Gordon Johnston, author of Cold Roses which is due out in May, was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Mark Billingham once told me to remember that all published writers are simply unpublished writers who didn’t give up. That’s worth remembering.
Ringwood Publishing (RP): How many books have you previously published, and how does your latest book, Cold Roses, fit in?
Gordon Johnston (GJ): My first novel was Calling Cards, published by Ringwood in 2014. Cold Roses is the second in a series featuring Detective Inspector Adam Ralston. Both are Glasgow-based psychological thrillers, with our hero chasing down serial killers. And I hope there are a few more in the series yet to come …
RP: What was the publishing process like? Is it generally the same for every book, or does each publication present its own set of pros and cons?
GJ: The process has seemed pretty much the same the second time around. Of course the big difference for me this time is that I knew this book was going to be published! It was so much easier to concentrate on writing and then the editing process knowing that I wouldn’t have to try to find a home for the book at the end.
RP: What has changed/what have you learned since your first publication? How did it change you as a person/writer, if at all?
GJ: I learned a lot going through the editing process for my first book. Writing a novel is a pretty lonely thing to do, and it’s difficult to get honest feedback. So you write what you think works, what you think readers will want. A good editor challenges you and asks you the difficult questions that improve your writing.
RP: What started you writing in the first place? Was there a particular person or moment that inspired you? Did you always know you wanted to write?
GJ: I’ve always written, from school essays through to work-related articles and papers, blogs and music reviews. Trying to write a novel just seemed like a natural next step.
Writing a novel is a pretty lonely thing to do, and it’s difficult to get honest feedback. … A good editor challenges you and asks you the difficult questions that improve your writing.
RP: What inspired you to start writing Cold Roses in particular?
GJ: In Calling Cards, DI Ralston makes a big mistake – one that he knows he will always have to live with. He needs to prove to himself that he is a good detective once more, and this new case in Cold Roses gives him that opportunity. I also wanted to explore family relationships in stressful times – both the DI’s family and his main suspects’ relationship. Families can be complex, and I wanted to explore the hidden histories that lurk behind closed doors!
RP: What inspires you in general?
GJ: Writing novels that usually have a fair few dead bodies in them means that inspiration can come from very strange places. I’m always looking for new and interesting ways for characters to be killed! And that can lead to some very strange conversations. Death by chocolate can take on a whole new meaning around a writer!
RP: What do you think makes you unique as a writer?
GJ: Every writer brings something of himself or herself to their work. I try to use my own experiences and the people I’ve met or known as background research – I hope that results in characters that seem real. I also love to put ordinary people into extraordinary situations and explore how they react. That can be a lot of fun.
RP: Is writing something that comes naturally to you, or do you have to work at it?
GJ: Generally the words come easily to me. The first draft usually comes together pretty quickly – but it can take a long time to edit and polish a story to the point where I’m totally happy with it.
I’m always looking for new and interesting ways for characters to be killed! And that can lead to some very strange conversations. Death by chocolate can take on a whole new meaning around a writer!
RP: What is your favourite thing about writing?
GJ: I love creating characters. People are endlessly fascinating and there is something really satisfying for me in creating a character with a rich backstory and a complex personality. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our foibles and contradictions. And a character in a novel must have all of these to seem real rather than one-dimensional or stereotyped.
RP: What is your least favourite thing about writing?
GJ: The frustrating times. The days when a scene just won’t quite come together, or the narrative just won’t go where I know it needs to go. The moments where two pieces of the jigsaw won’t fit together perfectly. Not quite writers’ block, just the frustrating moments that always come in the midst of writing a novel.
RP: When and where are you most productive? What is your ideal writing atmosphere?
GJ: As long as I have my laptop, a reasonably quiet atmosphere and a supply of coffee I am good to go. I’ve written a lot in coffee shops, on trains and on planes. Long flights are a great opportunity to get a good few hours of writing done for me.
RP: What other work do you do/hobbies do you have? Do you have a “day job”?
GJ: I work as a consultant in the mental health field, mainly on involving service users in policy and service development and researching views and opinions. And I am also Editor Scotland for a music website called Glasswerk, concentrating mainly on album and gig reviews. My hobbies include most sports (watching rather than playing!) and photography. I also read a lot.
RP: What do people say when you tell them you write?
GJ: It’s usually a mixture of surprise and interest. And then the questions start about where ideas come from, how long it takes, how to get a publishing deal, etc. etc.
Just keep going, keep working and keep writing. Mark Billingham once told me to remember that all published writers are simply unpublished writers who didn’t give up. That’s worth remembering.
RP: Hard question: what is your favourite book and why? (Feel free to list more than one).
GJ: I read so much that it’s hard to narrow it down to one book. The ones I’ve come back to many times and read again include John Irving’s The World According To Garp, the classic Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and the fantastically funny Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
I tend to read thrillers in the main though, my favourite authors being Linda Fairstein and Mark Billingham. I’ve read everything both has written. And there are some great Scottish crime writers like Caro Ramsay and Stuart MacBride too.
RP: The obligatory question: Can you offer any advice to new writers?
GJ: Simple: keep writing! There is no magic formula and every writer needs to work out the best way for them to write. Also, get used to rejection. Every writer receives rejection letters, even the very best. Just keep going, keep working and keep writing. Mark Billingham once told me to remember that all published writers are simply unpublished writers who didn’t give up. That’s worth remembering.
RP: Are there any questions you wish I would have asked? (If so, please provide the questions and the answers!)
GJ: How about, “How can you ever hope to follow such a brilliant debut novel as Calling Cards?”
But seriously … One I really like is “What makes your hero different from all of the other detectives out there?” Because my theory of crime fiction is that detectives routinely fall into two archetypes: the super detectives like Sherlock Holmes who are calm and logical and always work out every detail of the crime using their vast intellect, and the mavericks like Rebus who ignore the rules, do things their own way but somehow get the result in the end. My lead character, DI Adam Ralston, is simply a man trying to do his best in a demanding job. He doesn’t always get it right and he has his faults. But he gives as much as he can because he believes in fighting for the victims.