My Interview with Ian Probert author of Johnny Nothing
I’m delighted to Welcome Ian Probert to Kyrosmagica for a lively Q & A session. Lovely photo Ian. Very casual. That floor is spotless. So, first things first let’s start off with the preliminaries, the getting to know you questions, before I start to tease you into revealing more.
Where do you live now? If you could live anywhere in the world where would that one place be?
I live in Islington and I couldn’t think of anywhere better to live. I’m a bit like Douglas Adams. He was an Islingtonophile. I interviewed him at his house once but ended up spending the afternoon listening to Randy Newman. It was enough to put me off Randy Newman for life. We spoke a lot about John Lennon. He had a bootleg of Real Love, which the ‘threatles’ eventually made into a pretty terrible single. It was a bog shock when he died. But then when isn’t it?
Have you always known that you wanted to write? When did you start writing? Did you have a Eureka moment or did you just come to it gradually?
I’m going to sound big-headed but at school I was only good at two things: Art and English. As a kid I filled exercise books up with terrible stories about vampires. However, as a working class kid growing up in Bristol writing was what other people did. As such I had a succession of dead end jobs until one day I found a typewriter and sent something off to a magazine. I was lucky that the first thing I ever wrote was published. These days I’m more used to rejection.
What inspired you to write? Favourite authors maybe, and/or some other more mysterious source of inspiration/influences?
My first professional job was writing letters to fellow students’ banks at art college. I was paid in beer and discovered that I was really good at it. Inspiration? Well I can give you a list of people that I like: Brett Easton Ellis, Paul Auster, H E Todd to name a few off the top of my head. But they weren’t the inspiration. The inspiration was LIFE. Like most people I occasionally have something to say. I find that I can communicate better through the written word. I’m crap at talking. I splutter and sound like an idiot. My wife is great at this. She tears me to pieces in an argument.
Kyrosmagica – Me too, I communicate better through the written word too. Speaking is much, much harder.
If you could summarise your love of writing in one sentence what would that sentence be?
I’d paraphrase Joseph Turner. ‘Writing is a rummy business.’
What kind of special qualities do you think a writer possesses? Apart from a touch of madness!
A writer or a GOOD writer? There’s a big difference. We all have differing opinions of course, but to me a real writer should be able to hit the ground running. To engage the reader from the first sentence and, more importantly, to make the reader forget that they are actually reading. To me it’s never been about the number of words you know, or where you place the commas. It’s how you present your ideas. It’s ideas that make a writer, not words.
Do you follow any particular routine of writing? Are you a structured writer? Or do you just throw caution to the wind?
I’m completely unstructured. I work when I feel like it at any time of the day or night until I start to bore myself. If I’m bored so will the reader be. That’s not to say that I don’t admire people such as Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith who, I believe, rent offices and treat writing like a 9-5 job. It’s horses for courses.
Kyrosmagica – I’m unstructured too. So identify 100% on that one.
Would you consider yourself an introvert, extrovert, a people person or an animal lover? Sorry, for the silly question but I reckon a lot of writers are animal lovers, and well there seems to be two writing camps, shy writers and more outgoing ones, and those who are just plain obsessed with their dogs and cats. Or a family man perhaps? Just trying to get a handle on you as a person.
Who is Ian Probert?
I’m old enough to recognise and to have come to terms with the fact that I’m completely weird. My wife sees it too. So do other people who know me. I seem to spend most of my life trying to put up a normal front that people will find acceptable. I’m certainly not alone in this. I’m a curious combination of incredible egotist and whimpering insecure baby. A compliment can make me a friend for life, a criticism can make me reach for the switchblade. Years ago a journo at the Big Issue gave one of my books a bad review. I actually waited outside their offices intent on taking it up with him personally. Thankfully he
didn’t appear. Do I like animals? Not really. I don’t understand them. I can see that as a species we have a deep rooted, fundamental urge to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other creatures; but me, I’d rather have a Playstation. You don’t have to feed it. It doesn’t need walking. It doesn’t cover your clothes in hair. And you don’t have to organise people to look after it when you take a holiday. You can’t play video games on a pet either.
Kyrosmagica – I admire your bravery. All those pet lovers out there will be incensed. Yes, incensed!
What made you write Johnny Nothing? Was the book born out of a sense of boredom, or dissatisfaction with life?
Well it’s been pretty well documented elsewhere that I was very ill for about 15 years and I wasn’t able to write. I was close to death. When I finally got better I had a creative burst of energy and wanted to write something for my ten-year-old daughter, who didn’t have much of an idea that I used to write for a living. It ended up – I hope – being for kids and adults. I think it’s actually a fairly political book. Although naturally there are lots of fart jokes.
Kyrosmagica – So sorry to hear about your illness Ian. Glad you got through it. Must have been dreadful, fifteen years. You deserved one heck load of a creative burst of energy after suffering that long. Oh and what a combination! Politics and Wind. Sounds about right!
How important do you think a title is? How did you choose the title of Johnny Rotten and your other books?
A title is very important. Which is why I didn’t call the book ‘Johnny Rotten’. Had I done that I may well have attracted an audience of ageing punk rockers, which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. However, I wanted to attract kids. So I called the book ‘Johnny Nothing.’
See what I mean? I’m too sarcastic for words. Make one simple typo and I jump on you.
Kyrosmagica – Oops sorry, Ian, I deserved that! It’s my generation. Johnny tends to equal rotten in my sub-conscious. I must have been listening to punk rock when I typed up the questions.
Since I’ve proven myself to be an incompetent
punk rocker I may as well try to redeem myself with a couple of excellent quotes:
John Lydon: “You should never, ever be understood completely. That’s like the kiss of death, isn’t it? It’s a full stop. I don’t ever think you should put full stops on thoughts. They change.”
Freddie Mercury: “Is Billy Idol just doing a bad Elvis pout, or was he born that way?”
Back to my Questions! Who are your greatest supporters and your most difficult critics?
My wife is unbelievable. She has complete and utter faith in me. Which is something that I certainly don’t have. If it wasn’t for her I would probably stop writing and become a waiter or something. Most difficult critic? All of them. I can’t think of a writer who can take any criticism. Most writer refuse to read reviews because they find it too hurtful. I can have hundred good reviews but the bad one is the only one I will remember.
Kyrosmagica – It must be tough. I am always very aware of this when I’m reviewing, I try to be honest, and fair. People forget how much time and effort authors invest in their writing. Writers bare a little bit of their souls on public display.
I think the choice of illustrations in a book can make or break a book, do you agree? There is a darkness to the illustrations which makes the book visually startling and different. How did you find the illustrator for Johnny Nothing?
Well keep it under your hat but I did them myself. I didn’t put this in the book because I didn’t want it to detract from the writing. If you read my book Rope Burns (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rope-Burns-Ian-Probert-ebook/dp/B003YXXKWU/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 (Buy it now kids!)) you can hear all about my doomed attempt to become a famous artist.
Kyrosmagica – This is the moment when I confess that I want to kill you, a writer and an artist, how talented can one person be! UGH! Take a look at the artwork from Johnny Nothing and cry!
I’m over that outburst now. BACK TO MY Q AND A!
I believe you have self-published and also traditionally published. What are the pitfalls of both methods, and what method of publishing would you recommend to debut authors?
Oh blimey. I’m still trying to get my head around this myself. I don’t know. In traditional publishing you might get an advance and some help with the marketing but not much else. They get you in the papers but take 80% of your earnings. Most traditional publishers still expect you to do the bulk of the marketing. In indie publishing you get no advance but a bigger slice of the pie. Obviously you have to do all the marketing yourself, which is really hard. Did I say INCREDIBLY, UNBELIEVABLY difficult? Newspapers won’t review your books and you struggle to get on the radio or telly. I don’t think that either method is satisfactory but I do enjoy the independence of indie publishing. I do, however, miss interacting with other human beings.
If you could choose one quote to inspire others to write what would it be?
‘Marley was dead to begin with…’ If you can begin a book better than that you’re going places.
Kyrosmagica – Ha Ha! Scrooge, Humbug!
What are you working on now?
Something called ‘Dan’s Dead’ in which the hero dies on the very first page. It’s going to be a pretty short book!
Kyrosmagica – Sounds intense, but intense is good.
Now here’s to a wonderful excerpt of Johnny Nothing. CHEERS! ENJOY!!!!
EXCERPT OF JOHNNY NOTHING
Bill had a shaven head and was wearing a blue tracksuit. He was almost seven feet tall and built like an outdoor toilet made of brick. Bill didn’t realise this but he was a distant descendent of Neanderthal Man. He had only one eyebrow – one long bushy eyebrow that reached right across his forehead. He looked like what you might get if you force fed a member of Oasis with a half-tonne black plastic sackful of steroids. And if you were brave enough to be present when he took off his tracksuit you would discover that his back was so covered in hair that he was able part it with a comb. If Bill had had more of an interest in fashion, he might even have considered giving it a curly perm and perhaps a few extensions. On his right arm, Bill had a tattoo which simply read ‘Bill’. This was in case he woke up one morning and forgot who he was. This was actually less unlikely than you might imagine because standing next to him was his twin brother. His name was Ben and he was identical to Bill in every way except that the tattoo on his arm read ‘Bin’ (the tattooist was either South African or not a very good speller). He was wearing a red tracksuit. Bill gave Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie the tiniest of smiles and managed to grunt ‘hello’. Ben gave the couple exactly the same tiniest of smiles and also managed to grunt ‘hello’.
The two men were standing protectively close to Johnny. They were so large that in the confines of Johnny’s bedroom they looked like giants, which they were. They were so enormous that each of them had their own postcode. They were so gigantic that they had their passport photos taken by satellite. They were so humungous that you could spend all day thinking up rubbishy jokes about how big they were and never adequately describe just how indescribably, earth-shatteringly ENORMOUS they were. By no stretch of the imagination could you call them small (unless, of course, you were a lot bigger than them). The pair of Goliaths were having to stoop slightly so as to avoid head-butting the ceiling, which actually even looked a little scared itself. They were a terrifying sight. Even scarier than a school trip to a Weight-Watcher’s nudist
There was a long, pregnant silence in the room like this:
This eventually gave birth to an even longer post-natal silence, which, in the interest of preserving the rain forests or the battery on your Kindle, I shan’t demonstrate.
The four grown-ups eyed each other nervously. Bill and Ben looked at the Mackenzies like they were looking at insects that could be squashed into pulpy insect juice any time they so desired. The Mackenzies looked at Bill and Ben like they were looking at two giant skinhead Neanderthal bully boys who had just appeared from nowhere in their recently and unexpectedly decorated council flat. Johnny looked a little scared. Finally Billy Mackenzie managed to get his mouth working a little and spluttered: ‘Who are you?’ And then: ‘What do you want?’ There was another long silence – let’s call it a pause – while Bill and Ben looked at each other as if trying to decide who was going to answer. Finally Bill spoke: ‘You the boy’s parents?’ he demanded in a voice that sounded like an angry rhino with horn-ache. Although if he was clever enough he would have realised that this was a rhetorical question. There was yet another long silence (you’ll be relieved to hear that this is the last silence you’re going to get in this chapter) before Billy Mackenzie mumbled ‘Yes’.
‘We’re Johnny’s bodyguards,’ continued Bill. ‘We’re here to make sure that everything’s hunky dory.’
‘Hunky dory?’ Mrs. Mackenzie suddenly found her voice. ‘What do you mean ‘hunky dory”?’
Now Ben spoke: ‘What my brother means to say,’ he explained. ‘Is that we’ve been – how shall I say – contracted – to make sure that this young feller’s affairs are in order.’
‘Get out of my house!’ interrupted Mrs. Mackenzie, suddenly feeling a little braver, although she had no idea why.
Bill and Ben looked at each again for a moment. They did this almost as much as your mum looks in the mirror. Or you dad looks at websites that he shouldn’t be looking at. ‘First of all,’ said Bill, ‘This isn’t a house – it’s a flat.’
‘And second of all,’ said his brother. ‘We ain’t going nowhere. And neither are you.’
‘Johnny who are these men?’ Mrs. MacKenzie asked her son, ignoring the two giants.
‘I’m sorry mum but…’ Johnny started to speak but Bill cut in like a pair of scissors that chops sentences into bits.
‘…What the young feller means to say is that the fun’s over.’
‘The fun’s over?’ repeated Felicity MacKenzie numbly.
‘That’s right,’ continued Ben. ‘You’ve had a right old time. You’ve been spending his money like it’s your own. You’ve been ripping the poor young feller off. And we’re here to put a stop to it. From now on things are gonna be different.’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my house…’
‘Flat,’ corrected Ben.
‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my flat. Billy, call the police!’
As usual Billy MacKenzie did as he was told. He reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. Before he had the chance to even turn it on the gigantic frame of Bill was towering over him.
‘That an iPhone?’ asked Ben.
‘Erm… Yes,’ said Billy, who could only watch as the huge man took it from him and with one hand crushed it into a chunk of buckled metal and shattered touch screen.
‘I think it’s broken,’ said Ben. ‘You ought to take it back to the Apple store. Tell ‘em that you’re not getting a decent signal.’
‘Right!’ cried Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘We’re leaving! You’ll be very sorry you did that. I’ll fetch the police myself!’
Now the giant frame of Bill was standing in front of her. He was holding something in his hand that looked a little like a child’s toy space gun.
‘Know what this is?’ he asked. Although once again he wasn’t clever enough to recognise that this was a rhetorical question.
Mrs. Mackenzie regarded the object for a moment. Then she shook her head.
Whatever it was she guessed that it was not intended to provide pleasure, happiness or fulfilment. Anything that has a trigger and a barrel and goes ‘bang!’ seldom does.
‘Come on Billy!’ she said. ‘We’re leaving!’
Bill stood in front of her blocking the doorway. ‘Not so fast,’ he said, not so slowly. ‘It’s called a Taser. See this little trigger at the front? If I press this it’ll give you a small electric shock. It won’t hurt you…Well not too much anyway.’
Bill raised the object and gently touched Mrs. MacKenzie on the arm. There was a loudish bang and a flash of blue neon light and Mrs. MacKenzie collapsed groaning to the floor. She was conscious but wasn’t able to move her arms and legs ‘Oh my gawd!’ said Billy Mackenzie bravely charging out of the room in terror.
He got as far as the stairs before there was a second flash. He, too, crumpled to the floor. Bill dragged him back into the bedroom by the scruff of his neck.
Johnny Nothing got to his feet and stood over his two parents. He looked anxious. ‘Are they… Are they… OK?’ he gasped.
‘Don’t you worry yourself,’ smiled Ben. ‘Give em a few minutes and they’ll be right as rain.’
‘But they’ll think twice before they try to run off again,’ said his brother.
Ian Probert has been scribbling down words ever since he learned to spell the phrase: ‘Once upon a time…’. He is the author of Internet Spy, Rope Burns and a bunch of other titles. Internet Spy was a bestseller in the US and made into a TV film. Rope Burns is a book about why books shouldn’t be written about boxing. Ian has also written things for a shed load of newspapers and magazines. When Ian was a student he used to write lots of letters to the bank manager.
“Great new kids book alert! My two are in hysterics reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert (and I am too).” Jane Bruton, Editor of Grazia
“Oh, Wow! Dark, sordid, grotesque and hilarious are only a few words I can conjure up to describe this hilarious book.” Lizzie Baldwin, mylittlebookblog
Johnny Nothing is best-selling author Ian Probert’s first ever children book – although adults are enjoying it too. The story of the poorest boy in the world and the nastiest mother in the universe, the book is earning rave reviews. Children and grown-ups are all laughing at this incredibly funny kids book
Take a look for yourself:
To celebrate the paperback launch of Johnny Nothing we are offering a free Kindle copy of the book to the first 100 people who Tweet the following message:
@truth42 I’m reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert. http://geni.us/3oR8 #YA
The first ten readers who answer the following question will also receive a signed print of one of the book’s illustrations.
Q: What is the tattoo on Ben’s arm?
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Categories: Author Interviews