Interview with Award-Winning Author Pete Johnson

Pete Johnson is an award-winning British author with over 50 books to his name and has won a fair few awards over the years for his writing.

His earlier books were for teenagers but his first breakout book was The Ghost Dog in 1996 which is an eerie tale about the power of imagination. This book won both the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year Award and The Young Telegraph Book of the Year.

Pete has just released his sixth book from his Louis the Laugh series ‘How to Change Your Parents into Superstars’ to bring humour and escapism to children at a time when they need it the most.

(read our review of ‘How to Change Your Parents into Superstars‘.)

It is a real privilege to be able to interview Pete here.

Interview with Pete Johnson

1) I understand that  you used  to be a film critic and then a secondary school teacher. What inspired you to then become an author?

When I was a child I read five or six books a week – even more in the summer holidays, when I could happily read all day – and then by torchlight for much of the night too. A favourite book was ‘101 Dalmatians.’ and when I was nine I wrote to the author, Dodie Smith. She not only replied but sent me a wonderful hand written letter. 

She carried on writing to me – and when I was twelve she asked me a question which changed my life. ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a writer as I think you could be a good one?’ Dodie Smith put the idea in my head and kept my spirits up even during the inevitable rejections. So although I greatly enjoyed being a teacher and a film critic, my dream was always to become a published author.

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2) Where do you get your inspiration from?

That is a really key question, especially as there is something mysterious – almost magical about the whole process. All writers are looking for what Quentin Blake called that, ‘whoopee moment,’ which is when you have a really fantastic idea and can’t wait to start writing it.

But I am also haunted by the fear of the well drying up. So what I have learnt is that ideas rarely come fully formed. You might just have a glimmer or hint of something exciting. So I always store it away and it may be later, that the idea begins to grow and develop. A writer’s greatest ally is their unconscious.  You never know when that will present you with   a dazzling insight. It happened once when I was cleaning my teeth!     

3) Do you have any processes that help you write?

Yes I do, I always aim to be sitting at my desk by eight am. Writers tend to be either morning or night people and I am definitely the former. For the first half hour or so I just play with ideas to warm myself up. But at  least I have begun and I find the hardest thing of  all is getting started. I like to write in the morning and re-write in the afternoon. And I need to do a great deal of re-writing. My first drafts are almost always terrible.

I have a room I write in – big windows, cosy chairs, my favourite books all around me. And I’m ashamed to admit I do have a lucky pen. It sits pride of place on my desk. 

4) Do you have a favourite book of yours?

It’s very hard to pick one – so if I may, I’ll select two. Firstly ‘My Parents Are Driving Me Crazy,’ an earlier Louis the Laugh book. In this one Louis’s dad loses his job and is struggling to find a new role. This was inspired by real life accounts from friends who felt totally lost without the security of a regular profession. Of course, this story is a comedy – but there’s also sadness and a kind of desperation lurking behind the cheery exterior. I’m rather proud of that one.

My other favourite is, ‘How to Change your Parents into Superstars.’ Writers often think their latest book is their best – I am no exception!  But I believe Louis’s resolve and resilience is tested more in this story than any other. It also has, I think some of my funniest scenes – and like Louis, more than anything I wish to make you laugh.

5) What inspired, ‘How to Change your Parents into Superstars.’

For the latest and last Louis book I wanted to turn everything on its head. So it is Louis’s parents who are living the dream. His dream. I have also been inspired by some friends who have discovered mindfulness. They found this gave them a new serenity and peace and wished to share it with their kids, who were considerably less enthusiastic, especially when asked to join in a family chant at seven o’clock in the morning. I thought this would be a fun theme to explore.

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What can kids get from it?

Over the past two months children have been writing to me saying the Louis books have become their ‘comfort read’ and they turn to them when they want to cheer themselves up. They also tell me that one of the things they’ve missed most during lockdown is ‘just having a good laugh with their mates,’ or as one girl put it. ‘I never thought I’d miss my best friend’s terrible jokes.’

So at least they can share some fun, mischief and high spirits with Louis – and no one loves silly jokes more than him.

As to whether Louis really does turn his parents into superstars – well, I couldn’t possibly tell you that – and spoil the surprise – could I? 

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6) What genre books do you like to read – all time favourite books?

Stephen Fry said recently that he’s been reading a great deal of Agatha Christie during lockdown – well so have I.  I find Golden Age detective fiction especially satisfying during these uncertain times.

I am also re-reading favourite books during lockdown, currently it is ‘The Fortnight in September’ by R. C. Sherriff, a literary treasure from 1931, about an ordinary suburban family’s two weeks of bliss and freedom –  their annual trip to Bognor. It offers a wonderful glimpse of English seaside holidays from a long gone time.

7) What advice would you give to new authors?

The best advice I was given was, spend some time on the accompanying letter, (or email) you are sending to an agent with your manuscript. So I took a whole weekend writing my letter, thinking how I could pitch it to an agent and also trying to make it really stand out. This resulted in my first proper reply from an agent.

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