ROCK DRILL: A Conversation with Doug Johnstone
Doug Johnstone is a musician, a journalist and a doctor of experimental nuclear physics – what’s more, he’s just published his second novel. ANDREW J WILSON talks to a renaissance man about success, failure and the Scottish condition.
Doug Johnstone’s playing guitar and singing in a bookshop basement when his three-year-old son toddles up to him and shouts, “Too many songs, Daddy!” It’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but why should it be? Johnstone is launching his second novel.
The Ossians (Penguin Viking, £12.99) is the story of a rising indie band and their make-or-break tour of Scotland. He wanted to quote lyrics in the book, but his editor warned him how much this would cost and suggested that he should write his own. Johnstone rejected the idea at first, and then, a month later, found himself writing not just words for his fictional band, but their music as well. Now he’s playing the songs to the crowd rather than reading from the book and Ian Rankin, no less, is listening appreciatively at the back.
Rock novels have a chequered history: not many writers can reach beyond their own adolescent fantasies when imagining adventures in the music industry, and rock stars themselves often have trouble thinking about anyone or anything but themselves. When I talk to Johnstone later, I ask him why he’s tackled the subject.“The majority of rock ‘n’ roll novels are about bands who become famous,
he tells me. “It’s a familiar narrative trajectory, not least because of rock band biographies: struggling kids long for fame; when they get fame, it turns out it’s not what they thought it was going to be like. There have been very good novels written along those lines, but I was more interested in the dynamics of failure. For every Franz Ferdinand, there are 999 other bands, some of who are arguably just as talented, who don’t make it. What happens then? Where and why did it all go wrong?”
In fact, Johnstone is in a band himself, Northern Alliance, who have already released four respected albums on their own label. Their latest CD, using the pseudonym of The Ossians, is The Macpherson Tapes, which compiles seven textured lo-fi recordings of the songs Johnstone wrote for his fictional band.
“The subculture of any country’s indie music scene is fascinating, he says, “it’s where every huge band in the world springs from, yet it’s a world that most people, who buy their CDs in Tesco and Asda, know nothing about.”
Johnstone has certainly paid his dues as a musician: “I know exactly what it’s like to be in a struggling indie band, because I’ve been in struggling indie bands for at least fifteen years. When I was younger, I busted a gut with various bandmates trying to get signed by a record label – and got precisely nowhere.”
After a decade of effort, he and a couple of good friends decided to get back to basics and simply play for the fun of it: “It’s only when that happens that good, honest music finally comes out of you – when you’re not chasing some ideal of what you think people want to hear,” he says. “We put out a record ourselves, almost as a joke, and ended up getting rave reviews. We couldn’t believe it. If a label came and tried to sign us now, we’d say no – we love what we do, and wouldn’t change a thing.”
He drew on his personal experience of shambolic and chaotic gigs for The Ossians. “Back in the day, there were plenty of times where I was so drunk and loaded that I barely knew which way the stage was. Usually that didn’t matter – I was a drummer then, and could play pretty well, even when paralytic. Some gigs were amazing, some were truly horrible…”
This familiarity with the literal highs and all-too-common lows of the music scene is one of the great strengths of The Ossians, but there is more than this going on in the novel. Johnstone also wanted to address some questions about Scottish national identity while examining the underbelly of the music industry.
He describes Connor Alexander, the lead singer of The Ossians, as “an arrogant, confused, intelligent, charismatic arsehole. He’s trying to find meaning in his life, a home he can call his own, some sense of who he is and what he belongs to. So his band head out on a disastrous tour of the Scottish Highlands, where his search for a home is ultimately fruitless and eventually life-threatening. Of course, even the band name he’s chosen is tied up in the duality of the Scottish character, that whole Jekyll and Hyde cliché that afflicts us all.”
This is an aspect of the novel that simmers underneath the surface froth of rock ‘n’ roll excess. Contemporary novelists like Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks are clearly reference points for Johnstone, but he is also aware of the long shadows of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Hogg. The very name of Connor Alexander’s band refers to the eighteenth-century work of James Macpherson.
This poet and mythmaker published “translations” of Ossian, the so-called Gaelic homer, but was exposed by Dr Johnson as only having woven fragments of ancient poems and stories into work of his own. When challenged by Macpherson, Johnson said, “I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think is a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.” The question of authenticity constantly haunts Connor Alexander, even as he descends into his own self-destructive tartan hell.
When I ask Johnstone why he has moved from music to fiction, he tells me that he’s always done both, but has changed his emphasis recently. Now that he’s abandoned music as a career, this has freed up more time to write seriously.
“Part of it was that I was just getting older and more interested in ideas and how they can be conveyed in a literary form,” he says. “I was sending off short stories to countless competitions and hearing nothing back, and I finally decided I needed a novel-length project to work on, to get my teeth into, and that seemed to be the turning point. Suddenly, I had a big thing that I could immerse myself in, and upshot was that I finally got published.”
That first novel was Tombstoning. It’s the story of David Lindsay, who returns to Arbroath – Johnstone’s own home town – after fifteen years for a school reunion. He becomes entangled in the mystery of why people are throwing themselves off the cliffs – the extreme form of diving referenced by the title.
When I ask Johnstone how his writing has evolved between books, he admits that he actually wrote an early and very different version of The Ossians first. “It was politely rejected by every publisher and agent in the country,” he tells me. “I had some positive feedback, though, which encouraged me to carry on.
The result was Tombstoning, after which I went back and completely rewrote The Ossians.
“In terms of evolution, I think I learned a huge amount during the editing process of Tombstoning, both in terms of sentence-by-sentence clarity and overall themes, plot, narrative and character development. After that process, I couldn’t believe how bad the first version of
The Ossians was, in my eyes at least, so I took it apart and started again.”
Johnstone thinks that Tombstoning had interesting things to say about the past and how we relate to it, but acknowledges that this was housed in an essentially straightforward thriller plot. “I think The Ossians has a lot more to say about truth and lies, about national and personal identity, about hopes and dreams versus crushing reality – it’s a more ambitious and, I hope, a more successful piece of work.”
How does he compare writing songs and working on novels? “The writing of songs is much more spontaneous and scattershot than the actual act of writing, which is very regimented for me. I’ve been a freelance journalist for eight years, and that’s given me a discipline in my writing, I think. I don’t really believe in writer’s block – imagine trying to swing that past the editor of a newspaper when you miss your deadline?”
Johnstone’s ideas for his fiction come to him at random, but he describes his process of planning and writing as long, complex and methodical. Music is a different proposition for him: “I almost never sit down to write a song in the same way. I usually just pick up a guitar and strum aimlessly, or flick through my notebooks of lines or phrases or ideas that have resonated with me, and see what happens from there.Music is a much more oblique art form anyway, so I think trying to pin it down in a regimented way is a mistake.”
While writing and making music, Johnstone surprisingly found the time to gain a degree and then do a PhD in experimental nuclear physics. He even spent four years designing radar and missile guidance systems for planes and helicopters, but he now writes and performs on a full-time basis. What will he do next, I wonder?
“I’ve actually just finished a draft of the next novel,” he says. “It’s not the final draft, but it’s not too far away either. It’s got another eye-grabbing, daft title, but I won’t spill the beans just yet. I don’t want to talk too much about it, not because I’m superstitious, just because, if it’s shit and never sees the light of day, then I’ll look like a right eejit by banging on about it.
“Anyway, it’s a much bigger book, both physically – this draft is over 500 pages – and in terms of scope. It’s essentially a kind of dysfunctional family saga, set partly in Portobello in Edinburgh and partly in Reykjavik in Iceland. The main character is a man approaching his fiftieth birthday who’s never done much with his life, but who suddenly has a second chance at being a worthwhile member of society and his family when he’s thrown together with his estranged children after the death of his sister. There’s a big family secret, Icelandic sagas, growing up, suicide attempts, funerals, weddings, scrimshaw, scientific exploration, exploding whales and dramatic childbirth. Does that sound like a winner to you?”
It does indeed. He’ll only need to worry if his son shouts, “Too many novels, Daddy!”