Bloody Scotland McIlvanney Prize Shortlist: Q&A With Doug Johnstone

Any one who has been following the blog for some time will know that there are two things I really do like quite a lot. 1 – Orenda Books, and 2 – Bloody Scotland Crime Fiction Festival. Sadly Bloody Scotland isn’t going ahead in its usual format this year due to the ongoing pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped them from creating a wonderful online experience for their dedicated attendees and lovers of all things Crime fiction, and you can find out more about Bloody Scotland’s virtual festival and book your tickets right here. It also hasn’t stopped the McIlvanney prize for Best Scottish Crime Fiction and this year’s shortlisted books and authors are, as always, superb. They are Ambrose Parry – The Art of Dying; Doug Johnstone – A Dark Matter; Andrew James Greig – Whirligig and Francine Toon – Pine.

When I was asked if I wanted to take part in the tour to celebrate these four wonderful books I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Given that Jen med’s Book Reviews has made 2020 our “Year of Orenda”, it seemed like fate when I was paired up to do a Q&A with Doug Johnstone. For those of you who haven’t yet read A Dark Matter, I can tell you right now that you are missing out on a real treat. This is the first book in a trilogy centred around three generations of women in one family – Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah Skelf. Part mystery, part science lesson, and totally enthralling, I loved this book and its follow up, The Big Chill. Based around a Funeral Directors come Private Detective Agency, let’s just say that from the very beginning of this book it is clear that Doug Johnstone is bringing us something that fresh and completely unexpected. You can read my full review of the book here. Before we hear from Doug, here’s what the book is all about:

Meet the Skelfs: well-known Edinburgh family, proprietors of a long-established funeral-home business, and private investigators…

When patriarch Jim dies, it’s left to his wife Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah to take charge of both businesses, kicking off an unexpected series of events.

Dorothy discovers mysterious payments to another woman, suggesting that Jim wasn’t the husband she thought he was. Hannah’s best friend Mel has vanished from university, and the simple adultery case that Jenny takes on leads to something stranger and far darker than any of them could have imagined.

As the women struggle to come to terms with their grief, and the demands of the business threaten to overwhelm them, secrets from the past emerge, which change everything…

A compelling, tense and shocking thriller and a darkly funny and warm portrait of a family in turmoil, A Dark Matter introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, marking the start of an addictive new series.

That’s enough preamble I think. Now let’s hear from the man himself.

Hi Doug. Thanks for taking part in this Q&A and congratulations on being shortlisted for the McIlvanney prize. I’ve a mixture of some quickfire ice breakers and some more hopefully sensible questions.

Favourite childhood book?
Asterix in Britain.

Favourite/most influential author?
Probably Iain Banks.

Favourite movie?
Arrival.

What is your guilty pleasure?
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures.

Best compliment you’ve had for your work?
James Sallis, who is a writing hero of mine, said of Breakers: ‘Doug Johnstone is for me the perfect free-range writer, respectful of
conventions but never bound by them, never hemmed-in. Each book is a different world, each book something new in this world.’

Funniest or strangest criticism?
I once got an Amazon review that said: ‘I never ordered this, it never came, and no money left my account. ONE STAR.’ So, no interaction at all
with the book? Thanks.

As a clear music lover, do you have a soundtrack for your writing? If so, what is it?
Lots of instrumental music, neo-classical and movie soundtracks. I find more conventional verse-chorus stuff too distracting. Max Richter,
Mogwai, Boards of Canada, Four Tet, I made a complication of LCD Soundsystem dance remixes that’s great. And Johann Johannsson is a
staple – slightly creepy classical stuff with a dark edge to it seems to fit what I’m writing.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for A Dark Matter. I really enjoyed reading all about the three generations of Skelf women and their more than unusual combination of careers. Where did the inspiration for the book come from?
Thanks! Inspiration comes from all over, as usual, but a couple of specific things this time. First, I was a writer in residence at a funeral
directors four years ago. I interviewed staff, shadowed them in their work, and wrote a small non-fiction book about their experiences. That
stewed away in my brain for a few years. And I’ve also had an idea for a long time to write about a woman who had to take over a private
investigators but didn’t have a clue how to do it. Eventually I mushed them together, and voila!

You have managed to create three very unique and authentic female characters with Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah. Did you have any concerns about how writing a female led story would be perceived as a male writer?
Not really, to be honest. A few of my previous novels have been written from the point of view of female characters of different ages and
backgrounds, and they were really well received by female readers. It’s the job of writers to get inside the minds of people other than
ourselves. I think as long as you do your research and treat your characters and their circumstances with empathy and respect, then you can
write more or less what you want. Also, my editor is a woman, and she’d be the first to point out if something felt off.

You have a wonderful blend of strength and vulnerability across the three central characters. Were they based upon anybody you know, and how important was it to you to get across those very different aspects of your characters?
They’re not based on any real people, no, but it was important for me to make sure that they were clearly distinct from each other. The three
woman are from different generations, aged 70, 45 and 20, and that obviously colours their outlooks on life. Part of the plan with this book
and its sequels was to deliberately examine the difference of perspective that women of different generations have. (I do have pictures of
three actresses on the wall above my desk to represent how I think the three women look physically, but that’s nothing to do with their
personalities.)

Both of your Skelfs novels, A Dark Matter and The Big Chill have very unique opening scenes, that really make a lasting impression on readers. Did you begin your writing process for A Dark Matter with that particular scene in mind, or did it come more organically as you developed the novel?
For A Dark Matter I definitely had that opening scene in my mind for a long time before I started. It’s the driving force for everything that
comes after, not just in that book, but the ones that follow. I wanted a dramatic funeral scene (since they’re funeral directors) and I wanted to
expose the characters to raw grief right at the start, so that imbues the stories that come after. For The Big Chill I didn’t have that scene in
mind for as long, but as soon as I thought of it I knew it would start the book. I hope the start of the third book lives up to the other two!

When I reviewed A Dark Matter, at certain times I’d thought of it as a far more interesting and accessible science lesson than school had been. There seems to be quite a lot of your personal interests to be found on the page, particularly in terms of Dorothy’s drumming sessions or Hannah’s science degree. How did it feel being able to ‘write what you know’ into the book?
That was another deliberate point when I started planning these books, to use as much of my personal experience as possible. I’ve always
done that in my books anyway, for example Breakers was inspired by my experience of being burgled, but for some reason I hadn’t written
about big parts of my life – my love of drumming and physics. The drumming acts as a kind of Zen meditation for Dorothy, and I loved the
image of her sitting behind the kit. And the physics is intrinsic to some of the plot in all three Skelfs books, in fact it’s getting more involved
with each book. The titles of all three books come from physics concepts too, as well as reflecting on the themes of funerals and death. See
what I did there?

The book has a really keen sense of family about it, developed through both the Skelf women and the wider friends and clients they work with. What do you think it is about domestic noir, the setting and the conflicts that exist within families, that draw readers into a story so much?
It’s the direct emotion, isn’t it? It’s always going to be more emotionally dramatic if close family members are involved in each other’s lives,
rather than strangers or friends. And there’s that thing about choosing our friends but not our families – there’s an intrinsic conflict built into
families, and so much deep-seated stuff that is great fun to examine in a narrative.

I’ve recently read and loved The Big Chill, book two in the series, another fabulous read by the way, but it left poor Jenny on a bit of a metaphorical knife edge. As this is (currently) a trilogy, any hints as to what we can expect from book three (and beyond)?
Disembodied feet, gaslighting aliens, poisoning, kidnap, the Beast of Bruntsfield, exoplanets, suicide, pampas grass, disinterment, punk rock.
And funerals, obviously.

Given that you trained and gained a PhD in Nuclear Physics, what prompted you to make the move to writing books and did you always want to write in the crime adjacent genres? Do you have any words of advice for any new writers just starting out?
I was always writing short stories as a kid, but never took it all that seriously. During my science and engineering background I was also in
bands, and started writing music journalism. I quit my job and did that full time freelance, and started taking my fiction more seriously. I had
no real concept about genres of writing, I just wanted to tell stories that I didn’t see reflected in the books I read. That still applies 100%. My
advice for writers is sadly banal – keep writing and reading. The more you write and read, the better you’ll get. Just keep plugging away,
honestly, and try to tell a story that only you can tell, in the way that only you could tell it.

It’s been a difficult year this year with festivals being cancelled due to Covid and book launches being fairly well restricted to being hosted online. What have you missed most about the festival season this year?
Everything single fucking thing. The hugs! I realised during lockdown just how much my social life consisted entirely of book festivals, events
and band gigs. I miss sitting in a room of other humans, talking shit about books, so badly. I can’t wait for it to come back. I’m fucking Zoomed
out, to be honest.

One final question that I’m sure fans will want to know – are there any plans for a Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers online zoom festival? We’ve all been missing the party.
We’ve all been missing it so much too. But no, no plans for an online gig. The shows are really a live experience, and I think an online version
would only serve to make everyone realise how much we’re all missing out on. Sorry!

Thanks Doug. I am totally with you on the festival season sentiments. I personally never thought I’d ever miss hugs but, hey, maybe this means I’m growing as a person.

Sad news about Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers but I can understand why. Good news for festival goers though is that if you have tickets for Friday night you can hear the whole team in conversation and perhaps see some ‘vintage’ (?) festival footage.

Gaslighting aliens? I think you’ve set the expectations high for book three now too. No pressure! 😉

About the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions – including a funeral home – and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

About Bloody Scotland

Bloody Scotland is Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, providing a showcase for the best crime writing from Scotland and the world, unique in that it was set up by a group of Scottish crime writers in 2012. The festival uses a number of atmospheric, historic venues in Stirling’s Old Town setting it apart from other literary festivals. Full information at www.bloodyscotland.com

About the Sponsors

 The Glencairn Glass is endorsed by the Scotch Whisky Association as the official glass for whisky. Glencairn make over 3 million per year, across hundreds of brands, distributed to over 140 countries worldwide.
 
Glencairn’s clients over the last 20 years include leading drinks companies, brands and other outlets, including: BP, Brown-Forman, Cunard, Diageo, Houses of Parliament, Muller, Google, Scottish Parliament and the majority of the Scottish Whisky manufacturers, in addition to many of the international whisky and spirit producers.

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