1 Why do you write poetry?
Poetry – somebody called it sissy stuff that rhymes. It’s hard to say anything about poetry without being pseud so I’ll keep it short. Two or three years ago, for one reason and another, I was having difficulty getting on with a novel I’d started and was amazed to find poems squeezing through instead. I’m not a proper poet – I still feel as if my poetic licence has got lost in the post – all I do is sit down with a pad of A4 and a pen and wait. Sometimes nothing comes and sometimes I have half a dozen little pieces in no time and some of them even have potential. Please don’t ask me how it happens. In fact, that’s why I don’t try and teach poetry, I haven’t a clue how it’s done.
2 Why do you always write in 17 syllables? Isn’t it strange for a novelist to restrict herself like that?
Yes, if poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking, my 17s are just a step or two. I don’t dare call them haiku, I’ll leave it to the haiku police to judge that for you. I just love seeing how much I can squeeze into that small space, how much word play, paradox and juxtaposition,
and how much emotion and drama. I’m still a fiction writer at heart and I like even those little pieces to carry a story.
3 Why Lapwing Publications?
Don Marquis said a publisher would rather see a burglar in his office than a poet, and that was well before the current crisis of confidence in publishing. You can count on the fingers of Bart Simpson’s hand the publishers who are prepared to consider first-time poets these days and Lapwing are one of them. They’re in Belfast where I was born, and I also like that they may be the last rogue publishers who refuse all subsidy so that they’re free to publish what they like. They very nearly missed mine. A couple of months after I sent the typescript of Sweet Seventeens to Dennis Greig, he emailed me saying that he’d found it in the dog basket covered in drawings by the grandchildren. He turned the pictures over and found lovely wee poems and he’d really like to publish them. He’s a wonderful taskmaster when it comes to the editing process (which I enjoy very much) and is tireless in publishing original poetry from all over the world of an exceptionally high standard.
I’m deeply honoured to be a Lapwing poet. The Lapwing website is generous in the amount of free sampling it offers – you can lose yourself for many a happy hour. Some of us go missing in there for days.
4 Why is THE MOST INTIMATE PLACE a thriller? Is it the genre that attracts you most?
I read other things besides thrillers actually (my current reading is Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, Rene Greig’s poetry and Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature) but what I love about thrillers is that you generally start with a corpse and end with an explanation, and the space in between can be filled with anything. It’s just a structure and has the beauty of keeping the stakes high. As the immortal Sam Goldwyn recommended, the trick is to start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis.
5 How did you research THE MOST INTIMATE PLACE?
I’ve always been interested in religion and was ‘born again’ many times in my early teens. But it didn’t turn out well. I soon developed a robust atheism which became agnosticism, all the usual youthful things, until the birth of my first child coincided with my mother’s death and I found that I wanted to sit in churches and think.
What I found myself thinking was that religion had bothered me long enough, it was time to knock this thing on the head. So I sat in on an Anglican ordination course (SEITE, in the London Diocese of Southwark) concurrently with taking one of the earliest Alpha courses. The Alpha people meant well but we did end up with everyone’s hands on the crown of my head and a candle aloft, and them all praying that I would shut up with the tricky questions. In the Anglican ordination course Jeffrey John (now Dean of St Alban’s) opened my eyes to Midrash.
The effect of Jeffrey’s teaching on me was profound: I became the sort of person who reads theology for fun. I felt as if he’d opened wide the Christian church’s biggest, and maybe cruellest, secret: that the Bible was never meant to be read literally and was all the richer and more beautiful for it. We didn’t have to believe six impossible things before breakfast because we were never supposed to in the first place. Patrick, my main character in The Most Intimate Place, stepped right into my head, ready to say the unsayable about organised religion and he wouldn’t leave me alone until the novel was done.
6 How did you write so accurately from a male point of view in THE MOST INTIMATE PLACE?
I’ve lived with men all my life; they’re not so difficult to fathom. I’m not a great believer in the Mars and Venus stuff actually; men and women have far more in common than not, if you ask me. What was more of a challenge was exploring to the limits the mind of someone so, how shall I put it, morally unusual.
7 Why did you write WYSIGHOST?
I used to tell stories to my children when they were little and ghost stories were the most fun by far. One New Year we were staying with friends in a spooky old house in Wales where my daughter and her friends, all in their early teens, were having a sleepover. They had no intention of sleeping and asked for a story. The room was dark with moonlight slanting across the wall, and I began to frighten even myself. It was the night I first met the hooded monk. I made him up. Of course I did. At least I think I did. Now I think of it, I can remember perfectly clearly his shadow moving across that pale, moonlit wall. Or can I? That’s the problem with ‘ghosts’. Something unusual happens, something unexplained and in no time the rational voice inside you pipes up and says that it didn’t happen at all. But inside yourself you know that it wasn’t that simple. So what is the truth? I wrote the book to find out.
Do you believe in ghosts now?
Of course not. Or do I? I still don’t know for sure!
What about yourself, Dear Reader? Do you like a ghost story now and again? Here’s one I wrote after a visit to Chislehurst Caves in Kent, all based on the absolute truth …
THREE DEFINITES AND A COUPLE OF MAYBES – A Chislehurst ghost story, By Rosie Johnston