Interview with Debbie Johnson:

Author of: Fear No Evil which I reviewed 10th January 2015 as Ghosts, Ghoulies and God? Love, Liverpool and Life? And really liked…..

Can you tell your readers something about why you chose this particular topic to write about? What appealed to you about it? Why do you think it is different and your approach is unique?

The topics in Fear No Evil came about because of my very varied reading habits. I love my crime fiction, especially lady sleuths like Kinsey Millhone and VI Warshawski, as well as more comedic heroines like Stephanie Plum. But I am a child of the Hammer era, and also grew up fascinated by horror, by ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. I’d never found a book that combined all of them – humour, investigation and goosebumps – so I decided the best thing to do was write one! I have a girl crush on my lead, Jayne McCartney, and love her humour, and toughness, and intelligence – I wanted to write a heroine who I’d like to go to the pub with! I also really wanted to create something set in Liverpool, where I live, that reflected both  its glories and its problems.

How long do you think about a topic before deciding to write about it? Do you have a set of notes or a note book where you write down topics that appeal before making a decision as to which topic this time?

I wish I was that organised! I tend to get inspired by very tenuous things – names, songs, stray scenes or situations that pop into my head. As well as the above-mentioned genres covered by Fear No Evil, I also write more mainstream women’s fiction, for Harper Impulse, and an urban fantasy series for Random House that has witches and vampires and the like gallivanting around modern day Liverpool. So I do, in fact, cover a lot of topics! I do have a notebook – I don’t write my stories longhand in it, but I use it to jot down ideas, flesh out plots, and very often to help me remember bits of dazzling dialogue that I’d otherwise forget!

How long does it take to research a topic before you write? And for this book?

All books need a little bit of research – and I do wonder how we lived before the internet, before we could find out random facts at the push of a button. But, for example, if I’m working on a straightforward chick lit type story, I probably won’t need to do as much as with others. With Fear No Evil, I did some research into demonic possessions, exorcisms and the like – which really did NOT make for peaceful nights’ sleep! In fact I terrified myself.

 What resources do you use? In general and for the last book that you wrote?

If it’s something simple – a geographical fact, for example – then obviously I use the ubiquitous google. But with other subjects, if I really need to shore up my knowledge, then I’ll invest in a couple of good books. That’s what I did on the possessions etc, I bought some excellent books that now make me shiver a bit every time I pass them on the bookshelves. I was at one point considering writing something that involved organised crimein the former Eastern bloc and that was definitely one where I bought properly sourced and referenced books rather than trusting Wikipedia or whatever – I’ve not as yet pursued it, but they are still there waiting for me.

How helpful do you find authority figures such as the police when you say you want to write about them? Is there a good way to approach them in your experience?

I’ve not formally approached anyone within an organisation such as the police – but I do know a few people who work in the emergency services, law and the like as friends, so I’ve been able to pick their brains. I also worked as a local journalist for many years before I became an author, which gives you a good working understanding of the way things work – being a news reporter is very good footing for knowing a little bit of stuff about a lot of different stuff!

How many times have you been rejected before your first novel was accepted or before this book was accepted?

Goodness, that’s a long story…Fear No Evil was started in 2010. It was glowingly rejected (in terms along the lines of ‘I love this story but it’s a bit too quirky’) by many people. They couldn’t grasp the genre-hopping.  I then wrote two other full length books in different genres, that were equally as glowingly rejected, and then a series of short length romances that also went through the mill. In all honesty, at least one of my books has probably been rejected by every major publishing house in Britain! And then, like buses, everything seemed to happen at once – and I ended up with three published in a year!

Did you need to self-publish on e-books before a publisher took you up?

No, I’ve never self-published. That’s not out of any disrespect for people who do, there have been some amazing success stories, but I knew it wasn’t the route for me – I also work as a freelance copywriter and I have three children. I simply wouldn’t have had the time and dedication you need to make self-publishing work. I also had an agent, as a result of winning a writing contest called the Harry Bowling Prize, so I wasn’t alone in all this – she was busily working away behind the scenes, pitching me to everyone she could.

Would you recommend self-publishing and building an audience before approaching a publisher? If so, what benefits do you see that it might have for the aspiring novelist?

As I said, it wasn’t the right route for me – but for some it has worked fantastically. And I can completely see why they do it – it’s a very hard industry to break into, especially if you have no track record, or are writing in an unusual genre or mixing genres. It’s very difficult to get a publisher to take a chance on a new name in this day and age, so some writers may feel they have no choice. Others might like the sense of control and autonomy it gives them. And if it works – I think we can point to the likes of James Oswald and Tracy Bloom – then boy does it work! A huge self-publishing success can really make publishers sit up and take notice. But for everyone succeeding, there are probably thousands struggling.

Does writing provide sufficient income to live on? And how long did it take before this happened?

In my case, not yet – though I live in hope! Some people get that kind of financial success quickly, due to talent and hard work and plain luck, but most authors don’t. It’s a long, hard slog, and certainly to start with there is usually relatively little financial gain for the amount of hours you put – probably less than minimum wage. And sometimes that feels depressing – you bust a gut, and end up with hardly any money, and have to read terrible reviews where people slag you off all the time. It’s not easy! But – and this is the but that keeps us all at it – it is a fantastic way to earn your living. Writing, something I’ve always done and always enjoyed, helps keep me sane, allows me to blow off steam, live vicariously through my characters, and bring pleasure to others – because when you get the good reviews, or the nice emails from readers, it feels fantastic. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and it’s good to be a creator, not just a consumer.

I know quite a few other authors, and they range from people who make a few hundred pound per book, to people who make very decent livings from writing one book a year. It varies massively. I don’t think anybody should go into a writing career as a money-spinner – but I like to think that if you are good enough, hard working enough, and yes sometimes lucky enough, you’ll get there. Ask me again in a couple of years’ time!

What is the best piece of advice you were given that you could pass on to aspiring writers?

There are a few things I’d pass on that I was told myself and I’ve found useful. Firstly, after you’ve written your masterwork, put it away in a real or virtual drawer for a few weeks and then go back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. You simply wouldn’t believe the things you notice when you’re not in the thick of it all. Secondly, when you are editing down or making cuts, if you are even considering losing a scene, then cut it – not matter how nicely written or how clever the writing, if it’s not working, get rid. Thirdly, don’t just delete it – tuck it away in a second word document, because you may get to use it again in a future piece of work! And fourthly – if you do get to the stage where publishers are looking at your work, and they suggest changes and edits, don’t feel offended or overwhelmed. Read them through, have a little cry, punch a hole in a cake, whatever you need to do – but then go away and think about it. Because a lot of the time, they are right!

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