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Meeting Mr Ford

Six years ago, when I’d just started a Creative Writing course, I boarded a train from Birmingham to Manchester, randomly picked an available seat, and settled with my book (Ian Haywood’s Working Class Fiction from Chartism to Trainspotting). As we travelled north from Birmingham, a man leant across the aisle and asked, in a southern-US accent, if he could take a look at what I was reading. ‘Work away,’ I said. The man flicked through the book and to the woman next to him (his wife, I later discovered) he said ‘These are mainly British guys.’ He read for a few moments and then returned the book to me with a warm ‘thank you.’

On the table in front of him there sat an imposing WH Auden tome (it remained unopened), and, eavesdropping now, I thought I heard him mention something about Martin Amis, John Banville, and a barbecue party.

We were well into the journey when it finally dawned on me who I’d sat beside. Richard Ford! Richard ******* Ford! I’ve got a wee touch of face blindness, and that can be the only explanation for why I didn’t sooner recognise Mr Ford’s distinctive features (the stern mouth, the high forehead suggestive of intimidating intellect). Now I had recognised him, I was way too shy to say anything; instead, I watched and listened.

In front of him, next to the WH Auden book, he had filed-away his used condiments in an empty Styrofoam cup. He wore jeans, greying beat-up trainers, a rough cotton shirt unbuttoned at the neck. It didn’t seem strange that he was travelling standard class.

We were near Stoke-on-Trent when I found the courage to speak. The train had slowed to pass through the wee station in Stone, and Mrs Ford stood to visit the bathroom. ‘Mr Ford,’ I said, as he stepped into the aisle to let his wife pass, ‘I’m a big fan of your work.’ Of course, I was impossibly star struck and unable to form a coherent sentence, which makes Ford’s patience in sitting with me all the more remarkable. When he told me he was touring to launch the third Frank Bascombe novel, I – who knew that the second instalment, Independence Day, had been the first book to ever win the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award – stupidly asked ‘is it any good?’ Ford laughed, and then he thought about it, and then he said, ‘I don’t know! I try. You tell me.’ Then he inscribed and gave to me the one copy he had with him, the he’d been planning to read from in Manchester.

Is it any good? It’s another belter, and the copy he gave to me is one of my most treasured possessions.

Anyway, yesterday Richard Ford spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I finally had the chance to thank him. Ford was smart, witty, and thoughtful. What’s more – and this can’t be easy on a long tour, he gave the impression he wanted to be there. Afterwards, I queued at the signing desk with my well-thumbed hardback copy of his latest novel, Canada. To my surprise, Ford remembered our previous meeting. ‘I remember that well,’ he said. ‘You were doing a Creative Writing course, right?’

I was astounded that Ford, who must encounter thousands of appreciative readers, should remember our meeting on the train. But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided perhaps it’s not so strange. See, when we were on the train, while I was summoning the courage to speak, one thing I noticed was how attentive Ford was to the world around him. I’ve rarely seen an adult so alert to his surroundings. I mean, for instance, that when the litter collector came through the train, while most passengers continued their activities oblivious to her presence, Ford had already seen her, greeted her, and was busy filling her refuse sack with his and other people’s rubbish.

You can learn technique and grammar and knowledge of literature, but maybe if there’s ‘a secret’ to writing, it’s to share Ford’s interest in – his attentiveness to – all that exists beyond yourself.

Welcome

Scottish novelist D.D. Johnston writes books that are “Funny as all Hell” (The Sunday Herald), “determinedly extraordinary” (The Morning Star) and “unputtable-downable” (Northern Soul). His novels are characterised by their ambition, variety, and invention, but the consistent theme is his love for ordinary people, and his faith in the extraordinary things we can achieve together. He lives in Cheltenham, England, where he cares for his infant son.

Books

Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs featured in The Sunday Herald’s Books of the Year for 2011. Popmatters wrote, “this genial, engaging, yet serious search for meaning in a commodified global culture deserves wide acclaim” (John L. Murphy). It’s available as an audio book (audible.com), and is published in Spanish as Paz, amor y cócteles molotov (Hoja de Lata, 2013; translated by Raquel Duato García).

The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub (Barbican Press) was a 2013 book of the year in The Morning Star, where it was described as “determinedly extraordinary”.

The Secret Baby Room, a page-turning mystery suspense thriller, was a 2015 book of the year in Northern Soul, where it was described as:

the unputtable-downable type of book, the one where you are loathe to finish, loathe to leave those characters behind, disappointed that reaching the last page means you have to leave their world and go back to your own.

He also writes a wee bit of short fiction. ‘The Invitation’ – available online here – was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

His fourth novel, Disnaeland, is coming out in summer 2022.

David Vann Interview

On Monday I got to interview David Vann – author of Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island. As well as being an exceptional writer, he also turned out to be a really sound guy. The interview’s up on the University of Gloucestershire’s Creative Writing blog.

Events in Edinburgh and Perth

I’ll be Launching Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs in Edinburgh on Thursday 22nd September. The event starts at 6pm at Waterstone’s West End. I’ll be talking about why I dislike Virginia Woolf and what happens if you mispronounce German phrases. Then, two days later, I’ll be doing something similar at Waterstone’s in the St. John’s Centre, Perth. That one starts at 1pm. Both events are free and it would be great to see you there.

Edinburgh Book Fringe

Alasdair Gray will be launching the Edinburgh Book Fringe at Word Power Books on Thursday 11th August. If you’re in Edinburgh then check out the line up – some good people on! I’ll be doing a wee bit along with Helen Fitzgerald and Doug Johnstone on Sunday 14th at 13:00. It’d be great to see you!

Should you buy Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs?

As the book is newly available in the US, and is, even as I type, sailing across the Atlantic, I thought it worthwhile to type up some honest reflections on whether or not you should buy Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs.

 

Popmatters

A kind and thoughtful review by John L. Murphy:

‘Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs’ Is a Humorous and Poignant Novel About Anarchism – Possibly a First… Johnston illustrates deftly the predicament of how we consume, how few options many workers have for meals and for shopping, how we work for the chain store and how we eat at the logo-laden franchises. He vividly dramatizes the automated regimen behind the grill, as relentless as any endured in Dickensian times… this genial, engaging, yet serious search for meaning in a commodified global culture deserves wide acclaim… thoughtful, modest, and winning. ******* Damn good’