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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Nan Spowart

A big cow, self-publishing, and Iain Banks: JD Kirk on 10 things that changed his life

BEST-SELLING crime author JD Kirk, whose real name is Barry Hutchison, speaks to The Sunday National about the ten things which have changed his life...

1 Mrs MacAllister

SHE was the school librarian when I was at primary school in Caol near Fort William. I didn’t read books, I read comics all the time and she lured me in with this stash of comics. I went back to the library every day to read them and she was kind of like a drug dealer as she would slip me a book now and again and tell me to read it. Eventually I got hooked, thanks to her.

I would go into the library and ask for specific things like a book about monsters and she would find one. Then I really vividly remember going in and asking for a book about ninjas. She didn’t have one and I was devastated because prior to that she had everything. But she told me to wait and went through the back and came back with a notebook and pen and told me to write a book about ninjas. I went away, wrote this awful story, brought it back to show her and she wrote my name on the spine of the notebook and put it on the shelf.

It was one of those moments like you see in movies when the clouds part and a shaft of light comes through and there’s a choir of angels because I suddenly knew that was what I wanted to do. From that day on I wrote almost every day – there are maybe half a dozen days in my life when I have not written anything.

2 The Beano

It turned out that Mrs MacAllister loved comics like the Beano, even though she was in her sixties. And, in fact, the Beano was one of the other things that changed my life. It introduced me to reading in the first place and then many years later I got to write for the Beano for about two or three years, writing various different characters like the Bash Street Kids. I would always read the Bash Street Kids first, so to be able to write the Bash Street Kids 35 years later was just mind blowing to me.

The Beano got me into stories and then Mrs MacAllister got me into books and steered me down the path that I am still on to this day.

3 Iain Banks

WHEN I was in third year in high school I told the deputy head teacher that I wanted to be an author and he told me not to be so bloody ridiculous as people like me didn’t become authors.

It completely crushed my confidence, although I think he thought he was doing good. He thought it was a mad path to go down but it was the “people like you” bit that got me and I am convinced it meant “council estate scum”.

Then in fifth year Iain Banks came to our school and spoke about the Wasp Factory which was not long out at that point.

Afterwards, I got the chance to speak to him. I was quite shy and quite timidly said I was wanting to write books but a teacher had told me it was probably not a good idea.

Iain (below) said: “Ah, fuck him – go and do it.”

When he said that I could feel that spark being reignited and I realised I shouldn’t let a teacher dictate what I did.

That was a big pivot point for me as I went on to write children’s fiction for about 10 years. I met Iain again when my first book came out and I was on at the same time as him at a book festival. Afterwards we were sitting next to each other at the signing table and I told him about what he had said to me, how it really resonated and thanks to that I was at the book festival. And then he went away, bought a copy of my book, brought it back and got me to sign it for him. Again it was one of those moments where I couldn’t believe it was happening.

4 My Auntie Doris.

When she died I was about nine and I got this old typewriter from her house. It didn’t work properly but I just loved the action of typing and I would sit and just type, just rattle the words out. Now I type ludicrously quickly and I can type and hold a conversation at the same time. It freaks my wife out no end as I can be typing a book and talking to her about what to get at the shops later on.

My fingers just instinctively know where everything is and I am convinced my fingers are where my writing brain is. When I am writing I read the stuff that is happening on screen and it is almost like my fingers are doing it first.

I write a book in three weeks and I put a lot of that down to typing dead quick.

I’ve also built a walking desk because Fort William is the wettest place in Europe and trying to get out walking is not easy.

It’s a standing desk with the treadmill tucked in underneath. I have my laptop and another screen at head height so I am able to type on the laptop and it appears on the screen while I am walking.

I am up to about five miles an hour, typing at the same time. It means I can tick two things off at once.

5 Self publishing

I WAS a traditional author for 10 years, writing for Harper Collins, Penguin, Random House and other big international publishers but I was perpetually broke and working myself into what felt like an early grave. It was constant stress and I was constantly skint.

Then in 2016 I was asked to talk to high school kids about self-publishing. I had no idea about it so I wrote a book really quickly for adults called Space Team, a comedy sci-fi, then published it on Kindle to learn the process. Three days later I checked how it was getting on and it was outselling my children’s books. I wrote a second one that came out about two months later and by the time the third one came out I was earning more in a day from my self-published books than I was in six months from 150 traditional books with big-name publishers.

Creatively I was also feeling more fulfilled because I wasn’t having to jump through hoops for a publisher.

My wife and I ended up setting up our own little publishing company and published 12 Space Team books.

I then decided to try my hand at crime fiction and in 2019 I wrote my first JD Kirk book, A Litter of Bones. Within a week that was outselling Space Team 80-1.

I have now shifted over 2,500,000 copies of those books. Creatively it is hugely fulfilling and financially it is a huge relief. We were so skint before that I would go to a karaoke night at a pub in Fort William where there was a £50 prize. I can do an Elvis with some gusto so I used to go down with only enough cash for a coke, win £50 and go home. That is how broke we were.

Then self-publishing came along and everything changed. With a traditional publisher I get 7% of the cost of the book but as a self-published author I get 70%.

Now we have been able to set up a hardship fund to help others, as we both grew up in council estates and were both perpetually skint until a few years ago. We were fortunate that we always had family to help out but so many people don’t.

6 Family

My mum and dad were always massively supportive when said I wanted to write and my wife has been very tolerant of all my nonsense. She is the first person that hears all my story ideas. They come in a big gush and I kind of assault her with whatever nonsense is going on in my head and she listens patiently, then tells me to write it down. I do that as she handles real life.

My family have given me both the encouragement and freedom to do what I am doing now.

7 A big cow

IN 2019 my son and I were driving back from a gig in Glasgow late at night. We were just passed Crianlarich when I became aware there was something in the road. There was an impact and the airbags went off, the horn started blaring, the windscreen caved in and we both started screaming. Then we hit a road sign and came to a stop. The car was completely destroyed but miraculously we were both fine. It turned out we had hit a cow. It hit the driver’s side and had gone off to the right and across the road. The police reckoned that if the cow had been one step to the left it would have come down on top of the car and we would have both been killed.

It made me realise how fragile everything is and from then on I have been far more prepared to give things a go. At that point I had written one of the crime books and wasn’t sure whether to go on but I flung myself into it, started the publishing company and now we are looking at publishing other authors. It also reminded me to take time and enjoy the small things in life and spend more time with family. That whole brush with death changed my mindset on everything. The fact we were unhurt was mindblowing as the car disintegrated around us.

8 Aphantasia

THIS is something I discovered I have about two years ago. It is the inability to picture things in your mind. I thought that was how everyone thought and the phrase “mental pictures” was just a figure of speech. Then I discovered the rest of my family can actually picture things, whereas I think of things exclusively in words. If someone says to me “beach” I will think of a list of attributes of a beach. I’m able to describe it but I don’t have any mental images.

However I’m convinced that is how I am able to write so quickly. My theory is that other authors picture a scene, then they translate that scene into words. For me, words just appear in my head and I write them down so there is very little skill involved. I think that is why I have been able to write so many books. I’m now up to over 200 books across a wide range of pen names.

9 The total collapse of Duncan Reid’s life

THAT’S part of the opening line of the first crime book I wrote. I knew I wanted to write a crime book but could not get started because I couldn’t find the voice for it. I had previously written comedy exclusively but I wanted to write a really serous, gritty crime novel and one day I sat down and wrote: “The total collapse of Duncan Reid’s life began with a gate in the arse end of nowhere.”

When I wrote that, suddenly it clicked and I knew the voice I was going to write the book in. It had taken me a year to get to that point, then the rest of book happened in a fortnight.

10 Lego

I ALWAYS wanted Lego. Some friends had it but I didn’t. Now it has become my obsession. It’s almost like a form of meditation for me. I find the best stress relief in the world is to build a tiny little batman and a batmobile, for example.

I have loads of Lego sets and if I can’t figure out what happens next in a book, or I’m stressing out about making a deadline, I will take 15 minutes to go and build some Lego and the world is suddenly right again. Then I can get back on with whatever it is I am supposed to be doing.

The 15th book in the JD Kirk series, Here Lie the Dead, is out now published by Zertex Media

JD Kirk is the pen-name of author Barry Hutchison.

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