Bloody Scotland Presents: Sam Alexander

Paul Johnston
Category: Reading

The heavy glass door creaked open revealing the deserted, dimly lit shop floor. Mountains of books stood here and there providing places to hide in the looming shadows. The perfect place for the perfect crime...

Now, luckily I wasn't at Waterstone's on Argyll Street at seven o'clock in the evening to participate in any criminal activity but I was there to hear about it. I got into crime novels last year and have been very interested in crime writing, and how the plot lines form and develop, ever since.

When I discovered that crime writer Paul Johnston was participating in an event held by Bloody Scotland for Book Week Scotland 2014, I was keen to head along and hear about his writing experiences. I have to say, the eerie setting of an empty bookshop was a very apt setting for the talk!

Carnal Acts by Sam Alexander
Although Paul was there as Paul, the book being discussed was Carnal Acts, a book he wrote under the pseudonym Sam Alexander. Carnal Acts is a book that can best be described as a graphic page turner. It sees DI Joni Pax, along with her boss DCI Hector 'Heck' Rutherford, undertake the investigation into a murder at a brothel in North East England which, through a series of twists and turns, leads to a wider exploration of the corruption in the seemingly serene setting.

This novel is very different to Paul's other works - which include seven Alex Mavros novels. It is a very character-based book but each character still has depth and personality which just demonstrates Paul's skill as a novelist. 

I found it really interesting to hear about the effect that writing under a pseudonym had. As Carnal Acts was written as part of Paul's PhD in Creative Writing, he wanted to challenge himself and change everything from his previous work. For example, this is Paul's first novel with a female protagonist. Writing under a pseudonym gave him the freedom to do this and "make a complete break" from what he had done in the past. 'Sam' was chosen due to its gender neutrality however, it also happens to be made up of the first letters of the names of Paul's son, daughter and wife, a clever quirk!

The talk was thought-provoking and Paul addressed something that never ceases to amaze me whenever I got to these events: crime writers don't tend to know an awful lot about the plot when they set out! Paul even admitted that with Carnal Acts, he didn't settle on an ending until the third draft!

At the end of Paul's talk there was an opportunity to get books signed and have a little chat so I decided to ask him a few quick fire questions, which didn't turn out to be all that quick! Paul had a lot to say and I was more than happy to listen...

Q: Carnal Acts is a very character based book, who is your favourite character?
A: "Oh, it has to be Joni."

Q: How do you come up with your character's names?
A: "Well, Joni comes from Joni Mitchell because I really like Joni Mitchell. Her surname, Pax, means peace which is a bit of a joke seen as she is a cop. For a main character, something short and different tends to stick with the reader. Single syllables and names containing 'x' are always good."

Q: What three words best describe Carnal Acts?
A: "'Sex', 'murder' and 'kale' - yes, the vegetable!"

Q: Finally, if you could give a piece of advice to a room of aspiring authors, what would it be?
A: "Stick at it - simple as that. It takes perseverance. Writing a novel is a marathon, you either have the ability to write a novel or you don't. You've got to write what you want to write. You've got to motivate yourself, look at what you're going to do per day or per month and reach it for that feeling of achievement."

I thoroughly enjoyed the event and judging by the atmosphere, the rest of the audience did too. The next book in the Alex Mavros series by Paul is due for release next Spring, however, more exciting than this, was the hint that there may be another pseudonym soon to make an appearance!

Heather McCorriston

Heather is a freelance blogger who was one of the Scottish Book Trust’s Young Scot bloggers for Book Week Scotland 2013.

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