Paul JohnstonPaul Johnston
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Questions and Answers

You were born in Scotland. Is your Scottish identity important to you?

Yes, of course! I've always seen myself as Scots first and British second - most Scots do. The culture and the history is very different from those of the rest of the UK. Since the mid-90s, Scottish devolution and the way Scots define themselves have been major political issues. I was fortunate to return to Edinburgh at that time. Body Politic was substantially rewritten when I was living in the city and I'm sure that gave the novel at least some of the resonance it's had with readers.

Did having a father who was a writer make you into one?

I don't know whether writers are born or made - it's the old nature/ nurture debate. I'm sure that growing up with a writer and meeting famous writers were factors in my eventual career choice. I always liked the freedom that the profession gives its practitioners - no bosses hassling you, no commute to work, no early morning start if you don't want it (and I definitely don't). But you have to be keen on solitude and introspection to be a writer. That can be both a blessing and a curse in terms of the effects on people close to writers.

The rumour is that you were at school with British prime minister Tony Blair. True or false?

I made the mistake of mentioning that Tony Blair and I were at Fettes College in the first magazine interview I ever did, back in 1997. Since then it's become an albatross round my neck, one that journalists are perpetually fascinated by. In fact the venerable Blair was four years ahead of me and in a different house, so I had nothing to do with him. All I remember about him was that he was a very good actor. Nuff said.

Why did you choose to study Greek?

Difficult one. I came across the old Penguin translation of Homer's Odyssey when I was six or seven and immediately got into it. Any child with an imagination would. The Cyclops, the journey to the underworld, the return of the hero to his home - the epic is full of archetypal characters, plots and themes. Then I got it into my head that I wanted to study ancient Greek. Not many schools in Scotland offered the subject so, as my father was flush from his writing at the time, I ended up at Fettes. The fact that, even there, Greek was a minority interest was another factor. I've never been one for running with the pack.

As a child, were you a reader or a doer?

Both. I always enjoyed sport, especially rugby and athletics, and I was an inveterate tree climber and hill walker. But I was always into reading, could read before I started primary school, and I can still remember the books I read as a child.

Apart from the Odyssey, what were they?

Most significant of all for my future career, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. I was completely taken up by the Great Detective's world and reread the stories endlessly. Conan Doyle is still one of my greatest idols - he's a much darker and deeper writer than he's given credit for. Apart from that, I used to read a lot of non-fiction - war stories (that's what boys did back then), natural history, exploration and so on. I never got into children's fiction and was reading adult thrillers by the time I was eleven or twelve.

Why did you choose to go to university in Oxford?

I wanted to study classics and Oxford is about as good a place to do that as there is. In fact, by the time I got there I had already experienced a major conversion. I worked in Greece for six months as a tourist guide and I suddenly realised that I was more interested in the modern language and culture than the ancient (which is not to say that I've lost interest in the ancient world, just that the contemporary is more vibrant and engaging). Fortunately there's a small sub-faculty of modern Greek at Oxford, so I was able to change course.

You changed tack again when you left university. Why shipping?

My father had been in the Merchant Navy, but that wasn't really a factor. I wanted a job that would entail travel and I wanted to use my Greek. Both duly came to pass, but I didn't enjoy the shipping industry - it was cut-throat and very soulless. However, my experience of business has been useful in handling the commercial side of being an author.

You moved to Greece in 1987. Was that the fulfilment of a long-held ambition?

Yes, I'd always wanted to have a holiday home in Greece. When the American company I was working for went spectacularly bankrupt, dropping out of the rat race (another ambition) was too tempting to pass up. By that time I was itching to write and was sure, in the irritatingly certain way that some would-be writers have, that this was my destiny. Living in Greece was relatively cheap back then and by working as a part-time teacher I could spend hours every day writing.

It took you seven years to get a publishing contract. How did you manage to keep going?

God knows. Sheer bloody-mindedness, probably. Looking back at that time, I really don't understand how I kept at it. I had an agent for three years so I suppose that was a vote of confidence in my novice abilities, but she walked away a year before I finally made good. I suppose the point is that unpublished writers are writing primarily for themselves, so not getting a contract isn't the end of the world - at least that's what they tell themselves. I'm not complaining. There are plenty of writers who spend much longer than I did knocking at the door.

Did you spend those seven years writing crime novels?

No, the first three (still unpublished and probably unpublishable) novels I wrote were "literary", whatever that means. They did have elements of crime in them, so the decision to write something more mainstream wasn't a complete change of direction. My academic time had pushed me towards literary fiction, but my family background and my own reading helped to draw me back into the fold of mass market writing.

Body Politic made quite a splash (newspaper serialisation, a lot of reviews, the Creasey Dagger for best first crime novel of 1997). Were you prepared for that?

Not really. Publishing is still a very volatile business despite the big conglomerates and bookstores. Until a book hits the reviewers' desks and the shops, no one really knows what's going to happen. The fact that Body Politic appeared two months before the devolution referendum in Scotland definitely helped. I was lucky that I had business experience, so making presentations and doing interviews weren't as terrifying as they might have been.

The Quint series numbers five novels now. Is it going to continue?

Maybe. I've used up a lot of my Scottish (and Oxford) knowledge and experience in the books, which is why I'm starting a new series based in Greece. If people want more Quints, all they have to do is let me know.

You had a house on a small island in Greece. Why didn't you use Antiparos as a location for the first book in the Mavros series?

You must be joking! The local population would either have demanded why they weren't in the book, or would have complained that I hadn't done them justice. It was much easier, and a lot more fun, to invent my own island, Trigono.

The Mavros series seems to have stopped after three books, with the central question - what happened to Alex's brother Andonis? - unresolved. Why?

To be brutally honest, because not enough people bought the books.- I still have hopes of coming back to Mavros, and the republication of the first three books in May 2009 might well kick-start the series.

You've started a new series featuring crime writer Matt Wells. Do you have other ideas on the back-burner?

I have numerous plans on my jumbo-sized Aga. Some I can't write about for commercial reasons. But I can give you a few pointers. I have longstanding interests in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the First World War, the Second World War, the future, and my native country Scotland. Let's see how many of those appear in upcoming books…

You’ve now written four novels featuring Matt Wells. How does it feel having a crime writer as your protagonist?

You mean, would I like to have a life like Matt Wells’s? Well, I guess there’s a degree of wish fulfillment. What crime novelist wouldn’t like to beat up a bad guy, fire a gun, order law enforcement personnel around? But, really, Wells is a character like any other. He’s the product of my imagination, not an extension of my personality. When I’ve had enough of him, he’ll be dropped like a stone. So cruel…

Are you excited by the prospect of returning to Alex Mavros?

Yes! And scared! It’s weird going back to a character whose brain I last entered seven
years ago. I’ve changed so he will have done so too (though not too much, as there
won’t be much of a gap in time since his previous case). I’ve still got a lot to say about Greece and plenty of plans for Alex. Since the last book, my son Alexander has been born. It’ll be strange using his name in a novel all the time…

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