Debbie Johnson is a freelance journalist and author whose debut novel, the Celtic myth-infused urban fantasy Dark Vision, was recently published. After deciding what a great read it was, Starburst found out more about the book and the woman behind it.
Starburst: For those who have not read Dark Vision, how would you sum it up and convince them to rectify this?
Debbie Johnson: Well, if people don’t buy it, my three children will be promptly sent out equipped with sooty cheeks and patched jackets, ready to scurry up rich people’s chimneys for coppers. But if “doing it for the children” isn’t enough, people should read it because it’s bloody good fun – an urban fantasy set in modern day Liverpool, with day trips to Tír na nÓg, vampires, witches, rock bands in seedy Scouse nightclubs, a lot of alcohol, swearing, and saving the world one sarcastic sentence at a time. It tells the tale of Lily McCain, a socially isolated music journalist who can see a person’s future when she touches them – which doesn’t exactly make her life Party Central. But, you guessed it, there’s more to Lily than meets the eye – and she ends up entangled in a fantastical world of legend and lunacy.
Celtic mythology accounts for much of Dark Vision’s fantasy aspects. How well-versed in the background of the legends were you before beginning the book and what was it about them that appealed to you?
I was not especially well-versed, and in all honesty I still wouldn’t claim I am. I specialised in Anglo-Saxon history at university, and did some archaeology (archaeologists – those are people who know how to drink!), and have always been fascinated with tales of the far-off past and the way it is linked to the power of storytelling, whether that’s in illuminated manuscripts or told in great halls or scratched onto stone. Liverpool is a very Irish place, and I have lots of Irish relatives, and I was interested in the whole culture – once you start reading up on myths and legends from around the world, you start to see the similarities, not the differences. Most cultures hold certain things sacred: fertility, death, the sun, water – in particular rivers and the sea; you can find different variations on these themes throughout ancient cultures. The Celtic myths feature some spectacularly virile men, mighty warriors who need a thousand women to sate them and the like – but also some truly awe-inspiring female characters, like the Morrigan, and a multitude of horrific ways to kill someone. If you like fantasy novels, it’s almost impossible not to respond to these stories. Once the idea started to take shape, I did quite a lot of research – but then had to reach that stage where I took inspiration from them, but then went off and told Lily’s story instead. I still live in fear of having to pronounce some of those words in public though!
Dark Vision was originally titled The Pool of Life, referring both to Celtic symbolism and one of Liverpool’s myriad nicknames. How did the change in title come about?
Pool of Life was only ever a working title – it seemed to match the story, its Celtic roots, and the urban setting. But when you are thinking about selling a book to a potentially international market, there comes a point where you have to think outside the Liverpool-shaped box! It’s surprisingly hard to come up with a fantasy title that both suits the story, sounds good, and hasn’t been used a million times before. Dark Vision was, I think, about the third we considered – myself, my agent and my publisher, Del Rey UK. It also opens itself nicely to sequel titles. My six-year-old daughter wanted to call it The Mighty Unicorn of Death, which I thought was awesome – despite the lack of unicorns.
You share a career background with Dark Vision’s protagonist Lily in also having worked as a music journalist. How much more of you is there in your heroine?
I share certain things with Lily – mainly the job you mention. I spent ten years as a music writer – ten years that are largely a blur, as you can imagine. Free gigs, music, and all the trappings – what’s not to like? So as did Lily, I led a rather strange lifestyle for a while – it’s a transient world, you meet loads of people, enjoy lots of company, but don’t make that many real friends. It’s one of those jobs where it’s easy to hide in plain sight – appear very sociable, even if you’re not. Though that is more her than me – I am pretty sociable! But I suppose anybody who has grown up slightly geeky can understand that: feeling like a misfit, a bit of a square peg in a round hole? Having a public side and a private side that’s a bit deeper, a bit darker, perhaps? I grew up as an only child, and we’re always a bit weird (often in a good way) – Lily’s situation is an extreme version of that. I also, like Lily, can be extremely cutting and sarcastic, and have been since birth. I suspect my first words were “What are you looking at?” There is also a section of the book where Lily suffers a loss – a bereavement – which was very emotional for me. I lost my mum while I was writing the book, and my dad had died a few years earlier, so a lot of those scenes, where she comes to terms with the sense of finality and guilt and gut-wrenching sadness, were deeply personal. Other than that, she’s all her – or possibly my wish-fulfilment version of me! Oh – and we both wear Doc Martens!
On the subject of Lily’s job, music plays an important role in Dark Vision, not just from Liverpool’s history as a wellspring for talented musicians, but also as an encapsulation of human emotion that at one point directly affects the course of the plot. How important was it to you to include this theme?
I am generally pretty bad at advance plotting, but the scene you are talking about – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it’s the world’s best gig, with music legends from across the decades appearing magically all in one night at the Cavern – was one I had in mind all the way through. I could picture it all happening, it was simply a matter of finding the right place for it. I was lucky enough to have been at some of them – Paul McCartney’s solo stuff and Bo Diddley among them –and also to have just had numerous superlatively good nights out there, watching bands, dancing, getting drunk with friends. It was about trying to capture that feeling you occasionally get, that complete natural high of seeing a great gig, with great company. Those moments most of us have where we remember a festival, or a night out, that somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts – it’s a moment in time that you will always remember as magical. If you’ve had those experiences, you’ll understand what I mean – it can stay with you forever, that moment of perfection, and still make you smile decades later. Doing my job, I was lucky to have a lot of them – seeing the Sugarhill Gang at Leeds; seeing a double-bill of Supergrass and the Bluetones at a little club in Liverpool before they hit big; seeing Nina Simone; almost drowning in my own sweat in the front row of a Charlatans gig; watching Pulp pretty much anywhere... There is something very magical about music and its effect on the human condition. It can reflect pain, share the burden, lift the spirits – inspire joy. All of which Lily very much needs.
After forging a career as a journalist, what made you decide to take up novel writing and how did your previous experience aid you?
When I left the newspaper – the Liverpool Echo – I had very mixed feelings. I wanted to try something new, find a way of life that would fit in with my family and allow me more freedom, but I was also saying goodbye to an environment that is incredibly unique, and incredibly amusing. Working in a busy newsroom is like nothing else – adrenalin-fuelled, satisfying, and also packed with banter and hilarity. At first I did some freelance journalism, and also copywriting and PR, all of which I still do – see aforementioned comments about children/chimney sweeps. But once I was free from the obligation to think and write in article-sized chunks, it allowed me to be more creative. In some ways, it was pragmatic – I don’t have many skills, I’m not like Liam Neeson in Taken or anything – and I wanted to try for a career that would use those skills, and also be creatively fulfilling. In other ways, I just needed to do it – to set myself that challenge. My time as a journalist, though, was the bedrock – not of the writing style, but of the knowledge of Liverpool, the experience, the humour, and to some extent the discipline and being receptive to criticism. You don’t survive in a newsroom for long without developing a very thick skin, which you need to be an author.
Your first (currently unpublished) novel Fear No Evil is a supernatural crime thriller. Would you still like to see it in print?
That would be at the very top of my Christmas wish list, yes. I love crime fiction and I love horror and fantasy. I want to have my cake and stuff my face with it. When it was first submitted, it got very positive feedback, but was considered to be a bit too much of a mix of genres. Depending on who read it, it was either too supernatural, or too crime. That was a few years ago though and there have been some notable genre-twisting successes since then, so who knows? My Scouse PI/former priest crime-fighting duo may see the light of day at some point! Right now though, the focus is still very much on Lily, and urban fantasy.
Although most readers would be hard pressed to name another fantasy story set in Liverpool, it felt like the perfect place for such a book. What is it about the city that makes it such an effective setting for an urban fantasy tale?
Everything about Liverpool lends itself to fiction. It’s a very inspiring place – not always an easy place, but never, ever boring! Obviously there’s a good setting for crime, as there is with any big city, or for historical. But for me, given my slightly wonky turn of mind, it also fits the bill for fantasy. I spent a day this week with the kids visiting museums on the waterfront, and it was one of those perfect spring days – looking at the way this city became the springboard for millions of people to start new lives in the New World, the role it played in slavery and in trade, the way cultures from all over the globe ended up coming here and staying here. And you can then look out of the windows of those museums and see the reality: the amazing architecture, the river, the hustle and bustle of life. Liverpool has a certain unique energy – I’ve lived in a few places, and nowhere is quite like this. It’s something to do with its location, the way it’s been a boundary or a port or a hub of human emotion for so long – leading to this gorgeous, complicated mass of 21st Century existence. It’s also a place of intense contrasts: the natural beauty of the river and the coast, the grandeur of the tourist docks as opposed to the scrap piles of the working docks, the glamour next to the poverty. It’s a place that seems pretty magical – a place where mysterious things can happen. And, of course, there’s the music, the culture, the humour, and the very fine pubs!
To me, Dark Vision combined the love of a city of Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels, the geeky humour of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the mythological meddling of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles and the fire-forged romance of Tanya Huff’s Blood Books. Which authors have been direct influences on your own writing style?
First of all, thank you kindly – I am awed and flattered by all of those references! For me, I wanted to blend the “serious” approach to urban fantasy that you find more in the British-set work with the irreverent wisecracking humour that’s more commonly found in the US-set work. The UK has some amazing locations, perfect for fantasy – but there is also a very British sense of humour and frame of reference to be explored, and that was important to me when I was writing Dark Vision. I absolutely, totally, 100% need humour in my books – the ones I read and the ones I write. I think there is a bit of a snobbish attitude to some American urban fantasy, especially that with a strong romantic element – but in reality, writers like Charlaine Harris and Darynda Jones and Patricia Briggs are creating witty characters and exploring creative fantasy concepts. More to the point, they are fun – so I’d be fibbing if I said that aspect hadn’t been an influence. Tanya Huff I also love, for the fact that she is just a bit different than anything else out there. And writers who aren’t even in this genre – like Sue Grafton and Harlan Coben and Robert B Parker: wisecrackers all. Because, you know, you can produce something that is ultimately thought-provoking and sometimes dark without sacrificing the humanity and the humour. Don’t we all use humour as a way of surviving difficult times?
There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implication that Egyptian deities might also exist in Dark Vision’s world. Will subsequent books in the series deal with the mythologies of other cultures, or are you going to stick with Celtic folklore for the time being?
Well spotted, and yes! The next book, Dark Touch, explores other mythologies – not in the same depth, but, well, it seems narrow minded to assume that the whole world is dominated by the choices of white Irish people, doesn’t it? So again I’ve been hitting the books, not only to see how I can link in the Egyptian element, but also other cultures, other stories.
Do you have a set plan for how the series will develop, or are you just writing it as it comes?
A bit of both – I have general story and character development arcs already in mind; I know what I want to do with Lily and her future. But I’m not like one of those people who have 15 books plotted out – sometimes I like to take myself by surprise, and allow the world I’m creating a little breathing space to develop organically. I find if I try and control it too tightly it feels false, and stifles its spontaneity – so while I might know that I need Lily to get from A to B in terms of storyline, I often don’t know whether she’ll be getting there by Concord, donkey, or Fiat Panda!
When can we expect to see book two on the shelves and what can we expect from it?
Book two is Dark Touch, and will be out next spring from Del Rey UK, which is doing a great job of bringing fresh British talent to the bookshelves. Much of it involves that mix of mythology I mentioned earlier – again with varying degrees of authenticity, depending on my ultimately fictional needs – and it is partly set in New York. I visited there last year, and my tiny mind was well and truly blown. It’s been a challenge trying to recreate the urban setting in a city I don’t know anywhere near as well, but also hugely enjoyable. Lily will be facing bigger, badder foes, and making even more choices – about her own life, the men in her life, and – of course – the fate of the world!
Dark Vision is available now from Del Ray UK.