Today, I’m interviewing Michael Johnson, publisher turned author.
Michael Johnson has lived in Bundeena for the last eighteen years. He graduated M.A. (Law Tripos) Trinity College Cambridge followed by four tumultuous, exciting years in Nigeria with British American Tobacco followed by then thirty years in book publishing & book selling in the U.K, Asia and Australia after moving to Sydney in 1968 with his wife and three children. Retirement has seen him assume a variety of interests including book reviewer, slush pile reader, columnist with the late lamented Village Noise and now a published novelist, with a second novel in progress.
Michael, your first novel, Noah’s Park, has just been published. Can you tell us about it?
The trigger for Noah’s Park was a drive past a Circus setting up the Big Top. It looked bedraggled. The posters showing lions, tigers, and horses were plastered on every telegraph pole. Returning home through the National Park I started to muse about the feasibility of transporting those animals at night and releasing them. The ammunition was my twenty years living in a quiet seaside village at the heart of Australia’s oldest National Park. The lives, feuds, passions, friendships, pecadillos were a powerful incentive to create what one kind friend called ‘a beautiful example of magic realism…comparable with The Life Of Pi’. A faithful fan group know it as ‘That dirty book about Bundeena’! Perhaps due to some fairly explicit lesbian sex scenes, which caused several people to query my research. My many gay women friends are far more understanding. I stress that it is fiction, of my imagining. I pursue the effect of the Circus animals on the village, the Park Rangers, the State Government and the wider public. It is a light brush I use, gentle satire, hopefully perceptive of the human condition.
What was the journey to publication like? What challenges and discoveries did you make along the way? And what have the reactions of readers been like?
It took about a year to write. An agent showed interest but finally felt ‘it was not commercial enough’. Experienced in the use of the notorious ‘slush pile’ I made a decision to go the eBooks route, the Fifty Shades of Grey highway. My artist friend Garry Shead offered cover artwork and we settled on Rosie the elephant, the heroine of the plot.
It was a good decision. Sales on Amazon and iBooks are steady. Friends of Bundeena Library launched Noah’s Park
and more than 100 people seemed to enjoy the evening, listening to my stories about the book and my publishing/bookselling life. There may be a paperback edition on the horizon.
Before becoming a published novelist, you’ve had a long career in the book industry, as a publisher. Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do? Or something you have only recently been inspired to take up? And how does it feel, being on ‘the other side of the fence’, as it were?
I have always loved to write. In the 1970’s I wrote a cover story for Richard Walsh’s Nation Review, under a pseudonym. Titled The Sensuous Politician, modelled on the bestseller The Sensuous Woman. My piece is still scarily relevant today. I reviewed books for SMH, ABR, Herald Sun and had a regular ABR column. In retirement I, with like minds, ran a newspaper The Village Noise
There are no fences. For me publishing, bookselling, authors, readers, should be a seamless holistic experience.
I believe that over your many years in publishing, you met some extraordinary people. Can you tell us about some of them, and about some of your experiences over that time?
*Being interviewed by Allen Lane, founder, with his brothers, of Penguin Books. I still have his signed letter of appointment to the Management Group in the U.K in 1964. ‘ 2000 pounds sterling p.a and an interest free loan to purchase a car’!
I was entranced by the Albert Tucker painting on his wall which was the cover of The Lucky Country. He seemed intrigued by my sales technique in Nigeria with British American Tobacco, which involved standing on the roof of my Landrover, in some remote village market, blowing a hunting horn!
*My first appointment at Penguin as Export Manager for the World outside Europe.
*Setting up Granada Publishing here in Sydney.
* Key memories from this time include buying paperback rights for Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory from Sphere and capitalising on the ABC TV series. Those unforgettable lunches with Frank
In 1970 we published the Paladin edition with the iconic John Holmes cover of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. The promotional tour I set up included events in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide (she taught me to love oysters), and I witnessed her literally change womens’ lives.
*Don Chipp phoning to tell me that he was releasing our Henry Miller titles from the prohibited import list. Griffin Press started printing two days later.
*Selling 500 copies of the hardback edition of Robert Ludlum’s first book The Scarlatti Inheritance firm sale to Hedley Jefferies at A&R.
*The great booksellers. Hedley, Ron & Eve Abbey, Jim Thorburn, Norma Chapman, Nan Jacka, Wattie Thompson, Cedric Pearce, Charley Dickens, Mark Rubbo, David Gaunt, Peter Milne, and those long lunches.
Do you think publishing has changed over the time you were a publisher, till now? In what way? How do you see the book industry at the moment–both from a publisher’s and an author’s points of view?
Publishing, bookselling, authors are a fluid formula in times of constant change and challenge. Existing models of distribution, retailing and the shibboleth of ‘sale or return’ need forensic examination. If, with honourable exceptions, the acceptance of a manuscript is wholly dependent on how many copies Big W is likely to take then a disruptive approach to the art, science and soul of publishing, that indescribable ‘gut’ feel, the awareness of the reader (o.k consumer), the awareness of a global revolution in the carriage of the written word become mandatory. In this the author should be an equal partner, dovetailing with his or her publisher in a symbiotic relationship. My daughter Lou Johnson, co-founder of The Author People
is one face of this new thinking.
(ED Note: An interview with Lou was published on this blog a few months ago.)
What are you working on now?
I am writing another novel drawing on my experiences in Nigeria, linking the conquest and imposition of fundamental Islam in Northern Nigeria 200 years ago and the terrorism of today’s Boko Haram. It’s an ambitious project and I have dedicated 2016 to it.