Today we’re off to Manchester, England for a little chat with the renowned Yorkshireman, Clive Johnson. His rapier-like wit assured us of an entertaining interview. Read on and I’m sure you’ll agree.
Jim: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Clive: I was born in Yorkshire in the UK, usually referred to as ‘God’s Own Country’, mainly because Yorkshiremen are renowned for their humility. This was in the mid-1950s, when everything was in black and white, but eventually I ended up in civilisation when I moved to Manchester in the seventies and there found a world that was in colour – psychedelic admittedly.
I was there to acquire a degree in electronics or, as the perceptive would say; ‘dossing around for a few years at public expense’. In fact, I enjoyed it so much – Manchester, that is, not the dossing around bit – that I still live there to this day … and most days, come to that. Fortuitously, it was where I also met my Editor, Kit, oh, and my lifelong love and companion – she’s scrawled that last bit in blue pencil!
After uni’ it was twenty years thoroughly enjoying myself designing mainframe computers, until the writing on the wall shouted “British engineering’s dying a death, mate!” So, I sold my soul and became an IT Manager, and so entered the Realm of Geeky Tedium. Well, it started out alright but then Microsoft took over the world.
Eventually, though, I got out and so have spent the past ten years ‘down-sized’. That means doing a job where you’re simply paid for what you do, not fooled with a fancy title, company car and expense account into working for an effective peanut an hour, tops. That left me some real free time which I used to pursue enjoyable things, like riding motorbikes and, in recent years, writing. No, I mean it, it really is enjoyable. Well, for me anyway.
Jim: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
Clive: I’ve recently come back to an old love and natural skill: Drawing. You’ll find some of my old and newest stuff in ‘Of Weft and Weave’, but we also visit National Trust historic properties, I do some gardening (enough to stop the neighbours outlawing us) and an unholy amount of Twittering (I’ll say three hail-Marys, I promise).
Jim: Do you have a day job?
Clive: Yes, the bills do have to be paid, you know! I’m one of about eighty regional Incident Support Unit operatives, working on the Northwest’s motorway network (that’s freeway in the States). We do just about anything needed to help keep the network free running and safe, so that includes removing debris and road-kill, ensuring signs can be read, making temporary repairs to potholes, making accident scenes safe, assisting the emergency services and clearing up at the end. If the motorway has to be closed then we’re the ones you’ll swear at, as you come past in the diversion tailback. It can be quite rewarding, though, seeing the flood of relief on people’s faces when you’re first on-scene, for example. We operate large trucks which not only carry equipment and supplies but can also quickly protect the vulnerable. Folk don’t realise how scary our busy motorways are until they find themselves standing on them, out of their vehicles. We refer to it as the ‘shooting gallery’, the trouble is a lot of the bullets weigh forty plus tons!
Jim: When did you start writing, and when did you finish your first book?
Clive: You remember the ‘dossing about’ bit I mentioned earlier? Well, it was during that time that I started writing, and I mean writing. This was pre-personal computing, remember! Yes, there was such a time. It would have been 1979, I think, but the story was only rushed to completion and then forgotten, until sometime in the late 80’s. I actually tried transcribing it to a BBC Micro computer – floppy disks and all – and in the process added a bit more. It was never really completed, by any stretch of the imagination, and just ended up in the loft of the house we eventually moved to, where it stayed until a few years ago.
We had the loft insulation upgraded around 2008 or 09, and guess what was unearthed in readiness? No, no, there weren’t any of those magazines – not up there, anyway – no, it was the manuscript, silly. I nearly threw it out, as you do in more mature, rash moments, but some youthful impetuosity intervened, stayed my hand and enticed me into reading it.
It was crap, it really was, incredibly badly written, but it had a pretty good story, enough to keep me reading. My only thought then was simply to knock it into some shape – during transcription to PC, so it could be saved for an uncaring posterity. Its title had been ‘The Winds of Change’, but the story that was eventually stored in its Microsoft Word file became ‘Leiyatel’s Embrace’.
I’m not that orthodox, really – stop sniggering at the back! I’d promised myself that I’d finish by making a book of it and so that’s exactly what I did – made a book. A real, physical, hand-bound book. I was surprised enough by how well it all turned out that I lent it to a good friend, someone who knows a thing or two about books, and fantasy writing in particular. It was Gillian who first planted the seed of publication, although she warned that no traditional publisher would countenance such a long novel from an unknown writer. It was her throw-away comment “Well, there’s always indie publishing!” that nudged me forward. Come November of 2011, Leiyatel’s Embrace hit Amazon’s rather crowded e-book shelves.
Jim: From where do the ideas for your stories come?
Clive: I have a very lateral mind, one that’s always been visually highly productive. I think in images, work things out through images and, I’ve since learnt, write in images. If I can see it, then I can describe it; be it place, person or the passage of a story’s time. Maybe it’s this image aspect that gives me so many lateral connections, but a story’s image will always suggest so many others that the tale simply ends up spilling out into the prose. It’s quite possibly why some of it becomes verse, or why much of my prose has a rhythmical lilt or meter or ayre. What I’m really saying is that I don’t honestly know. It often seems to me that the stories come from some other writer and all I do is act as their scribe. Where I do have to work out a narrative, then it helps that I’m such a highly logical thinker for the solution invariably needs nothing more than teasing out as the only plausible consequence.
Jim: Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Clive: No, never!
Jim: Do you outline or write “by the seat of your pants”?
Clive: Well, both really. I tried planning it all out on paper once but it was hopeless, a complete waste of time. I do all my planning in my head, hold all the story’s elements, the settings, the characters’ natures, idiosyncrasies, mannerisms and the like, all in grey-matter. It’s the only place it makes any real sense, and the place that provides a natural acid-test. If it stays in my mind over a period of time then it’s meant to be in the book, if not then it was plainly dross to be discarded.
Having said that, I’ll frequently find the words telling a different story before my very own eyes, one that’ll make me sit back and say “Where the hell did that come from?”, but more importantly “Why?”. I’ll let you into a secret. I’ve left stuff in my books that’s meant nothing at all to me until much later, sometimes a book later, something that then suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. It’s a bit odd really, and a bit scary at times.
Jim: What author or book influenced you most in your writing?
Clive: There’s an easy answer and then one I’d really have to think hard about. The easy one is Mervyn Peake, mainly Titus Groan and Gormenghast. I found Titus Alone totally unsatisfactory, no doubt because of Peake’s late-stage mental illness at the time and the fact the work was completed by others, largely from his notes.
Tolkien in many ways, but in many ways not. I loved and enjoyed the magical fantasy of Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, but found it lost its absorbing appeal as I matured. I just couldn’t sustain my disbelief long enough to write in exactly that same genre.
Olaf Stapledon, E R Eddison, Dickens, Stanislaw Lem, C S Lewis, Steven King, and the list goes on. All wonderful writers, nay but inspired visionaries, who each added their own unique and varied colours to my palette, each in their own way. If I were to plunge any deeper then I’d seriously risk never coming up again, so many influential writers have entered my mind and soul with their ideas, with their beauty, their horror and many kinds of genuinely true magic.
All authors take much time to get their feet truly under the tables in your mind, and so there’ll be many who I’ve yet to recognise have even sat there. Stuart Ayris is certainly one contemporary author, his Tollesbury Time Forever having left its own mark. Ask me in ten years’ time and I’m sure there’ll be more.
Jim: What challenges did you face in getting your book published?
Clive: None! Having decided that traditional publishing offered me practically no advantages, the indie path proved simplicity itself. For anybody with no real IT or software background then there are a few odd hurdles to be mastered, but in essence it’s pretty straightforward.
Jim: If you had to go back and do it again, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published you’d do differently?
Clive: Oh yes, obviously so. We all learn in whatever we do. I don’t consider myself an author, not really – an apprentice at best. My first apprentice-piece was Leiyatel’s Embrace and it’s already had two published updates to improve its readability. What I learnt in that naturally benefited Of Weft and Weave, my second novel, and so with the third – in what is now the Dica Series – A True World.
I’d like to think my fourth will be even better. If not then it’s time to hang up the mouse and keyboard, and find something more productive to do.
Jim: How do you market your work? What works best for you?
Clive: I don’t really, not seriously. I’m not a natural marketeer. I don’t have the killer instinct, you see! I use Twitter to get my name about a bit, and my books of course, but I don’t aggressively acquire followers. As a matter of fact I infrequently follow others and am now careful about who I follow-back. I try to filter out the non-real accounts, or the single-minded book promo authors, or just the plain weirdoes.
I have a cursory presence on Goodreads, principally for the use of their blog facility, and pages on Facebook, that I try to check at least once a month! I suppose, if it were my only livelihood then I’d be far more active, but then I’d have far more time to devote to it.
Jim: What was your favorite part of this story to write?
Clive: I can’t tell you. If I did, I’d have to kill you! You see, one of my greatest joys is the mystery aspects of my tales, and so almost all that I write constitutes potential spoilers. It also largely explains why I’ve been loath to spend too much time marketing. How can I entice people to read something that I can’t really tell them very much about at all, not without spoiling it?
My readers do love my highly visual descriptions, that I can say; the idiosyncratic way they’re delivered and their often quirky nature. It’s another part of my work that I do so love to write, but some are put off by it. It’s not a style for everyone, not a ‘best-seller’ recipe, but I and many, I’ve been surprised to find, love it and so that’s enough for me.
Jim: Do your characters lead you on merry chases, creating new plots or do you have to pull it out of them?
Clive: Please refer to answer to question: Do you outline or write “by the seat of your pants”?
Jim: What’s the most amusing thing that happened during the writing of this book?
Clive: Life. It never ceases both to amaze and amuse.
Jim: Why this story? What was your inspiration?
Clive: As I’ve already described, I’m driven by images, but not just that. Images for me carry more than just a picture, it’s the reality of the place; the events, the light, heat, weather and the intimate feel of the place. That’s what started ‘The Winds of Change’, that visceral knowing of the Realm of Dica. What the air tasted of, how the winds felt sharp, crisp, and searchingly cold, even under the bright sunlight. The inspiration was a vision, but where it came from I’ll probably never know.
Jim: Tell us about your writing environment. Is it messy or neat? Is there a cat on the desk or a dog at your feet? Do you use pen and paper, laptop?
Clive: I mainly write sitting on a sofa, a large one, a large three-seater with thick cushions. Sometimes there’ll be one of our cats nearby, occasionally attempting to muscle in between me and the keyboard, for I do indeed write straight to laptop. I’m moderately tidy, but certainly not fanatically so.
Jim: What about your process? Do you produce consistent daily or weekly word counts or do the words rush out all at once and leave you with a dry spell?
Clive: Process! You’re having a laugh, surely. I write when I can for as long as it feels right, but I am pretty single-minded, easily becoming forgetful of other apparently more important things. That’s just me, though, the way I am with anything I do. My only measure is empirical; my two novels to date have had just short of fifty chapters each. Irrationally, I assume the third will be the same – for no good reason than I am, after all, a simple human animal. I therefore understand my ‘progress’ in terms of chapters, irrespective of how long they are – it all comes out in the wash, after all.
I don’t tend to have ‘dry spells’ – I must take after the British weather, I suppose – but do make more progress immediately after soaks in the bath, so maybe there’s a connection there!
Jim: What project are you working on now?
Clive: The third volume in the recently created ‘Dica Series’, the follow on from ‘Of Weft and Weave’. The working title is ‘A True World’, which is very likely to be its published title.
Jim: What was the toughest criticism you received as an author? What was the best compliment?
Clive: I seem to have been very fortunate in only having had the one adverse criticism, so far. It wasn’t so much tough as disappointing, on an emotional level. The reviewer quite honestly said they couldn’t finish the book, that it just seemed an excuse for the author to hear his own voice – to paraphrase. A fair criticism and, to be honest, a sentiment I was expecting to come across more often. I do not write in what has been described as the sound-bite manner of much current literature. I am not a writer of fashion.
I write for readers who will happily afford me the time, effort and intelligence to reap their own rewards, to bring their imagination and wit to bear and so be led beyond the words alone. Hence, the best compliments I’ve received have been just that, that a reader has enjoyed having their thoughts stirred not only by the exquisite descriptions but also the deeper questions posed. I write for enquiring minds, as well as lovers of fantasy, mystery and, believe it or not, science fiction.
Jim: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Clive: Hmm! Now you’re asking! I believe there are a few maxims but my believing doesn’t make it any truer. So, for what it’s worth:
- Write only for yourself, not to a market model or genre formula.
- Do NOT write lazily. Don’t thoughtlessly adopt common phrases, always be imaginative and original, especially in your descriptions.
- Be succinct – ‘murder your darlings’. It may seem strange coming from me, someone who ‘would use forty words where ten would do’, but your prose will always benefit from having the crap cut from it.
- Read good writers – I mean, really read their works. Analyse and understand why those passages that work so well do so. It’s something I’ve had to work hard at myself, to use less yet still deliver more.
- Learn how to write! It may seem obvious, and maybe that’s why so many more authors ignore it these days, but if you can’t naturally conjugate, correctly assign object and subject, and all the other wonderful components of our rich and powerful language, then learn how to. Whatever style you choose, it will always benefit from a decent grammatical foundation. After all, you want to be an author, right? Then you must be having a passionate love affair with all things written – so consummate it!
- Most importantly of all, make sure you have a story to tell. Don’t confuse events, incidents, locations and people with story. The story’s the gripping thread that links all these things together – or should be. Be especially wary of neat or clever devices. They often give the appearance of being a story but never are.
- Finally, enjoy writing for writing’s sake for everything else is little more than ephemera.
Jim: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Clive: Quite simply thank you. Thank you for having the kind of enjoyment I had in its writing, and also thank you for revealing things, through your kind reviews, that I was never aware of, things that have gone a long way to creating the latest volume.
Jim: Where can we find you on the web?
Goodreads Author Page, Books and Blog
What a totally excellent article, dudes!!!!!
Loved it – amusing and interesting. Much better than your average author interview (including mine!) it’s also nice to read more about someone I ‘know’ a bit in the Twittersphere. I knew about the university (‘uni’ – you said THAT, Clive??) and the motorway bit, but I like to picture people at home, writing, and where they do it.
Loved how one of your answers to the ‘advice to authors just starting out’ question was ‘learn to write’ – I always say that, too! Never fails to amaze me that people will try to write a novel when they don’t even know where to put commas. Can I do my ‘you wouldn’t try to build a house if you didn’t know how to do bricklaying’ analogy again? No, perhaps not.
Clive – I used to be in black and white, too! it’s something we often say in our family – about how we lived in Cambridge when I was little and we were all in black and white. Ha ha!! I think you need to have been 50s born to get that one…!
Thanks for coming by, Terry! Isn’t Clive just grand?
Ayup, thanks you two. What a lovely response Terry, thank you. I’m sure you’re just being modest, though. It’s a failing with those who grew up in black and white :^|
Great interview Clive. Loved learning about you. Your wit and and humor through out the interview sounds just as I thought you’d be like. A true gentleman. I loved the questions, they’re different than others. I enjoyed reading this very much. Much luck to you and your books. Comfy couch and a laptop is your office, cool and comfy…..great interview Jim:-D
Thanks for stopping by, Kim! It was a great interview, and one of my favorites. Clive is a corker, isn’t he?
What an interesting interview. I, too, grew up in the “black and white” era and loved it when color made its presence known!
Clive had some terrific comments, it was nice getting to know him a bit here.
Same here, Susan! I remember how amazed I was to see my first color TV. It was breathtaking!
Thanks for your kind comments Susan. I’m glad you found it interesting. It was good of Jim to invite me.
This is soooo cool!!! I love to read anything Clive Johnson writes (except when his jokes on me are better than mine on him, but that’s just cuz I got me issues with winnin) 😛
I am a BIG Clive Johnson fan. NO WORRIES, I’m not his “number 1 fan”, I couldn’t pay attention long enough to stalk someone, but if I could, I’m sure it’d be Clive Johnson! Pretty sure! LOLOLOLOL
Love the interview!!! Thank you Jim!!!
Thanks for those comments, Vonda. Clive should maybe watch out for himself??
Great blog from a great guy .. LUV IT !! ;:):) Superb questions AND responses… well done both of you ..
Thank you Seumas! Come back to see us soon!
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I had no idea Clive was from Yorkshire since he lives in Lancashire. I might like his writing even more now as a fellow Tyke (we’re tribal sods)! Great interview, Jim, thanks.
Glad you enjoyed it and hope you’ll come round for more.
Just did 🙂
We’re rum bu££ers tha knows, us tykes! Partial like.