• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Write What You Know or Make It Up? Jason Johnson

Writing.ie | Resources | Getting Started

Jason Johnson

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I’m not bleeding. I’m not very rich or very broke. I don’t beat up old men or push women off tower blocks.

I’m not a paedophile, a victim, a terrorist, a politician, a republican, a loyalist, a transexual, a Muslim, a prostitute, a Catholic, a Protestant, a believer, drunk, dead, insane nor am I wetting myself.

I’m not a killer, a fraud, a dog fighter, a loan shark and I don’t have cancer or decapitate people.

I’ve written about all of those things, but I’m none of those things. And you, rightly, now say ‘who cares?’ Get on with the article, says you. Well, I just wanted to make this point. The common wisdom is write what you know. Find that emotion, they tell you, and get it on the page.

Use your experience, they say. If you’re a writer, and you probably are, then you will have heard something along those lines.

And it’s good advice, at least in part. It asks you to deep dive into your own self, your own soul, to find quality raw material you might need. But what gets me is that there are people out there who think, therefore, it’s a truism the other way around. Some seem to reckon, more or less, you can read a person by reading their novel. It seems an obvious point, but when someone picks up a book it does not always mean they are picking up a window onto the writer’s deepest self, a map right into their heart.

My first novel, Woundlicker, was about a lovesick young guy from Belfast’s tough Ardoyne area who breaks the standard Troubles murder template by killing paramilitaries on both sides of the divide.

It was violent, angry, dirty.

A number of people asked if I had met many folks from Belfast’s interface areas? Some wondered if I had maybe been particularly close to someone who lived a difficult life there? Had I heard victims’ stories, they asked, been moved by their plight, found a way to deal with that through writing? I’m afraid it was nowhere near as noble as that.

Jason Johnson

As a journalist I’d met plenty of people from Belfast’s frontiers – as have many people, as have all the people who live there – and I’d got to know a few stories. But the point was I’d always came away from peace lines thinking about the ‘what ifs’ and not the plain facts. What if, I thought, someone rejected by both sides ended up living there and refused to go? What if I put a seriously headstrong nutcase with a loyalist/Protestant mum and republican/Catholic dad on the peace line? What if I had him launch a one man fight back against people, on both sides, who had tried over and over to wreck his life, to get him out of the area?

That’s where I deep dived to. I just found myself a story.

I probably said something that sounded more meaningful in one interview or another, but basically I felt peace line districts could be a great place to set a drama about a man reaching the end of his tether. He was based on no one. I have never been able to see his face.

My second book, Alina, dealt with four people – a total loser, a violent thug, an online webcam sex worker and a massive pervert. I’d had a good reaction to my first and now I wanted to shock, to get talked about. Basically I exaggerated the hell out of the characters and their actions under the paltry excuse of penning some kind of allegory about former Romania dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu (don’t even ask).

The loser in my novel was a right wet sap. The thug was violent and brutal beyond belief. The webcam girl was pure, skinny, vulnerable, ashamed – someone who I now think was very clearly in the wrong job.

And the pervert was a man of such depravity that it literally took me most of a day to come up with his vilest fantasy (you’ll have to look it up, it’s too grim for this piece). Nevertheless, the writer part of me was pretty chuffed when I hatched that genuinely twisted idea.

And then the book hit the shelves.

Oh dear.

The questions, via friends, via readers, via interviewers, were noticeably more subtle.

Maybe I’d seen a hell of a lot of violence and was working through it? Maybe, it was hinted, I had, er, some dark-ish ‘interests’ of the massive pervert variety and wanted somehow to confront them?

Maybe, it was whispered, I spent my days, credit card in hand, paying webcam working girls to do things online for my pleasure?

Jesus. I wish.

But – and this is my fault – at no stage did I stand up and say, ‘look, please, it’s a story, I made it up, it’s my second novel, I’m trying to make a splash, if you really want to read my mind then that’s the thinking behind it…’

Instead I just batted away the questions about what was described as ‘the most explicit book’ my then publisher had ever issued. Instead I prattled on about Mr Ceaucescu and some bullshit about the balance of cruelty and pleasure in an unfair world.

If ever I really did try to spill a bit of my own soul, it was in my third novel Sinker.

It’s about the fictional ‘professional sport’ of drinking alcohol, and drinking alcohol is something I know a little about. This time I correctly predicted the perfectly reasonable questions from people I knew, from readers, from one or two interviewers.

Did I know a lot of heavy drinkers in my past? Was this, if you don’t mind me asking, some kind of cry for help?

Yes, this novel was written from some experience, but then, to be honest, I just exaggerated the rest. And no, this was not a cry for help.

And now, courtesy of the heavyweight creativity house that is Liberties Press, I’ve just published my fourth novel Aloysius Tempo.

It’s about an assassin recruited by the Irish government, a man who fled Ireland early in his life after some nasty, childhood abuse at the hands of a priest at a state institution.

So just in case anyone is wondering and isn’t sure how to ask, nope.

True to form, there’s violence in the story, and a drop of consensual, albeit not overly alarming nookie, and a protagonist who you might not want to spend a night in a shed with.

But I am not an assassin and I don’t know anyone who is.

And I came up Aloysius’ effective but gruesome ways of dispatching people as I wrote the book. They are not the sort of things I have been walking around fantasising about.

The very best thing about writing novels is the very essence of what it is all about. And it’s simply this: You make things up.

I can spend hours walking around with my head figuratively up my backside pondering ideas, characters, plots, names, places, whatever. It is truly one of the great joys of my life.

So if you do ever read any of my fiction then please remember I’ve completely made it up and my life really hasn’t been that bad at all.

(c) Jason Johnson

About Aloysius Tempo

Irish-born Aloysius is a freelance killer for hire. Advertising his services – the ‘hard solve’ – on the Dark Web, he arranges fatal accidents, convenient deaths.

‘My job is the only job in the world where people you should have killed will throw it back in your face.’

Living off-grid, an old contact from home offers him work. Aloysius doesn’t take the bait and gets cornered by Imelda, the steely head of a shadowy unit close to the Irish government.

‘You’re dressed, Aloysius, like someone who might arrive to service a horse and cart . . . You look like you styled your hair in a public toilet and through a fucking hat.’

She lures him in and sets him up to kill four of the nation’s most hated citizens. It’s all part of an extraordinary, ruthless PR operation, as the state prepares to mark its centenary.

‘This is a young little nation and, like any youth, it needs a little bit of guidance, a bit of a push onto the next level, to a place where it can know itself better.’

As he gets to work, Aloysius is plunged into a web of high tech international espionage. It quickly becomes clear that powerful forces are watching his every move – and want him permanently out of the way.

Aloysius Tempo is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

About the author

Jason Johnson’s four novels focus on people facing extreme situations over short periods of time. Death, humour, lust and alcohol have so far featured prominently. Woundlicker (2005), a serial killer’s confession, is set in Northern Ireland. Alina (2006), the hunt for a vanished sex worker, is set in Romania. Sinker (2014), where drinking alcohol is a professional sport, is set in Majorca. Jason is from Enniskillen and lives in Belfast.

Find him on Twitter @JasonCJoh

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