There are red marks all over Pete Johnson’s manuscripts, with comments scrawled in the margins – ‘Not clear, I didn’t feel I knew this character’ or ‘No, this is trying too hard’. He relies on a panel of readers around the country who proof-read his novels, reacting frankly and spontaneously to the text. He now has a waiting list of volunteer editors, as well as a number of trusted stalwarts who have been reading his books for a long time and can be relied upon to spot any minor inconsistencies with character or plot in series such as ‘Friends Forever’.
It was the library lessons that convinced Pete Johnson he should start writing. He was teaching at a secondary school in Buckinghamshire, a diversion from his previous job as film critic for local papers and for Radio 1 on the Anne Nightingale Show . Once a week, each class would have the chance to browse in the library, selecting the book of their choice from the wealth of English literature on display. In reality, the class would trail around the library complaining that all the books were boring. In the end, rather than forcing them to take out books they wouldn’t read, Pete Johnson began to write his own stories. They weren’t always a success. He once read aloud a story that had made him cry with laughter as he sat writing it. It was received in stony silence until one girl said kindly, ‘Don’t worry, all books have their boring bits.’ Ever since, Pete has applied his golden rule of good writing: rewriting. ‘That is why I still have a panel of readers, ever alert for any lapses into self-indulgence or self-importance.’
At that time, the shelves marked ‘Teenage Fiction’ were filled with American imports, largely rejected by the pupils, especially the boys, who considered anything that touched on relationships to be strictly female territory. Boys seemed reluctant to own their feelings, particularly in front of other boys and Pete wanted them to be able to acknowledge their emotions by seeing them reflected in fiction. ‘Jealousy can really blaze through you and yet the only outlet for it, it seemed to me, was through violence and through destructive behaviour. I thought it was important in books to show that you’re not on your own, there are footsteps in the sand, other people have been there as well.’
Humour is the key element in giving the books that authentic tone, the make or break factor with a book for teenagers. ‘Anyone who’s a teacher acknowledges the sense of humour that is there in the classroom. You may not always like it, but you acknowledge it. And it seemed to me that that sense of humour was missing from a lot of the books I read; that wit, that cheekiness, that irreverence. And yet I found when I was reading books with classes, the one thing that commanded attention was humour. And I thought, if I could actually tap the humour and reflect that, it could be quite exciting.’
Pete admits he shares that adolescent sense of humour. Over extended lunches with his readers, he enjoys the banter and the repartee that develops as everyone relaxes and the barriers come down. He has an ear for expressions, dialogue, jokes, which he relays in a style that’s colloquial but not patronising.
The spur for an idea is observation, Pete begins with a character who interests and intrigues him, such as Jez in the ‘Friends Forever’ series. He’ll hear the voice of that character, the inflections, see him coming to life in his mind’s eye. In No Limits , the first ‘Friends Forever’, Jez has decided that sixth form is too much effort when the wide world beckons. He hates hassle, needs a constant supply of carbohydrates and cigarettes, has a stock of witty remarks and a broad grin, designed to defuse tricky situations. He isn’t a typical 16-year-old, there’s no such thing, but he is an appealing mixture, alluring and annoying, and above all credible.
‘He smiles. He smiles again when an attractive if rather matronly woman opens the door and gasps. She’s clearly not used to receiving human slime on the doorstep. He puts on his talking to the headmaster and elderly aunt’s voice.
“Oh, good morning. Is Lauren in, please?”
Recovering herself now, she says, “Would you mind waiting in the hall while I go and see if she’s available.”
Seconds later Lauren tumbles into view. When her mother announced there was a tramp to see her, she should have guessed who she meant. “Jez,” she cries. “This is brilliant. But Cathy said you wouldn’t be back for another month yet.”
He smiles. “For once I’m early.”
“And you’ve gone all bearded. I like it. You look like a character out of an old Russian novel.”
Lauren hasn’t changed, Jez thinks, same silvery laugh, same way of looking right into your eyes when she talks to you. She still knows how to get your heart thumping all right.
“Mum, you must remember Jez… he’s been working in Berlin.”
“Oh really, how interesting.” Her mother comes forward smiling bravely. Just treat these people as human. That’s the secret. “And what was your job there, Jez?”
The books(No Limits , Breakout , Discovery and Everything Changes ) follow the fortunes of six close friends, who all branch out in different directions once they leave school. It was inspired by a reunion Pete went to with some old school friends which, after a shaky start, just took off picking up where everyone had left off years before. ‘When I finish a book I really miss the characters. In a strange way I feel I’ve let them down by giving them life and then deserting them so thoroughly again. Perhaps that’s why my ‘Friends Forever’ series follows characters over three years and spills into four books.’
Of course, the acid test for a lot of teenagers is the opening page of a book. If they’re hooked on page one, they’ll read on. Perhaps knowing its significance makes the task all the more daunting. It’s the part Pete writes and rewrites over and over again. ‘I have found that if you can hook into a feeling at the beginning of the book which somehow captures people’s interest, that’s a very strong way of doing it.’
We the Haunted does just that with hints from page one of the ominous events that form the centre of the story: the tragic death of Caroline’s boyfriend Paul, her relentless grief and the impelling desire to be with him again, if only in a spiritual sense. ‘I think the most important question anyone can ask is, “is there life after death?”. My own father died suddenly when I was 15 and my mother wanted to go and see a spiritualist and I actually talked her out of it. As soon as I’d talked her out of it, I wondered if I’d done the right thing. When I was researching We the Haunted the old questions came back again and so in a way I was investigating questions I didn’t know the answer to. I wasn’t writing the book as an exposé but it seemed to me that a lot of the people who went to see these mediums were putting off the process of mourning, they were living in a strange twilight world, and that’s what I try to show in the book that when you lose someone you have to come to terms with that and it is very painful.’
Elements of the supernatural surface again in Pete’s new book, The Dead Hour . A 17-year-old, tormented by nightmares and his terror of the dark, finds that his imagination is his enemy and, in an attempt to control his irrational fears, he tries to evoke supernatural forces and confront the unknown. ‘I always liked scaring people. On camping trips I’d keep everyone awake with tales of headless ghosts, that only appeared when night was at its darkest. I loved the power of stories and I was fascinated by the way the best tales seemed to be fuelled by my fears. I’ve always, for example, hated the night and especially that time when the darkness is so thick it makes you choke.’
Pete Johnson’s panel of readers has been hypercritical about this manuscript, but he reckons that if the book has stimulated them to discuss and analyse what is going on, it has succeeded. ‘Every book is a gamble. Every book is an act of faith, you never really know if it’s going to work or not.’
Other research has taken Pete off in very different directions. Fascinated by the idea of instant fame, he persuaded his sister to enter for Blind Date . Not only did she sail through all the qualifying sessions, she then went on the programme and ‘won’ a day in Bologna with a guy who did impressions of Benny Hill. What amazed Pete and his sister was all the adulation she received for months afterwards. People would stop her in the street to shake hands and congratulate her. Obviously, this provided a wealth of material for I’d Rather Be Famous , when Jade experiences this brief burst of fame, tempting her to pursue the dream.
“‘How would you like to be famous for a bit longer?”
“Yes, sure,” I say.
He shifts about on his feet for a moment. “This is mighty embarrassing,” he says.
“What is? Come on, tell me.”
“Okay, here goes. I know someone in Fleet Street who’ll take our pictures tomorrow morning.”
“He’ll also bring a reporter along. But there is one catch.”
“I’ve got to dance again.”
He smiles briefly. “No, much worse. You’ve got to get engaged to the sexiest guy in the world.”
I give him what you might call a long, meaningful look. He immediately turns away.
“Why have we got to get engaged?” I ask his back.
He whirls round, the words rushing out. “Because it’s a much better story – you know – couple find true love on ‘Who Do You Woo?’ All that crap.”’
Pete Johnson has the knack of portraying the raw emotions, the ideals which don’t match up to reality, the ambitions which don’t conform to parents’ wishes and the potent determination to go your own way which are so much a part of growing older. ‘In those years you probably change more and try on more personas than at any other time. People are more open to possibilities and change then than at any other time in their lives. When you’re younger you’re often part of a group but when you get to 15 or 16, you start to think of yourself, you move away and you have to think about what you really want to do yourself.’
Now, from his home in Stevenage, Pete visits schools and libraries all over the country. His books are used for Key Stage 3 on the National Curriculum and as a writer-in-residence, he often works in schools encouraging pupils to develop their own style and expression, fuelling their enthusiasm for writing. His books are taking hold in Germany, One Step Beyond (a collection of eight short stories) has been dramatised on Radio 5 and a television adaptation of ‘Friends Forever’ is planned.
For many readers who from perhaps the age of 11 or 12 lose the urge to explore fiction, Pete Johnson’s novels can be a gateway back to books. Here teenagers have a setting and a style that reflects their own experiences and emotions, something which speaks directly to them. ‘I think it’s important that people see books as a living process. I remember reading Catcher in the Rye when I was about 13 and that got me back into books because it was a voice I responded to. If you can begin by showing how writers are reflecting experiences, thoughts and feelings of today, that is often then a spur to travel back.’
Photographs by Katie Vandyck.
Pete Johnson’s books are all published in paperback by Teens Mandarin:
No Limits , 0 7497 0607 4, £2.99
Break Out , 0 7497 0623 6, £2.99
Discovery , 0 7497 0649 X, £2.99
Everything Changes , 0 7497 0650 3, £2.99
I’d Rather Be Famous , 0 7497 0606 6, £2.99
One Step Beyond , 0 7497 0171 6, £2.99
Secrets from the School Underground , 0 7497 1271 6, £2.99
We, the Haunted , 0 7497 1453 0, £2.99
The Dead Hour will be published in October 1993.