Interview: Paul Johnston
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Date: 1 October 2007
Paul Johnston: Setting The Death List in present-day London was no problem, as I lived in Bethnal Green (in the East End) in the 80s and pass by my siblings in the city three or four times a year. And my sister lives in the area Herne Hill, so you can see where that came from in the novel. For what it's worth, both my Edinburgh and Greece settings are pretty close to the real locations (with logical developments in the former and the odd invented island in the latter). Generally, I think atmosphere is more important to fictional settings than correct detail. Which brings me back to London - the city has a wonderfully deep, and bloodstained, history.
Gumshoe: There's a movement here in the states that says fiction encourages people to act out what they've read or seen in movies. For the character Matt Wells this becomes literal in The Death List but also far more personal. Your website mentioned you wanted to deal with the relationship of writers to their material. Since this is the start of a new series of books, I'd guess you're not done exploring the issues involved. Could you tell us a bit about this relationship and how you view it in your own work?
Paul: Fiction encouraging people to act out what they've read or seen. I'm not aware of this movement, but it seems fantastically ill-conceived. I seem to remember Oliver Stone didn't get convicted of causing copycat murders with Natural Born Killers. I have a problem with everything in your question. Fiction doesn't 'encourage'. It may provoke a dialogue with the reader (if the reader is up for that), it may raise all sorts of questions, but it doesn't make people do things that they wouldn't otherwise have done. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately given the huge amount of terrible novels out there, fiction just isn't that powerful. How many wars have been caused by fiction, as opposed to organized religion? How many lives has fiction saved in this or any other year? As for 'acting out' - does this ever really happen after reading a novel? The very act of sitting down and reading for, say, six hours is hardly conducive to action. (Movies are obviously more striking in emotional effect, but I still think that copycat killers would have killed anyway, and are just using the movie link as a potential defence.)
As regards the relationship of writers to their material, that does interest me, particularly with crime writers. As I say in The Death List, the most criminal acts performed by crime novelists involve parking tickets and dope, but we still like to pride ourselves on our knowledge of the psychology of serial killers etc. I wanted to imagine what it would be like for a crime writer to be confronted with the 'real thing' (of course, there's an obvious irony here as the 'real thing' takes place in a novel, but you get the idea...) Actually, I think all my novels have worked out and questioned my attitudes towards particular material - eg political, social and philosophical matters in the Quint quintet, and issues of Greek history and politics in the Mavros trilogy. The Death List is a bit more personal, though, in that Matt Wells's experiences with his ex-wife, ex-agent and ex-publishers have a certain similarity with my own...
Gumshoe: You mentioned that the fun side was making use of the Jacobean revenge tragedies. Could you tell us a bit more about these and where someone might learn more? You played with this with The Death List, do you see more variations on this theme?
Paul: Jacobean revenge tragedies - these are wonderfully sick and violent. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is one, though technically it's Elizabethan. Hamlet is also a revenge tragedy. The other main writers are Thomas Kyd (The Spanish Tragedy), John Webster (The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi), and Thomas Middleton (The Changeling and, possibly, The Revenger's Tragedy, sometimes attributed to Cyril Tourneur). There's a good Penguin edition that contains The White Devil, The Changeling and The Revenger's Tragedy. It surprises me that crime writers haven't tapped into revenge tragedy more. P.D. James has a novel entitled The Skull Beneath the Skin (a reference to Webster from T.S. Eliot), but she doesn't go too much into the historical literary material. I hereby declare that I have first option on a historical series featuring John Webster (or any other revenge tragedy maestro) as a private dick in his spare time. As for more variations, there could be many but I've actually moved on to Christopher Marlowe in the next book...and John Milton in the one after.
Gumshoe: Looking over some of the reviews of The Death List, I noticed that white knuckled, visceral, gut wrenching see to be common phrases -- is that the emotional strains you're trying to evoke? Other than staying up late turning the pages as quickly as the eye can read and pacing the floor waiting for the next novel, what emotions do you hope to evoke in the reader?
Paul: White-knuckle, visceral, gut-wrenching - yeah, sure. I have no time for crime novels that shirk on descriptions of violence. You only have to turn on the TV to see body parts spread about the streets of Baghdad (maybe not in the US...), so the day of the delicate murder with no blood, guts and gore is well and truly over. What emotions do I hope to evoke? How long have you got? Fear, apprehension, tension, horror, surprise, fascination... I'd like to believe that it's possible to write a page-turner that is also emotionally and intellectually satisfying. But the bottom line is that everything turns to dust if you can't get the reader to empathise with your characters - so I suppose empathy is the number one aim.
Gumshoe: We know many of us like reading your books, but what writers excite your interest? What are the last five books that you read that pushed your 'Wow' circuit?
Paul: I read pretty widely, so some of these books may seem a bit weird. I'll start with an 'easy' one - my good friend John Connolly's latest novel, The Unquiet, is a brilliant treatment of probably the most difficult theme of all, child abuse. The best 'literary' (for want of a better word) novel I've read in the last year or so is Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis, about the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War. My other three top tips would be Jed Mercurio's Ascent (about the Russians in the Korean War and during the space race), John Fowles's Memoirs, and W.B.Stanford's The Ulysses Theme. Told you I had wide tastes...
Gumshoe: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Is there any question that you wish interviewers would ask but they don't? If so, what is it and what's the answer.
Paul: Question that is never asked (good one!) - have the sacrifices you've made to become and to remain an author been worth it? The easy answer is, yes. But, actually, if I take into account the damage to marriage and other relationships, the lack of pension, the lack of holidays, and the deeply depressing ratio of hours worked to dollars earned, I'm not nearly so sure...
Gumshoe: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.