Lover Husband Father Monster part 2

In my last post I interviewed Elsie and Graeme Johnstone, the husband-and-wife author team behind the novel Lover Husband Father Monster. And they’re back again today to answer a few more questions…

Lover Husband Father Monster is a story about family breakdown, written from two perspectives — that of the husband (Stuart) and that of the wife (Jennifer). What was your process for co-writing? Did one of you drive the project more than the other?

Graeme:

Elsie created the template for the book. She started out by writing the first six chapters or so, and then I read those and began to write my piece within that framework. The boundaries were not too restrictive, I had a fair bit of freedom, but still had to keep within the overall plot line. But we did not write entirely independently of each other. Every now and then, we would review each other’s work and discuss how it was going and suggest changes/improvements or query certain elements. For example, Elsie might say to me, “I’m not sure Stuart would say that in that particular situation.”

Once, after we had written another half dozen chapters or so, I called up Elsie’s document to see where she was heading. Now, in our original drawing up of the characters, the wife, Jennifer, is from a sprawling Catholic family, and Stuart is an only child of a Protestant Army man and his wife. So, I had been assembling the classic “Orange & Green” scenario, and was almost at the point of somehow introducing Gerry Adams and the Rev Ian Paisley into the storyline. So I am reading Elsie’s latest chapters and suddenly I stop, turn around and say to her, “Buddhist? When the bloody hell did Jennifer turn Buddhist?”

And Elsie replied: “I don’t know, she just did!” Which of course is the sign of a good writer, when the characters suddenly start jumping around the page and doing things and heading in directions that were never considered in the original plot. This meant that I had to go back and re-write my latest offerings, but at the end of the day, it was an inspirational and intuitive move by Elsie. It changed the whole tenor of the book, gave us the opportunity to introduce new and colourful characters, and it made a much better work all round. Far better than my notion of the tired old Catholic versus Protestant thing that has been done to death. Still, I was brought up in that exact scenario, so I got to put down on paper a lot of turbulent mutterings, got them off my chest, felt much better about them, and them buried them in a drawer somewhere.

Elsie:

I drove the plot when writing Jennifer’s tale, but it was a constant stream of discussion, questioning and revision. We wrote in blocks, about half a dozen chapters at a time before we stopped, took stock and moved on. We wrote twelve drafts before we were satisfied.

 

Graeme and Elsie in Killarney

You’ve self-published this book, but you’ve managed to get proper distribution and reviews in major publications. How did you go about doing this?

Elsie:

With difficulty and doggedness. We used every resource available to us, writing to every newspaper in the country offering to send a review copy. We had two bookshops on our side — Just Books in Lakes Entrance and Dymocks in Southland. We had written other books and done signings for them so they were happy to have us back.

For Lover Husband Father Monster we set aside twelve months and organized a writer’s tour for ourselves, going to every state. We wrote to other bookshops in the capital cities offering to do signings, most of which were very successful. One in Milton, Brisbane, was a painful three hours (we sold only five books), but at others we sold upward of twenty books. While we were in these cities we offered to do radio interviews and the country radio stations were fantastic. They were pleased to have a couple of eloquent writers talking about a social issue and welcomed us. We left books at country newspapers to be reviewed. They often took a photo of us with the book. If we were in a country town and the library was open we would donate a book. We spoke at Rotary, View, and Probus Clubs. We met a lot of people along the way and had a good year. Now Lover Husband Father Monster has to fly by the seat of its pants. 2012 and we are onto different things.

Graeme:

You have to be persistent.

Now that it’s all done and dusted, how has writing about family breakdown affected you as people?

Graeme:

I must admit, when we jointly determined how the book would end, and I wrote the first version of the chilling climax, I pushed the chair back and thought, “Wow, did I just write that?” Even simply doing that had an impact on our lives. And promoting the book and getting readers’ views has elicited scores of responses from people who have personal tales of marriage breakdowns. One of the more unsettling angles is grandparents telling us how their son or daughter’s marriage is broken down, and how one of the parents is mentally unstable, and how they fear for the lives of the grandchildren. We hear a lot of haunting real life stories like that and it can affect you.

Elsie:

We enjoyed working on a common project. At times it was challenging separating real life from what we were doing but we were in Ireland so took the opportunity to travel into Europe, so our writing and involvement in the book was broken up by playtime and so it didn’t get to us. Last week we celebrated 40 years since we married in a country church so we shall probably finish the journey together. It’s been fun.

Has it changed your relationship?

Graeme:

Yes. I don’t open the car door for Elsie anymore …

What’s next for Elsie and Graeme Johnstone?

Graeme:

A lot of people ask us when the sequel is coming out. We never, ever in a million years considered there would be anywhere further to go with Lover Husband Father Monster, not after an ending like that. But those comments have made us sit up and think about it. At the moment, I have veered away from books into writing musicals. The first of these is being premiered in December. It’s called Normie and it examines the experiences of Normie Rowe, the former King of Pop, who was controversially conscripted and sent to Vietnam, only to come home and find that his stellar career had crashed. Normie will be in it, although not as himself. We have written a special part for him and composer Peter Sullivan and I have written five brand new songs for him. It’s a big project and we have a young director, Simon Eales, pulling it together. We have already had an ensemble cast do a rehearsed reading before an audience and the early signs are very encouraging.

Elsie:

Me? I’m writing a novel called Ma’s Garden, the story three women, set against the backdrop of the first twelve months of operation of a country newspaper in Trafalgar, Gippsland, in 1902. It is about a small town at the edge of settlement. Also I have begun writing short stories. Last month I was awarded second prize in the Stringybark Short Story Historical Writing Competition for a piece entitled “Footsteps in the Dark”, set in Melbourne during WW2 and the brownout.

George’s bit at the end

My thanks to Graeme and Elsie for being so generous with their time and answering my questions. To find out more about them and their writing, check out their website.

Catch ya later,  George

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Lover Husband Father Monster part 1

In December last year I attended a talk at the Mentone Library. Elsie and Graeme Johnstone, husband-and-wife authors, spoke about their latest novel Lover Husband Father Monster. I was so impressed with their talk and their readings, that I tracked them down and asked them to answer a few questions for Literary Clutter.

The novel, a story about family breakdown, is written from two perspectives, with Graeme writing as the husband (Stuart) and Elsie as the wife (Jennifer). So it seemed appropriate that this interview should also be conducted in two voices, with Elsie and Graeme writing their answers separately. So, here we go…

Lover Husband Father Monster is a story of family breakdown with tragic consequences. What attracted you to writing this type of story?

Graeme:

A combination of events. Just before we did a house swap and went to live for a year in Ireland, there had been two headline-grabbing incidents in Melbourne of fathers seeking the ultimate revenge over marriage breakdown and killing their children. When we arrived in Dublin we came across court cases of a similar theme. We had planned to write some sort of book while we were over there — after all, the emerald isle is the country that has produced some of the greatest writers of all time. Initially, we had no real theme in mind, but pretty soon this became the story for us.

Elsie:

There are always two sides to every story; it takes two to tango; all of those things…

Sometimes two people just aren’t good for each other and certainly are not good, as a pairing, for the people around them. This story is the story of a couple like that — they have the ability to bring out the worst in each other. In the beginning they are two perfectly ‘nice’ people, both with strengths and failings, but as they rub against each other in the game of life they manage to project towards tragedy.

I am an observer of human behavior and have always been interested in how some couples complement each other perfectly while for others, the coupling is a disaster. This book explores that.

What sort of research did you do?

Elsie:

We lived in Ireland for ten months while we wrote the first draft of the book. It is set in Ireland. Several women whom I considered to be friends have, at times, come to me and told me that the marriage is dead. I have expressed surprise because, on the surface, they seemed to be happy, only to be told that the husband abused his wife. Women often cover this up to the outside world because it seems shameful and they wish to protect their families. The newspapers regularly report situations where the marriage partners have come to hate each other so much that they do awful things. We read, thought, discussed and researched the literature on abusive and revengeful partnerships. There are many of them. This book tells a common story.

Graeme:

The Dublin cases were front-page news every day and so we devoured every word we could on them, and began chasing up other cases on the Net. As well, Dublin talk-back radio was buzzing every day with comments on the cases, one in particular where a man, described as “a very ordinary insurance salesman” stabbed his wife to death in front of the three children at the breakfast bar. Very often people were saying that you couldn’t blame the man for what he had done, because “he had no where to go, the woman had pushed him into a corner.” And a lot of women callers were saying that! We began asking the question in all these cases, “What would drive a man to do that? What series of events would develop that would turn a man from the joyous lover to the sturdy husband to the controlling to the unconscionable monster?” Being a house swap, we were living in an outer Dublin suburb, in a cul-de-sac with a lot of young parents with kids and mortgages and the Celtic Tiger crashing around their ears, so we had plenty of opportunity to get to know and understand the wonderful, swirling, funny, generous complex character that is the Irish.

 

Graeme Elsie at Mentone Library

You had an interesting approach to the writing of the novel — each of you writing from the perspective of a different character. Why did you decide on this approach?

Elsie:

Simply because there are always two sides to every story. We decided to explore this issue from the two perspectives and let the reader decide where it all went so badly wrong.

Graeme:

We initially considered a joint effort on both characters, but then quickly felt it would be best to take one character each and apply specific female/male insight into the individuals. Having done that we also briefly considered interleaving the chapters, so that Jennifer would give her views on a certain period of time and/or event and then Stuart would give his. But we felt that would be restricting. We both agreed that it would be best if Jennifer told her story first in total and then Stuart gave his view. Sometimes they agree on events/times/issues and sometimes they don’t, while slowly but surely the differences begin to develop, the marriage starts to unravel and a shocking ending is looming.

Did you find this approach restricting or liberating?

Elsie:

Interesting. It meant that we had to write within a construct and that we really had to get inside the head of the character we wrote about. It made us dig deeper into the issue and not just look at the final act. Stuart did a dastardly thing but perhaps he was pushed that one step too far by Jennifer. Like the mouse that sank the boat!

Graeme:

Personally, I found it liberating. I enjoyed developing Stuart in my own way, while still working within the framework. I drew on my memories of a lot of men I had met or had witnessed in action in a family situation over the years, or had interviewed in my days as a journalist. Stuart is a composite make-up from those people, and I really got into piecing him together. Sometimes I got so much into his stealthy, controlling character, that when I would do something like open the car door for Elsie and give a courteous little bow, she would say to me, “Graeme, being just a little too much like Stuart today, thank you …”

George’s bit at the end

And so we come to the end of part one. But Graeme and Elsie will be back soon to tell us about their writing and publishing process, how writing Lover Husband Father Monster affected them personally, and what’s coming up next for them.

Catch ya later,  George

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