Books

Doug Johnstone: How a stroke led to my first contact with aliens

When author Doug Johnstone suffered a stroke in 2020, it freed him to channel his experience into a whole different genre of fiction

Doug Johnstone's new science fiction book was inspired by the writer's stroke. Illustration: Rosie Barker

Doug Johnstone's new science fiction book was inspired by the writer's stroke. Illustration: Rosie Barker

Doug Johnstone is an author, musician and long-time Big Issue books critic. Here he describes how suffering a stroke changed his outlook, and his writing.

I had a stroke in early March 2020, three weeks before the world went into Covid lockdown. I was walking up Arthur’s Seat in my home town of Edinburgh when I felt dizzy and had a sudden, pounding headache at the base of my skull. I sat down and vomited on the grass, the city skyline spinning around me. A few hours later at hospital it was confirmed as a moderate cerebellar stroke, a rare type with none of the usual symptoms.

But I was lucky. I only spent a couple of days in the stroke ward and was able to recuperate at home, though my sense of balance was gone and I was prone to extreme headaches and super-sensitive to noise. It was my own little lockdown before everyone else joined me.

My recovery was quick and I was back at my writing desk within a few weeks, much to my own surprise. I know other authors struggled to write during the start of the pandemic, but I revelled in losing myself in fictional worlds. I’ve always used my own personal experiences in my crime novels – from being burgled to car accidents – and I knew that I had to write about my stroke somehow. For some reason crime fiction didn’t seem like the right form, so I turned to science fiction. I’ve been a huge fan of the genre ever since I sat slack-jawed in the cinema watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a seven-year-old. That movie really hit me hard – these were ordinary people with ordinary lives; this could happen to me.

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The movie sparked a lifelong love of science fiction, the films leading to books, from the brilliance of John Wyndham and Iain M. Banks, the vision of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, to current writers like Becky Chambers and Nnedi Okorafor. Which was a tad frustrating, as I have found myself ghettoised as a crime writer.

My first novel, Tombstoning, was published in 2006, and I was as surprised as anyone when it was stocked in the Scottish crime shelves. There then followed nine other standalone novels and, more recently, a series of four books all marketed as crime novels, albeit living in the hinterland of the genre.

For a long time I’ve hankered to write science fiction. I’ve had a folder in my desk drawer for years with science fiction ideas, or at least ideas that wouldn’t fit into the crime fiction mould. I never felt I could make that shift, but my attitude to that changed after my stroke. It’s a cliché, of course, whenever anyone has a life-threatening event, that they come out the other side changed, seeking to grasp every moment, appreciate life more intensely, smell the flowers and all that. But there is an element of truth to it all the same. I felt suddenly less inhibited in my writing. Remember, this was during the early days of the pandemic, too. If anyone could die at any moment, myself included, why not write whatever the hell I wanted?

So I took the plunge and wrote The Space Between Us. It’s a first contact alien story set in Scotland, a story that definitely owes a debt to that Close Encounters movie all those years ago. And, of course, I used my own experience. The book opens with three ordinary people suffering massive strokes when they see a meteor streaking across the night sky. I gave each of them much worse strokes than the one I suffered, but I also cured them. They each wake up the next morning in the same stroke ward I was in, having recovered completely, while others who suffered the same stroke have died.

These three are special for reasons they don’t understand, and they are drawn to a strange octopus-like creature on a beach outside Edinburgh, where the meteor was seen crashing into the sea. To save its life, they have to go on a road-trip across the Scottish Highlands, dark forces chasing after them all the way. I jokingly told my publisher the elevator pitch: ‘ET meets Thelma and Louise’. But there’s a kernel of truth in that.

It’s another cliché to think of writing as therapy, but I did find writing The Space Between Us cathartic in many respects, both for the stroke victims who are cured, and the ones who are not. Having the power over their fictional strokes was empowering, compared to my own situation in real life. And, more than that, I found it freeing – to just write whatever the hell I wanted. It’s the book I’ve most enjoyed writing in my career, and hopefully that comes across to the reader. The early reviews have been amazing, which is incredibly gratifying, of course. But for me the book is already a success, because it was the one I had to write.

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone is out on March 2 (Orenda Books, £9.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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