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Interview: Doug Johnstone On The Collapsing Wave

"If The Space Between Us was the movie Alien, this is the sequel Aliens, guns and all!"

Since his debut novel, Tombstoning, was published in 2006, Doug Johnstone has produced a varied and vital body of work, while always remaining distinct. Best known for crime fiction, most recently with the Skelfs series of crime thrillers, his first foray into science fiction, The Space Between Us, received wide critical acclaim and gained him plenty of new readers. The sequel, The Collapsing Wave, is published this month and SNACK spoke to Doug to learn all about it. 

How do you describe The Collapsing Wave?

It’s a speculative novel set in present day Scotland, where a group of outsiders have made contact with an alien species. It’s the sequel to my first science fiction book The Space Between Us, which was like a cross between E.T. and Thelma and Louise – a road trip across Scotland, running from the authorities with an octopus-like alien from Saturn’s moon Enceladus in tow.

The Collapsing Wave takes up a few months after that book ended, and a makeshift US military base has been established in the Scottish Highlands, to capture these aliens from the waters off the coast. Some of the humans from the first book are imprisoned there, but gradually they re-establish contact with the aliens and each other, and manage to break free. This leads to a showdown between the aliens, along with sympathetic humans, and the military might of the establishment. It definitely ups the ante compared to the first book. If The Space Between Us was the movie Alien, this is the sequel Aliens, guns and all!

The Space Between Us rightly garnered a lot of critical acclaim and attention, including on national TV. Were you surprised by the reaction, and just how much does such coverage help?

I was very surprised. After fifteen crime novels, my first SF book got on the telly! But I was very grateful. Most reactions to the book were very positive; folk really seemed to understand what I was trying to do. That television coverage had a big impact on sales, not just because folk get to hear about the book, but the fact you’re on there gives booksellers confidence, so they order more.

Something many reviewers claimed was that The Space Between Us was a sci-fi novel for readers who think they don’t like sci-fi. Why do you think that was?

Yeah, that was a really interesting reaction. I think SF is still thought of as a ghetto in fiction a little bit, which I’ve never understood. Folk will watch SF movies all the time, but never pick up the source material in a bookshop, which is strange. The book starts off with normal characters in a normal Scotland, then something SF happens, and hopefully the reader is dragged into it. I think of The Space Between Us as a gateway drug, to get folk to read more science fiction.

What themes are you looking to explore with these novels?

Fundamentally, the books are about consciousness and connection. How do we find connection in a world that seems to alienate us? All three main human characters are alone at the start of the first book, and they find connection with each other through an alien entity they call Sandy. The second book explores these ideas in more depth, I hope, as well as the idea of ‘othering’ – how do humans treat anything other than themselves, whether that’s refugees, aliens or just someone with a different worldview? What can we do to better understand other points of view?

Both novels are character driven, and they’re memorable characters at that. Were you excited to be able to return to them and see what they’ve been up to? Do you come to care for your characters?

Yeah, it was great to revisit the three central characters of Lennox, Ava, and Heather. They’re very different from each other, and at very different stages of life, but they share something deep with each other. I absolutely come to care deeply for my characters; love them despite their flaws. Checking back in with them for the second book was a delight but also a challenge. How had the events of the first book affected them?

The Skelfs series of crime novels are also ongoing. Can you give us an update on those? And has writing crime changed for you over the years?

Yeah, I’m working on the sixth book in that series now. It’s called Living is a Problem, and is due out in September. The Skelfs series, about three women who have to run a funeral directors and private investigators, is a very different experience to writing the standalone thrillers I was doing before. In one aspect, I’m still writing about the same thing – ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. But the Skelfs series is much more expansive, more experimental and goes much deeper, I think. I’m able to write about all sorts of stuff that obsesses me, because I’ve established this framework. I’ve never really written what readers might consider ‘mainstream’ crime fiction, but that goes doubly so now.

Going back to The Collapsing Wave, do you think you’ll be writing further science fiction? Or are there perhaps other surprises in store?

I will definitely be writing more SF, for sure. And maybe dabbling in fantasy, but again, I suspect it’ll be a book for folk who ‘don’t usually read fantasy’!

The Collapsing Wave is published by Orenda Books

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