Thursday, 8 November 2012

One part Silence of the Lambs, two parts Natural Born Killers, and one part Wizard of Oz.

I met Mr Gerald D. Johnston on the HarperCollins website Authonomy.  I read the opening of his book, Dropcloth Angels and absolutely hated his guts.  Cos the guy can write so bloody well, it’s criminal.  In fact, I commented on his book saying, ‘Tell me you’re agented or that you have them clubbing one another with thick mallets to get their paws on this.’
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book on Authonomy so lauded – even people who baulked at the subject matter (it is dark, very dark) couldn’t fault the writing.  Yet HarperCollins didn’t seem to *get* it. Certainly they didn’t snap it up. And that, more than almost anything, makes me wonder about the state of publishing.  It’s not a comfortable read but then, should all books be comfortable reads? 
Anyhow, Gerry made the decision to self-publish Dropcloth Angels and it’s out now.  I asked him if he wanted to write a guest post to coincide with publication and he said, ‘Why not interview me?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’  So, here you go.  In my mind’s eye we’re sitting in some roadside diner by the side of some nameless road.  Yes, it’s long. What can I say?  He talks a lot.  But it's all good.  

So, tell me about Dropcloth Angels. Where on earth did you come up with the idea for it? 
I remember the moment of conception very well. My daughter, Katie, and I were watching an episode of Hannah Montana on the Disney Network. During a commercial break, an ad for a cereal – Cinnamon Toast Crunch if memory serves – came on the television. There were two pieces of cereal in a bowl. One took a bite out of the other and then sheepishly looked away, like it had nothing to do with the attack. Then, when his friend let his guard down again, he took a larger bite. I thought to myself, ‘That’s cannibalism! On the Disney Network, no less!’
From there it took root and grew. The original idea (the cereal in the bowl) became a short story, called The Saviour. In it, the killer (who actually had no name but used ‘Thomas’ for the sake of the AA meeting he’d gone to in search of a victim) stood at a podium before twenty or so members. His serial killer shtick was that he believed himself to be a saviour, and that his victims needed him to set them free. During the course of his rehearsed “testimony”, he remembered back to a girl he’d killed a year before. He’d been thinking of her quite a bit lately. The reason for this was because the girl’s sister presently stalked him, and was sneaking into his home to drug his food, or leave items that would make him remember her sister, etc. (This was Zoe’s character, though she was never really given a name in the short story.) He suffered from syphilis, and was presently in the tertiary stage (stage 3 if memory serves), and going quite insane from the constant battle with what he believed to be a demon living in his head.

And, for those who won’t know, what is a dropcloth?
Simply put, a drop cloth is what painters use to keep the splats and dribbles from staining the floor beneath a painting, ceiling or a wall. The reason Zane uses a drop cloth for his blood paintings is because blood will ‘set up’ differently on treated (white-washed) canvas. I found this out firsthand back in high school. I was stretching a canvas over a frame in art class and cut myself on an exposed nail. The blood was easily wiped from the treated face of the canvas, but sank in and stained the reverse side.
You didn’t ask, but the reason he called the victims his ‘angels’ and took their heads is revealed in detail during the sequel. It dates back to his childhood, in New Orleans, and is a direct result of how his mother treated him and where he’d go to hide from her and whichever lover it was she was with that day.
What ‘Dropcloth Angels’ (plural) are is a cry for help from a tormented youth – hunkered down and shivering against the cold night air, at the base of weatherworn statue in an ancient cemetery near his home in New Orleans, with nothing but his pencils and sketch pad for company.

How would you sell the book to people?
When I began writing, I started off with the naïve notion that the writing would sell itself. I no longer suffer from this delusion. The machine wants what the machine wants, and grinds it out to the masses like mystery meat at the local mission. I sent out three query letters and garnered two full read requests, as well as one ‘Dear John’ letter.
As much as I know that querying is a large part of an author’s ‘job’, I couldn’t seem to get it right – at least in my own head – so I kinda gave up before really giving it a real go. I’m not a defeatist by nature, but with so much out there for publishers to choose from that falls within their cookie cutter formula, why would they bother with a 137k genre-buster like DcA, written by Joe Nobody from Canada?

Give us your elevator pitch.
I don’t have an elevator pitch – or at least a good one.
My usual response to someone who asks what it’s about is this: DcA is one part Silence of the Lambs, two parts Natural Born Killers, and one part Wizard of Oz.

I’ve met you, Gerry, and you seem like a regular nice guy. What makes a nice guy write about serial killers, torture and madness?
Before beginning my research on the novel, I was clueless about it all. There are some very sick people out there, and the atrocities perpetrated by real life bogeymen are far worse than any limp-wristed Freddie Krueger killing. That’s because it’s real. Every day, all over the world, regular people (people not much different than you & I) inwardly dance along the ever-shifting line that separates melancholy and madness. I’m not one of them (I think), but I am very good at playing the ‘what-if’ game in my own head. I already explained the ‘serial killer’ thing in a previous answer (the cereal). For the sake of clarity, there’s one torture scene in the novel, and that’s only in there so people will ‘see’ for themselves, rather than taking my word for it that Zane is a bad ass motherfucker. As for madness, well, that’s all part of what a serial killer is all about. Imagine how scary it would be to meet one who was sane. Now that would be scary. In all honesty, I could write a terrifying non-fiction book based on things I uncovered during the course of my research. As much as DcA is mainly a horror noir/dark satire – a scathing look at the sensationalism that shrouds such killings – there are some sick puppies out there.

You write from the perspective of Zane, the killer. How did it feel going inside his head? Is there a Zane, in some small way, inside Gerry Johnston?
I write from many perspectives. With Zane, because it was his point of view, whether we think it right or wrong, he was the hero for that section. That’s because all that we see is filtered through his character on the way to us. Know what I mean? With the exception of his love for froot loops, his character has nothing of me in it. Consider him a mixture of Albert Fish (the man Hannibal Lecter was modeled after), Gacy, Dahmer, Gein, and a large dollop of Ted Bundy. All very bad men, right? Now, imagine what would happen if they’d been funded by a man with the means to aid them, shelter them, and teach them how to cover their tracks in such a way that they seemed no more than ghosts. Yes, Zane is bad, but he’s not the evil wizard at the controls.

Syphilis in the USA
Zane has syphilis. What made you decide to make that the cause of his insanity?
The syphilis wasn’t the cause of his insanity – insanity was a gift from his dear dead mum – but the disease sure didn’t help his situation. J He contracted syphilis from a man he ingested a few years before. Where I got the idea to do this was by equating promiscuous people and the diseases they might pick up through ‘unsafe’ casual encounters with many sexual partners.

Zoe is a great character – tell us about her, where she sprang from in your mind. And her monkey, of course.
I think the only part of the original character of Zoe (from the short) that remains is the determination to get revenge upon the monster responsible for her sister’s death. The rest of what makes her her was a gradual build up of life experiences. Early in the novel I go into some of the issues she had with her mother, Jeanne’s battle with cancer, and the bond shared between her and her sister. Drugs take her to a place where needs and desires pay for each other in a symbiotic relationship presided over by her pimp, Cherry, or her drug dealer, P.K.
Like Zane, Zoe is also nothing like me, except for her thoughts on sticking up for the little guy; I do that shit all the time. My own home life growing up was fine, and my mother is a saint who loves me dearly. I gave Zoe a way of thinking, a way of speaking her mind, and she took it from there. At all times while writing I keep a clear image in my head of all the characters, and run through scenes in my head before committing them to ‘paper’ – dialogue, motivation, blocking, etc, are a snap and take no time whatsoever.
Purple Monkey is easy. Purple Monkey is me. Of course I’m much taller and my eyes match, but we’re both frayed at the seams.

How do you write? Do you plot or do you ‘pants’ ? In other words, did you know where DcA was going, or was it a voyage of discovery, to coin a corny phrase?
I plot some, and write some of it freestyle as I go. However I do it, I keep a list of events that need to happen/things needing to be said, and tic each one off as they’re taken care of. I block each chapter out with a few lines, then build the story – sometimes organically, sometimes from front to back. There’s more to it, but I won’t bore you with the details, or which writing program I use. (ywriter5, btw). It’s free.

Your book is pretty raw and brutal. Do you think books should have certificates, like movies? I mean, how old is old enough for people to read your book? When would you let your children read it?
Brutal? I’ve had this statement made before, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. There’s more violence mentioned in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow than Dropcloth Angels. What I’ve done was, instead of leaving the narration to a ‘good’ guy, I’ve given it to ‘who needed to be the pov character at that time’. Zane’s opening scene seems brutal simply because of his warped logic, cold detachment, and his total lack of anything resembling humanity. The scene itself was written as passively as I could manage without leaving Annie’s death scene out entirely. The ‘rawness’ and ‘brutality’ are a creation within the mind of the reader. This was my intention all along. I needed the reader to believe in him so I didn’t need to ‘go there’ anymore with his character – and I never had to. From that point on if he made a threat, the reader would fully believe in his desire to not only follow through on it, but that he’d gleefully do it naked. You know…‘show, don’t tell’ and all that.

Your next book is called Loser. Tell me about that. Anywhere people can read a bit of it?
Loser is mostly done, but it’s not my second novel. My second is called ‘Shakespeare’s Dead: A Tragedy in III Acts’, (action/comedy) and will be available this coming summer. In it, a murdered police detective named Shakespeare Poole must navigate Dante’s path back from Heaven, past Purgatory, and on through Hell, in order to save the world – the Universe – from a cult which has uncovered the means to call forth a new God. There are three or four teaser chapters of it in the back of Dropcloth Angels.
Loser likely won’t see the light of day until after:
Shakespeare’s Dead – editing in progress – publication scheduled for this coming July
Season of the Dead (book one) to be published by Spore Press this coming Spring.
The sequel to DcA (untitled as yet, but I like ‘The Saviour’) partially written, plot blocked out all the way through to the final chapter (which was the second chapter written). I gotta say, I love some of the new characters I’ve added for the sequel. No spoilers.
Season of the Dead II – writing in progress
Then Loser. So yeah, it may be a while for that one. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll get the urge to finish it next month.

And you’ve collaborated on a zombie apocalypse book too, right? What’s the story there?
There are four of us who crossed the finish line with this story: Lucia Adams, Paul Freeman, Sharon Van Orman, and yours truly. All three very wonderful writers, and I’m lucky to find myself among them for this project. I don’t pay very much attention to details, so I could be wrong, but I think we’ve been picked up for three books by Spore Press (the zombie ones anyway). I don’t have the contract handy, but I think that’s about right.
The story itself is written first person, with each of us writing our own scenes involving our trials and woes, until we meet. Once that happens, we split the chapters up and write ourselves as well as the other characters for that chapter or scene.

Why are people so obsessed with zombies? I guess I just don’t get the whole ZA thing.
I may be totally off base, but the idea of a global pandemic, whether some slow-moving zombie or super-flu, scares the shit out of everyone. That’s because it (the flu, not the zombies) could actually happen. Just think: one day some horny guy in the darkest jungle in Asia plants his seed in a marsupial that was too slow to get away, and – boom – the next week you have an airborne strain of squirrelfuckusitis, and it is running rampant through every city and every nation. And who says the infected lie down and go gently into the night? Say their pain receptors, their rage inhibitors, go on the blink and they become some raving beasts with a need to gnash their teeth and toss poo at you. You never know…

Okay, so tell me a bit about you? Where you live, what you do as a day job? What does your family think about your writing?
I live in Ontario, Canada, and work mostly with the mentally challenged*. My family (at least those who’ve read my stuff) likes it just fine.

What are your favourite books? Best all-time movies?
5 books (or series), 5 movies:
The Wheel of Time (series) – Jordan/Sanderson
Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
Villa Incogito – Tom Robbins
Still life with Woodpecker – Tom Robbins
Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut
Resident Evil (franchise)
Tombstone (I could go line-for-line and not miss much)
Mamma Mia (because my daughter loves it so much, and sings along with the tv)
Schindler’s List (sad, brutal)
Saving Private Ryan (the opening scene on the beach scared me more than any horror story ever could) 

Desert island dinner party – who’d you invite (alive or dead) and what would you eat?
Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Einstein, Eminem, Izzy whats-his-name, Shaq O’Neil, Bruce Lee, Leonard Cohen, Adam West, Mel Blanc, Jim Morrison, Milla Jovovich, Olga Kurylenko, Big Bird, the freaky bald guy who was groovin’ out the side-stage during Joe Cocker’s Woodstock performance of the Beatles ‘With a Little Help From my Friends’, and a mime.

We’d eat Big Bird and then play charades. The mime would be on my team.

Let’s say Dropcloth Angels gets made into a movie (I could see it, quite easily). Who would direct? Who would play the leads?
Rodriguez or Tarantino to direct, for sure.  [I thought Tarantino]
Zoe: Amanda Seyfried
Zane: Charlie Hunnam (‘Jax’ Teller from Sons Of Anarchy)  [Oh yeah!]
Gideon: Donald Sutherland
Purple Monkey: Danny DeVito (the poor guy hasn’t worked in, like, forever – plus, he’d totally fit into the costume)

What’s next for Mr Johnston?
I dunno. The wind blows me in a direction and that’s where I head ‘til it sends me somewhere else.

* In my opinion ;) 

[JA back again]. So there you have it. I don't interrupt much, do I? He came, he sawed, he ate.  Now go buy the book (available on Amazon in print or ebook format) cos, seriously, this guy is the real deal.  


Sessha Batto said...

Loved this book on autho, can't wait to read the whole thing now that it's out ;) Gerald is a brilliant writer with a long career ahead of him

Exmoorjane said...

Couldn't agree more, Sessh. Except I'd add 'starry' to 'long'. :)