Doug Johnstone tells Lianne Steinberg about boozing with Kurt Cobain and nearly attending strangers' funerals
Doug Johnstone tells Lianne Steinberg about boozing with Kurt Cobain and nearly attending strangers' funerals
Journalist, writer and musician, Johnstone’s sixth novel is The Dead Beat. In this thriller set in Edinburgh, his home city, the protagonist Martha is a young journalist interning at a local newspaper whose world is opened up to family secrets, mental illness and a grunge past.
Prior to writing The Dead Beat, had you always wanted to include something more of your musical past and your love of music in a novel?
My second novel The Ossians was actually about a struggling indie band that fell apart on a disastrous tour of the Scottish Highlands, and I used a lot of my experience of playing in bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s for that book. I hadn’t really thought of using my earlier experience in grunge bands, but gradually I came to realise that it would fit nicely into the backstory of The Dead Beat. The book is about a young journalist called Martha who gets thrown on to the obituary page on her first day. She takes a call from another employee who reads his own obit down the phone, then apparently shoots himself. Martha then gets involved in some seriously messed-up shit, and the key to it all is her parents’ generation, when they were her age.
And how did you settle on the final songs and bands that are mentioned?
I just thought it made sense to go for the landmark bands from that era and their most famous songs. I don’t think it would help the reader identify with what’s going on if I was banging on about Tad, Silverfish, Leatherface or Daisy Chainsaw, good though those bands were. What all those bands had in common was that they seemed not to give a fuck about their careers or playing the corporate game. Of course, many of them ended up doing just that, but that’s not how it started out, and that seemed like a rebellion of sorts back then.
Thank god it wasn’t Britpop. I take it you were more Mudhoney than Menswear back in the day?
Very much so. Although I did enjoy some Britpop bands, the grunge and alt.rock thing from a few years earlier was totally my thing. I was drummer in a band called Cheesegrater (who I slag off in The Dead Beat briefly) – we were terrible, kind of like a rip-off version of Mudhoney crossed with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, if you can imagine such a thing, but we had a great laugh. It felt good to be a part of something, even if that was mostly based on being wasted and throwing yourself off a stage.
Writers shouldn’t be restricted to writing from the point of view of their own gender
How easy was it to write from the perspective of a young woman and do you share her wit and sarcasm?
You know, I honestly didn’t consider the fact that my main character was a young woman until a woman friend of mine said: “Oh, you’re writing from a young woman’s point of view, that’ll be interesting.” Then I got nervous. I don’t really think that writers should be restricted to writing from the point of view of their own gender – that’s pretty dumb. I don’t see that there’s that much difference in how men and women think, and even if there is, you know, I know a lot of women – my wife, my mum, my sister, my in-laws, half my mates – it’s not that hard.
It’s very kind of you to say that Martha has wit and sarcasm. Again, I never really thought about that as I was writing – that’s really just how she emerged. In actual fact, I did soften her ever so slightly in later drafts – she was even more acerbic early on – but I just felt I was losing touch with her, losing empathy. I do quite like writing sharp, nippy characters, treading that fine line of empathy. One of my pet hates is the criticism: “Oh, I didn’t like any characters in that book.” Who wants to read about nice people? Not me, I want to read about interesting fuck-ups like Martha. As for whether I share her personality traits – perhaps a little. She is kind of misanthropic, and I have waves of that at times, but the beauty of writing a fictional character is that you can make them do and say shit that you would never dare do in real life – it’s a great release.
You review books for The Big Issue. How does that compare with criticising your own work? And do you worry what critics will make of it?
I feel it’s very important to try to put your own personal preferences aside and consider whether a book works or not on its own terms – whether the author has successfully achieved what he or she set out to do.
It’s not hard to be critical of my own work. In fact I can’t stop being critical of it. I am absolutely my own worst critic. I can’t stand all the crap I write in the first draft, then the second, third, fourth, eighth. Well, by the eighth maybe it’s starting to look not too bad. There are so many great writers out there, every time I read a brilliant book, it’s partly inspirational and partly it just slays me – that bastard just wrote something I could never write, damn their eyes.
I have a policy of reading every review once and once only
As for what other critics think, I genuinely couldn’t give a toss. Of course I’m not a mad hermit living in a cave – I want people to like this thing I’ve made but I’m also a realist. I understand that everyone is going to have different opinions. If someone doesn’t like something I wrote, I just move on. I have a policy of reading every review once and once only – it’s tomorrow’s chip wrapper and all that. Just move on to creating the next thing.
Were you worried about depicting real characters – is the barman at the Southern the real barman?
I didn’t really worry about depicting real characters in The Dead Beat, mostly because I wasn’t trying to get inside any of the famous people’s heads, they’re all really just cameos.nd I was there, and Kurt did ask me if I had any Benylin. Dave Grohl bought me a pint, but then he bought just about everyone in the pub a pint. By the way, the scene in the Southern Bar with Nirvana really happened, and I was there. The Southern was my local boozer – I was in there every night of the week anyway, and I was good friends with the guys in The Joyriders, whose singer was the brother of Nirvana’s tour manager. That’s how they ended up playing an acoustic show there on their night off. To be honest, I can’t remember much about that night, as we were all hammered, but it’s a good story anyway. It’s kind of one of those infamous gigs, but at the time it just felt like a regular night, I guess.
The scene in the Southern Bar with Nirvana really happened – I was there
The barman in the book is based on the real bar manager of the Southern at the time, with a few tweaks. We all knew him really well – it was a great hang out in those days. I don’t worry at all really about mixing fact and fiction in my writing. In fact I do it all the time. I tend to use a lot of my own experience in the books, all six of them, whether it’s music or growing up in a small town or fatherhood or drugs or whatever. I think that adding in the authentic details like that really makes a difference. It adds to the veracity of the book, and helps the reader believe that the things you do make up could really happen too. Sneaky.
Did you think in a cinematic way – the descriptions of Edinburgh are very visceral and tangible, like a Cameron Crowe depiction of the scene?
OK, let’s start the campaign right now – Cameron Crowe to direct the movie version of The Dead Beat – anyone got his number? That’s very kind of you to say those scenes were visceral, and yes, I do think cinematically when I’m writing a lot. It’s not really a conscious thing, but I think any writer of my generation – I’m 43 – has surely been brought up with and influenced by cinema, television and other pop culture just as much as, if not more than, books.
It’s kind of inevitable in this over-saturated culture that that’s the case, and I don’t see a problem with that – whatever way you want to deliver your storytelling is fine be me. When I’m writing, I can certainly picture the scene in my head, every single time – imagine if I couldn’t? What hope would I have of getting the scene across to the reader effectively?
You can’t read an obituary and not think about your own mortality
Why do you think people find obituaries so fascinating?
There is a neat little narrative about someone’s life, all wrapped up in 300, 800 or 1,000 words. It’s easy to consume and it’s generally upbeat, glossing over the darker elements of their life. But there’s also something intrinsically melancholic about the obits page, and I think people are drawn to that too. You can’t read an obituary and not think about your own mortality, your own life and how you live it, whether you’ve done enough, whether you’ve been good enough, all that. Often obituaries are like warped mirrors held up to ourselves, and that’s compelling.
That was certainly one of the reasons I became kind of obsessed with them. I just couldn’t stop reading about all these people I would never really know – wondering about all the stuff they did, all the stuff that never got mentioned, what kind of person they really were underneath it all.
In fact I became even more obsessed with the death announcements in my local paper – those tiny 100-word things – exactly because they left more room for the imagination: who was Joe Bloggs really? I very nearly started going to funerals of strangers, if I’m honest, but I managed to pull back.
But the essence of that kind of newspaper journalism is fading and soon, blogs and tweets may replace the way we recollect people’s lives. How about a 20-character summation loaded straight up to the internet. Do you worry that the craft of journalism is being eaten away?
Oh my God, Twitter obits – like the selfies at funerals craze. I might start a hashtag, #twitterobits. I think that would be kind of crass, but also worryingly compelling – I could see myself spending a few hours reading twitter obits. But it is an insult, of course, to think you can sum up any life in a few words – it’s even an insult to think you can sum up someone in a regular obit.
And of course the people who get the biggest obits are the most famous, which bores me, if I’m honest. That was one of the points I wanted to make in The Dead Beat – that everyday people like you and me and your readers are just as worthy of a full page spread, hell, a whole book, as anyone else. I am a socialist and egalitarian at heart, so that no doubt stems from that.
And yes, all that kind of journalism is dying, which is something else I wanted to examine in this novel. I wanted to make Martha a print journalist to try to show how the online world is destroying that whole culture. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, by the way – I’m kind of ambivalent about it – but it does depend on what it gets replaced with. If all we get are a million vacuous opinion pieces based on nothing, or top ten lists, or Buzzfeed quizzes, then fuck knows where we’ll all end up.
The Dead Beat (Faber & Faber, £12.99)