Matt Johnson is the critically acclaimed author of Wicked Game,Deadly Game and the upcoming final chapter in the trilogy, End Game (published by Orenda Books), crime thriller novels about Robert Finlay, an ex-SAS soldier and policeman, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Matt has very kindly agreed to an interview with me alongside the cover reveal for End Game.
Hi Matt. Tell me about Robert Finlay, the main protagonist in your first two novels, Wicked Game and Deadly Game:
I’m not too sure where Finlay’s character came from, Lisa. He certainly wasn’t planned. I started writing many years ago, not with the intention of writing a book but as a therapy, a means suggested by a counsellor to address the PTSD I had been diagnosed with. At that time I wrote about my symptoms, their causes, and about my career in the Army and police. It was only much later that the idea came about to use the notes that resulted to create a crime thriller. As I wrote, Finlay evolved as the main protagonist of the story. He isn’t me, and Wicked Game isn’t an autobiography, but I have used many of my personal career experiences in the telling of his story.
Finlay, like me, is a soldier who became a cop. Unlike me, he faces a threat from his past when terrorists discover his identity and that of friends from a similar special-forces background. His story is authentic, but the events in Wicked Game are, of course, fictional.
Finlay’s battle with PTSD is largely based on your own struggle with the disorder. How cathartic has the process of putting your experiences on paper been, albeit from a fictional standpoint?
It was very cathartic. At the time, and particularly when I started, I found it very challenging. Recording events in words, thinking about them, finding the right way to describe them and then writing about me, how I felt, how I reacted, how I was affected, it all served to compel me to unearth and address emotional issues that had built up over many years. I have likened it to the de-fragmentation of a hard disk on a pc, the before and after, where the result is a disc (or brain) that can function better for having undertaken the process.
As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of your books on Segnalibro.co.uk, I love the character of Jenny, Finlay’s wife. In my opinion, she offers the reader an insight to Finlay that illuminates his struggle from the viewpoint of someone who likely knows him better than himself. Was this your intention for Jenny, or was she purely there to be Finlay’s raison d’etre?
From the feedback I’ve received I think you are not alone. People like Jenny. I created her as Finlay’s rock, the woman he turns to when he needs solid advice, and also as the life-partner he is motivated to protect. I didn’t want him to be a character that only had himself to worry about and as a result might act in a way that was perhaps too heroic or too cavalier. I wanted him to have to think about the effect his actions and decisions would have on others and to have that influence him. I also wanted a third-person view on the troubled character, to show what he cannot see of himself, and to care enough about him that she is prepared to also take risks. It was also important to me that Finlay and Jenny have a strong, caring relationship; characters to whom loyalty is important.
Have you known Finlay’s end game from book one or has your direction changed at all for Finlay’s story?
I’ve had a rough idea of where the story is heading, and it was always my intention to tell it over the course of a trilogy. Having said that, the story has evolved in the telling and the editing process has brought about several changes I didn’t foresee at the beginning.
What is your day to day writing process?
Pretty disorganised but I’m getting better. Wicked Game was written ‘on the hoof’ so to speak. The story developed as I wrote. By the time I started book two, I realised I was going to have to be more organised and, for book three, I became yet more disciplined. I have a daily target of one thousand words – which I seldom meet – but I’ve now learned to create a storyboard which I loosely follow as the narrative unfolds. I take my time and frequently take a break to go back and re-assess where I have reached. Often this produces new ideas that can change the story quite markedly.
I write creatively in the afternoon and evening. Mornings tend to be saved for emails, personal work and social media. I also like to get out as often as I can and will break off to give my dogs another walk up ‘the mountain’ where I do my best thinking. And I always try to carry a small digital recorder to save those little ideas that pop into the brain unexpectedly.
Who are your writing inspirations and why?
I was actually inspired to write by a series of events. To cut a long story short, I let a colleague down during the 1980s when I failed to recognise his PTSD. Many years later when I also became a victim I promised myself I would try to make amends for that failure by bringing the realities of the condition to the attention of people through the medium of fiction. So, it was that experience which inspired me to write.
In terms of role models, it’s a much harder question as, immediately before I started writing, I read very few books and I favoured non-fiction. I was a ‘holidays only’ reader of, perhaps three or four books a year. In my twenties and thirties I used to read a lot more, enjoying the work of James Herbert, Isaac Asimov, James Patterson and Paulo Coelho, amongst others.
Favourite author? Probably Lee Child.
How important is social media, and reviews by bloggers like myself, to you?
Social media is really an essential writer’s tool. Without it, building a readership can be a very slow process indeed and interacting with readers is now so much easier – if time consuming! I learn from readers all the time and I read all my reviews. If someone likes the books I want to know what I did right – so I can repeat it – and if they have a constructive criticism I will also pay heed to it.
Book bloggers are something of a new phenomenon. I’ve heard mixed points of view from my fellow writers. Some think that the blogging world is very insular with bloggers essentially writing to a small audience who read each others blogs. Others, myself included, subscribe to the notion that book blogging is a growing medium that readers are now starting to cotton onto. Review sites like Goodreads and Amazon have their uses but, for those readers who want a more in-depth analysis of a book – that they are about to commit several days of their precious time to read – the blog is a growing source of a reliable assessment.
You tackle some real political hot potatoes in your novels, such as international terrorism and people trafficking. What do you do in terms of research when writing on such big issues?
Having spent the bulk of my working life dealing with such crimes, much of my fiction is based on my own experience of the realities of such subjects. Add in the fact that I’m also fortunate enough to have a good network of colleagues who are still in the police and related services and you’ll quickly see where I go when I need an idea or an answer to a question.
And then there is my natural detective’s curiosity. I read about current affairs and I explore every medium I can to learn more about subjects that capture my interest. Often this produces ideas, some of which I incorporate within my own work.
Wicked Game was self-published initially until Orenda Books weaved their magic over what was already a great narrative. To any aspiring author, what advice would you give on publishing their first novel?
If self-publishing I would advocate checking and re-checking your work before you press that ‘publish’ button. Check grammar, spelling etc. Check formatting, check layout, check everything and then get another set of eyes to re-check it. Nothing seems to frustrate readers more than having to fight through a badly proofed novel in order to try and get into what might be a really excellent story.
If commercially published, I’d say to trust the team around you. As a new writer I was initially somewhat alarmed by the way things can be taken out of your hands. Jacket design, marketing, price-setting and all manner of other decisions are made by others. Editing is also a real skill. What I’ve learned is that all the people involved in getting your book onto the shelves are very skilled and very professional, and by the time your ‘baby’ is ready for publication they have as much invested in it as you do – more, if you include the financial investment of your publisher. Trust them, they want it to succeed just as much as you do.
You’re currently finalising book three. Can you give us any information on what we can expect from Finlay in this next instalment?
Book three is called ‘End Game’ and is the final part of the Wicked Game trilogy describing the world of the Intelligence Services that Finlay and his former friends have entered into conflict with.
In this book, Finlay finds himself an outcast from the police service as he battles to clear a friend who has been imprisoned and falsely accused of a most serious crime.
‘End Game’ will take the reader into the world of the Hostage Negotiator and MI5, the Security Service, as I tackle issues of mental health in policing, betrayal, loyalty and the true meaning of courage.
Will this be Finlay’s last story or does he have more tales to tell?
I’m not sure. Certainly, I have sketched-out ideas for three more novels and one non-fiction book. I would like to see Finlay at the centre of these stories but whether he is, well, we will have to see.
For readers like myself who are eager to read Finlay’s next story, when will book three be published?
The publication target, I understand, is Feb/March 2018.
Thank you so much, Matt, for answering my questions. I look forward to reading End Game soon.