Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. His latest novel, Smokeheads, was published by Faber and Faber in March 2011. He has previously published two novels with Penguin, Tombstoning (2006) and The Ossians (2008), which received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre. He’s working on a fourth novel and a screenplay. Doug is currently writer in residence at the University of Strathclyde. He’s had short stories appear in various publications, and since 1999 he has worked as a freelance arts journalist, primarily covering music and literature.
Doug has a degree in physics, a PhD in nuclear physics and a diploma in journalism, and worked for four years designing airborne radars and missile guidance systems.
He grew up in Arbroath and lives in Portobello, Edinburgh with his wife and two children. He loves drinking malt whisky and playing football, not necessarily at the same time.
Are you a bookgeek?
Not particularly. I read huge amounts, partly for fun and partly because I’m also a book reviewer for a load of papers and magazines, but I’m not particularly precious about the actual books themselves, if that’s what you mean. I’m a bit of a typeface-nerd, I have a handful of books about typography and design.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
‘Never Apologise, Never Explain’ is written up on my wall above my desk. I can’t remember where I came across that advice, I think it’s actually a quote from a John Wayne film or something, but it’s something I try to stick to in writing. It’s a terrible way to live your life, gets you into all sorts of trouble, but I think it works in writing.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Raymond Carver. There’s an American writer David Gates who I think is amazing, but no one seems to have heard of him. He hasn’t written anything in ten years or so. Also, a new(ish) Alaskan writer David Vann is utterly stunning. Miranda July is another one. Willy Vlautin. Allan Guthrie. Stona Fitch. Ach, there are loads.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself
You have to write for yourself in the first instance, I think. That was a large motivating factor in me starting to write fiction – I didn’t see my own experiences and world reflected in the fiction I was reading, so I set out to write stuff about my life and my friends and our stupid existence. Even after having a few novels published, it’s daft to try to write for a specific audience, I think that way madness lies.
Where do you write, and why?
Up in the loft at a crappy old desk I salvaged from an engineering job I did many, many years ago. There’s no natural light but plenty of space. I always seem to get displaced by children – I used to have a writing office in our last flat, then that became our son’s bedroom. When we moved house I had an office again, then we had a daughter and that became her bedroom. The loft is pretty cool, I can drop the hatch and can’t hear the kids arguing. Also, my drum kit, guitar and amp and keyboards are all up there.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Awesome from start to finish.
It would be rude not to ask; exactly how much research went into informing Adam’s whisky knowledge? And what form did it take?
How rude! I did shitloads of research into single malt whiskies for Smokeheads, all of it as enjoyable as you might imagine. I was actually already a pretty big malt fan, so it was pretty easy – I joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, visited plenty of shops and distilleries and pubs, and took a few long weekend trips to Islay where the book is set. Of course, as ‘research’, that bar tab is tax deductible as well. Sweet
You namecheck The Wicker Man in Smokeheads, and the homage is fairly clear. Where else did you look for inspiration
I was quite obsessed with the movie Deliverance when I was planning Smokeheads, so that fed into it a lot as well. It’s most famous for the ‘squeal like a pig’ scene, but the bit just after that, where they have to decide what to do next, is the crucial, compelling scene the whole story turns on. I wanted to write something with that moral dilemma at the centre of it, while also being an enclosed, brutal thriller. At the same time, I remember seeing the movie Sideways, and thinking, ‘you could do that so much better with whisky snobs instead of wine snobs’. And voila – Smokeheads!
Molly acquits herself better than the male characters, and it seemed you were waving two fingers to convention in that regard. Was that something you intended, or just how the characters developed
It was kind of intentional, and in fact that’s a theme that runs through all my novels – hapless, drifting dickhead guys having their lives transformed or saved by strong, independent, clued up women. I don’t suppose it takes a brilliant psychiatrist to work out the reasoning behind that trend – my strong, independent, clued up wife is currently unavailable for comment. I do like the idea that the only main female character in the book, the one who has had the hardest life and been somewhat downtrodden by events prior to the story, is the one who comes through and effectively saves all their asses. Who the hell doesn’t like a woman taking charge?
You’re a musician as well as a writer’. Do you find one creative process informs the other, or do you approach the two disciplines separately?
They do inform each other, definitely, although the songwriting is a lot more intuitive than the fiction writing in my experience. The overlap between the two is most obvious in my second novel, The Ossians, about a struggling indie band falling apart on a tour of the Scottish Highlands. My real bandmates and I even recorded an album of music by the fictional band The Ossians, which got better reviews than our own material. I do find myself writing songs about scenes from books, or taking lines of lyrics as fictional inspiration – why not, it’s all creativity and all fair game, I don’t really see any reason to differentiate between disciplines. That’s for reviewers and journalists to do, not those being creative.
Tartan titans such as Rankin, Welsh and Brookmyre have all spoken highly of you. What do you see as your place in Scottish writing?
Ha – somewhere far below those three, anyway! It’s great when writers like that are even aware of your existence, let alone saying complimentary things about you, but I don’t really think of myself in terms of a place in Scottish writing, and actually I care about that stuff less and less as I get older and write more. Anyway, I’m heading towards some very dark noir-ish fictional territory, more like American writing than Scottish, so I don’t know if I’m part of any Scottish fiction tradition or anything like that. I suppose there is a lack of arrogance to Scottish writing which I admire, and hopefully I’m a part of that, but that’s about it, really.
Additional questions by Mike Stafford