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Blog Tour Q&A: Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

I am delighted to host a blog tour stop today for Johnny Rich, author of The Human Scripta book I enjoyed immensely and which is now available in paperback by Red Button Publishing. Below, Johnny discusses the book’s journey from writing to publication and his fascination with the major themes within the story…

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Please introduce yourself and give our readers a brief overview of your career.

My career has been more checkered than a tweed chessboard. It’s ranged from publishing to politics, from television to technology and from educational charities to entrepreneurship. Through it all, I’ve tried to piece together a living based on communicating. With words, mostly. 

Fifteen years ago, I quit a well paid job in the media to go back to university to study Creative Writing. I was lucky enough to get a place on the celebrated masters course at the University of East Anglia where, among many other wonderful teachers, I was tutored by such great names as Sir Andrew Motion, W G Sebald and Lorna Sage. A steady stream of writers also dropped by: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, Doris Lessing, Ali Smith, Louis de Bernieres and many other luminaries. 

That year made me recognise two things. First, writing fiction was not something to be ashamed of. Second, it was something I was able to do with at least some skill.

My debut novel The Human Script was something I started writing that year. I had no idea then how long it would take to reach the printed page.

Your book The Human Script has just been published in paperback by Red Button Publishing. Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

I’m not good at summing it up, especially without spoilers. If I could, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to write it in the first place. For that reason I’m grateful to one reviewer who provided me with a snappy description: ‘a philosophical thriller’.

Obviously, I worked hard to ensure that the story is as engaging as a thriller while, at the same time, deep questions emerge about what it means to be human.

The narrative involves Chris Putnam, a junior geneticist at the turn of the millennium, working on the Human Genome Project, which was the global effort to write down the DNA code that makes us human. It was, literally, the largest scientific endeavour our species has ever undertaken. Chris, however, is no more than a tooth on a cog in the machine.

Against this backdrop, the story begins with the death of Chris’s estranged father. This sets in train a series of events exploring nature and nurture, science and faith, art and celebrity, sexuality, truth and literature.

It’s also a love story, a tearjerker, and occasionally it’s funny too. Or that’s what I hope.

As a triplet, I am always interested in books and literature about identicals and multiple births. What drew you to this subject matter?

Going back to Shakespeare and beyond, twins are a classic literary device. Not only do they provide great scope for plot twists based on confusion (most of which I avoided as they often come across as contrived), but they’re also a sort of natural ‘what if?’ What ifs are central to the theme of The Human Script.

For the same reason, twins are critical to the study of human behaviour and genetics. If identical twins – who share the same genes – behave differently, how do you explain the difference? The simplistic answer is that it’s down to their environment: their nurture rather than their nature. (As it happens, it’s more complex than that. It’s the chaotic interplay of genes, upbringing and whole lot else besides.)

Hidden within this nature versus nurture debate though is the assumption that nothing about a person can be outside those influences. If that is the case, we can never be free of our background, of who we are. We are creatures of fate. So where does that leave free will?

To me this question becomes even more fascinating in the context of a novel. The characters act for reasons that they can’t control and, as readers, we have to believe in their motivations, their sense of choice and in the reality of their suffering, even though, deep down, we know it’s all just puppetry on the part of the writer.

Why was it important for you to address some of life’s big subjects such as reality, mental health, religion and philosophy?

These big subjects appeal to my natural curiosity as, I hope, they will to any intelligent reader. But no one wants to wade through a treacle-thick philosophical tract. A good story, with human emotions, turns these big issues into a deep blue pool that it’s fun diving into. And, I hope, occasionally the reader will fish out a few pearls – or at least emerge feeling refreshed.

Having said that, I don’t see big subjects as separate from little ones. Yes, you could trudge through life with great human tragedies played out before your eyes without ever taking notice. Or you could see a universe in the smallest thing. The way a person takes their coffee, for example, might say something profound and important about that person, about all humanity, about existence itself.

I used to be a keen photographer. I always felt that you could point a camera at any object or scene and a talented enough photographer would always find a way to create art from it by seeing it afresh. I now feel the same about writing. A thrilling story can be dull if told badly, but even the most mundane event can be elevated into a tale of epic scale by a good storyteller.

What motivated you to write in a less conventional and more experimental form of writing? i.e less structured punctuation, etc.?

Getting the voice right is utterly non-negotiable in good writing. It’s something I worked hard on and in The Human Script, there are basically two voices.

There’s Chris’s first person narrative, which recounts events as he experiences them. I wanted to avoid that awkward feeling you can get as a reader when a character is telling you the story, that sense of ‘why are they speaking to me like this?’

That’s not how thoughts run in our heads, so I wanted to avoid that for my main character. Instead, I used a variety of styles of stream of consciousness writing. It’s important that the reader is inside Chris’s thoughts because the story turns on him becoming aware that not everything that goes on in his head can necessarily be trusted.

The other voice is a third person narrator. This voice is authoritative, authorial, almost godlike in its omniscience. It’s somewhat portentous and sometimes even pompous. As the novel progresses, the reader should be asking those awkward questions. Why is this narrator speaking to me like this? How do they know? Who are they?

How did The Human Script get picked up by Red Button Publishing?

When I completed The Human Script over a decade ago, it was snapped up by one of London’s top literary agencies. In fact, three agencies were competing for it, which was very flattering. However, at the time, if a book wasn’t about a boy wizard or written by a celebrity, they weren’t interested. Over the next couple of years, just about every publisher turned it down.

Most literary fiction loses money anyway and this novel in particular is hard to categorise, which makes it hard to market. I don’t blame the publishers for not taking the gamble. However much the agents and editors were raving about it, commercially it looked too tough to justify a publisher’s investment.

My manuscript was confined to a box under the bed. Ten years passed, during which publishing changed. The introduction of eBooks and small-run printing meant lower commercial risks for independent publishers. That allowed them to take bigger literary risks.

One evening, I got an email from a friend asking me if any of my arty-farty friends had unpublished novels kicking around. A friend of his was starting up an independent imprint with the specific aim of discovering great books that mainstream publishers had overlooked. My reply email was barely more than an attached file.

Three days later Red Button responded saying The Human Script was the book that been looking for to launch their imprint. They asked for some small changes, which reassured me they knew what they were doing, and the support they have given the book is probably more than I might have hoped for from a bigger operation.

What have you found to be the biggest benefits of publishing with an independent publisher?

Red Button publish books because they love them – books in general and the books they’ve chosen in particular. What more could a writer ask for?

In practice, this means that they’ve spent far more time listening to my views on everything from marketing to cover design than I think would have been the case with a major publishing house.

Of course, it would have been nice to have a publisher with more marketing and distribution clout, but not at any price. I’ve heard tales from friends who’ve been published by the mainstream and whose books have vanished without trace because they’ve been sold as chick lit, horror or historical fiction, when they simply weren’t. When they haven’t sold big in the first few months, they’ve been dropped like a lead jellyfish as soon as their contracts allowed.

Meanwhile, the slow steady burn has worked for The Human Script. Recently, one website called it a “whisper hit”, a reference to the way that, despite the lack of hype, readers have found the novel, loved it and just spread the word.

What have been your favourite reviews of the book to date?

The reviews have all been so generous, it’s hard to pick a favourite, although of course the Words are my Craft review was especially insightful and wonderfully written. (Enough crawling?)

If I have to pick one though, it would probably be the review by book blogger Book ’em Stevo – mainly because it was the first. Among many other kind words, he wrote, “To say I enjoyed The Human Script would be an understatement. It provided me with the long forgotten thrill of not knowing how a novel will conclude, and for that I am grateful. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever, well written fiction.”

I read that and thought, “That’ll do.”

So far, there hasn’t been a single bad review, but I suppose it will happen eventually. When it does, I’d like to think I’ll see it in the context of wider praise and I’ll remind myself that literature is highly subjective and a book that everyone likes probably has no real conviction. Probably not, though. It’ll haunt me.

What are you working on next?

I like to range widely, not just in fiction. I’ve recently written a semi-academic paper on an aspect of education. I’m toying with the idea of turning it into something more popular.

Meanwhile, I’ve got two kids and sometimes I tell them stories. Occasionally I think, hmm, that’s got legs. I’ve written a couple down, but not done anything with them yet.

In terms of adult fiction, there are a couple of ideas I’ve been stewing for a while. One is a sort of postmodern retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another centres around Baron Alexander von Humboldt. I’ll just have to see which one develops first into enough of a plot to demand to be put on paper.

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Johnny Rich is the author of The Human Script, published by Red Button Publishing, available now in paperback (£9.99) and eBook (£2.99) formats. To celebrate the launch of the paperback the author will be reading extracts from the novel followed by a Q&A on 17 November 2015 at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BL. To find out more and to book tickets, visit: http://bit.ly/humanscriptlaunch.

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I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Jude and her twin Noah are close until a tragedy drives them apart. Now they are barely speaking – and both falling for boys they can’t have. Love’s complicated.

Wow! This book was just absolutely stunning. Every single page was a real work of art, shining with literary elegance. This will compete to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Initially what attracted me to this book was the fact that it’s about twins. Being a triplet myself, I tend to take advantage of reading stories about multiple births, because I like to see how writers approach the subject. I related to this book because I love my sisters intensely the way that Jude loves her brother Noah, but that doesn’t mean that it’s plain sailing growing up. When bad things happen between you, there is that tinge of sadness and longing there that means you will always find yourself back to each other and making up. This strong, loving bond was so apparent in this book and is probably part of the reason I fell in love with it.

If one twin is cut, the other will bleed

I love how each of the twins have a very distinct voice, and yet both voices are written so poetically. The way they think and the way the narrative is written completely reflects the twins’ artistic personalities. Noah expresses his views and perceptions of life by regularly imagining the situations he finds himself in as paintings or portraits, and gives each one a name:

…the yelling reaches us.

It’s loud, like the house might break in two. Same as the other times lately.

(Portrait: Mom and Dad with Screeching Tea Kettles for Heads.)

Noah also speaks in metaphors throughout the book which gives the narrative a real richness and makes it unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Instead of saying something straight forward like “I muster up courage and fight back,” he says, “So I grow. And grow, and grow, until I head-butt the sky. Then I count to three and go freaking berserk.” Instead of saying, “I was thinking a lot about Brian,” he says “And then it happens. Brian rises out of the darkness of my and takes my hand like he did in the movie theater and pulls me to him.”

Jude, on the other hand, has become super-paranoid, agnostic, and superstitious since the tragedy occurred, and responds to every day situations in her life by pressing some kind of old wives’ tale, fable, or proverb on to them:

This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders.

Things don’t really turn out like you think.

To reverse destiny, stand in a field with a knife pointed in the direction of the wind.

Her late grandmother is with her wherever she goes, and she lives her life by her grandmother’s superstitions, as a way of keeping her close to her. It’s Jude own personal coping mechanism, and again, this fact oozes out from the pages without having to be spelled out. What makes this terrific writing is that Nelson doesn’t need to explicitly spell out how her characters feel or think – the narrative style does all the talking, so that with each new beautifully written sentence, we get to know the twins and how their minds work in a much more intimate manner.

There are a number of love stories in this book, and I think the author portrays and conveys love so convincingly, far more than a lot of other authors I’ve read recently. I could almost feel the love in my own heart as I read through each couple’s stories. Their passion, desire and heartbreak seep through the pages and enter your head and heart.

Each character is so wonderfully unique and vivid, and their quirks, strengths and weaknesses are well developed. The twins’ family feels like a real family, and I really grew to love Brian and Oscar, the twins’ respective love interests. This book makes us realise as well that no one is perfect, and that mistakes can be made by the best of us, even with the best intentions.

I’ll Give You The Sun seems to have it all: gorgeously artistic language, fantastic characters, great pace, love stories, intrigue, mystery, and scandal – all with the accessibility of a Young Adult novel. It is an absolute masterpiece of a book. You need to read this. I don’t tend to score things by stars, but this one is a ten out of five. Amazing.

The Human Script by Johnny Rich

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I would like to take this opportunity to thank Red Button Publishing for sending me a Kindle review copy of the book, it is much appreciated!

London in the spring of 2000: Chris Putnam, a young scientist working on the Human Genome Project, is grieving for the end of his first relationship and the loss of his deeply religious and estranged father. Then Chris falls in love and his twin brother goes missing. Events take Chris on a journey from the hallowed halls of scientific research via decadent art-scene parties and London’s Theatreland to the cold loneliness of a psychiatric hospital and ultimately to a desperate decision. What Chris discovers about himself and his world forces him to address his own nature, his own beliefs and his own reality.

In The Human Script science, philosophy, literary theory and religion intertwine in a poignant and tragic love story that asks the question: what is it to be human?

This book was deeply philosophical and also scientific in nature, and I became especially engrossed in it when I realised that it was about twins and the nature/nurture debate, and the differences in genetically identical siblings (as a triplet myself, I am always fascinated by this.) Do our genes dictate how we turn out? Or is it our environment that shapes who we are as people? And who or what has created us? Who controls our reality?

In terms of literary achievement, this book ticks many boxes: a good plot, an engaging romance story, mystery and narrative experimentation. The protagonist, Chris Putnam, is a scientist, a lab assistant whose initial view of the world is one built on logic and evidence. I say initial, because as the novel goes on, his perceptions and thoughts begin to change as certain events unfold. What’s quite interesting is that the text is set in a scientific thesis form – i.e it actually includes footnotes. These don’t interrupt the flow of the book, in fact they give it an added depth, especially when you notice a sneaky footnote that changes the whole dynamic of the narrative – and no, I won’t tell you which it is. Read and use it properly. It’s very entertaining and far more satisfying than cheating!

In fact, the narrator even compares the human body to a scientific paper, which for me was a fascinating outlook:

The human genome is a life written in a book where every word has been written before. A story endlessly rehearsed. Quotations cited and recited because once they were apt, the fittest to survive.

The Human Script explores reality, morality, and religion. It is fascinating, especially in the context of Chris and Dan’s relationship as twin brothers. Dan Putnam is highly artistic, reckless, and confident. Chris is science and logic-driven and often extremely insecure. Their differences outweigh their similarities in many ways.

Chris grew up stubborn and unrelenting about his scientific beliefs, especially his conviction that it is not God who dictates a person’s nature and lifestyle, and that it is in fact DNA and genes that determine them. This leads Chris to constantly question whether it is because of this that his relationship with his father was unable to be mended before his father died. Should he have been so steadfast and unmoving just because his religious father could not understand his life choices? Should he have put these differences aside for the sake of more important things? With the loss of his father as a trigger point, Chris begins to doubt the world around him and, more specifically, the nature of his reality. Is his belief system actually right? Or has he been closed-minded over the years?

How do I prove my father is not at his desk behind the door and if I open it I… Experiments and observations demonstrate what is, not what is not. How do I prove my father’s dead or that there are no such things as ghosts or souls or God? Just because something isn’t real, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Even a projection of the mind is a kind of existence. Thoughts have physics – the electro-chemical floods and pulses that wash around the brain. Ghosts are real in their own way, but not independent of those who see them.

One slight concern I had about three quarters of the way through the book was that the philosophical questions and passages were beginning to feel a bit heavy. I do feel like the book would have done just as well if it contained fewer of these type of passages, especially at the times when I felt that the narrative began to repeat its musings over and over again just in different wording. However, this didn’t last long and once I powered through that I realised that these musings and philosophical explorations were woven into the story well and served a good purpose. I could tell what value they added to the story as a whole, but it wouldn’t have suffered to perhaps tone it down a little.

The fact that the narrator immerses the characters in the book among these philosophical musings – in fact, the author kind of uses them as ‘case studies’ within the text to test different hypotheses – makes the characters much more interesting and well-rounded as a result. I loved reading the relationship with Chris and his brother, and Chris and his boyfriend, and Chris and his room mate, and how these relationships are affected by the nature of their perceptions of the world. For instance, his room mate Elsi, who studies philosophy, has a tendency to advise and console Chris based on whichever philosophical theory she happens to agree with. His boyfriend Leo falls in love with him partially because he feels an innate need to look after and care for someone. Dan – for the most part carefree – worries less about consequences and more about enjoying living and advises his brother to do the same.

Chris’ feelings and emotions towards the characters in his life are, initially if not consistently, based on his own tendencies to perceive the world as purely scientific, without a deity or higher force. Chris recognises that as identical twins, he and his brother are much like molecules in the river Thames – “Just molecules of water, two hydrogen atoms, once oxygen, and they’re all identical. Clones, differentiated only by their different places in the flow.” Essentially, Chris and Dan are genetically the same, but somehow somewhere in the ‘flow’ of life, they became so very different, and this novel shows his struggle to understand exactly why. Anyone interested in twins and multiple births will be so fascinated by this book.

At first, I was worried that the narrative style would be distracting – at times Chris’ words come out in an unrelenting rush, and this is how the novel starts:

Because there’s freedom in the air, ‘Good morning’ I beam to Peter the old security guard who sits in his hut at the Gower Street gate and who once told me he still likes to fish at weekends and who looks up to see which person is bothering to talk to him.

This alarmed me a little at first because I worried that the entire novel would be written in this vein and that I would get impatient very quickly. However, after the first chapter I soon got used to this unique narrative style and I found that this ebbs and flows as the text moves along. It calms down and introduces more pauses and more mainstream punctuation and I realised that the narrative style changes as Chris’ mood changes, a very clever and effective device  in the novel’s storytelling. When he is feeling a particularly strong emotions, his grasp on order and rules lessens, and this is when the above narrative technique kicks in. At this point, as the novel opens, Chris is very happy, and it also comes back into play at times when he is also feeling very agitated or upset. I thought it worked incredibly well.

Here I can understand why the novel was discovered and produced by Red Button Publishing, where it may not have been recognised for the great achievement that it is in a ‘Big 5’ mainstream publishing house. The book is incredibly clever and smart, and really made me think, while keeping me entertained to the end. The characters were engaging, and the plot was gripping. If you want to try something truly different and unique, I would highly recommend this book. I really enjoyed it.

Click here to buy a digital copy of the book.

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