From PC to PTSD to publication
Matt Johnson started writing crime scene reports as a detective, then recollections as part of his PTSD therapy, before turning his hand to thriller writing
Matt Johnson: writing had a profound effect on me. In a most unexpected way it helped my recovery. At times, the first attempts to commit thoughts and experience to paper were emotional and challenging but, as I persisted, I found that my thought processes became clearer and more organised and many unpleasant memories became just that, memories. I stopped reliving them
My route to writing a crime novel was, to say the least, unusual.
Many years ago, as I sat trying to explain symptoms and experiences to a PTSD counsellor, I experienced what many people in similar situations go though – raw emotion. A surge that comes from somewhere within and soon prevents effective dialogue.
Over the coming weeks, as I followed my counsellor’s advice, I started to learn more about a condition which, until that time, had been a mystery to me.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder manifests itself in many ways and, while there are common symptoms and effects, to the best of my understanding, no two people will experience it in exactly the same way. My first personal indication came a couple of years after the 1992 St Mary Axe bombing in London. I’d been at the bombing; it was part of my job. I was a police inspector covering the area immediately adjacent to where the bomb was placed.
Several years later, I attended the sudden death of a young woman who had fallen from a high building during a roof party. When I looked over the roof parapet to where she was being attended to by paramedics, I had a flashback to the scene of WPC Yvonne Fletcher’s death. Yvonne was a friend and, in 1984, as a PC, I had driven a police car that escorted her to hospital after the shooting outside the Libyan People’s Bureau.
After this initial flashback at the roof party tragedy, I experienced repeating and unpleasant dreams that caused me to lose sleep, to become irritable and to start to display other symptoms that I learned much later were a form of PTSD.
As a way of helping me to cope with my emotional surges, my counsellor suggested that I should try to write things down so that she could better understand me and we could start to move forward on a recovery programme. I did as asked and, many sessions later, as I improved, this counsellor commented on how much she liked my style of writing and wondered if I had ever considered writing a book. She meant a non-fiction work but the seed of an idea had been planted.
This was the first time it had occurred to me to try writing. Not that it was the first time I had written. As a police officer, a lot of your life is spent writing reports. As a trainee detective, for example, I found that by making an extra effort to put together evidence, I could paint a better picture of a scene or an incident when describing it to a magistrate or a jury. I found that I was asked by colleagues to help them find words to describe things and then began to realise that I was quite a competent report and evidence writer. I also began writing odes, short poems that I would deliver at social functions such as retirement parties and my brother’s wedding. I enjoyed setting stories to rhyme, found that I could raise a laugh and enjoyed entertaining people.
Since starting as an author, I have learned that there seem to be two principal techniques for completing a book. Either the author knows the skeleton of the tale and simply adds the flesh to the bones, or they start at the beginning and see how the story unfolds. I am very much in the latter camp.
When I started writing my first book, Wicked Game, it had a very different title and was not the story that the book eventually became. I used personal experience, both of events and characters I knew, to build the story and plot as I went along. It was an enjoyable and cathartic experience. I say cathartic, because I found that writing had a profound effect on me. In a most unexpected way it helped my recovery. At times, the first attempts to commit thoughts and experience to paper were emotional and challenging but, as I persisted, I found that my thought processes became clearer and more organised and many unpleasant memories became just that, memories. I stopped reliving them.
I liken it to the defragmentation process of a computer, where a picture of the hard disk (the brain) taken before and after appears very different. After defragmenting, the disk becomes organised, structured and compartmentalised. For me, this is what writing did.
My first writing project, Wicked Game was self-published through the Amazon programme for independent authors.
I started Twitter and Facebook accounts. Sales started slowly, and then, following a sudden surge over a bank holiday weekend, I started to build a readership. Then, I had a bit of luck. The kind that every budding author needs. An RAF Chinook force loadmaster was in Afghanistan reading Wicked Game on his Kindle when Belfast-based author Antony Loveless walked past. Antony asked what the loadie was reading. He went on to buy the book, like it and recommend me to his agent. Within a few weeks, I was in London, being interviewed as a prospect to be added to the list of Watson-Little Ltd.
Not that this means instant success. It doesn’t. Many rejections later, I was starting to accept that I had peaked. Then an offer came in, and then another. I met one publisher who stood out above the others. Her name is Karen Sullivan. Karen is a hugely enthusiastic and motivated publisher with her own company, Orenda Books.
And now, many months later, with editing, reworking and many rewrites behind me, a new version of Wicked Game is released to the public. It’s an exciting time for me, one that, on reflection, I wish had happened when I was younger. But then, I accept that in those days, becoming a writer would never have occurred to me.
Now that it has, I hope you enjoy the result.
Matt Johnson is author of Wicked Game (Orenda Books, £8.99)