Cheltenham people, this Tuesday, come join me at Suffolk Anthology, our lovely new independent bookstore, for some laughs and writing advice. Situated in the leafy Suffolks/Montpellier area, Suffolk Anthology sells great books and great coffee. But if you’re still looking for a reason to visit, why not head up this Tuesday for my talk on the long process of writing my new novel, The Secret Baby Room, and everything I’ve learned along the way. The talk is at 7:30 on Tuesday 17th November at 17 Suffolk Parade. Tickets cost £3 (which covers a glass of wine or two) and can be reserved from the shop by phoning 01242 361 362 or emailing email@example.com. More information follows below. Hope to see you there!
In 2004, when he’d never have done anything as pretentious as call himself by his initials, D.D. Johnston realised it was his destiny to write. The fact he knew nothing about literature and had never demonstrated any facility with written language was unimportant; only in writing could he adequately express how alone he felt in this cruel world. He produced an eighteen-volume magnum opus of bad love poetry, a grand Künstlerroman, which he imagined was the 21st century’s answer to The Sorrows of Young Werther. But it wasn’t. It was crap.
Then, one day, he saw something that changed the direction of his literary oeuvre. He was living in Manchester, where, because he was unemployed and had no money, he used to wander the city. One day he saw a woman cradling a baby in a boarded up council housing block. Why would anyone take a baby into a boarded up council housing block that was primed for demolition?
So he began to work on the plot of a crime thriller, The Secret Baby Room, which was finally published in 2015. The struggle to complete and publish his novel was painful but life-changing – it lasted slightly longer than the Trojan War. Along the way he published two other novels: Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs was a Sunday Herald book of the year in 2011 and has been translated into Spanish as Paz, amor y cócteles Molotov; The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub was a Morning Star book of the year in 2013 and was longlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize. Today he is a Dr of literature, a senior lecturer in Creative Writing, and the founder of onlinewritingtips.com. Along the way he’s learned a thousand things about writing, and he’s now ready to share everything he wishes he’d known in 2004, so that nobody need ever again take a decade to finish a book.
The secret Baby Room has been in the world for almost two months now, so here’s a wee round up of its reception. First off, here’s a piece I wrote for Northern Soul describing the book’s origins, and here’s an article on the book and my life in Cheltenham that was published in the weekend supplement of the Gloucestershire Echo. There’s also my interview with BBC Manchester, complete with amusing technical problems.
As regards the reviews, Crime Culture kicked things off, writing: “As her own life falls apart, Claire risks everything in her quest. It’s an investigation that leads her not only towards the dark knowledge of past crimes but towards an understanding of the damaged lives of those around her. Johnston offers us a wonderfully gripping read, but also a compassionate and moving story of people struggling to survive at the margins of a rapidly changing city.”
Writing for Northern Soul, Brian Lavery was generous in his praise: “In this fine novel, Johnston is an examiner and a questioner, rather than a polemicist. The result is a mix of thriller, satire, and cultural examination, seamlessly contained in a thumping good story with a great denouement.”
The Morning Star liked it so so but felt “it just doesn’t quite manage to convince as a complete offering.” Reviewer Paul Simon wrote: Johnston is too adept a storyteller to fall into agitprop-style prose and he almost incidentally reveals a fragmenting society dominated by despair and exploitation yet also the resourcefulness and courage of working-class citizens who survive where others would surely crack.”
Reviewing for Crime Review, Linda Wilson enjoyed it somewhat reluctantly, admitting that “I found myself almost as caught up with Claire’s obsession as she was.”
Meanwhile, Tory Crime writer N.J. Cooper really disliked it; writing for Book Oxygen, she even described one of the characters as “a fake-tanned slapper.” Ouch!
I’d also draw your attention towards this review by Martin Randall, which is particularly eloquent and thoughtful. It’s also very generous to the book, but Martin is a friend and colleague so he kind of had to be!
On Saturday I had a brilliant time reading from my new novel, The Secret Baby Room, in bright London sunshine at the Barbican Press summer party. It was lovely to renew acquaintances and make new friends, so thanks to everyone who was there. Among the many great people I met was Hana Sklenkova, whose translation of Martin Vopenka’s The Fifth Dimension is out this Autumn. I managed to snag a copy and so far it’s brilliant – a novel that will blow your mind.
The Secret Baby Room has less to teach you about physics and the universe, but it does know a thing or two about solitude, and it certainly has a mystery at its core. It’s out tomorrow, July 2nd, and I’ll be marking the launch by discussing the book and its setting with Mike Sweeney on BBC Radio Manchester. So, friends in the North West, listen in about 10am!
My new novel is out on 2nd July, but if you’re a registered reviewer and you don’t want to wait that long, there’s still time to access it for free via Netgalley. All reviews are gratefully received, even those that say something like ‘It was kind of okay, I guess.’ If you haven’t already seen it, some background to the novel is available here, and here are pre-reviews from The Morning Star and Crimeculture.
I’m grateful to the team at CrimeCulture who have reviewed The Secret Baby Room as one of their Editors’ Choices for May 2015. The Secret Baby Room is reviewed alongside Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and Liane Moriarty’s, The Last Anniversary:
In the taut, suspenseful opening pages, Claire, just moving into her new house, looks up to see “the strangest thing. High up in the abandoned tower block that overshadowed their estate, a woman was bottle-feeding a baby.” The woman disappears, but the mystery haunts and deeply disturbs Claire. The tower is condemned, fenced off and surrounded with yellow-black warning signs, its entrances boarded “and clearly marked: DANGER”. Obsessed with breaking through into this forbidden zone, Claire fears that she is actually going mad, as she sits “staring at the concrete, as though the Secret Baby Room might somehow reappear…She suddenly saw how crazy it all was.” READ MORE...
Here’s my review for Libcom.org of Brian W. Lavery’s The Headscarf Revolutionaries, an account of a spontaneous campaign by fishermen’s wives in Hull, which following the 1968 triple-trawler disaster forced major changes to UK shipping laws:
There are times when history seems to erupt in chorus. Sometimes the cause of synchronicity is obvious, as in the World War that preceded uprisings and revolutions from Clydeside to Moscow, or the economic collapse that by 2011 had sparked revolts as diverse as the English riots and the Arab Spring. At other times, the connections are harder to explain: why was 1848 the year that modernity clashed with feudalism across much of Europe and Latin America? Why did 1649 witness the Ormee of Bordeaux and The Diggers’ colonies in England? Sometimes, it seems, there is simply something in the air.
The opening of 1968 was such a time. The Prague Spring coincided with the Civil Rights movement in the US, the anti-Vietnam War riot in Grosvenor Square, the March events in Poland, the occupation at Nanterre, and eventually the May Days in Paris. And to this list we can add the uprising of the Headscarf Revolutionaries, which has now been brilliantly documented in a new book by Brian Lavery… READ MORE
Having no interest in the election has given me time to write a couple of new features. First up, a piece for Northern Soul, the magazine of events and culture in Northern England. It’s the story of how I demoralised Manchester’s Redbricks community with tales of heartbreak and bad poetry, and how I eventually came to write The Secret Baby Room:
Only one person will ever really break your heart. It’s probably something you should try to get out of the way early in life – like measles or chicken pox.
In 2004 I was 24 and my French girlfriend told me she was having it off with the branch secretary of the anarcho-syndicalist union. Previous break-ups had caused me to experience a level of sadness that at the time had seemed worthy of the term ‘heartbreak’, but at 24 I cried for longer than it is physically possible to cry. I cried until I was exhausted and hungry and completely emptied by a vortex of grief in excess of anything that evolution had anticipated. There was, I eventually decided, only one thing to do: from the furnace of my anguish I would forge the new century’s first great novel. CONTINUE READING
Second up, a piece for You’re Booked on my pet hates in crime fiction:
1. The relentlessly peeved detective
The relentlessly peeved detective is peeved with everyone and everything. He (and overwhelmingly he still is a he) doesn’t like his bosses and doesn’t like his colleagues. He doesn’t like children (which is why he’s never had any), and he especially doesn’t like his ex-wife (the bitch). He dislikes police procedures. He dislikes social workers. He dislikes delicatessens and vegetarians and art cinema. He even dislikes the things he chooses to do in every chapter. CONTINUE READING