I genuinely enjoy the experience of sitting down and writing. I find the daily practice totally absorbing, and almost without fail, by the time I’ve reached the end of my daily word quota, the five or six hours necessary seem to have flown by. However, after getting to the last page of a (very large first) draft, I found myself suffering from the non-life-threatening ailment of ‘writer’s butt’. So, I am taking a break from putting too much pressure on ‘it’ and getting down to some jobs requiring attention. I’m fairly easily satisfied in what I do, just as long as I’m fully engaged, however, I am incapable of doing nothing at all. One of life’s (many) little pleasures for me is an occasional bout of physical activity, but it has to have some goal in mind other than just being exercise. I mean, send me to the gym for a daily workout and by the end of a month I reckon I’d be a candidate for Prozac. But give me an overgrown garden to dig or tell me to hack off old plaster and I’ll be as happy as a sandboy!
Yesterday, my son Tom came round to help me re-felt the roof on our garden shed. It was a lovely warm, sunny day and really great after so many grey wet months to be working outside again. Judith, over breakfast this morning, clearly enjoyed pointing out that my scalp, once graced by long, thick, chestnut locks, but now hirsutely-challenged and therefore a little sensitive to ‘the eye of heaven’, was looking a bit red and shiny. In response to this wifely mocking I simply adopted a look of noble indifference and attended to my egg and soldiers.
Tom and I have been doing jobs together since he was very small. I recall we built shelves for his bedroom when he was about seven. I let him measure and cut and drill all the wood under my close supervision. It was a very slow process and a bit frustrating as I could have done it all by myself in about a tenth of the time. I recall him asking me with sober concern for my well-being if I’d mind him going off to watch his favourite serial The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on TV - once he’d gone off, after I’d said I thought I could probably cope on my own for a bit, I admit to punching the air gleefully at the thought of being finally able to crack on!
However, when we allow our children to assist and learn like this far more is being given than just a few basic skills - we are really building people. All around our home there is evidence of work shared in this way. It was the same back home in Wales when my Dad and I built a concrete base for his garage and took on many other tasks together. Dad had a great many fine qualities, but was surprisingly ungifted at most jobs requiring even quite rudimentary building or DIY skills - even so, it was still always fun to work together!
I completed the first draft of the new book I’ve been working on a week ago. It’s massive and will need to be savagely reduced, but then that’s the way I like to work. I plan to spend a few weeks attending to some other stuff that needs my attention, then will return to it with a refreshed eye. I was ordered not to do very much this week by my wife Judith. I guess she knows the signs of when I’m tired far better than I do! I generally only realise I’ve reached the point of exhaustion when I sense an overwhelming desire to collapse to the floor and weep - I’m so lucky to have a partner who knows what I’m like and generally warns me off long before I actually reach this point. It was a good week, and I felt seriously proud when a friend whose opinions on any kind of literary offering I highly value, contacted me to let me know just how much they had enjoyed Niedermayer & Hart. He took the time to write and send an in-depth analysis of what he’d liked about the book. My tail hasn’t stopped wagging since!
On Saturday evening we watched 3:10 to Yuma - the original Glenn Ford, Van Heflin film of that title made in 1957, as opposed to the Russell Crowe, Christian Bale 2009 remake. They are both good movies, with faultless performances from both sets of leading actors, however for me it’s only the ’57 film that deserves to be hailed a classic Western. The earlier version lacks the extremely dark post-modernist ending of the later film. The short story upon which both scripts were based was penned by Elmore Leonard, which I haven’t read but most certainly plan on doing. Judith remains keen on watching any kind of cowboy film and has recently been observed by myself (still nursing some very grave suspicions - see earlier post Could the Aliens who Abducted my Wife Please Return Her!) at bedtime excitedly turning the pages of a compendium of short stories entitled The Giant Book of Western Stories. Weird, huh?
On Sunday we went to see the extraordinary jazz singer Gregory Porter at the Assembly Rooms, Tunbridge Wells. He possesses one of those rare voices that isn’t really definable, no matter how many adjectives can be strung together to assist with this purpose. But I think if you’ve ever heard him sing you’ll know immediately what I mean. The wife and I don’t really typify your regular jazz lovers, but then Gregory Porter doesn’t typify the regular jazz singer. I’ve heard him described as a ‘Jazz’ singer who possesses a ‘Soul’ voice. I suppose both of us have a deep and abiding fondness for classic soul and perhaps this is why he appeals so much. His aura as a performer radiates great warmth, which is not an inconsiderable feat at the Assembly Rooms, as this is not a venue that could ever be classified as intimate. Apparently, Porter, who grew up in California, planned to be an American Football player but his plans were scuppered by a shoulder injury. It’s hard to believe that someone with such incredible vocal talent might have considered a career in any other field. It’s also difficult to understand why Porter, born in 1971, has taken all this time to receive anything like the recognition he deserves. We first saw him on the Jools Holland show and certainly hope to see him again whenever he tours the UK. The four musicians supporting him were equally superb and deserve mentioning too: pianist and music director, Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, bassist Aaron James, and alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato. It was a tremendous evening. I highly recommend listening to this man, take a look at the Gregory Porter website where you get the opportunity to hear a few tracks. Enjoy!
It’s rare that I don’t feel genuinely excited about writing and posting my weekly blog. I don’t see it as a chore at all. It has become something that I just do - a bit like brushing my teeth! Last week I was happy to announce my hundredth (blog post) birthday, and although I felt that I ought to definitely mark it in some way, it was with a certain hesitancy that I held a competition/giveaway. I’ve laboured to create interesting competitions before for local magazines etc, and the response has sometimes been about as dynamic as a middle-aged bald guy with a comb-over who acts like he’s a babe-magnet. Not hugely successful in other words! (unless of course you’re Christian Bale in American Hustle!)
I am pleased to tell you all however, that my ‘Hundredth Birthday Compo’ really was not only a lot of fun to do, but also received a terrific response, locally, nationally and internationally. It also received, by quite a wide margin, the most hits of any piece I’ve ever posted on this blog. Thanks very much to every single one of you for taking part! I’ll even forgive the handful of people who ignored my specific instructions and entered the compo by adding a comment to the blog itself without following the right and proper procedure! Tut! Tut! Tut!
N & H proved slightly more popular in terms of requests for a signed copy - but only just, and some folk who have read both books on their Kindles chose Roadrage or either. And the response was overall so excellent that I’ve decided to improve the conditions for winning and I’m therefore going to have two draws, one solely for the UK, the other for everyone who entered from overseas. Each draw will now give away a signed copy of each book - i.e. four books rather than the two I promised. So extra chances!
I’m really sorry that not all of you can be winners - but I guess that’s what makes it fun to enter competitions.
And for all you N & H lovers out there - incidentally, I’m always delighted to hear from you -I thought perhaps it was time I ‘fessed-up, as I reach the final few thousand words of a first draft - that I’ve actually been working on its sequel. So cast your mind back and remember where it left off, all those little loose ends after they’d left Hungary and ...
But don’t hold your breath, it’ll be many months yet before it’s complete!
The competition is now officially closed. I’ll let the winners know who they are very shortly.
Once again, my sincere thanks to all of you!
This blog becomes a hundred today! I can’t honestly say that it feels like I’ve written quite that many! However, when I do a quick calculation from the time I started I realise it must be so, and what’s more, it said on Goodreads last week I’d done 99 posts. Therefore, it has to be true!
So what was the original plan, and how, if at all, has this blog in practice veered from its straight and narrow path?
The aim was simply to place the blog like a big smiley face on the landing-page of my website, so that visitors weren’t met by the same static monolith each and every time they chose to take a peek there. I’d done my research and had looked at a lot of sites. The basic Home-Page that never alters always struck me as uninviting. It certainly isn’t telling me 'if you enjoyed this post, come back some time and I’ll do my best to inform or entertain you again'.
And so there you have it - chicken and egg, or something along those lines: I created the website to market my books (then just one book) and created the blog to encourage people to keep coming back to my website. The book came first of course, but without the website and social media it would still remain my best kept secret.
I attempted to create the kind of blog I’d like to read myself. I’ve always found my limbs stiffening with a phenomenon mirroring the exact symptoms of rigor mortis when subjected to writers’ blogs that bleat on solely about different aspects of the ‘writing experience’. So, I try to make it constantly different: sometimes I’ll review a book, a film, or piece of theatre; occasionally I blog about a place I’ve visited; I might write about an artist I like; sometimes I tell a story. Of course now and again I do allow myself to plug my books Niedermayer & Hart and Roadrage - see, like that!
The stats suggest that I get around three to four thousand visitors a month, which is pretty amazing when you think my earliest goal back when I started at the end of 2011 was to get ten hits a day - for the first few months I did a post every ten days before committing to one a week. I also take a short blog holiday each summer.
Here are seven of my favourite posts (not in any specific order):
Aunty Dorothy and Squire Yorke
Do Not Go Gentle ...
To celebrate my hundredth birthday I thought I’d give away a signed copy of the trade paperbacks of Roadrage and Niedermayer & Hart. Simply get in touch through the contact form indicating which book you'd prefer, and I’ll put all the names in a hat, pick out the two winners and post them off to you. The offer is open to anyone wherever they may live.
So hope you have a go! Good luck! And here’s to the next hundred!
(winners names drawn in a week's time when new post appears!)
This morning someone called round for a book, not one of mine I hasten to add. Generally when people call by to make a purchase it’s almost invariably someone local who has come round for a copy of my wife’s book Southborough War Memorial. It was the first book we brought out under our Odd Dog Press trading name in 2009. Actually, at that moment in time, although I’d already written Niedermayer & Hart, Southborough War Memorial seemed like the only book we’d ever be likely to do. I know digital printing and e-books were already around, but they weren’t well established, and it didn’t seem at all practical or even possible back then to bring out a work of fiction without losing a stack of money and ending up with a vast number of yellowing copies of your book stacked-up under the bed!
Judith spent seven years meticulously researching and writing Southborough War Memorial. She abhors every sort of war and violence, yet she had always felt deeply moved by the personal histories of the ordinary men and women (one woman on Southborough War Memorial) who suddenly discover themselves caught up by world events and carried off to a hitherto undreamed of world where killing is organised and systematic, and human suffering and cruelty is on an unimaginable scale. Yet for all the filth and hate and degradation, there is often immense courage, kindness, and powerful demonstrations of selflessness and generosity of the human spirit. Judith took up the task in 2001, suddenly realising that the last living connection to those who had fought and died in Gallipoli, Ypres, the Somme, and many other battlefields in foreign lands were themselves fading fast; she began interviewing in earnest. In fact, by the time the book was published quite a number of the most elderly of these ‘interviewees’ had sadly passed away. She has often spoken of the eagerness of these people to relate family stories of an older brother, father or adored cousin. As the interviews concluded many of them thanked her for what she was aiming to do. When someone has a relative who has died in a war, that loss never seems to be fully mourned, the grief is never completely come to terms with - least that’s how it seems to me.
Judith planned to do her best to find a photograph and if possible something of the life and death of the two hundred and fifty-two names on our local war memorial. In most cases she succeeded, sometimes the result was beyond reasonable expectation, however, sadly, a few names beat her completely. The book is 254 pages long and its comprehensive indexes list each person by regiment and where they were laid to rest. I saw her break down in tears after setting the whole book and realising she had scanned every image (about 250) at the wrong resolution. For an hour or two I think she actually said she was giving up! It was probably Judith’s determination to finish this massive project, all done in her spare time (as I said, over seven years) whilst holding down a full time job, which in turn encouraged me to pick up my own pen again. I had been utterly discouraged and disheartened by the world of publishing after they’d initially shown so much interest in N & H - but the only thing I got in the end was a couple of free lunches and a lot of hot air and promises! A bit like Scarlett O’Hara I vowed I’d never put myself in such a vulnerable position again - well a little bit like that!
Anyway back to the morning’s book sale. I’d spoken to a bookshop owner yesterday who was ringing to order some books, and he asked if we’d mind someone calling by to get a copy of SWM as they were returning home to Wales. The lady, although originally from Kent, had lived in South Wales for the past twenty years, which of course prompted a nice little chat about home. She said she already owned the Kindle version of SWM which she liked very much but I could tell that she was very pleased to be holding the print version in her hand - book lovers are so transparent! She was also related to one of the names on the memorial - hence her very keen interest in Judith’s book. She asked me what I did and I told her that I wrote stuff too. She went on to ask if she might find my writings on a shelf somewhere and I said there were copies on the shelf directly behind her head.
I pictured another cash sale as she leafed through N & H and Roadrage. She looked very interested. I tried to look nonchalant.
She said she’d check them out on line!
A few weeks back at a family afternoon tea in honour of the ninetieth birthday of my mother in law, an avid lifelong reader, she suddenly announced to all that she had now read my second novel Roadrage for the second time and thought it was truly excellent. I felt genuinely touched and must admit to a feeling of pride swelling in my chest. The points she has made about the book after each reading were interesting and insightful; and says she particularly enjoyed the dialogue I'd created for my characters. My wife and I were rather bemused by our slightly puritanical reluctance to let her have a copy of the book initially - for her own good, of course, just in case its dark plot-lines upset her too much! Ha -flippin'-ha! After ninety years, a World War, eight children and having read literally thousands of books - at least one a day - I doubt there's much in any book that's going to shock her.
Anyway, it was jolly nice to get Mary's praise in the week of her birthday and it's definitely something I'll treasure. I have no doubt that someone will come along sometime and say less flattering things - inevitably!
I have just read my very first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark Adapted Eye, and I took a quick peek at some of the reader reviews that have been posted for the book on Goodreads. They are fascinating and insightful, again driving it home to me that a reader's experience with a novel, though in some part down to mood and situation, is often a matter of whether or not the book (assuming the work itself is basically sound!) finds the audience the author hoped to reach.
I understand A Dark Adapted Eye was Barbara Vine's (who of course wrote the Inspector Wexford series as Ruth Rendell) first outing. This is a hauntingly dark, psychological crime novel, a story about the repercussions of a murder upon a family, and its secrets. It is extremely well plotted and the writing itself is unquestionably very skilful. At times I felt that Vine's habit of providing the reader with minute detail about a room's wallpaper, a hat that is worn, or the description of the cover of a book once spotted lying on a shelf, can get a little tedious - but this is probably just me! The book is well worth reading and the family history and roll-call of names the reader has to become acquainted with is worth the effort.
I started to read a doorstep-sized piece of popular fiction about the building of a cathedral, billed on the cover of my copy as 'The Classic Masterpiece' - but fifty pages in discovered myself rapidly losing the will to live. Ah well, horses for courses as they say!
"This is flippin' awful," I told the wife.
"Don't read it then," she said.
She was right, of course, and I'd already passed my fifty pages rule! Aforementioned book was swiftly consigned to the charity shop box. The book has a huge number of admirers who heap nothing but praise on it, but frankly ...
"Shame," I said, "I just fancied reading something about the Middle Ages."
She disappeared off into the other room and came back with a copy of The Spire by William Golding. "This is good," she said, "Same period, same cathedral I reckon."
I set off.
I think it's possible to measure (to some extent) a great piece of writing by how large it looms in your psyche. This book and the religious hubris of its main character seemed to take up residence in my dreams from the moment I started reading it. It is a book packed with metaphor, and although written in the third person, it is fully inhabited by the main character Jocelyn's mental landscape. He is a man obsessed by a vison and a charge, which he is convinced has been placed on him by God, to erect a huge spire atop an already existing cathedral. This building lacks the necessary foundations that might be considered sufficient for such a vast undertaking, and against the advice of Roger Mason (the master builder in charge of the project), wisdom and sanity, Jocelyn forces through what he believes to be God's will. He is a man who feels as if he's supported by an angel, yet at the same time is tormented by demons. The book, although written in linear time, has a nightmarish quality, and an out of sync feel about it - just as the main character's clarity of purpose is unbalanced by obsession.
Serious stuff, superb writing.
Nothing whatever to do with the above, although it does perhaps illustrate how important books are in our home. Earlier this week:
After supper my wife Judith was texting a friend. She asked me, "My mind's gone blank ... who did The Source?"
Casting my mind back, "Er, James Michener," I said.
She laughed, "No, THE SAUCE - the one we had for tea!"
"Lloyd Grossmann," I replied.
There's a moment in one of my all-time favourite comedies Young Frankenstein, when Friedrich Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is locked in a room alone with the monster he fully believes to be a vicious brute. He naturally fears for his life and all he can think on the spur of the moment to say is, "Hey there, good looking!"
The monster (Peter Boyle), with a forehead like the landing strip on an aircraft carrier and not exactly much of a 'looker', is completely thrown by the remark and looks over his own shoulder to see if someone else is standing behind him, who the good Doctor is talking to.
Sometimes being a writer feels just a little bit like this for me. It still surprises (but mostly just fills me with delight!) when folk I don't actually know, who I haven't had to bribe, blackmail, or pay large sums of money to, tell me how much they actually like one or other (or both) of my books.
Do they actually, honestly, really mean me?
Back at the end of August, Simone, writing a review on behalf of The Orchard Book Club, a group of self-confessed book adorers, left a review on the Goodreads site entitled I absolutely loved, loved loved this book! for Niedermayer & Hart. Simone had read the book on her Kindle. A couple of weeks back, Simone's friends ordered a copy of N & H from my website for her birthday and asked me to write a message in it for her - something that I was of course more than happy to do!
This afternoon, after completing my writing for the day, I checked (as I do every day) my emails, website, facebook page, tweets etc. Simone had sent me a tweet to say thanks for writing in her book, and another to say how much she couldn't stop stroking its lovely cover! See, I said the Orchard Book Club are a group of totally unabashed book adorers!
Anyway, this blog wishes Simone a very happy birthday and many, many, happy returns of the day!
And finally, I'd just like to say how grateful I am to all you avid readers out there who have taken the time and trouble to sit down and say what it is about either of my books they like. It not only means a very great deal to me personally, but good reviews always encourage renewed interest which in turn (hopefully) improves sales. If it weren't for people like you, my books, without the weight of a publishing house and publicity machine behind them, would have reached a tiny audience of mostly friends and family and by now would almost certainly have pretty much sunk without a trace.
If you haven't seen this short clay figure animation, made by my son Tom Johnson to help to launch Niedermayer & Hart ever before - then you're in for a little treat. Enjoy!
Before I start, let me just say how personally grateful I am for e-books. This method of publishing has enabled me to reach a far wider audience than would otherwise have been possible. However, I'd be very sad if they meant the end of print. I think it should be very much hoped for that traditional publishing and e-books form a happy alliance.
I don't personally own a Kindle or any other kind of e-book reader. My wife does, and although she only occasionally reads a book on it, finds the experience pleasant. I sometimes read a book on my PC - this isn't entirely convenient, because it maroons me at my workstation, but it's useful occasionally. The obvious drawback of e-readers from my writer's perspective is the missed opportunity for promotion. The print version of a book is like a walking advertisement. Imagine getting into your morning commuter train: you've just finished your book on Kindle and can't think which if any of the 3791 free downloads on the machine you'd like to start next? You look around and notice half a dozen (deeply engrossed naturally!) individuals reading the print version of a book called Niedermayer & Hart. You note the name of the author, one you don't know, and then you notice another half a dozen people in your carriage are reading another M J Johnson title called Roadrage. You do a search, take advantage of the cheaper price on Kindle and download it immediately ... oops ... floated away for a moment there along the river of fame and fortune on the sweet raft of unbounded literary success ... tapocketa ... tapocketa ... tapocketa ...
Seriously though, if print ceased to exist, this long established, simple but effective form of marketing would disappear. It also strikes me that to lose printed books and the interest they generate will only help to make us more insular - which to my mind can't be a good thing - we already spend far too much time locked away in our own little worlds, glued to one screen or another. What I particularly like about print books is a willingness to declare to the world what's being read. You'd undoubtedly be viewed with some suspicion if you got on the morning bus or tube train and took out a book in a brown, plain paper cover. I suppose for some people e-readers make 'naughty stuff' possible, I understand that erotic literature is a rapidly expanding market (no intentional double entendre!).
On holiday last summer I struck up a conversation with an Englishwoman I saw sitting in our hotel's delightful garden. I observed she was reading a thriller by a well known author I'd personally never read. Christine had picked it up for 50p in a charity shop the day they left home and passed it on to me once she'd finished it - another thing you can't do with an e-reader! She and her husband Brian, a lovely couple and both dedicated walkers, were from Yorkshire. We talked books with them on several occasions. If you're a reader, just consider the number of ice-breaking conversations you've had in your lifetime that were initiated by books. I told Brian that I'd been given some of the William Brown books by Richmal Crompton for my birthday this year, and remarked on how much I'd loved them as a youngster.
"I can't really say I was all that fussed about the William books when I were a lad," said Brian.
"Really?" I asked, possibly displaying some incredulity without meaning to appear rude. "What did you used to read as a boy, then?" I asked.
Brian, a twinkle in his eye, stuck out his chest with manful pride and proclaimed,"Captain W E Johns!"
"Biggles!" I said, "Now you're talking!"
We went on to talk 'Biggles'. I think our wives may have fallen asleep at this point.
Niedermayer & Hart and Roadrage by M J Johnson are available in print and e-book versions:- Click here to buy a print version directly from this site
For e-books etc. see list to right of page
I've been taking a blog holiday. It seemed like a good thing to do. Most days I sit at my computer in the window corner of our one-time dining room with its large table awash in the paraphernalia of writing: research literature, various drafts I'm currently involved with, colour proofs for covers, a pot of pens, notes-to-self, junk mail that somehow was put down and forgotten instead of simply binned, flyers for N & H, magazine reviews and articles for both books, a manuscript stand, a laptop, a couple of diaries, and a cordless drill (Huh? Believe me I've absolutely no idea!). This is the room where on a daily basis I happily spend between four to six hours a day (my word quota has quite a variable time-frame!). My backside may occasionally show signs of dissent, and complain of its discomfort and confinement, however, in truth, my general contentment is only ever marred by the sight of a few jobs (viewed through aforementioned window) that go on requiring my
Just visible from my daily seat, I could glimpse the far end of a large stack of bricks that had accumulated and grown over the years and had become an increasingly irksome sight. I've always found it difficult to throw good stuff away. Frankly, the thought of sending potentially useful building materials off to landfill, only to find myself one day purchasing new bricks, is anathema. The bricks themselves are over a hundred years old, made from the local Wealden clay, formed and fashioned by the once esteemed High Brooms Brick Company, Tunbridge Wells, who manufactured their product about a mile and a half from where we live. The bricks were exported because of their high density and imperviousness to the ingress of water. Because of this they were used to construct the Aswan (Low) Dam in Egypt (completed 1902).
As we head into the Autumn, I knew this would be the very last chance I'd have this year to make those flippin' bricks disappear. I'd always had a plan up my sleeve for how to use them - it was just a matter of time, energy and willingness to put it into operation. The timing seemed ripe, because I also needed to get a bit of research time in on the book I'm currently engaged in writing. I've never been much of a multi-tasker, so wall-building and reading are more than enough to keep me occupied! And at the end of it all (soon I hope) we should end up with an attractively terraced new sitting area. Who knows, I may even complete it in time to enjoy its pleasant situation for a final bit of reading/research if we're lucky enough to get a few days of Indian Summer!
M J Johnson
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