Today I have the pleasure of welcoming John Mayer to Chat About Books 🙂
Many thanks to John’s wife, Lizzie, for arranging the following interview.
Q. Could you tell us about yourself and your series of books?
A. I was born into severe poverty and malnutrition: which very nearly killed me. I mean that at aged only seven months and suffering from raging pneumonia, I was so near death that I wasn’t expected to last the night. I have a very rare blood type and the hospital I was in didn’t have any. I only survived because a visiting doctor did something quite unconventional. He hooked up a line between my mother and myself, then pumped her blood into me and my penicillin soaked blood into a bucket. I was allergic to the stuff they’d been pumping in to me. That was the first of several times that I’ve been close to death. For instance, I’ve been shot, twice; once in New York City and once in Glasgow. Don’t ask what happened to the other guys. Those experiences and being naturally clever and ambitious have led me through a very unusual life. Knowing that teams of doctors can be wrong, led me at an early age to always question authority. Later in life as an Advocate in Parliament House, when questioning expert witnesses, I never ask anything to which I don’t already know the correct answer and can prove it.
I’ve always been an outsider and rather enjoy my Parliament House nickname; which is Maverick. I believe that to be a really good writer of drama, one must not only master the syntactical craft, but also convey real events and not just imagined ones. When I started to write The Parliament House Books, I swore to myself that I would only fictionalise events which had really happened to me, my clients or other Advocates and their clients. I’ve varied that proposition somewhat as the series has developed, but a sense of that rule is at the core of every story I write. The actual Parliament House in Edinburgh houses Scotland’s Supreme Courts and is 500 years old. Hundreds of horrific and dramatic events have happened in that old place and after practising law there for twenty years, I know them all.
I am slightly autistic and believe my depth of perception is greater than people who aren’t. That leads me to observe people and events from the outside as well as the inside. When I was a kid, I was smarter than everybody else around me, which made many other kids jealous and led to so many fights I can’t remember them all. When I was older, I was more ambitious; in fact fiercely so. That too put me on the outside of the pack. I’ll always remember my English teacher, Mr Thomson, telling me that I was a born storyteller but there was more money in being a lawyer: ‘You could be either’ he said. I’m sure he’d be proud if he knew I’d been both.
Q. Are any of your characters based (however loosely) on anyone you know?
A. Oh yes. I’ve known some great characters; some who come from the slums of Glasgow but others who are aristocratic. Among both groups are people upon whom you could trust with your life while others are simply low life in high places. I have a soft spot for two of my supporting characters; both of whom are real. The first is Ababuo – an African child stolen for money and sent into prostitution. I acted for her in court and after winning her right to return home, I arranged for Richard Branson to fly her back to Africa on his inaugural flight from London to Johannesburg. The other character is also a girl. This one is only eight years old, the daughter of my neighbour. She’s a bright and precocious child, whom I like very much; so I extrapolated her life to age twenty four, made her an Advocate in Parliament House and made a key player in the central plot of The Trust. Others though are straight-out real. Tucker Queen for instance, is a character from my past who was a real gangland messenger who would put a big rat through someone’s door in the night with a message tied to its tail. Some of the Judges in The Parliament House Books are real. The good guys are only thinly disguised.
Q. Can you share your writing process with us, in a nutshell?
A. Sure. From reading about other successful authors, I’m fairly sure I don’t write in a conventional way. That’s no surprise to me because throughout my life I’ve never done anything in a conventional way. I don’t plot, I don’t plan, I don’t follow the usual Shakespearian three act play format. You’ll see reflections of these things in my stories, but
I’m not by any means a slave to format. Again, that’s because I’m a free man in every respect. If I feel like going out in a heavy sea to catch octopus from my fishing boat, then that’s what I do. I sometimes write when I’m quite drunk because I express the truth more brutally that way. I check what I’ve written when I’ve sobered up, but I rarely change much. My wife has barred me from social media because she thinks I reveal too much truth. I don’t think so, but marriage is compromise, so I only write mundanity on it. It’s actually quite a challenge for me to write mundanity, so it’s good for me in a ridiculous kind of way.
I start each book with a word. One single evocative word, which becomes the title: ie, The Cross, The Trial, The Cycle, The Order, The Bones, The Trust. I’m sure the fact that all of my titles begin with ‘The’ and the operative word has five letters has a lot to do with my autism. Each is a subject which is capable of developing many subordinate stories under an overarching principal event. I start with a feeling that the reader will enjoy a book about a particular subject. I then write a three line peripatetic scheme consisting of a Premise, a Development, and a logical Conclusion. Can you tell that I’m a big fan of Aristotle? If I can twist and stretch that scheme to my satisfaction, then I begin. I do enjoy writing ethereal chapters where it’s not clear who is dying, or feels guilty, or is making a decision. I also enjoy the thrill of sometimes unexpectedly, reaching a moral counterpoint between those in their ‘High Places in Parliament House’ and those – perhaps junkie parents – who are telling the truth. I don’t plan those chapters. In my crazy mixed up muddled up intellect, they just demand to be written. Many people in reviews have called that genius. It’s not. It’s just very unusual and quite attractive to readers, I suppose.
It follows, of course, that I don’t have any rituals about writing times or periods. I write when the mood takes me. If, instead of writing, I fancy going out to walk in the rain, then that’s what I do. I once wrote a very successful non-fiction book called Nuclear Peace and went on a ten-week promotional tour of America. My biggest audience was 44 million people; on American School Radio. Sometimes when I want to daydream, I imagine them listening to me reading from that book and remember taking their phoned-in questions. Well, this may have been a longer answer than you wanted, so I’ll stop there.
Q. If you could invite any fictional character for coffee, who would it be and where would you take them?
A. What a great question! It would be Josef K from Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. I’d take him to the Reading Room of the Advocates’ Library in Parliament House in Edinburgh so that he could be imbibed in my world while I ask him questions about Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. I’d be fascinated to know more about how Kafka’s mind worked; though after writing my own novel called ‘The Trial’ as an homage to Kafka and now being in my fourth novel in The Parliament House Books, I think I know Kafka better than I did when I started.
Q. If you could meet any author, who would it be and what would you ask them?
A. It would absolutely have to be Franz Kafka, the day after I’d met his character Josef K in the Reading Room of Parliament House and of course, I’d have to ask him the same questions as I did his character the day before. That would deepen my insight into Kafka and nothing would give me greater pleasure. That was a very clever question. Thanks for asking it.
Q. Were you a big reader as a child?
A. No. Not at all. The thing I did read a lot of was comic books. I had thousands of them and used to go round to other kids’ houses to do swaps. We didn’t have TV and the radio was all politics and News. I won books as prizes at school but always found them boring. By the time I was a teenager I was hooked on Radio Luxemburg and my world was filled with Music Music Music. I loved the way some people like Paul McCartney could write songs. Songs were my big love, not the written word.
Q. When did you start to write?
A. Gosh, I’ve been writing for so long I’ve forgotten when I started. I’ve written all kinds of things from newspaper articles, journal articles, legal text books, my non-fiction book Nuclear Peace was published in hardback and I’ve written so many legal pleadings that I couldn’t count them all. I started The Parliament House Books series a little over three years ago and I’m loving it. It’s a thrill every time to get a five star review from a stranger.
Q. If you wrote an autobiography, what would your title be?
A. Second Class Citizen.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I’m working on the fifth novel in The Parliament House Books series called The House. This time the central character Brogan McLane QC is called upon to help his old community ‘The Calton’ in Glasgow which is facing demolition. But there’s more to the story than just the decision of Glasgow City Council that they want to extend a motorway link. Much more!
Q. Tell us about your last release?
A. The last book in The Parliament House Books series was The Trust. Trust is at the heart of every legal system and when it’s broken, many things jam up or collapse in pieces. The results can be catastrophic for the people involved: unless you have someone who’s prepared to risk all to put the shattered pieces of trust back together again.
Q. How can readers keep in touch with you?
A. Write a Review for Amazon.
E : firstname.lastname@example.org
Q. Is there anything else you would like us to know?
A. Only that I’m grateful to all those who take the time to leave a Review on Amazon. These really are the life-blood of authors. I hope you enjoy The Parliament House Books.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, John 🙂