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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Interview: Elaine Johns

The lovely author Elaine Johns is stopping by the blog today for a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a nice chat about her writing and her books!

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background. 

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, attended Italia Conti Performing Arts Academy in London and made records with my twin brother which ‘scraped’ their way into the charts in my teens. I have travelled the world as a musician, playing the flute and singing in several big bands where I met my partner Larry (a saxophone player and novelist). We played night clubs, hotels and cruise ships and came back home to a residency in the rooftop club at the London Park Lane Hilton.

I am a twin; my older brother Derek (10 minutes older) is an actor who played the Irish assassin in Harry’s Game and has been playing Charlie Fairhead in the BBC drama Casualty for many years now. He thinks he is an expert on all things medical because of his experience in the series, but really he only knows enough to kill you. We have that twin thing going on where you always seem to know what the other one is up to (sometimes inconvenient) and, thankfully, I don’t look a bit like him – although to be fair, he doesn’t look too bad for his age.

I used to teach full time in Truro College, but currently only teach part time as well as invigilating so that I can have time to write. I love my evening students and their passion often inspires me. I enjoy writing short stories and have had several in print in women’s magazines. However, I concentrate now on writing my books and it’s a special feeling to see them in print and to think that people are reading them – and trying to picture who those people might be.

I adore living in Cornwall with its dramatic scenery and beautiful coastline. 


How did you first become interested in writing? 

I guess I’ve always been interested in writing, from my earliest days in school, always scribbling and making up characters. I inherited my mum’s love of reading and she encouraged us to read everything, no matter what kind of story or genre as it takes you to another world. I used to have to write lots of formal essays with academic language, and writing fiction was a sort of counter-balance to that. I just love inventing characters and stories and I’m one of those awful people who listen in on other people’s conversations at bus stops etc. Writing makes me smile, apart from when it doesn’t of course, and I’ve written myself into a blind alley or somewhere that isn’t going to work! 


What draws you to writing women’s fiction? 

I suppose that first and foremost because I am a woman and I care about things that women have to go through in life. That could be having to fight for recognition in a man’s world, or juggling a work/life balance whilst trying to look after your family, or trying to come up to the exacting standards of ‘the perfect body’ that magazines try to impose on us. Finding love and companionship of true value isn’t easy for women either, in a world that is sometimes quite cynical. 

Maybe it sounds pretentious, and I don’t want it to, but I care about things like how women are treated when they are having their babies, at a time when they are vulnerable. Although my Chic Lit book Ice Cream for Breakfast is a light, holiday read, and has a humorous voice, I highlighted a couple of women’s issues in it that I feel particularly passionate about. The book isn’t meant to be a social commentary or preachy though, just a bit of fun and entertainment, but I wanted to be true to myself and put in a couple of things that I care about. It was always a natural thing to do also, to write women’s fiction, as I really enjoy reading it. 

Tell me about your books. 

I’ve published 4 books: Lemonade and Lies, Finding Mary, Ice Cream for Breakfast, and a children’s book for 8 to 12 year old's called The Last Climbing Boy (although this is also a ‘cross-over’ as adults have read it as well and tell me they enjoyed it.)


Interview, Elaine Johns, Author, Lemonade and Lies, Books, Writer, The Writing Greyhound, Lorna Holland
Image: Elaine Johns
Lemonade and Lies is a women’s fiction/mystery set in Cornwall, Scotland and Norway. I particularly wanted to use Norway as one of the settings for it as Larry and I spent many happy times there playing music, and I know the place well. I used Oslo and one of my characters takes an unscheduled swim after falling off a ferry into the freezing waters of the Oslo Fjord. The book’s protagonist is thirty-two year old Gill Webster, an optimist. Her mother taught her from an early age to take life’s lemons and make lemonade out of them. But when you’re a single mum trying to juggle two children, a job as a lecturer, pay the mortgage, fix a dodgy boiler and scrape up this month’s child minding fees, you have to squeeze those lemons pretty hard sometimes. 


Interview, Elaine Johns, Author, Ice-Cream for Breakfast, Books, Writer, The Writing Greyhound, Lorna Holland
Image: Elaine Johns
Ice Cream for Breakfast is a chic lit set in a Fawlty Towers type of small hotel in Newquay. It follows the day to day life of its heroine Stevie. I feel quite close to this book, especially as the hotel I’ve used for the setting is one that I played music in for several years during the summer season and Christmas when my children were growing up. (However, the name of the hotel has been changed in my book in case the manager recognises it!)


Interview, Elaine Johns, Author, Finding Mary, Books, Writer, The Writing Greyhound, Lorna Holland
Image: Elaine Johns
Finding Mary is a commercial women’s fiction. Its time frame is contemporary and the book is international, set in Ireland, America and London. It is about the loss of family and the subsequent reuniting of two sisters in a heart-warming finale.


Interview, Elaine Johns, Author, The Last Climbing Boy, Books, Writer, The Writing Greyhound, Lorna Holland
Image: Elaine Johns
The Last Climbing Boy. I wrote this book because of my love for Dickens and I wanted to write an historical adventure that could be read by children. I was particularly affected by the research I had done into the cruelty of the Victorian Industrial era when children were made to work long hours in factories and sent up chimneys to sweep them because these boys (and sometimes girls) were small. Often these children got stuck in narrow chimneys and were left to die, their corpses being removed later by a mason who would go up onto the roof to dismantle some of the chimney. Protagonist Tommy Hopkins is a ten-year-old orphan and an amazing climber. He is a Victorian climbing-boy forced to work in dangerous, dark chimneys with only a small brush and a scraper - often when the flues are still burning hot. One night, his master Belter goes too far and savagely beats a new climbing-boy. Tommy comes to his rescue and becomes a hero. 

How do you get inspiration?

I get inspiration from all sorts of places: listening to people talk to each other about events (eavesdropping again!) reading about things in newspapers, researching old newspapers, from television and from people saying “Hey, don’t you think this would make a good story?” I used to do a lot of swim training and plodding up and down swim lanes is very boring with only the bottom of the pool to look at, so I would often say to myself – what if this happened or how would this be – trouble with that is that you have to jump out of the pool to find a notebook. Another great way to get inspiration for writing is walking along a Cornish beach and watching the waves crashing in.

What’s your writing process?

Usually, I’ll have an idea in my head for a character, but probably only a vague idea what the plot line will be, so the story has to grow organically. I’m one of those ‘seat of your pants’ writers who just begin by writing the first page and see where it goes from there. Obviously this will only take you so far, so eventually, once I start to get engaged with a book, I will sketch out a structure – a skeleton to hang it on. This will often change though as I get into the plot and sometimes the characters go off on a journey of their own that surprises you. I’ve discussed this with friends (who don’t write) - the way that your characters can often tell you what to do - and they don’t believe me. But friends who write themselves understand this perfectly, and have often sat in front of a screen and written a passage that has surprised them. Spooky or what?

I put everything straight onto my laptop and try to write at least 3,000 words a day. I don’t always manage this amount, as life and work sometimes get in the way, but I write every single day. I always go over whatever I’ve written the day before, as distance, even if it’s only a day, makes you more objective about your work. It is easier to prune out whatever doesn’t work this way without being too precious about ‘your baby’. When I think I have finished a book, I put it away for at least a week. That’s when I find that it is only an early draft! I redraft many times and my current book is on its 7th draft.

At the end of a book I always hand it over to my lovely man. Larry is an avid reader and he has written many books, so I value his opinion greatly. I know he will be totally honest with me and tell me if there is something wrong with the writing. If you are lucky enough to have an alpha reader like this, treasure them, they are worth pure gold.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? 

Getting started on a new book is never all that easy, like jumping into a pool with your eyes closed; you just have to trust that there is water in there. But I guess one of the really hard things is just to keep going. Keep going when you get to 40,000 words and hope that you will find at least another 40,000 from somewhere. Keep going when you’ve written yourself into a corner and if you can’t get out of it, just highlight it and press delete. Deleting work is one of the hardest things to do, but if you think the writing is okay just not in keeping with your current storyline, then don’t delete – I tend to put it in my ‘swipe file’ that I keep on my laptop. Sometimes, if it doesn’t work in this story, it can be used for something else. But I guess the very hardest thing about writing, especially if you want to be accepted in ‘traditional publishing’ is dealing with rejection slips. They are just part of the process and not meant as a personal insult.

What do you love most about writing?

I enjoy the whole process. To think that you have the power to create something that didn’t exist before you put it onto paper – that’s an exciting and awesome thing. I enjoy researching also, but I particularly love it when I’ve finished a book. This is a bit of a wally thing to do, but when I’m absolutely sure I’ve finished a ‘final’ draft, I go to a local place near the beach that prints tees and I get myself a black tee shirt with the name of the book printed on it. It’s become a bit of a tradition with me now and nobody who sees me wearing it knows what it’s about, it could be anything, and I don’t tell them. It’s just my little joke with myself. Another thing I love about writing is when I know a character so well that they get right under my skin. A good friend of mine who isn’t a writer, but one of my ‘alpha readers’ who reads things for me because I trust her to give me an honest opinion (we did our degrees together) once suggested that my protagonist might do a certain thing. I said ‘he would never do that; it’s not in his nature’. My friend said ‘you know it’s not real, right? He doesn’t really exist.’ But of course, that’s where writers differ from others – for us, it is real.

Which authors inspire you?

Lee Child, Jodi Picoult (her plotting and twists never fail to amaze me) Marian Keyes, Carole Matthews, Bernard Cornwell, Kate Atkinson, Jo Jo Moyes, Gillian Flynn, Nora Roberts, Peter James, James Patterson, Jo Nesbo, Mark Billingham...

These are obviously contemporary authors, but I also go back to the classics. I enjoy the beauty and cleverness of a Shakespearian Sonnet and have lots of poetry collections, both modern poets as well as the classics. I dip into poetry from time to time when I need inspiration. Poets are incredible, their writing technique and the fact that they strive for the perfect word and get ideas across in so few simple phrases.


Interview, Elaine Johns, Author, Books, Writer, The Writing Greyhound, Lorna Holland
Image: Elaine Johns
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Read, read and read. Read everything that you can get your hands on. Read in different genres, not just the one that is your favourite. You can learn something from everything that you read. The clue to good writing is on your bedside table whether it is in Kindle form or paperback. Don’t hold back from reading because you think you might plagiarise the work of others, it’s very unlikely that you will remember long passages from books and incorporate them into your own work.

Keep practising because writing is a craft that improves and evolves with patience and work. However, you need to keep at it; write every day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a short story or a book; all writing has value in your writing journey. Write a diary or a blog or describe what you see outside your front door. I know people who say they want to write a book, but all they do is read books about ‘writing’. It’s good to dip into books on technique now and again, but if you spend your time reading about the theory, you won’t have time to write!

As writers, we are often too close to our own stories to be able to look at them objectively and critique them. So, find yourself some ‘alpha readers’, people that you trust to give you an unbiased and objective opinion on your work. (Not your mother or your grandmother or relatives if you can help it, for they will probably tell you that you are a genius!) When these people then tell you something is wrong with your MS don’t take it personally and get upset. You asked them to help didn’t you? It is of course up to you if you take their advice. Everyone will have a different idea and it is all subjective. However, if more than one person comes up with the same thing, then it’s possible that they could be right and you’ve missed something out in your story, or not been able to get your idea across, or the grammar is screwed up.

Find a place where you feel comfortable writing and tell everybody in your family or your house or whatever to STAY AWAY and give you an hour of peace to write. This is a very important thing and you need to be selfish about it.

My best tip would be – believe in yourself. Someday, someone may sprinkle a little fairy dust on you and your writing will be published!

What are your ambitions for your writing career? 

I suppose like most writers I would love to see one of my books on screen and finding a wider audience. Meanwhile, I would like lots of people to find and enjoy my books. It’s a bit more difficult when you are an ‘indie’ author to get your books out there. I will always be writing though, even if no one was ever to read a word of mine, because it is a passion and I guess a compulsion really. It takes you into another world (although my own world is pretty good!) and keeps your brain and imagination working. I often find myself grinning when I’m writing and it’s going well. I hope I will still be able to do that and feel like that – getting joy from writing - even when I get quite ancient. For me, that would be a worthwhile ambition.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

That’s an easy one. I was a professional musician for many years and really love music, all kinds of music, but my first love is jazz. If I had the time, I would like to learn to play jazz piano. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to follow all of your dreams. I don’t play the flute or sing anymore (at least only in the bath) although I did this for most of my life, but now I direct my energies into writing and that gives me the creative satisfaction that music once did, so I still have an artistic outlet that makes me happy.

If someone out there could push a magic button and add at least another 4 hours to the day, I would have piano lessons. Yay!

What are you currently working on? 

My current book is (hopefully) on its final draft now and is a Crime Fiction called Not Everybody Likes Sushi. It’s about private detective Gerry Bryant, and his female partner and love interest, Becky Adderley. Bryant (private investigator, reasonable rates) may be new at the game, but he’s not stupid. He’s had education, not exactly a PhD but enough to know how the important bits of the world work. Ex-soldier Bryant is a man who gets things done - quietly, efficiently, no drama. A man used to seeing dead bodies, which is just as well considering the final gruesome tally when he follows the trail of a cartel of ruthless counterfeiters. And this time it’s personal as Bryant chases the men who framed him for a murder he didn’t commit and administers his own kind of lethal justice.

Do you prefer self-publishing or traditional publishing?

There’s a lot to be said for self-publishing. You have the power in your own hands and can decide exactly what cover you want, and editorial decisions are your own. But with that power comes the responsibility of getting it right and making a professional job of the process. With something like KDP you can format and upload your MS and it can be available to buy electronically in a matter of days, instead of the eighteen months or so involved in getting a book to the shelves in traditional publishing.

However, self-publishing is a very time consuming business, as you need to put a lot of effort into getting your writing in front of readers. You have to turn into some sort of business entrepreneur and spend valuable time marketing yourself and your work, time that should be spent writing. So, I would say that is one drawback of self-publishing.

There are pros and cons for both routes. Mainstream publishers have the expertise and lots of valuable professionals to get behind a book, but they don’t always market their middle-list authors as vigorously as maybe the writers themselves would expect.

It’s a very exciting time in publishing, full of opportunities for the indie author, and many MSS that might otherwise have languished in a drawer having failed to get past the agent gatekeepers, are finally being published. I’m sure many a good book has collected rejection slips because of the pressure on literary agents to read so many unsolicited submissions. The process of bashing your way through to a traditional publishing contract is not for the faint hearted, but worth the effort.

All things considered, I would say that I prefer the weight of traditional publishing behind you as an author - with professionals who have lots of experience of the industry.

What are you reading at the moment?

Right now I’m re-reading Kate Atkinson’s crime/literary novel When will there be Good News? (a Jackson Brodie detective novel) and looking forward to the arrival of Jodi Picoult’s latest book  – Small Great Things – can’t wait.

Where can my readers go to find out more about you and your work?

I have recently got a lovely new website, which you can visit here

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me, Elaine! It's been a pleasure to host you on the blog.

Will you be picking up any of Elaine's books? Let me know in the comments below!

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