'As a crime writer, I juggle constantly with life and death'

IT'S no laughing matter – two bouts of cancer within five years, both slipping under the medical radar, one diagnosed just weeks after the all-clear for the other.

By rights, crime writer Paul Johnston – a man who has dwelt more than most on death, and gruesome death at that – shouldn't really be cracking jokes.

Yet here he is, chuckling away at his own misfortune, a little angry but also utterly determined to make the most of what life's just handed him.

"A tennis ball," he snorts, "the tumour they found in my bowel was the size of a tennis ball. Quite what Roger Federer was doing hitting an ace up there, I have no idea."

He roars with laughter but while he can joke about it now, the best-selling Edinburgh-born, Athens-based author wasn't always quite so laid-back.

He had just been told he had passed the 'five years clear' stage from an entirely separate cancer which cost him a kidney and, in true 'kick them when they're down' style, coincided with him being ditched by his publishers, when he realised he wasn't feeling as good as he should.

He put it down to the stress of wondering whether he would pass his cancer check-up combined with the imminent birth of his first son, but of course, it wasn't.

"It was literally the day after I'd been signed off and told I was clear of cancer," he recalls. "I began to feel not that great, really tired. I was getting pains in the bowel area that weren't going away.

"The doctors in Athens fairly rapidly realised there was a tumour the size of a tennis ball lurking in there. You've got to laugh really."

How such a sizeable malignant growth slipped through just as the creator of a string of books famous for their raw and grizzly death scenes – he is best known for his Quint Dalrymple series set in a futuristic independent state of Edinburgh – was undergoing stringent cancer checks is a medical conundrum.

It didn't help that his first encounter with the condition, a growth beneath his kidneys, also went undetected for much longer than it probably should have.

"Subconsciously, your body knows there is something going seriously wrong," he reflects. "You don't know what, so you rely on the doctors to tell you. I relied on the NHS but they didn't see it until very late.

"It had been there a long time, in soft tissue and hard to spot. When they finally opened me up to get it, the thing virtually sat up and barked at them like something from Alien. It was stage three and very, very aggressive."

That news floored him and the double sucker-punch from his publishers and the rapid departure of his agent didn't exactly help. It might all have led other authors to throw their PC out of the window. Instead, it set him to work.

In breathtaking time the crime novelist who blew up his former school, Fettes, in his first highly acclaimed book, Body Politic, had created a new bitter and twisted central figure for a book driven by revenge and played out against a violent backdrop of serial killings.

The result was The Death List, acclaimed by Ian Rankin as "a classy serial killer thriller' – and Paul has returned the compliment by praising his fellow city crime writer's work – and fellow Scottish novelist Kate Atkinson as "a modern revenge tragedy with even more blood, gore and ingenious twists". Better still, it has sold more than 30,000 copies.

Not bad going considering Johnston hammered it out in a fury in just over a month, his most violent book taking shape in a massive outpouring of 5000 words a day, driven by his battered emotional state.

Having introduced hacked-off crime writer Matt Wells in that novel – and personally vented his spleen in the process – Johnston is back for more. Last month he unveiled the second book in his Wells series, The Soul Collector.

"The whole point of this series is revenge," explains Johnston, 51, back in Edinburgh for a string of personal book store appearances and to catch up with his father, crime novelist Ronald Johnston.

"It's fair to say that after the first cancer and being dumped by my publishers there was a fair amount of anger floating around. Bitterness is a bad thing, it's unavoidable, it's part of the human state but it's a bit toxic.

"So I got some of that out in my first book which seems to have done the trick.

"Revenge is such an interesting emotion because we all feel it at some time, though possibly not to the murderous extent that I did."

Blood and gore, human passions and their frailties have long been part of Johnston's make up. He was just seven years old when he picked up a copy of The Odyssey from his father's bookshelves and became instantly hooked on fabulous tales of life, death, love and war.

"It opened at the episode where Cyclops sharpens a stick and then pokes it in someone's eye – exactly what a seven year old boy wants to read!," he gleefully recalls.

"I started nagging my dad from then on, I wanted to know more. Eventually he said 'OK, go to Fettes'. After a week there I realised what I'd let myself into and probably bankrupted my poor old dad at the same time."

He recalls a youthful Tony Blair a few years above him in the school play displaying a flair for acting, but he struggled to embrace the ideology of public school. Hence its explosive fictional demise in his first novel.

His love of Ancient Greece and the Classics endured though. He studied at Oxford and worked for shipping companies in London and Belgium before moving to Greece in 1987 for a string of jobs, among them one as a "ham-fisted tourist guide".

Along with his Quint Dalrymple series and the newer Matt Wells books are a trio of Greek-based books featuring his private eye Alex Mavros.

Amid it all, he divides his time between Athens – where he lives with second wife, Roula, and their children, Maggie and Alexander – and Edinburgh.

Today, he is still undergoing chemotherapy for his latest cancer but the bitterness and anger seems to have subsided at last.

Things are looking up professionally too. He has a new upbeat publisher and a new series of books on the shelves, while talks to develop The Body Politic into a movie have crossed the vital hurdle of securing finance.

It's not been easy though. "It's like a grieving procedure," he explains.

"There's anger, denial, melancholy, bitterness and acceptance. There have been times when I've wondered 'Is this it?.

"As a crime writer, I've juggled constantly with life and death in my imagination.

"Coming face to face with the real thing... well, it does make you reconsider a lot of things.

"But now," he adds with a smile, "I'm just really very happy."

The Soul Collector is out now, published by Mira Books.

ODYSSEY OF A MAN WITH THE WRITE STUFF

PAUL JOHNSTON was born in Edinburgh in 1957. His father Ronald was a successful thriller writer.

After Fettes, Paul studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University. He left in 1982 and began working for shipping companies in London and Belgium.

He moved to Greece in 1987, and worked on a newspaper, in shipping and then taught English. His daughter Silje was born in 1988. He started writing seriously in 1989, when he went to live on the small Aegean island of Antiparos.

The author returned to Edinburgh to study in 1995. His first novel, Body Politic, won the Creasey Dagger for best first crime novel of 1997. Since then he's written and published another nine books.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Roula, a Greek civil servant. Their daughter Maggie was born in Athens in January 2006 and their son Alexander in January 2008.

His chemotherapy is due to continue until November.

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