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Interview with Doug Johnstone

Picture by Katie CookePart of Scottish Literature Week: Writer, musician, journalist and…umm…ex-nuclear physicist (no, really), Doug Johnstone, talks to RosyB.

*Photo by Katie Cooke

You will know, by now, how here at Vulpes we love to play around with new ways of interviewing for the net. Crazy instant messager chats, long email interviews that take virtual place in airport departure lounges across the world. So how about this for way-out: cup of coffee and a dictaphone in a local cafe.

Ok, so it’s not high-tech. But it does give me the chance to describe the author entering the building: complete with Armani suit, dark shades and posse of cool bodyguards. “Oh he is so much richer-looking in real life!” I gasp.

Not impressed?

Well, I’ve never been any good at describing clothes. So let’s scrap the descriptions and let the words do the talking. Doug Johnstone is friendly, unpretentious and I greatly enjoyed this interview (in fact, you can hardly hear the poor fella for my drain-like laughter on the tape.) Less good, is the fact that we are both incredibly fast-talkers, rather tangential, and interrupt ourselves a lot – add to this an old dictaphone as crackly as a gramophone record and you’ll understand why transcribing this tape has been a nightmare. But here it is, finally, in all its informal, interrupting glory.


So, tell me about your new novel, The Ossians. It’s about an indie band traveling around the Highlands. It sounds a bit picaresque or road movieish.

It is! Well I don’t know if “Picaresque” is quite the word I’d use. It is a road-trip. Structurally it’s a plus and a minus. It’s a two-week tour around the north of Scotland – which gives you your plot basically. You know what’s happening the next day because you know they’re going to be in such-and-such. That’s good because it’s got a certain momentum but it’s something to watch and not make it too repetitive.

It sounds like a lot of potential for comedy – is it comedic?

The book is black comedy I would say. One of the scenes I quite like doing at readings is where they arrive in Ullapool and there is a broken down nuclear sub and its docked there and basically the town’s being ravaged by hundreds of Russian sub-mariners who come along to the gig and have a riot.

I find it quite hard to take books that take themselves very seriously. I don’t like first person narratives. Both books have been third person but very close in to the main characters and all of them have a self-awareness of how ridiculous the situation is. I am keen to burst the bubble of taking things so very seriously – I’m kind of like that in life anyway.

I think that must be quite a tough structure, the road trip, because it’s quite broken, isn’t it? It must be hard to get a build going.

Well yeah and that’s one of the things that I added. I had one sort of plot thread running through it but I added another two. One’s not enough: put in three!

The main character, Connor, gets more and more delusional through drug and drink intake and lack of sleep and stuff and he starts to think he’s got a stalker – but because he’s not in such a great state he doesn’t know if it’s real or if he is imagining it or if it’s like actually human. At one point he thinks it is his guardian angel looking after him.

He occasionally meets this enigmatic character when noone else is around – he just turns up at gigs, but no one else ever sees him so he starts to really freak out – so I put that in and that seems to work really well.

Which brings me neatly to my next question: How much is based on personal experience?

(lots of tape crackling as interviewer tries to recover from big fit of the giggles)

Inevitably I’m going to get asked this in every interview!

You are!

Umm.. Well…ermm…no. Not directly no. Actually, I’ve never been on a tour like that. Although I have plenty of experience of bad gigs.

That sub-culture of indie music isn’t really examined much in fiction, it’s a fascinating world and I used a lot of my experience because I’ve been in bands for about twenty years in Scotland so I know plenty about being a struggling indie kid playing “the toilet circuit”, as they call it.

My band, The Northern Alliance is a very different beast to The Ossians. We’re fifteen years older and suitably less angry. Interestingly we’ve put out four records as The Northern Alliance and we’ve done pretty well. But we put together a mini album of The Ossians‘ music. Interesting it seems to be going down really well – better than The Northern Alliance stuff!

All sounds very Spinal Tap.

I should have brought you a copy!

You should!

[To listen to 3 Ossians tracks from the CD, visit The Ossians’ Myspace page here.]


Your first novel, Tombstoning is a thriller, set in small-town Arbroath, where you were brought up. I was reading on the internet how you are always saying Scottish literature is always set in big urban cities or is totally rural and there’s nothing in between.

And yet the vast majority of people in Scotland probably live in small towns. there is a real dearth of fiction addressing that. It’s not like it hasn’t been written about – something like Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar*, for example – it’s called “Port” but it’s really Oban – so it’s done. But I get tired of reading Scottish novels that are either gritty urban realism or idealistic set in a dreamy croft in the Highlands.

*[Please go to Vulpes’ review of Morvern Callar here]

What about the activity of tombstoning itself – is that symbolic? [Note: “Tombstoning” is an activity where youngsters jump off the cliffs into the sea for kicks. Ed.]

I don’t want to get bogged down too much in the symbolic. I think a lot of that is intuitive when you are writing.

I suppose you can’t help thinking – particularly with the news’ coverage of the Bridgend suicides – about the theme of small town life and teenagers not having such a value of their lives….There is a sense of the trap of the past in Tombstoning, with David not wanting to go back into that mindset.

I was reluctant to paint it as a relentless miserable small-town life. I don’t think it is like that at all. But it’s a weird sort of place to grow up in, I suppose. Inevitably a lot of people at that age see it as a prison and can’t wait to get away. But I know people at school who, when they turned eighteen, swore they would never go back and now they are back there raising kids and living in the same street they grew up in themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Arbroath Herald reviewed the book very well but included a list of people who shouldn’t read it and it said “Anyone who likes Arbroath” and I was like, “No, you’re missing the point!”. David’s not a hero because he left. He never found anything better anyway. There are plenty of heroes who stayed and are bringing up families and Arbroath is a perfectly great place.

So, the Tombstoning thing is not symbolic so much as dramatic. The cliffs are fantastically dramatic. When I was researching there was this article in the local paper about these kids that had been jumping in – it’s fucking scary – they take it really seriously. These guys are in wetsuits! I mean they’re dropping like a hundred feet. It’s mental.

There’s a changed mindset from when I was a kid. When you’re small you do daft things like jumping into rivers and building sites and stuff. Or we’d go the park and drink cider. But these days kids are doing like extreme sports. It’s like drink or drugs.

Maybe extreme sports is better for you…if you survive.

Yeah – it’ll keep you fit. It’s just psychotically dangerous!

(Much laughter and crackling)

When I was looking you up online, there are loads of comments from people who really liked your book along the lines of: “This is like my life”, “This is like my friends”, “I know someone like that”. The book seems to have a big recognition factor that is really pleasing to people.

I was really happy with that. You know, no-one sets out to write a clichéd book but I was really glad that people really seemed to recognise their own lives.

I was glad about the comments from women about the character – Nicola – because I always found that, and this is not exclusive by any means, but male writers do not tend to write women very well and that annoyed me. Because it’s not that hard, really, if you’ve ever spoken to women, had girlfriends…

I deliberately wanted Nicola in Tombstoning to be the strong one. In the end she saves the day and that is deliberate.

David’s a slightly weaker character isn’t he?

He is! Which has always been my experience in life – shambolic slacker blokes and organised women. There is a similar dynamic in The Ossians. There are two women in the band – his girlfriend and his sister who are stronger and more together than Connor is, who is a basket-case basically.

But then that can be romanticised in men too, can’t it? That they get to be the basket-cases.

Ye-ah. I know – I don’t want to play too heavily on that. I don’t want people to read these books and think “How did these blokes get these amazing women?”

I think David’s quite an engaging character

He’s just at the stage where he hasn’t really bothered to get a life. He’s just drifting. And that was me – ten years ago. Doing a job I hated and not arsed about it. And I think it is very easy to get into that situation without even trying.


Tell me about Facebook and Friends Reunited and stuff.

That was one of the impetuses for Tombstoning.

Friends Reunited gives me The Fear! You know there was a spate of stories that came up about people divorcing and getting back together with their childhood sweethearts and stuff. People are kidding themselves. You’re not happy and you’ve got this idealised version of some relationship you had when you were 16 or 17 or something and it’s not going to be like that. Ridiculous. It just strikes me as unhealthy – you know, always looking backwards. One of the things about Tombstoning was about the past and how it affects who you are today.

It strikes me that it is something that happens at a particular stage of life – you know, people push outwards and try and get away from their parents and suddenly you start romanticising all that and begin to turn into them again, and it’s at a particular age you do it too – like thirties.

That’s obviously what David does in Tombstoning – he doesn’t want to think about the past at all and wants to forget all about it and to a certain extent I did a lot of that and I don’t have any family there [in Arbroath] so I never go back. I never go back there.

Does it make you uncomfortable to go back there?

It just makes me feel really weird. I think I put it in Tombstoning – if you go away and come back, every corner you go round has a memory. Everything is laced with memories. But if you never left you don’t realise that. I mean I have lived in Edinburgh as long as I lived in Arbroath, but it doesn’t feel the same, because I’m still here.


How did you first get published?

I wrote a version of The Ossians first. And I didn’t know anyone in the publishing world, any writers or anyone so I just sent it off to every publisher I could think of who might be interested and every agent and everyone politely rejected it – like they do. Which was fine. But a couple of publishers said “We like this but for whatever reason we can’t publish it, get marketing interested or whatever…And then when I wrote Tombstoning I sent it to the two publishers who were interested and they both offered on it.


More than one publisher said to me “Oh we can’t sell books about music”. The fact that there’s four or five out now is neither here nor there. But I think in one way it was a hard sell for a first novel. I think they saw it as – you know – it didn’t fit in any genre or whatever, whereas Tombstoning is a more conventional thriller really.

How has Tombstoning done in Scotland? And is it available in England?

There was a hot spot of sales in Arbroath and Dundee! My family live in Dundee and they were always going to Borders and Waterstones and harassing them to put copies in the window and stuff. It did ok, though, it’s had a couple of reprints. It has sold a bit in England but not huge amounts, you know – it’s not about middle-class graduates living in Knightsbridge…

(Much merriment and tape crackling.)

No prejudice there then!

…It’s not about lecturers sitting having their dinner party in London…

(Rosy chokes on coffee in hilarity)

Maybe you should write one of them – you should write about Scottish lecturers, that’d be good.

Hmmm. Maybe. Campus novel. Dunno.

We always ask for five favourite books – don’t say War and Peace.

I don’t have the high-brow literary tastes – me and the Booker prize are going our fucking separate ways I tell you!

You just decided to part company – it’s not working out.

Me and the Booker – it’s all over. I’ve had it with that lot.

Literary fiction is a genre like anything else – people write literary books with no plot and upper middle class characters. It’s an excuse not to have a plot, that’s what it is.

You’re one of these down-to-earth “books should have a good story”?

Well yes, I have less and less time for meandering high-faluting stuff. I want a fucking good story – a good page-turner. There’s nothing wrong with that – there’s no shame involved with that.

[The following speech sees Rosy getting a bit carried away and forgetting who is the interviewer and who is the interviewee]

I keep thinking that the big popular successes of the past are now re-evaluated to be good literary books when they weren’t necessarily thought to be so at the time. Maybe it’s something to do with seeing something as representative. Rather than saying, “it’s a good book, I like this book”, it’s always got to symbolise something and maybe that can even be representing the time it was written, itself. Like pop music. As soon as pop music becomes OLD suddenly there’s people make all these documentaries about it and start going on about the cultural significance. Nobody ever goes on like that about new pop music.

You think of what the noughties or whatever you call them you think in ten years’ time how’s this decade going to be viewed. The nineties has become the Britpop decade.

It’s like a sort of cultural amnesia, isn’t it? People forget all the shit. Like Ashes for Ashes – now they’re fucking raving about boobtubes.

Anyway….favourite books…


  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. It opened my eyes. I knew people who had drug problems. And I knew working class Edinburgh people. That book was like a fucking punch in the stomach. I was totally blown away by it.
  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Set in Fife. It was – again – written about places that I recognised, about people that I recognised. Also it had a teenage boy who was horrific and there was animal torture in it and stuff which is always appealing. It was incredible the reception it got – all the broadsheets reviewed it and some of them were saying this is the best literary novel in twenty years and others were ripping it up outraged at how vile it was. The absolute stroke of genius when they put all the bad reviews on the inside cover saying “This is a repulsive pile of filth” and it went flying off the shelves.
  • Collected Raymond Carver Stories. My Dad got me that. He is a former English teacher. I didn’t have a very good relationship with my own English teachers at school who just foisted Shakespeare and poetry on me, but my Dad always knew I liked writing – it was just finding me the right things to read. When he gave me that book, I couldn’t believe how skillful the stories were, how simple but effective. It’s about what you don’t write. What you leave out is more important than what you put in. It’s a real oblique skill.
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. So far ahead of its time. It seems as though it could have been written yesterday. It taps into something that everybody recognises. 100 pages: Short, snappy but beautifully done.
  • Preston Falls by Dave Gates. It’s the best example of getting inside a character’s head that I’ve ever read. Basically it is about this guy, Doug Willis, who has a mid-life crisis and a nervous breakdown which doesn’t sound like a laugh. But it’s incredibly funny. The character’s voice is unbelievable. You know the million of thoughts that run through your head every minute – he just nails that without it being a mess and you know that American thing where it’s post-post-post-post-everything, where you can’t stop thinking something without it seeming ironic and then that’s ironic and it drives you nuts: this, in the main character Doug Willis, is just unbelievable.


The Ossian’s MySpace Page

(Doug’s real band) The Northern Alliance MySpace Page

The Rest of Scottish Literature Week:

Ron Butlin’s “Belonging”
Maggie Haggith’s “The Last Bear”
J.A. Henderson’s “Crash”
Alan Warner’s “Morvern Callar”

16 comments on “Interview with Doug Johnstone

  1. Lisa
    April 16, 2008

    Great interview, Rosy and Doug.
    I’m reading The Ossians and the moment, so having a good (literary) dose of sex, drugs and rock n roll.

    I thought this was near on incredible:

    “when I wrote Tombstoning I sent it to the two publishers who were interested and they both offered on it.”

    Hardly ever hear stories like that. Nice to know it can happen 🙂

    “I always found that, and this is not exclusive by any means, but male writers do not tend to write women very well…”

    I found myself nodding. We must all argue about this. Which male writers are good at writing women? Do women write men well? A Thursday Soapbox piece could be in order…(want to write it for us, Doug? 500 words on Male Writers Who Can’t Write Women? 😉 )

    The small town element of Tombstoning interests me. As does the idea of literary fiction having to be about middle-class academics having dinner parties. Can’t think of anything worse. I think I am of the gutter school of literary fiction.

  2. rosyb
    April 16, 2008

    “500 words on Male Writers Who Can’t Write Women?”

    I think Kirsty’s identified a few. 🙂

  3. Lisa
    April 16, 2008

    Lol. And P.S. kindly leave Mr Thomas Hardy out of it. No mentioning my beloved Lawrence either.. 😉

  4. marygm
    April 16, 2008

    Great interview, both of you. So down to earth! I have to go away and think more about this idea of men being hopeless at writing women.

  5. Anne Brooke
    April 16, 2008

    And I sooooo get that bit about the Booker!! In complete agreement here in the dark corner.



  6. Doug J
    April 16, 2008

    Great piece, Rosy, nice one.

    Lisa, as for this bit:

    “when I wrote Tombstoning I sent it to the two publishers who were interested and they both offered on it.”

    …yeah, I was pretty shocked. I didn’t have an agent at that time either. Having said that, it’s fair to say that the ice had been broken with that first version of The Ossians I sent round. I really got in people’s faces with that, and even the ones that didn’t like it or think they could publish it at least knew my name, knew that I could kind of write, and that I wasn’t just a “one novel johnny”. I honestly think getting published is mostly perseverance and large whack of luck – for the ms to land on the right desk at the right time, and for the editor to be in the right mood. I just got lucky I guess, but I do have a theory that you can make your own luck to a certain extent, that is, you can make yourself more open to lucky things happening and taking advantage of them.

    What a blether.

    And also – that thing about men not writing good women characters, I realise it’s a MASSIVE generalisation, there are plenty of exceptions, but I was tired of reading blokey fiction where women were just like bit players in a 70s cop show or something. Hookers and barmaids, blah blah. Just didn’t ring true with my own experiences of life, and annoyed the fuck out of me, to be honest.

    Anyway, no WAY am I writing a piece on that – I’ve gotten in enough trouble talking about that at book events and interviews already!

    And seriously, don’t get me started on the Booker. Jesus H.

    All the best, people.


    p.s. One more favourite book to add – The Road by Cormac McCarthy – simply awesome and the most brutally powerful narrative I think I’ve ever read.

  7. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    No, no, Doug! Get started on the Booker – we could go on all day about the pain and pity of it. I’m sure. And the enormous waste of reading time. My vote is to ditch it entirely and let’s get some real books into the mix. Ones with … um … story and without boring family tragedies. Hush my mouth.

    And I’m looking forward to the kick-ass piece on cliched (sorry, no darn accent that I can see) women characters. Rosy? Are you there? Book it now!



  8. Lisa
    April 17, 2008

    See, our Rosy tells me that it’s good for writers to come out fighting! Bring on the controversy and kicking of arse, I say! 🙂

    Anne, you start an alternative to the Booker and we’ll call it The Brooker. Inspired.

  9. Stewart
    April 17, 2008

    …people write literary books with no plot and upper middle class characters. It’s an excuse not to have a plot, that’s what it is.

    If he doesn’t read them, how does he know this? Anyway, I think it would be hard to write a satisfying piece of fiction without a plot as that tends to be what drives the reader through the book. Just because a piece of literature doesn’t contain an oh-so-[boring/predictable/unimaginative] schlocky narrative doesn’t mean it has no plot. They can be abstracted, after all. Or emotional plots, gently brewing page after page with little action at all – still a plot, though.

    But it’s always funny to imagine, and nice to see it perpetuated, that these so called writers waking up, cracking the fingers, and sitting down with a coffee, saying, “I know, today I’ll write a literary book.” Although Iain (M.) Banks might do the reverse, and write some sci-fi.

    Sad to see that Booker books get dismissed as being “high-brow literary” when there’s books amongst the prize’s longlist that have ended up in that most high-brow book club that is Richard & Judy. Some, rightly, are complete twaddle and after reading through all thirteen of last year’s longlist I only enjoyed a handful of them. But high-brow? Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted: high-brow? Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip: high-brow? Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: high-brow? No, on all counts. In fact, of the thirteen, only two could be considered approaching on that: stuffy old A.N. Wilson’s Winnie And Wolf and Anne Enright’s eventual winner, The Gathering.

    Nothing much wrong with the Booker at all. It’s a fine prize. It’s just that they can rarely get the winner right.

  10. Jackie
    April 17, 2008

    This was a humorously irreverent interview. Points to Mr. Johnstone for his determination to correct women characters in his books and the challenge issued to other male writers. I hope he starts a trend.
    The comments on symbolism was timely, as I’ve been wondering lately how much of it is intentional by authors. It’s nice to see that a lot of it is organic. I also found Mr. Johnstone’s comments on memory and the past intriguing. What an unsual selection of faves; did he like the film of “Trainspotting”?
    I can’t diss the Booker myself, as they gave it to “Oscar and Lucinda”, my all time favorite.
    Thanks to both of you for this enjoyable interview.

  11. Pingback: Belonging by Ron Butlin « Vulpes Libris

  12. Doug J
    April 21, 2008

    …for anyone swithering about this whole The Ossians thing, how about a taster? You can now download the first chapter of the novel FREE from:

    …can’t say fairier than that. Suck it and see, people.


  13. Pingback: The Ossians by Doug Johnstone « Vulpes Libris

  14. Kenni
    July 21, 2008

    Great interview. It really makes me want to read your books Doug and I totally agree with your comments about women characters in a lot of novels. A fantastic book that includes a brilliant piece of characterisation is “Killer Inside Me” by Jim Thompson. Well worth a read. Thanks for the interview. Cheers.

  15. D.Blyth
    March 31, 2009

    Hi there,
    Do you have a direct e.mail address for Doug Johnstone

    Yours aye

  16. Pingback: The rise and rise of the band novel

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