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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, John Hughes talks about his book, Living With Jo, about a man who falls in love with a cardboard cut out of Joanna Lumley before experiencing a mental health crisis.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed John Hughes about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the story of his latest book, Living With Jo, about a man who falls in love with a cardboard cut out of Joanna Lumley.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m John Hughes – sixtysomething, divorced with two grown-up daughters. I was born and bred in the English Midlands but have lived most of my adult life in Surrey. In my youth I trained as a classical musician but have earned a living in a variety of ways including selling pianos in Harrods, as a magazine editor, playing in a tribute band and most recently as a data protection officer in the NHS.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Not until in my mid-thirties. By chance I found myself working for a magazine writing articles and after several years of doing so I developed a yearning to work on something more substantial – to challenge myself, to see if I could complete something longer than 1,000 words. But it was slow progress, mainly because I had difficulty finding a good idea for a story.
When did you take a step to start writing?
In 1990 the good idea came to me. I was researching an article to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and discovered that during the war the Jaguar car factory in Birmingham, close to where I was brought up, had been the largest Spitfire factory in the country, purpose built. I remember standing outside the huge premises wondering if the Germans ever tried to sabotage it. Further research revealed they never did. So I started imagining a story of how two Abwehr agents might have gone about it … and what MI5 might have done to stop them. Two years later Spitfire Spies was finished.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took two years to write, then 23 years to get published. When Spitfire Spies was complete, I approached lots of agents and got lots of rejections so gave up. Then, two decades later, I read 50 Shades of Grey, thought was a load of rubbish, dug out my novel, re-read it and felt inspired to try again. Eventually Spitfire Spies was published in 2016.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
About three years in total – a year to write and two years to produce. It would have been published quicker had Covid not got in the way. Also, it’s in three act form and I got stuck at the end of act two for quite a while, which didn’t help. Then, completely out of the blue, sitting on a train to work, I had a lightbulb moment. Inspiration struck. I suddenly saw the way forward and completed it very quickly thereafter.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Living With Jo?
30 years ago I met Joanna Lumley – I’ve have had a soft spot for her ever since. Then four years ago I was asked by a friend to proof read a manuscript for her. She wanted to send me something as a thank you gift. As a joke, I suggested sending Joanna Lumley to me. Two weeks later a life-sized cardboard cut-out of her arrived in the post! It made me wonder … if this happened to someone of my age and circumstances (getting on in years, divorced, living alone) but less emotionally stable than me, what might occur. Might he develop a fantasy relationship with his Jo, taking to her and answering as her, and over time begin to struggle between fantasy and reality, until he can’t tell the difference between the two … and the impact this might have on his mental health when he starts to suspect she’s being unfaithful to him.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Living With Jo?
The biggest by far was working within the confines of such a seemingly narrow premise – effectively one man talking to himself for much of the story as he imagines conversations with a piece of cardboard. I was genuinely worried about it right up to publication day, that the confines were too limited. But feedback has proven otherwise:
“The plot, though far-fetched and bizarre, is actually strangely believable.”
“Quite where the border between fantasy, obsession and madness lies is blurred in a series of amusing and sometimes very moving episodes in Oliver’s ‘relationship’ with Jo, which I found myself going along with as if this was all perfectly normal!”
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
There’s quite a bit of me in Oliver, also something of characters I’ve come across during my work in the NHS. Some of his quirky mannerisms are pinched from a friend of a friend of a friend. And then there is quite a chunk of pure imagination.
What is the inciting incident of Living With Jo?
The moment when the Protagonist, Oliver, takes delivery of his Jo – a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the woman of his dreams. It both delights him and leads him on a journey that changes his life, not always in a good way.
What is the main conflict of Living With Jo?
The internal struggle of one man between the pleasures of leading a fantasy life in which he has total control, and the reality which is very different and gradually impacts on his mental health and wellbeing, until a crisis point is reached. Which will prevail – fantasy or reality? That’s the hub of the story.
Did you plot Living With Jo in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
It was plotted thoroughly in advance, unlike my earlier books. Having said that, the first two acts came very quickly and I struggled for quite a while to seek how it might be resolved. Eventually I had that lightbulb moment and it all fitted into place in a way I’ve never experience before in writing. Inspiration I guess. I learned the pitfalls of not plotting thoroughly the hard way. In one of my books (I won’t say which) a character has lunch, then later on in the same chapter hasn’t eaten all day.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Living With Jo need?
Virtually none. I was pretty much left to my own devices. I relied on a couple of trusted readers who offered some valuable insights, but ultimately the extent of editorial input there had been in my previous books was minimal this time round.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Stop thinking about it, sit down and write. You need a finished piece of work to be able to assess whether or not you’re a writer. I think it’s that simple.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’ve had a scenario in mind for some years that both my daughters think is the best idea I’ve ever had. I tend to agree. But so far it remains a scenario and I have yet to identify a setting and a plot that will fit that scenario. But I do have a title. Green Ears.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Definitely. In the last few months I’ve had feedback about Living With Jo from people I don’t know and have never met saying things like “A little gem of a read – I had tears and laughter throughout” … “One of the best books I’ve read in a while – I couldn’t put it down” … “Compelling reading – I highly recommend it”. To know you’ve produced something that affects people in such a way is priceless.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
My author website: www.john-hughes.co.uk
Article in Surrey Live: https://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/reigate-author-cardboard-joanna-lumley-24720844
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