Well, readers, it’s Halloween and what better way to celebrate than to get spooky! Today I’m delighted to welcome Jonathan Whitelaw along to Chapterinmylife. Jonathan is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of HellCorp an urban fantasy come crime novel published earlier this year by Urbane Publications.
After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture, and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste – with everything in between.
He’s also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC and STV.
HellCorp, from Urbane Publications, is his second novel following his debut, Morbid Relations.
I invited Jonathan to join me and share some of his darkest secrets as well as telling me a little bit about himself and his writing…
First of all, can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a writer?
Delighted to be here and thank you for having me! I’m an author, journalist, and broadcaster based in Glasgow. I’ve been writing fiction pretty much ever since I could first write! But I didn’t get serious about my fiction until I was around 17 and in my final year at high school. I wrote a 110,000-word epic fantasy/sci-fi number that was awful. Seriously, if you want to the worst rip off of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings then go rooting around my parents’ attic and find my manuscript.
While it wasn’t great, I had been bitten by the bug. And I kept writing throughout my university days and it’s carried on into my professional career. I’m very lucky in that I get to have two jobs that I absolutely love. During the day I’m a digital journalist. And at night I’m a fiction writer and published author. In fact, my first novel was written on the commute between Edinburgh and Glasgow for my work at the time. Not a day goes by where I don’t pinch myself. And I’m privileged to be able to do (and get paid) for doing something that I truly love and feel passionate about.
Now, can you tell us a little bit more about your novel, HellCorp?
HellCorp is my second novel and my first foray into the crime and thriller genres. Life is hard for The Devil and he desperately wants to take a holiday. Growing weary from playing the cosmic bad guy, he resolves to set up a company that will do his job for him so the sins of the world will tick over while he takes a vacation. God tells him he can have his vacation just as soon as he solves the murder case of a man who took 40 years to die. But nothing is ever easy and before long he is up to his pitchfork in solving murders, desperate to crack the case so he can finally take the holiday he so badly needs.
I’ve always been a massive fan of crime and there are so many writers doing such great things with the genre I’ve always found it quite intimidating. I’m also incredibly bored of the “cop-on-the-edge” anti-hero you find in crime fiction and on TV/film. But I had this itch to write a crime novel. I was determined to put my own stamp on the genre. And I figured that the ULTIMATE anti-hero would be The Devil. It really started from there. I had the character in my head and it was an absolute joy to put him in human form, get him really annoyed and deal with a world and people he clearly thinks he’s better than. The relationship between him and God is also something I’m particularly proud of. They have a love/hate, hate/hate relationship. But only one of them admits that – much to the frustration of the other. I won’t spoil it but I’ll let you guess who is who.
The fabulous folks at Urbane loved the concept and the story and they snapped it up last year. And I have to say I’ve been so grateful for their support and giving this story the platform I think it deserves. It was a joy to write and I’ve had some wonderful feedback from readers and critics alike. Now that it’s Halloween it feels like it’s coming alive all over again. Really, it’s a very special feeling.
What is a typical day for you?
Being a journalist, there are very few typical days. Which is a good thing! I work in online journalism, which means that you really don’t know what story you’re going to work on next. One minute you can be reporting on pumpkin patches opening somewhere in Scotland – the next it’s a major police incident. And that’s usually before morning. I love the constant challenge and changing landscape of digital journalism in particular. And I’m grateful that I can do this on a daily basis.
When I get home my journalistic fedora usually comes off and my writer’s hat goes on. For the record, there is no actual writer’s hat. Although if there was one I imagine it would be a bowler. I think my hair is too long and big for anything else! But I digress!
I like to write every day. I’ve got notebooks of projects, ideas, passages, things I’ve written on the hop. Whether it’s 1,000 words or 10, I like to do some work on something I’ve got on the go. My wife is hugely supportive of my writing career. She’s always ready to offer an opinion, do some proofreading, make tea, really anything and everything. Funnily enough, during the writing of HellCorp, she called me once on her way home from work asking if I’d put the dinner on. My answer: “Sorry darling, I’m just writing a conversation between The Devil and God about the end of the world.” Bless her, she made the dinner when she came home. Now that it’s out though, I’ve made every dinner since.
Both of my published novels are dedicated to her. And I really wouldn’t be where I am today without her. That and she’s had to put up with not only me
Can you tell us what you are working on now?
There’s always something in my To Write pile. Again, without too many spoilers for HellCorp, I’ve just submitted a follow-up/semi-sequel to my publishers. I’ve had a couple of ideas for more trouble and strife for Old Nick since HellCorp came out. And almost every reader I’ve spoken to has asked “when is the next one out?” which is really cool. So fingers crossed The Devil will be back in the action shortly.
I’m also working on adapting the novel into a screenplay to give HellCorp a new life either on screen or radio. I studied screenplay writing during my university days so it’s been really great to be writing but in a different format and medium. A real challenge too, which I’m loving.
Away from The Devil, I’ve got a couple of ideas I’m formulating at the moment, including an idea for a middle reader/YA audience.
OK, now we have got the routine stuff over, it is Halloween so let’s get spooky! You have been banished to a haunted house…what three books do you take with you and why?
Can I just say for the record that I am the biggest scaredy-cat, cowardly custard that you will EVER meet! Seriously, I can’t watch any horror films without chewing my fingernails down to the bone. And that’s usually in the opening credit. The original Halloween – with that theme tune – I’m gone!
But if I have the power of literature to hide behind then I’ll give it a go.
My first book would be Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. It was the first “grown-up” book that I ever bought and read when I was around 10. I’m a huge sci-fi fan and, growing up in the 90s, I lived through what’s a pretty dry period for Star Wars material. But Zahn’s first go at creating more adventures for characters I loved and adored has always stuck with me. And I know his writing has influenced my own work too.
My second book would be Ian Banks’ Espedair Street. I read this novel in 2013, not long before Iain’s untimely and sad death. In fact, I came across my copy of the novel the other day there. I normally use anything and everything as a bookmark and found a train ticket in the pages. It was dated about two weeks before Iain passed away and I was really quite emotional actually. Again he’s been a big influence on my writing – a lot of his humour always struck a chord with me and he remains one of Scotland’s greatest literary talents. Espedair Street combines his magical storytelling with another passion of mine – rock music. And it’s a delight from cover to cover.
My last book is “How to bust ghosts for Dummies” – just in case. But in the eventuality that it’s not been written yet, I’m going to pipe for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. For my shame, I’ve never actually sat down and read the whole thing in a sitting. And I figure it’s spooky enough to be okay for Halloween but also… CHRISTMAS (which I love).
You have to invite three people to dinner, preferably dead ones, who would you invite and why?
I’m liking this haunted house more and more!
The first invitation is to Freddie Mercury. You can’t have a party without Freddie Mercury. As I mentioned before, I’m a huge rock fan and there was, in my opinion, no greater showman or frontman than Freddie. The bravado, the stage presence, the voice – he was the whole package. I was, unfortunately, only starting primary school when he died so never got the chance to experience him live. But I understand he was such an interesting person away from music that I think he’d be a great dinner guest. Also, when Queen were first starting out, my step-dad was a barman in the Queen Margaret Union at Glasgow Uni (my alumni). And apparently, Mercury bought him a pint after the gig.
My second invitation is to Robin Williams. I was really upset when news broke of the comedian’s death. Again, he was somebody I always admired, first for his kids roles in things like Mork and Mindy and Jumanji when I was a kid. And then as an adult rediscovering his stand up comedy and his more “serious” roles as an actor. My degree at uni was in psychology and my wife is a psychiatrist so the importance of mental health and wellbeing is something we both feel strongly about. Williams was somebody who spoke openly about his own battles and did a great deal of bringing those conversations to mainstream society. A fascinating person and somebody I would have loved to spend time with.
The final guest would be Carrie Fisher. Again, another talent taken far too soon and tragically young. I mentioned before how much of a Star Wars nut I am. But what a lot of people don’t know or forget about Carrie Fisher was her accomplished career as a novelist and script editor. She worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and contributed so much behind the camera. She’s also one of the great highlights of the movies she’s in too – including The Burbs and Blues Brothers. And she will, quite rightly, be remembered as Princess Leia.
What is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?
Apart from a few hairy experiences on icy roads during bleak winters, I’ve been pretty lucky to avoid scary situations.
Although there is a scene in HellCorp that’s based on a real-life moment that still gives me chills.
In the book, The Devil finds himself in a church with his companion Dr. Gideon. A man comes in and blows out all of the prayer candles at an altar.
This scene is based on a real-life occasion that happened to my wife. She came home one day from church and described that a man had actually gone into the building, blown out all the candles and left afterwards, looking around for a reaction. This was shortly before a service began and it really spooked her. And of course, it really spooked me – so much so that it made it into one of my novels.
I think what frightens me the most about this incident is the lack of respect. I grew up agnostic but I’ve always had respect for those who find solace wherever they find it. For somebody to go into a church and do something like that, minutes before a service, to me is so alien, disrespectful and callous that it was, genuinely, frightening. I always found it very inhumane and when that is present, society has always been found to be at its very worst.
Have you seen a ghost/do you believe in ghosts?
I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen one. And while I don’t profess to believe in ghosts, I do believe that there’s a lot we don’t know.
I’ve grown up on a healthy diet of science and logic. And I like to think with my fiction that it’s possible to do so and still have an active, healthy imagination. But I always use the analogy of an iPhone. We’ve all got or had one over the past ten years, the technology is every day now. But if you take that back in time and give it to my 5-year-old self, he’d be blown away by it. Go back even further to 30-years ago, 40, 50, 100 – it’s the stuff of aliens or magic.
So while I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, I don’t NOT believe people who say they’ve had some sort of supernatural experience. I like to keep my mind and imagination open to what it is they might have experienced. Interdimensional beings? A split in time/space? Who knows. But it’s cool to wonder and everybody loves a mystery.
What are your childhood memories of Halloween?
I have very fond childhood memories of Halloween. In our house, we always did lots of fun games and we’d go around our neighbours with the other kids in the street for some trick or treating.
Like I mentioned, I’ve always been a big coward so I always tried to avoid TV on Halloween as it was always really scary films on. Halloween, The Fog and The Exorcist stick out as being particularly terrifying from what I did catch through my fingers. My parents always made Halloween a fun event and occasion. And it usually marked the start of the countdown to Christmas.
What is your Halloween outfit of choice
Again a tough one. I haven’t gone to any costume parties in recent years. When I was a student we always went out and I’d always usually pipe for Doctor Who. I’m a huge fan of the show and, with curly hair and big teeth, the Tom Baker look was always fairly easy to achieve. Although that probably speaks volumes about my wardrobe!
But I can’t talk about Halloween outfits without mentioning a BAD memory but for good reasons. When I was about 11 I really wanted to go to a party as Indiana Jones. But for reasons that are still unknown to me, my mother went to a Disney store and bought me a cowboy outfit. It had bright red trousers with white and yellow tassles and a matching waistcoat. There were Mickey Mouse cartoons all over it too. In short, it wasn’t only the worst cowboy outfit of all time, it was the worst outfit of all time. I hated it immediately but she forced me to wear it and, 22 years later, I’m still having nightmares.
Then again, Halloween is meant to be scary. So maybe it was, in an ironic twist befitting a HellCorp adventure, the BEST Halloween costume. Who knows?
Fantastic answers, thank you so much for joining me, Jonathan…and really that cowboy outfit is really rather becoming on you! Just mind the ghosts on the way out now…
If you want to check out Jonathan’s books for yourself then click below for details: