Published: 19/08/2014 10:02 - Updated: 19/08/2014 10:11

Inverness Book Festival: Doug Johnstone

Doug Johnstone
Doug Johnstone

NOVELIST Doug Johnstone is no stranger to appearing in front of an audience in Inverness — just not as a writer.

Today he might be better known as the author of six novels, including his latest, The Dead Beat, and Amazon hits Gone Again and Hit and Run, but he has a previous life playing what he calls "the toilet circuit" around Scotland’s less glamorous venues, including a few in Inverness.

In fact, one of his novels, The Ossians, contains a very accurate description of one well known Inverness venue, although one that Johnstone admits he never played at himself.

He might now think of writing as "the day job", but Johnstone will be bringing his guitar when he comes to Inverness on the opening day of the 10th Inverness Book Festival.

"The only time I don’t bring it is when I’m on a panel — it’s a bit too much like showing off and unfair on the other panellists," he said.

"It started with The Ossians. I put out a CD to go with the book and it got far better reviews than my real band."

Many music festivals, like last week’s Belladrum, now have their own literary tent where Johnstone’s combination of music and guitar fits right in, but even dedicated book festivals are excited when Johnstone says that he will taking his guitar because it means he can offer something different.

However, not all the questions he is asked are about music or books.

"I’m just back from a tour of the Czech Republic and on my CV I have a physics background, so I got asked a lot of physics questions," he said.

"I also got asked about the independence question a lot.

"Probably the best question was when someone asked me what was the most illegal thing I had ever done — and my parents were in the audience. So I just went through all the illegal things I’d done — and no, I’m not going to tell you!"

Possibly even more disturbing to those of a certain age, including Johnstone and his contemporaries, is that his latest book, The Dead Beat, looks back to what his heroine Martha regards as a far off time — the early 1990s of grunge and Britpop.

"That was almost a joke amongst my friends," Johnstone said.

"If we’d had kids a little younger, they would be around Martha’s age. You also see all these kids walking around with Nirvana t-shirts on who weren’t even born when Kurt Corbain died."

Nirvana make an appearance in The Dead Beat, recalling the time the grunge leaders played Edinburgh’s Southern Bar as "very special guests" of Inverness/Edinburgh band The Joyriders.

Johnstone was there too and the scene is one of a number in the book he recalls from personal experience as an active member of the Edinburgh music scene at the time.

"I liked being able to use that experience," he said.

"I was in bands at the time and going to see bands every night of the week. I loved that community spirit of the underground of that time and I wondered what happens to that. Do you live like that your whole life or, like one character in the book, do you close yourself off? I find both approaches interesting and I just wanted to look at that kind of area."

It was also interesting to look back at that period through the eyes of Martha, who belongs to the generation who can listen to any song at the touch of a button and for whom a Walkman is a strange and unknown machine.

Martha, an obituary writer on an Edinburgh newspaper, is an intern rather than a professional journalist and this book, like its predecessor Hit and Run, touches on the decline of the journalism industry.

"I find it fascinating how newspapers are trying to survive by being staffed entirely by interns and it’s a vicious circle because if you don’t have the writers, people aren’t going to buy the newspaper," Johnstone, himself a freelance journalist, said.

"It’s quite terrifying how things have gone and papers I have written for in the past are just toiling to keep themselves from going under. It was fascinating to look at in fiction because it raises so many questions. If we’re just left with bloggers, where is the quality control?"

Anyone who glances at Johnstone’s twitter feed will see that he has some strong opinions, not least on the subject of the independence referendum.

However, it is not something that is likely to feature in any of his books, and not just because of the long lead in time between writing and publication.

"I’m not sure the novel is the best place to do that anyway. I don’t mind political novels, but I’m very wary, as a writer, of bashing people over the head about issues," Johnstone said.

"I’m more interested this days about writing personal stories that then become universal because I always want the reader to ask: ‘What would I do in those circumstances?’ I am fairly political, but I try not to be in my work for all those reasons."

Johnstone’s books tend to be found in the crime section of your local bookshop, but seems quite happy to be there, suggesting that the traditional divide between literary and genre fiction is a lot less apparent in Scotland.

"If you look at the Scottish Novel of The Year and The Scottish Crime Book of The Year, these things overlap and you have authors like Denise Mina and Louise Welsh (who also appears at the Inverness Book Festival on Tuesday) where the boundaries aren’t even there," he said.

"A good book is a good book and to me literary fiction is just another genre because it has its own tropes and its own rules and to think it’s any better because of that is just stupid."

Novelist, journalist, musician and former physicist, Johnstone has another talent he can claim — international footballer.

Well, in Scottish Writers FC at least.

"Myself and this other guy, Allan Wilson, started the Scottish writers team and people laugh as if there’s no crossover between the two, but it’s great," he said.

"Writers are quite solitary people, so the idea that we can get together and play writers from other countries — we’re going to play Italy in Rome in October — is just awesome. There’s a great sense of camaraderie and if I could give up writing and just play football, then I would do that — honest!"

• Doug Johnstone appears at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 19th August as part of the 10th Inverness Book Festival.

His latest novel, The Dead Beat, is published by Faber and Faber.

Doug Johnstone will also be appearing in Ullapool next month as part of the Loopallu Festival's new Literally Literary writing strand on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th September.

Also appearing will be bestselling author Christopher Brookmyre; Katie Morag creator Mairi Hedderwick; writer; Loopallu regular, BBC presenter and now author Vic Galloway; and Aidan Moffat, better known as the frontman for Arab Strap and now children's author.

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