Sunday, January 22, 2023

Carole Johnstone

Carole Johnstone is an award-winning writer from Scotland, whose short stories have been published all over the world. Her debut novel, Mirrorland, is a psychological suspense with a gothic twist, set in Edinburgh. Her second novel, The Blackhouse, is a very unusual murder-mystery set on a fictional island off the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.

Having grown up in Lanarkshire, she now lives in Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland, although her heart belongs to the wild islands of the Outer Hebrides.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Setting is hugely important in all my books. I always try to write a story that could only be set where it’s set and nowhere else. The setting therefore becomes almost another character, so it’s pretty inevitable that my novels end up being named after that place.

Originally, The Blackhouse was actually titled A Thin Place, but this had to be changed because of another book out around the same time with a very similar name. A thin place is a place where the walls between our world and other worlds are said to be at their thinnest; they are often considered to be very spiritual and important landscapes, such as Stonehenge. The Outer Hebrides were considered in Celtic mythology to be thin places, and the Norse that settled there in the 9th century believed something similar. The Blackhouse is set on a fictional island off the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis and Harris. The Outer Hebrides are wild, isolated, and brimful of legends and cautionary tales. They are islands that are sometimes as frightening as they are beautiful; as dangerous as they are peaceful, and I really wanted the title to reflect that contradiction and otherworldliness.

Equally though, the blackhouse itself is very central to the story. Blackhouses are the traditional domestic dwellings of Hebrideans going back centuries. The titular blackhouse is the place that both main characters, Maggie and Robert live, albeit 25 years apart. As Maggie tries to find out who murdered Robert and begins to uncover the truth about his terrible fate, Robert’s own story is told from his own perspective, so he very much inhabits the same space, almost like a ghost. The blackhouse also has a hidden earth cellar that is pretty pivotal to the plot, so the title made sense. And, of course, blackhouse as a word has a very gothic and creepy vibe to it, which is exactly how I wanted the novel to be perceived!

What's in a name?

The name of the fictional island in The Blackhouse is Kilmeray. So many place names in the Hebrides are derived from Scots Gaelic and/or Old Norse, and so I went to great lengths to make sure that all the place names on this fictional island were as authentic as possible. Kilmeray translates in Scots Gaelic as the ‘Church of (St) Maraigh’ (an entirely fictional saint!), and I had great fun making many of the landmarks of Kilmeray as spooky as possible, in keeping with so many of the real islands themselves:

Gleann nam Bòcan: Valley of Ghosts
Sid a’ Choin Mhòir: Lair of the Big Dog
Glumag a’ Bròin: The Pool of Sorrow
An Droch Chadha: Wicked Pass

However, it was a lot of work, and I’m not sure I’d have the stamina to do that again – particularly in terms of researching Old Norse!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Probably not very (although hopefully impressed; I’d always written from a very young age, but never truly believed I would ever be published, let alone a fulltime writer!) In my teens I discovered Stephen King, and for many years my writing, my voice, everything was as near to his as I could make it. It took a long time and many years of selling short stories before I discovered my own voice and style of writing.

I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, and I’ve always been so fascinated by people: what makes us tick; what makes us break; all the wonderful and terrible things we are capable of doing and why. I also love gothic fiction: books like Rebecca, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, Beloved, The Haunting of Hill House, Gone Girl, The Dry – basically anything with a memorable setting that’s full of atmosphere, passion, betrayal, and secrets – that’s always been what I love the most, so it’s always been what I assumed I would write.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings always. I start with the end. That’s always the beginning of the idea, that and the setting. I always know the ending so well I can literally see it in my mind like the closing scene of a movie, and this rarely changes in the writing. The beginning is much harder. Knowing where to start in a story is such a crucial decision. Your opening has to grab the reader, has to be interesting and compelling, and it has to make the reader want to read on. You can’t start with long passages of description or backstory. But you have to be equally careful that you don’t start too far into the story either, or the reader will struggle to keep up or to understand what’s happening. You also risk losing any element of suspense. I spend a lot of time plotting before I start writing, and often working out what my starting point is going to be takes the longest time of all.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I almost always write in present tense, first person. In The Blackhouse there are two stories: Maggie’s story in the present day as she returns to the island with very strange motives for wanting to find out what happened to Robert and needing to prove that he was in fact murdered. And Robert’s story, following the last few months of his life, up until his untimely and disturbing death. I wrote both of these stories in first person without expressly intending to, it just felt most natural.

One of the most brilliant things about writing in first person is that you can create a whole almost 4-D experience for the reader. They are in that character’s shoes. They are seeing and feeling what she is. They don’t know what she doesn’t know. Everything is written through that person’s eyes, and it helps the reader not only understand or empathise with a character, but to feel like they are there in that place and in that situation far better than anything else.

I think when you write in first person it’s inevitable that something of yourself will creep in as it’s such a personal and intimate way to write. There’s generally a lot of inner monologue; you have to know everything about that character as you’re effectively playing their part. That said, I don’t think that personality-wise there are many similarities between me and any of the characters I play, although I do pull from personal experiences, thoughts, values etc. when I’m writing in general. I think that’s probably true of all writers, but it’s always so important that you remain completely invisible and let the characters tell the story.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Anything and everything. I try to read widely, in all genres. I keep up with the news (even when, as in the last few years, I don’t really want to). I read articles that interest me, particularly if I can mine them for story ideas! I watch movies all the time, again in all genres. All stories interest me, and definitely influence my writing in one way or another. But although I come across stories or ideas I wish I’d had first all the time, I’m always so careful not to poach them. As a teenager, I remember watching Aliens for the first time and then immediately writing a story that was so exactly the same I realised that there had been no point and no satisfaction in writing it at all. Writing should always be an amalgam of all the things that you see, hear, feel, and experience, but told through your own unique lens.

I’m also very guilty of always listening in to strangers’ conversations on trains or in pubs – a goldmine of ideas!
Visit Carole Johnstone's website.

--Marshal Zeringue