Crash Land is a novel that depicts fallible characters, coping in a way that almost seems conceivable, adding a touch of realism to this psychological thriller, steeped in lust and guilt. Set within the unforgiving isolated landscape of Orkney, the book’s location inevitably has a significant impact on the main character, Finn Sullivan, and adds to the feel of the novel.
With this new novel out and a packed-out event within Edinburgh’s South Bridge Blackwells, The Fountain spoke with writer and musician Doug Johnstone about his many different disciplines, Crash Land and being a writer-in-residence at a funeral director.
TF: So, a new book out and another page turner, driven by the plot. Are you able to give the reader a summary of what happens in the book?
Well it’s set in Orkney in Kirkwall and the main protagonist is a male Orcadian, who is desperate to leave. He meets Maddie and they hit it off. And it’s obvious that there is a disaster from the title of the novel. It’s called Crash Land, it’s inevitably about a plane crash. It’s basically about Finn who is desperate to leave Orkney, the aftermath of that initial incident and how the two main characters cope with their situation and those around them.
TF: It’s not just the book world in which you conjure up stories, being a musician and connected with the long gone Fence? Do want to elaborate on this?
I was a musician long before I was a published writer, and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be writing songs. I enjoy doing both, and they work in juxtaposition as disciplines. Writing a novel has to be a lot more of a planned thing, whereas the music stuff feels more instinctive to me. And yes, I used to be in a band called Northern Alliance, and we knew the guys in the Fence Collective, I suppose we were loosely connected with them. We put out a couple of records on Fence Records anyway, and we played a lot of their shows and festivals. It was a great experience, and I still take the guitar along to all my book events, and play songs tied into the book’s subject matter. I love it.
TF: You have also worked with a few different publishers in your author career. Are you currently settled with Faber & Faber or are we likely to see changes?
Very happy with Faber & Faber these days – they just let me get on with it, and let me write whatever book I want to. I’ve had six books with them now and don’t see that situation changing at all. My first two books were published by Penguin, and they feel a little different in tone and style. I’ve had short stories in anthologies published by other publishers, but that’s always just whenever I’m asked. I love writing short stories, actually, but seldom get the chance to, with the novels coming thick and fast.
TF: You mentioned you are a writer in residence at a funeral director this evening. Now what does that involve? You must have some fuel for fodder there?
I’m employed one day a week to help the employees to tell their stories, basically. So I’ve been interviewing staff, sitting in on their work, doing most of the jobs that are needed, and I’m putting together a bunch of creative non-fiction to tell the story of the place. I’ve been tremendously impressed with the respect, grace and empathy that all the staff have shown. I don’t think it’s a job I could do myself.
TF: Also as one of the co-founders of the Scottish Writers Football Club you are certainly keeping yourself busy. What are the perks of being involved in this club and are your team a bunch of ruffians on the pitch?
We play occasional internationals against other national writers teams, and friendlies against anyone we can think of. It’s a great excuse to be more social than usual, as writing can be an isolating business. We take the football very seriously, though we’re not particularly great. But we always do book events alongside matches, so we mix sport and culture.
TF: And your book was out Thursday, Super Thursday known to some in the trade. Came out in fact the same day as the new Rankin. What kind of person would suit Crash Land as a stocking filler?
That’s not the first time I’ve had a book come out on the same day as Ian Rankin, by the way! I don’t know what my publisher was thinking. But we’re very different writers, I guess. I tend to write very short noir thrillers, with extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. In my mind, Crash Land is like a version of Double Indemnity, set in Orkney and starting with a plane crash. It’s high-octane stuff, I suppose, so if that sounds like your kind of thing, then this would be a great stocking filler!
TF: You certainly make your characters fascinating creating fast-paced page turners. How do you get inside the mind of a criminal and create the characters you do?
My characters usually aren’t criminals per se, but they might well have committed criminal acts, or at least acted in a morally dubious fashion. I think that’s the most interesting thing, to be honest, to write about people who are in a moral grey area – after all, in the real world there aren’t really heroes or villains, we’re all somewhere in between. We all like to think we would be a hero, but in real life, a lot of us would struggle if we were up against it. That’s the kind of thing I want to write about, and if I can make the characters seem real in that way, hopefully the reader will go along for the ride.
TF: What do you focus on first – the location or the landscape of the setting or the fleshing out of a character in a novel?
I think it all comes back to character – the plot stems from character, if you don’t have characters acting in a believable way, then the plot falls apart. The setting is important, but it’s not usually the starting point. It can add depth and resonance, but without character, none of it really hangs together, I think.
TF: With many books out about the healing effects of raw, rural landscapes such as Orkney, do you personally see that these have some strong remedial purposes, particularly in literature? Look at Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun for example.
I loved The Outrun, but it has a very different feel, but it is all about Orkney, so there is that connection. I do believe that landscape can profoundly effect the way a character or a person feels, absolutely. Whether that’s necessarily a healing effect, well that depends. Sometimes a particular landscape can make you feel depressed or insignificant or scared or lost or at home.
Crash Land was published on 3rd November by Faber & Faber and is available now.