Hello hello and welcome or welcome back to my little bookish corner of the internet. Recently I shared my review of the newly released thriller Mirrorland, and today I’m really excited to be bringing you an interview with the author, Carole Johnstone. I genuinely enjoyed her book so much, so it’s a real pleasure to be bringing you this conversation.
Hello, and congratulations on the publication of Mirrorland! How has it been releasing a book in these strange times?
Thank you! It has been really weird. I’ve been dreaming of having my first novel published since I was a wee kid, and I can safely say that Covid-19 was definitely never a part of those dreams!
It’s been really disappointing that I’ve been unable to do real-life events in bookshops and festivals and so on, which has also undoubtedly impacted sales too. As has competing in a far more crowded industry, as everyone’s publishing schedules have been moved around to avoid lockdowns.
But from a more positive viewpoint, the surge in virtual events has meant that I’ve been able to connect with so many more people than I otherwise might have—and I’ve been able to meet and speak to people all over the world, which has been brilliant. In that respect especially, people have been so lovely and very generous with their time. I hope that even when the world becomes more normal again, online events at least will continue!
Where do you take your inspiration from when writing?
Literally anything and everything! Different stories have different beginnings, but there’s nearly always one idea that sparks it all—be it an article in a magazine, an overheard conversation, a real-life experience, or even a lifetime obsession.
Most writers are, I think, unapologetic magpies. I always have lots of different story ideas competing for space inside my head, and I have notebooks crammed with scribbled nonsense. One of them is completely dedicated to Things I’ve Heard on the Bus.
Mirrorland is one of those books that creeps under your skin and gets stuck in your head. Did your original plot look much like the finished result?
Thank you so much! Yes, the finished result is mostly the same as the original plot. I’m a big planner, a big outliner, and I knew early on that Mirrorland would need an astronomical amount of planning!
With Mirrorland, the hardest and most satisfying part was designing and incorporating all of the twists and turns throughout. It felt important to me that all the clues should be left like breadcrumbs, and that there should be multiple reveals throughout the book, some coming quite early on in the story. But it was equally important that all of the reveals made sense; that characters stayed in character; that everything that happened was always rooted in reality, and could be traced back using those breadcrumbs. Which was a lot of groundwork! It required me to be in complete control of the story at all times—I had to know in advance exactly what needed to happen, how, and when.
The outlining and researching stage took almost as long as writing the entire first draft.
It’s a book about so many things, but one of the most important is the dynamic between El and Cat in Cat’s memories. How did you come up with all the Mirrorland adventures?
I must admit, I did draw a little on some of the games I played with my wee sister growing up. 36 Westeryk Road is very heavily based upon my grandparents’ house in Leith, Edinburgh, where Lorna and I spent a lot of our childhood. It was a crazy house, and we made up plenty crazy games to play there! Never specifically about pirates, prisons, or the Wild West—that’s all entirely fictional—but there was always that same dark and magical edge to all of our games. Kids imaginations are just so wide and wild, and everything always seems so real and deliciously scary. When I was a kid, everything felt like a Tim Burton movie, and that was great!
What are your writing essentials when working?
I’d love to be a writer who could work in a coffee shop or during the morning commute (when I still had one!), but I need total quiet, I can’t stand to be interrupted. I’m also very easily distracted, and it can take a long time for me to get properly in the zone, so working in the same place—in my office, at my desk—really helps. I’m a marathon-writer rather than a sprinter; I tend to work in very long 10 hour plus stints, particularly when I’m drafting, and typically the longer I’ve been working, the more productive I’ll be.
Weirdly though, I struggle to work in absolute silence too. I always listen to classical music, movie soundtracks mostly—nothing with any words to put me off my own!
And coffee. Which to be honest, I should have put first.
Trauma is a key factor within these pages; you must have dedicated a lot of time to research!
I really did. Although Cat and El go through an awful lot as children, it was so important to me that they should be survivors rather than victims.
I spent a lot of time researching childhood and adult trauma. One book in particular that was invaluable was Resilience by the French neurologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Boris Cyrulnik. He himself had a very traumatic childhood, but put his survival and subsequently very happy life down to the theory of Childhood Resilience—that some children are better equipped than many adults to overcome the most tremendous of ordeals, simply by virtue of their incredible imaginations. It’s like a form a magic really, and so fascinating—particularly in terms of what can happen later to these children, in both adolescence and adulthood. Although Cat and El are identical twins and have nearly identical experiences growing up, they subsequently become very different people as a result of what happens to them and the ways in which they survive it. I wanted the story to be exciting and shocking, but I also really wanted to make sure that I did that part right.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m doing the initial edits of my second book—a very unusual murder-mystery, set in the Outer Hebrides. And I’m also tentatively trying to outline a third book too!
What advice would you give to those working on their writing at the moment?
Just keep going. No matter what. Ignore the voices in your head telling you you’re crap, or you can’t, or it’s just never going to happen. Ignore the voices outside your head telling you the same. I wrote short stories for a decade before I sold Mirrorland as a debut novel. I can’t tell you how many rejections I had along the way, from editors, publishers, agents, you name it.
There’s loads more practical and specific advice online, but honestly, don’t give up is the only one that really counts. I nearly did, so many times, and the fear of failure never really goes away—but if you can see past it, if you can keep going no matter what, you’ll get there in the end. I guess it’s that word again—resilience. If you can master that you’re more than halfway there, I promise.
And if you were to sum up Mirrorland in three words, what would they be?
Twisty, Passionate, and Gothic!
Thank you so much to Carole for joining me for this interview, which has given me so much to think about, and I hope it will have the same for you too. I can’t recommend Mirrorland enough, and I really hope you’ve enjoyed this chat of ours.