New Year interview with Peter Johnstone, science fiction writer.

For the first interview of 2013 I am delighted to welcome Peter Johnstone, a British science fiction writer who, as you see, is  lacking in neither courage or energy!

What is the most frightening (or bravest) thing you have ever done?

I once jumped off a building. The Royal Liverpool Hospital to be exact. If this went wrong I’d drop over two hundred feet before smashing through the roof of the intensive care unit below and landing in a – hopefully empty – bed. I didn’t find that fact reassuring.

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The ledge sloped at an alarming angle. The concrete was smooth and damp and my boots couldn’t stop me sliding towards the edge. My legs started to shake uncontrollably; too much adrenaline. If I reached back now I could probably pull myself back through the small gap in the retaining wall. But then I’d have to do the walk of shame, past the girls dressed as butterflies.

I didn’t so much jump as tumble over the edge.

The zip wire held.

Who is your favourite artist or sculptor? Share a picture

PJ1I love Turner. Partly it’s the way that, up close, all you can see is swirls of paint and then the whole scene appears only as you step back from the canvas. Mostly it’s because Turner stepped outside and captured the soul of the day; you can feel the chill of the mist, lit by the weak sunlight of the morning and be frightened by the power of the storm. When I look at The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, I can feel the heat of the fire on my face. Very few artists have the power to do that.

When we go to an exhibition of his work we play a game. Which Turner shall we steal and how shall we get away with it? I usually opt to stick it under my jacket and run for it, although the ornate and ugly frames look quite heavy and I’m not sure how far I’d get.

What is the most important choice you have made in life? What might have happened if you had chosen differently?

It’s not an easy thing to walk away from a job. I lasted nine months at the Royal Liverpool Hospital before I sneaked into the administration office and typed my resignation. Everybody said I shouldn’t take the job, but I didn’t listen. One night in three I would be on call and walking the wards in the early hours; I got to dread and hate the noise of the radio pager.

The letter came out of the printer. The letters NHS run through me like a stick of rock. I’d planned a career in the hospital service and, here I was, about to throw it away. I took a deep breath and signed it. The Boss was in her lair as always. I imagined her sitting there all day, stroking a cat, like a Bond villain. I slid the letter across the desk. “I’ll be leaving on Friday.”

Every spare moment over the next few days was spent on the phone, looking for another job. On the Friday evening I walked away, a massive weight lifted off my shoulders. The NHS has reorganised three or four times since then and, as a result of that decision, I’ve never worried about being out of work. Been there, done that and survived to tell the tale.

That tale isn’t as good as my Dad’s. He likes to talk about the day he started off laying a reinforced concrete floor for a new hospital wing in Halifax, asked for his cards at lunchtime and spent the afternoon building something else in Bradford. By clocking off time he decided he didn’t like that either and, in the morning, was a grave digger in Bingley, working alongside somebody who subsequently turned out to be a serial killer.

What (if anything) do you do to keep fit? Describe the most – and least – enjoyable parts of this activity.

Every morning, come wind or rain, I was out on my bike at seven. In winter, covered in dayglow and lights, in summer, shorts and tee shirt.

Most of the route was away from the roads, cycle paths and through a couple of small woods. The last mile ran through the housing estate, forced out from the kerb by the cars parked in the cycle lane.

The last mile was always the fastest so, when the car pulled out of a side street without stopping, the bang attracted a lot of attention.

I jumped straight up and turned the air blue. Then it hurt. Then I had to lie down. At some point my children passed on their way to school, ripping away the last shreds of dignity.

The ambulance wasn’t in a hurry.

“What happened here, then?”

Well, I’m lying in the road and my bike is embedded in the front of this car. Take a guess. I kept my peace as the ambulance man had control of the drugs and, by now, I really wanted some.

“Bite on this and breathe normally.” Okay, entonox. Not had that one before.
I melted off the chair and slid onto the floor of the ambulance. It took both of them to put me on the stretcher; must eat less and cycle more.

There are times when you hear things you wish you hadn’t. Like when my dentist turned to the nurse and said that, if the tooth didn’t come out this time, she was going to cut out my tongue to make room for the pliers. This time it was “Blood pressure’s gone. Lights and sirens, please.”

Can you tell us about a time or a place that were particularly important to you?

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Everybody who’s seen The Young Ones thinks that student housing is rat-ridden and inhabited by sociopaths. That’s often true, but not always. When I moved into this house with three friends in the late 1980s we decorated the entire house, scrubbed the mould off the floor and scraped the green line off the bath. Over the next three years somebody accidentally set fire to the curtains, fell through the ceiling, fell out of the upstairs window and got horribly, horribly, drunk (those things are not actually related) on beer that we brewed in the cellar. We met girls, we fell out with girls, if there was a party, it was here, and there was only one fight. When we left, the landlord asked for all the keys. He was surprised when we gave him thirty-six. Everybody hung out at our house and it wasn’t just that we had a washing machine.

I think Dickens summed it up perfectly. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Mostly the best.

Thanks Peter. Tell us a little about your heroine, Echo.

For eight years, Echo murdered her way across the galaxy in the service of the Emperor. She had lost count of the number of bodies she left behind; they didn’t haunt her sleep any more.

York was a hero who walked away at the end of the war, sickened by the pointless casualties and personal loss: something that haunts him still.

Their paths crossed once before, the night she killed for the first time.

Eight years on, York’s ship is hired by the Empire. Echo is his only passenger.
He’s surrounded by his own killers, who all think Echo is there to murder him.

They may be right.

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Cover art by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics

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About Tim Vicary

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2 Responses to New Year interview with Peter Johnstone, science fiction writer.

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks Tim and Pete. Interesting interview.

  2. Tamian Wood says:

    Yes, I concur… very interesting. And I LOVE that cover.

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