Interview with Janice Brown
A QUIETLY spoken grandmother with a passion for knitting alpaca wool scarves and learning Mandarin, Janice Brown doesn't sound like your average thriller writer.
In her latest novel, Through Every Human Heart, the former English teacher who lives in the Kirkintilloch area takes readers on a rip-roaring tale from the clutches of an East European despot to present day Scotland.
The high-speed page-turner sees the wrong woman being kidnapped, the hero disappearing to a remote mountain monastery following a near-fatal road accident, a secret agent being shot and a psychopath confusing everyone along the way.
It's no surprise that when Janice picks up her knitting needles she can't escape the ideas of her latest work percolating through.
"It's well known that if you want to think or sort your thoughts out you go for a long walk or go swimming. I like to knit," she says. "I try not to think about storylines but they come in."
She smiles: "Knitting is coming back but some of us never stopped. I could talk for hours about different kinds of wool: fabulous colours and beautiful yarns.
"And you can work with wooden knitting needles. I have beautiful ebony needles, you feel as if you are doing something completely delightful when you are working with them."
After writing five teenage novels and a number of short stories, the 65-year-old moved on to adult fiction when she studied for an MLitt and a PhD at the University of Glasgow.
"The first book I tried to write was for adults, I sent it to a publisher - I didn't know any writers so I didn't know anything about this business - and they sent it back and said it was very well written but it wasn't interesting," she remembers."So I did a very stupid thing, I threw it in the bin. I thought, 'Well, that's it, I'm obviously not cut out to do this.'
"Then I thought, 'Teenagers, that must be less complicated than writing for adults. It must be more straightforward and shorter.'
Janice stopped writing when her own parents and her husband's were ill and needed care. The thought of storytelling was just too emotional for her and Janice finally opted to work towards a business qualification. Studying at the University of Glasgow followed and it was when Janice was working on her thesis for a PhD that her first adult novel Hartsend took shape.
She says she isn't aware of a change in writing style as she transferred from teenage to adult readers.
"I'm always happy when my characters are talking, so that hasn't changed," she comments.
"I often start with a place or an idea rather than people. I did that right at the beginning, I wrote about people in Skye because I have been there on holiday, there have been other stories set in Glasgow and in Central Scotland, where I had been. I was always on safe ground."
The novelist reveals that she goes on a journey of discovery herself when she is writing, not always sure where the story will end.
"It's very nerve-wracking. The first ending of Through Every Human Heart was quite different, it happened elsewhere, and it happened too quickly.
"I found the ending very difficult because there were so many people doing different things. It takes off at the middle and suddenly they all want to do their own thing.
"It's like sweeping dust or leaves - sweeping them into the middle and they are all flying off.
"Good was going to triumph over evil but just how? I had no idea."
Fortunately for Janice's reader, those leaves settled and the story took shape. She paints a light picture of Scottish settings, from the West End of Glasgow to the Highlands and Islands. And says the basis for the fictional East European country in the book was from the memories of a woman she knew who grew up in Romania.
"She would say things in conversation that were very interesting and I asked to sit down and hear them," says Janice.
"For example, her father had been working as a supervisor on a building site and someone had an accident so her father was put in jail.
"This was under the communist regime and she said at one point, 'Nothing is going to change until all the people who were in power in that era are dead. And they're still alive.'"
Adds Janice: "My mind was working along the lines of: we have changed the label but what is really happening underneath?
"I have always been fascinated by the difference between the surface we show people - whether as individuals or as a city, government or MPs - and what is really going on inside a person's head as they are charming to you.
"There was a comment on the radio about Alistair Carmichael, who leaked the information about Nicola Sturgeon, saying she wanted David Cameron to stay in power. He said it was alright because all politicians are liars. So that makes it alright?"
Those layers of intrigue could also be applied to Janice's other hobby: learning Mandarin. She laughs when she explains that her first year getting to grips with the language was a joy as she encountered new words.
Trouble set in the following year as she was taught all the different tones of those same words.
"Last year I met a Chinese couple on holiday. We were in a lift and all I could remember to say was, 'Would you like to sit down?' and 'Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?'" says Janice.
If they had known they were in the company of such a good storyteller the couple might have taken Janice up on the offer...