Novelist Martin Johnson is enjoying critical success with his most recent book Niedermayer & Hart, a ‘supernatural horror thriller’. Here the former actor tells the Times how he became a successful writer, where he gets his inspiration from and why he loves living in Tunbridge Wells
“I think I’d always planned to write. Even as an 11-year-old schoolboy I was penning novels about a secret agent called James Wheaton. In my 20s I co-wrote a few scripts with friends who were also in the acting business, but to be honest I don’t think I had the self-discipline before I was in my 40s to do it. Writing solo can be a lonely affair, there’s nobody around to bounce ideas off. It has to be something you simply love doing.
Before becoming a writer I was an actor. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) for two years from 1974. It was a wonderful time, and RADA in those days, under the astute but caring eye of its Principal Hugh Cruttwell, was an excellent environment in which to train.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s I did a great deal of rep work and theatrical touring, which was a lot of fun, and I was fortunate to be able to combine this with TV work in shows such as Sorry! and Doctor Who.
I’ve never officially stopped acting, but I no longer eat, sleep and dream about the theatre. I think now I can say I love doing both writing and acting. They’re very closely related; we’re told the Bard of Avon himself may have trodden the boards a bit!
I have always enjoyed standing on a stage, certain of the audience’s rapt attention and making people laugh.
Sometimes performing in a great comedy is like giving therapy. But I don’t miss acting as a life. If you’re an actor you have to be totally committed and I don’t think I really share that conviction any more. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing some acting stuff again, but I’m more than happy writing.
I’ve completed two books now, Niedermayer & Hart, a supernatural horror thriller, and a psychological thriller, Roadrage. The stuff I write is always driven by a strong storyline, probably because I’ve always enjoyed a ripping yarn. I don’t think either book is entirely typical of its genre and both have underlying themes that may not at first be apparent. I am told by readers that both books are quite scary.
In terms of my plot inspiration I like to start writing with just a beginning, middle and end. Beyond this I have no idea where the story is going to take me. It takes many months to write a book, and to my mind the writing can easily become rather dull and formulaic when an author sticks too rigidly to their initial plotting.
I’ve always found a good night’s sleep a helpful way of ironing out any plot difficulties – it works like magic. I go to bed thinking about a storyline problem and invariably wake up with a solution.
I’m lucky enough to have a loyal following, and I’m always very grateful for their support. The wonderful thing about the 21st century is how connected we all are. My books have literally been read right around the globe, and people have written reviews not only in Europe but also places as far afield as Australia, India, Canada and the US – even Alaska! I find it exciting and very gratifying when people from entirely different cultures enjoy one or other of my books.
I wrote the first draft of Niedermayer & Hart in longhand at my kitchen table, but I subsequently developed being computer savvy and prefer to work in this way now. However, I still have to edit in hard copy as it’s impossible to see repeated words and proofing errors when reading off a screen.
Niedermayer & Hart is 164,000 words long and has a contemporary main story with a medieval tale that is directly linked to it running simultaneously. I’m currently working on the third draft of the follow-on book, which I hope will be available by the end of the year. My psychological thriller Roadrage is more straightforward in terms of its structure and at only 100,000 words long, I’d expect to have a book like this completed in a year.
When my wife and I moved out of London and our son was small we went to Robertsbridge, East Sussex, then later settled in Tunbridge Wells. We’ve lived here almost 20 years; it’s a great location for getting to London, or the airports. I love the way I can walk out of my front door and literally within five minutes be walking in beautiful countryside.
Tunbridge Wells is a very creative place to be. There is generally always something worthwhile happening at venues such as Trinity and I’ve enjoyed a number of exhibitions at Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. The Open Studios events bear witness to the large number of artists working in the area, too.
I don’t have a title for my next book yet and I will only let my wife read a manuscript once its second draft has been completed. This means the story and cast of characters are firmly set in place and the writing is fairly polished by the time she sees it. I do this as a way of gauging reaction, because once something has been read it can never have the same surprise or shock factor for that reader ever again. The poor thing has suffered a few nightmares as a result but she’s stoically uncomplaining most of the time!”
Niedermayer & Hart is published by Odd Dog Press, priced £12.99, and is available to buy from all good bookshops. To find out more about Martin Johnson visit www.mj-johnson.com