.
When I wrote the novel Winter Hunt I dished out the draft to five people whom I trusted. They really did go at it conscientiously. But one found forty errors; another only ten. Somebody who came up with about sixteen found three mistakes that the first reader, the one who found forty errors, hadn’t seen. So, it’s not easy, this proof-reading bit. The other day I was looking at book I wrote some years ago and saw on the first page that the word ‘the’ appeared as ‘he.’ After all this time it just jumped out at me. Perhaps I lost potential readers, browsers, through that one error in such prominent place. Course, a spell-checker doesn’t pick up that kind of textual flaw. I suppose what I am saying is simply that you have to comb through your writing very diligently, then get some help and accept the fact that you may still have something awful slip through the net.
Morgen: It’s interesting how different people find different errors, perhaps showing how differently our brain works… although forty errors in a whole novel sounds pretty good to me. Do you have to do much research?
Johnnie: Most certainly. My two novels – one set in 1807 and the other in 1916 – required a deal of research though my history training did help. My non-fiction books always require research. I was once asked to write a ghost book and there was some urgency about it. The original author had dropped out and the publisher was anxious to replace him. But, I was told, you have sixteen weeks to get the proofs in. As I knew little about ghosts it meant a scramble for information. Fortunately I use Viavoice recording so that I can dictate straight to the screen from books and newspapers and other printed source material. I use it solely for putting down my notes and it really speeds things up and means that, once I have all of my material recorded, I can very quickly put it in some kind of order and then write up a decent draft. Viavoice has been very useful. Oh, had I better say that there are many other equally good recording programmes?
Morgen: You don’t have to, although I’ve used Dragon and I know it’s a very popular system. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Johnnie: Only a few. I seem to have been rather cavalier with three novels which were never published and I’ve no idea where they are. Two of them were never even sent to a publisher so I suppose that it now matters little where they are. They may be on one of those unlabelled disks in my desk but I’m no longer interested in them. That’s not to say that I don’t lift bits and pieces from abandoned work if I can find a suitable place for them in a new book.
Morgen: I like to think that everything has a place. Do you pitch for submissions these days or are you just commissioned to write?
Johnnie: I used to pitch for submissions but most of my writing has been commissioned.
Morgen: It sounds like that keeps you busy enough. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Johnnie: In recent years I haven’t submitted much but I used to get rejection slips. When I had articles rejected I’d send them to another publisher. I’d try a rewrite sometimes but if they came back again and again I got the message.
Morgen: Oh dear. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Johnnie: I used to enter competitions and had some success. I won several short story competitions and one for a novel and another for an article but I haven’t entered any for many years.
Morgen: I haven’t for a few months but am kept busy elsewhere… I do plan to submit work for payment (I’m a lodger short at the moment) so competitions will probably keep to the bottom of the pile, although I love writing for themed competitions as it gets me writing something new. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Johnnie: No and no. But if tomorrow I wrote a book which was highly successful – you know what I mean, a real humdinger of a book, a Fifty Shades of This, That and the Other, that kind of book – then I’d get an agent.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Johnnie: Me as a brand? I haven’t done that. I’m not sure how it’s done but I fancy it requires a degree of self-proclamation and a ton of confidence. What I have done is gone to reviewers and invited them to read the book and comment. They don’t all respond because they’re inundated with requests but those who have replied have given me much encouragement. I’ve done it only with the novel And Such Great Names as These and the Virgin travelogue and they have had very positive reviews.
I do the marketing for my self-published stuff but otherwise I leave it to the publisher though there is a strong body of opinion that authors need to put their shoulder to the marketing wheel even when their books are traditionally published.
Morgen: They do, yes. I’ve only had one author say she does no marketing but she’s very active on Facebook and Twitter so she still does. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Johnnie: Least favourite? Marketing. Favourite? Having someone say they’ve enjoyed a book. By the way, for the vast majority of us writers, I’d say that was a rare event. When I walk along our seafront at Eastbourne where people are sitting reading their books in the sun, I sometimes glance at the covers, just hoping that one of my titles will be there. But that’s never happened. I even know what I may say to someone who’s reading one of my books. Course, I’ll have to assume a modest demeanour to carry it off. But what a thrill it must be when that happens. At talks I’ve given, people have come up to me and told me they’ve read my stuff, but I’d love to find just that one reader on a seaside bench.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Johnnie: Aspire as long as you can. Go on hoping. But, I rather think that this quote from Lillian Hellman is quite apt here. She says: If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Johnnie: Elmore Leonard, a crime writer whom I greatly admire; Sigmund Freud and Jack the Ripper. We’d have beef, I fancy. Underdone, of course.
Morgen: Ew no, I’m a medium / well-done steak eater (though not often). If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Johnnie: In 1943 I scored 58 not out (eight 4s and a 6) in a House cricket match at school. That was a great day. I was so proud of myself and at the end of term I was awarded Second XI colours.
Morgen: Ahh… Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Johnnie: I’m heartened to know that many of us are in good company with Clarence Darrow, the great US advocate, who wrote: Some day I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.
Morgen: I have the Kevin Spacey film ‘Darrow’ but never watched it, I’m going to have to dig it out. You mentioned earlier that you write fiction, are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Johnnie: Non-fiction is easier, I think. Do your research. Sort out your material. Write it up.
In fiction there are always problems, little ones such as the heroine’s eyes changing colour between pages 73 and 97. And the time factor: the story’s great. It just falls down a bit when you realise that your villain has to get from Inverness to Penzance in forty-five minutes. And when your dialogue isn’t working out and it clunks and sounds as if it’s being delivered by a machine: when it just refuses to come out as you wish it to.
Morgen: Continuity is hard in novels. I’ve written four and a bit and am so used to short stories that I have to be so careful with the longer pieces (not that I wouldn’t anyway). Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Johnnie: I’d have Sean Bean as my deserter-hero in And Such Great Names as These and in Winter Hunt I’d have Benedict Cumberbatch as the dashing ex-army officer (he’s been cashiered) on the run with a young girl, seeking to escape a criminal gang and its leader, the psychopath Teddy Kellett, played by Tom Hardy.
Morgen: Great choices. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Johnnie: No. I’ve never plotted a story, neither for the novels nor for any short story. I’m not recommending this. It’s just that it suits me. But my non-fiction, I do plan.
Morgen: Most of the authors I’ve spoken to are “pantsers”, as am I – my favourite aspect of writing is not knowing what’s going to come out. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Johnnie: My short stories in the collection The Macaroni Dancers were all told in the first-person. The narrator was an 11-year-old boy. It worked well but for a novel it can be tricky to use the first-person. Unlike when the author tells the tale, there’s so much that your ‘I’ character can’t know. But even so, some of the finest stories are written in the first person, aren’t they. It’s just that you’re not quite in the God the Creator position when it’s told in the first-person.
As for writing in the second-person, how do you do that? Or do you mean simply employing ‘thou’ and ‘thee’?
Morgen: Not even that difficult, it’s “you” and feels as if the narrator is talking to the reader. It’s more like first person than third person as in that it’s a limiting point of view and most people don’t get on with it (or even try it) but I like it. I explain it on my second person point of view page. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Johnnie: Yes. I’ve been a member of writing groups since I retired, that’s twenty-four years. I’ve met some astonishingly good writers, many of whom have never even bothered to put their work forward for publication. I find that strange. I would say that the great virtue of belonging to such groups is that it sharpens your critical capacity. By that I mean that listening to other people’s work or taking it home to read, and then being asked to give a crit is a very good work-out and done regularly it does help in quite an unconscious way. I don’t often respond to other people’s observations on what I have written: I don’t go home and rewrite long swathes of work. That’s not the important element. What is important is poring over other work and drawing conclusions about it and this I am sure develops your writing muscle.
Morgen: I have brilliant writers in the four groups I run / belong to, one of whom has been approached by a publisher but lacks the confidence (that’s what I think anyway) to progress ‘talks’. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Johnnie: I used to be a keen cricketer and rugby player. Now I never go to watch a match but I do follow sport on the television. I also love watching films. And I still travel whenever I can. Last winter my wife and I went to the Philippines for four months and, DV, I’ll do the same this year. But a pal and I are going off to France this summer, just the two of us. Not a lot of party tricks at our age, you’ll understand, but we’ll have some fun. We are neither of us growing old especially gracefully.
Morgen: Glad to hear it. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Johnnie: I rather like Goodreads. It’s a classy looking site and full of interesting stuff.
Morgen: I’ve done very little on Goodreads other than accept friendships, although I should as I’ve had some tough reviews on there. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Johnnie: Writers will be writers whatever happens.
Morgen: Absolutely. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Johnnie: No, thank you, but this is a quite interesting exercise.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, I’m glad it wasn’t too painful. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Johnnie: Why do you do it? Why do you take on such mountain of work? Does it in any way inhibit / prohibit your own writing?
Morgen: It does but only because of the amount of emails I get (over 100 a day) but of course I’m delighted that it’s become so popular (it was a record day on Wednesday; 489 hits!). It’s why I started writing a story a day though, to make sure I write something and knowing it has to go live at 5pm is great motivation. Thank you, Johnnie. Congratulations on your recent nuptials, by the way.
I then invited Johnnie to include an extract of his writing and this is from A Virgin in the Philippines…
My early morning walk provides nothing new in the way of experiences: the country air is tainted by diesel fumes; the usual small heaps of swept-up burning leaves and twigs smoke on the verges and in gutters; there are friendly calls of ‘Hi Joe’; a man, gently cradling a fighting cock, walks across the road while a motorcyclist, steering with one hand, clutches his baby against his breast with the other, and two young boys – his sons? – share the pillion seat; the tufo vendor, two silver pails hanging from the yoke on his neck, calls out his wares as he does every day; a tractor pulls a wagon, its sole occupant a water buffalo, and it is cut up by an overloaded bus whose mud-flapped slogan simply says ‘Jesus Christ’, and the water buffalo’s look of disdain seems to echo those words; a woman sweeps dust into the unmade road, and continues her sweeping there, dust to dust, a thankless and pointless daily task, but she pauses and smiles, ‘Good morning, po,’ she says. I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t make more effort at home, try more often to smile agreeably but it might not be entirely welcomed there, such overtures to strangers.
‘They do not know how to sharpen their knives,’ she tells me. ‘I had to show them. I said to them, here am I, a woman, and I have to show you what to do.’
The men are armed with machetes, about a foot long, and they hack at the branches. It is not a pretty job, not the kind of finish you might hope for. Since their arrival, Fay has maintained a strict supervision accompanied by a barrage of requests or her version of helpful advice. Before my very eyes, she has transformed herself into an expert tree surgeon.
And a synopsis of the same book…
‘Three years ago I’d never have given a thought to visiting the Philippines. It wouldn’t have appeared in even my top hundred places to visit. Come to that, I’d never thought of re-marrying.’
So begins my travelogue, describing my marriage to a Filipina (by the way, we met through neither a dating agency nor ebay!) and my visits to the country. Lest there should be doubt, I am the virgin in question though only in a figurative sense. In fact I’m an 80++ year-old Englishman though I don’t feel a day over 65!
The book is an account of the greenest green of the rice fields; of nightmarish traffic; of traditional family reunions; of my being refused entry to a hotel room on moral grounds along with my 65-year-old nephew-by-marriage; of advertising hoardings the size of tennis courts; of the sale, after much peasant dealing, of one of Fay’s rice fields; of my election as Life President of the Husbands’ Escape Committee; of life in a country town; of visits to the family mausoleum; of locking myself in a mosquito-infested garage; and so on.
I love the Philippines, the place and the people, and hope it shows through my writing.
Johnnie Johnson, a graduate of the University of Durham, is a former headmaster and schools inspector. Since retiring in 1988 he has written twenty-one non-fiction books ranging from true crime, disasters and superstition to local history and the supernatural. The Macaroni Dancers, a collection of twelve short stories, included five competition winners.
Writing as Allen Makepeace, Johnnie has written two novels. And Such Great Names as These was acclaimed as the ‘best novel’ by the National Association of Writers’ Groups. Winter Hunt, a crime story set in the early nineteenth century, has been published only as an e-book.
A Virgin in the Philippines, his most recent book, is available only as an e-book.
Johnnie won the South East Arts Prose Prize, was a finalist for the Fenner Brockway Peace Prize for Literature and a runner-up in the international Alpha to Omega Short Story Competition. Other awards came from the Society of Sussex Authors and from the Writers’ Groups in Hastings and Torfaen.
Since 1990, he has been a member of Lewes U3A Writing Workshop.
Johnnie lives with Fay, his Filipino wife, in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
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