Author Interview with Jason Johnson

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Read about the book here:
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There's no spoilers in the below questions or answers we promise!

Who was your favourite character to write?

Ratface, the burned-up old pro drinker. He’s full of sagely advice but has a pretty shameful personal moral code. I saw him as a kind of villain, a real character who must encourage the protagonist, Baker, to drink as much as possible, but at the same time must support him, promote him and be a friend to him.

I wanted to bring the conflicts at the heart of the Ratface character to life and thought one way of doing that was to have him at times being unable to stop himself groping Baker’s arse.

If Sinker was a film, who would be your dream cast?

There’s a brilliant American actor called William H Macy who would be perfect for Ratface. I’m not saying he’s got a ratty face, as Ratface has, but he is one of those actors with a lived-in face who can appear to be carrying huge angst around on his shoulders.

The Galway actress Nora Jane Noone would make a perfect Crystal. She was pretty incredible in The Magdalene Sisters and that depth she has would work well with Crystal, an outwardly beautiful woman but one uncomfortably holding a few dark secrets.

Northern Irish actor Ciaran McMenamin would make a great Baker Forley. He’s superb at subtlety and would nail the character’s laid back yet deceptively ambitious style. He’d have to die his hair ginger and get made up to look sunburned – and also act drunk - for a lot of the film.

What's the last book you read and what’s the book that you most wish you'd written?

Killing Floor by Lee Child. I’ve never read him before and am interested in his Jack Reacher character. It’s the first in the series and is a good, strong, punchy read. They’ve also made a movie about Reacher starring Tom Cruise and I’d rather get to know the character in the novels before the one in the movies.
Funny enough, Killing Floor refers over and over again to how tall this Reacher guy is, around 6ft 5in. Cruise seems an odd choice to play him.

If I could have written any book in history, it would be something like The Stranger / L’Etranger by Albert Camus. It’s such a simple, beautiful, rich story which asks one important, immense, memorable question about the meaning of freedom.

What's your thoughts on excess alcohol consumption: where does drinking alcohol cease to be a social, enjoyable activity and begin to bleed into an addiction?

Any conversation along those lines, I think, must start with the honest truth that alcohol can be great fun. I can’t tell you how much craic I had during my own earliest days of drinking and I regret none of it. It’s when your responsibilities begin to stack up that the wildness associated with heavier drinking can stop making sense.

I think it’s important to be wide awake to the idea that one day you might feel you should be drinking less but, at the same time, you really want to drink more. If you get into that area, it’s probably best to re-examine things. Drinking problems are progressive illnesses, never try and kid yourself otherwise.

Alcohol is a very prevalent topic in the media in recent months, noticeably for the recent Neknominations deaths. What's your response to the inevitable criticism that by writing about a book that centres heavily on drinking as an activity that you are potentially glorifying it?

Sinker no more glorifies heavy drinking than a book about living on the moon glorifies living on the moon. It’s a story, a series of imagined events designed to entertain, even to get people thinking.

There’s a very clear thread running through the book about the dangers of heavy drinking, about the sport often being lethal, and hopefully that in itself works to provide some of the tension.

It had struck me that competitive drinkers would make for strong, almost terrible, tragic characters so I used a drinking competition as a launch pad to introduce them, to fire readers into the plot, to give them almost immediate conflict, confusion and debauchery.

I wrote this book before the neknominate craze and after I had been examining my own drinking excesses, at a time when I wanted to be clear with myself that I was risking too much for so little, so any suggestion that it is in support of binge drinking really doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve seen some of the neknominate videos and they are shocking. The fact that this mad and, at times, tragically fatal idea has got a grip in Ireland should lead more to us asking a very sincere ‘why?’ rather than just giving out about it.

From what I know of the world, the answer to that ‘why?’ is along the lines of the fact that this society, north and south, is already soaked with alcohol. The emergence of variations on ways of doing what is essentially a major national habit, especially among young men, is sadly inevitable.

Who, from the book, would you most like to go for a drink with and why?

Probably Ratface, simply because of the jaw-dropping stories he could tell. I’d be aware though that he probably wouldn’t buy a round and that it’s possible he might try to touch my bottom.

Health-wise, drinking professionally would take quite a toll on the human body. How did the factor of health figure into your imagination of this sport and its rules?

The story is set at a time when pro drinking is on its last legs because of the controversy around it, because people die during competitions. Basically, like smoking in pubs or drink driving, the sport has become socially unacceptable precisely because of the health issues.

That led to one of the threads running through the book, the debate about personal freedom, the conflict between campaigners for a ban and those who choose to drink so ferociously for money.

I wanted to get at the issue of personal choice, to ask how free are free people when they volunteer to harm themselves? It’s clear from the opening chapters that this sport is deadly, that it’s a short career, that not everyone who plays it really wants to play it.

In terms of the rules, they take no account whatsoever for the health of players, and that’s the way the die hard fans of this insane sport want it.

What would your professional drinking nickname be?

Spud-in-the-mouth. When I was going hard at the boozing, my speech used to get slurred before I even noticed it had. Someone told me it was like I had a mouthful of spud.

Nap’s unwavering loyalty marks his character. Do you see this loyalty as a stubborn flaw or an admirable quality?

It’s a good question because the answer is a bit of both. He’s basically the manservant to a billionaire Sheikh and is utterly devoted to his boss to the point where, even as a practising Muslim, he will drink forbidden alcohol with him when asked.

That loyalty is unquestioned until there is a major turn of events and Nap must reassess himself, but finds it so hard to change. There’s a stubbornness there, but I think it’s because he is such a man of principle that he doesn’t behave like many others would in the same situation.

He is, at least at one stage in the book, both admirable and a fool.

Where did Ratface gain so much knowledge on drinking? Was he ever a professional drinker?

Yes, Ratface did the circuit for a few years although never really amounted to much. I made him quite a small man in a world where the taller you are the better, given how alcohol can work on the human body.

His know how has come from that bit of experience and from a lot of busying himself with other people’s business, from having an obsession with the sport and from, where possible, tactically ruining things for people he doesn’t like.

Baker Forley continually makes the distinction that he is not an alcoholic, but an athlete. Is Forley simply in denial or do you think that separation of sport and addiction could exist?

Baker is clear at the start of the book that he doesn’t want to drink at all, but that this game has become his only option. Yet cracks start to emerge in that thinking as the story moves on, so the question is posed later on about his own potential addiction issues.

It’s fair enough to say he is in some denial, and that is also suggested to be the case for other pro drinkers we meet along the way. However the sport allows for that denial, in fact it needs it to be believed. Its supporters say pro drinkers use alcohol whereas everyone else gets used by alcohol. The distinction, while helpful to the image of the sport, can help reinforce the denial.

The separation could be possible, but I think only in a technical sense. If someone got into the sport, played the games, made money, got out quick and never drank again, it would be pretty impressive. But the stories of pro drinkers, as with anyone who often drinks to excess for any reason, are just not that simple.

 Ever written under the influence?

In terms of writing fiction whilst blocked, I’ve given it a shot, really as part of an experimental thing. But typing when you’re not in full control of your hands is like typing while falling out of a window. You end up with a load of oul guff. To write properly you need the hands to be able to keep up with the brain.

Like many people, I’ve written emails, sometimes in anger, after a few too many. I’ve woken up on a couple of occasions and thought ‘oh Jesus – did I press send?’ And unfortunately I had done.

How much of yourself is in the character of Baker Forley, if any?

In terms of being someone who has given a lot of things a go and either decided quickly he’s no good at them, or otherwise just didn’t see them through, we’re the same.

I’ve done courses in all sorts of loopy, faddy things, taken up all sorts of crackpot hobbies, started learning different languages at different times etc, and pretty much gave up on them all. Writing novels seems to be one of the rare things I can see though to the end.

I reckoned if Baker had the same trait, it would suggest to the reader that anything could happen. It allows him to have something of a colourful past yet in no way ties him to any particular direction in the future.

As for the rest of him, particularly with him having a very friendly disposition, with people handing him drinks wherever he goes, with regularly getting his arse groped by an old man, that’s really not my life.

You mention in this article that Sinker is a 'dysfunctional love story' - are you referencing the relationship between Ratface and Forley? Is it an open secret that Ratface has feelings for his protégé?

I wanted to reference the love – if that’s the right word for it – between Baker and Crystal. At the outset he sees her as perfect, as someone who is clean, sober, rich and beautiful, someone who has everything he doesn’t as he’s sitting there burning up in the sun and downing beer.

But later on we find out they are the same in so many ways, that they have been dangerously using something in their lives in order to get somewhere else. It begins for Baker as a passion for Crystal but ends as a kind of deeper understanding of her.

From her view, she despises him at the outset but realises towards the end that perhaps they share a bond, a connection, even a mindset.

It’s totally dysfunctional in that this all slowly comes to light amid massive drinking sessions, some fairly shallow lust and a number of murders.

Ratface himself would probably love a bit of romance with Baker, but only in the carnal sense. He’s really just a dirty old man, although hopefully a sort of likeable one. He likes Baker, but he’s really not too fussy.

And finally...if there was cocktail named the 'Jason Johnson' what would it be?

Take one strong measure of ambition, two shots of hard work, a litre of hope, one sweet dream, a long dizzying shot of happiness and a squeeze of lemon from my writing bolthole in California. And a big pint of Guinness on the side.

Piqued your interest? Sinker is available in all good bookshops, and available to buy directly from our website!