D.D. tells us that his creative journey with Disnaeland began in 2014, and was marred by writer’s block until the birth of his son in 2020. For this project, the symptoms of writer’s block were often external.
The idea of Disnaeland originally came from the early 2010s’ cultural fixation with the apocalypse and disaster fiction. The idea of writing an apocalypse that wasn’t so, well, apocalyptic was appealing to D.D. He wasn’t quite sure of how he’d execute it. He fixated on a paradox – we were so occupied with the apocalypse, yet we did not care to write fiction about stopping it, or creating something good from it.
And then, in 2020, the world had its own apocalypse of sorts. Mike tells us of a memory from February 2020. He was on a train, travelling through rain. Lands were flooding because of Storm Kiera and Storm Dennis, and people were all staring at their phones. The voice overhead told them all to report anything that looks suspicious. It occurred to D.D. that this scene would not be out of place in a dystopia novel. This reignited the spark for Disnaeland – it was not to be a book about building up to an apocalypse, it would be about surviving the one we’re already in.
His editor asked D.D. to write the book again, once it was done – something still wasn’t quite right. In the summer of 2020 his son was born, and that proved to be the final thing that shattered his writer’s block. There was a new urgency to Disnaeland, because the issues it explores wouldn’t only effect D.D., but also his son.
Ultimately, Mike’s journey to overcoming writer’s block was waiting for the right moment.
D.D. Johnston tells us about how he fleshed out his characters and gave them nuance in Disnaeland.
He admits that at first, his characters were mostly satirical. It was his editor that encouraged him to flesh them out. To create these characters, D.D. drew on aspects of himself – even the most heinous characters in Disnaeland are informed by parts of him.
He recalls that Gustave Flaubert, when asked who the eponymous character of Madame Bovary was based on, replied, ‘Madam Bovary is me!’ D.D. tells us it’s important to think sympathetically about unfortunate or unlikable characters.
There are several tools at an author’s disposal when it comes to creating characters. Using description and dialogue can convey personality. Having your characters engage dynamically with the world around them is another vital step. If all D.D.’s characters responded to the apocalypse in the same way, they wouldn’t be rounded or fleshed out.
Disnaeland has taught D.D. Johnston that he’s unashamedly sentimental. This truth is at the heart of his not-so-wee novel.
He dwells on gentle moments, such as the last time his characters turn off an electric light. In short, Disnaeland taught him that he has a stubborn belief in the goodness and warmth of people.
Apocalypse fiction often presents people as cynical and savage. Through this lens, humans become barbaric without the confines of society. Your neighbours become your enemies, and they’ll kill you if they have to… or would they?
D.D. doesn’t deny our capacity of savagery and Disnaeland doesn’t shy from it either, but his novel does find an enormous capacity for kindness within people.
In this clip, D.D. Johnston explores the nature of writing in non-standard English, the way characters would actually speak. a native of Edinburgh, he speaks about writing in a Scottish venacular, and its place in his novel Disnaeland.
Disnaeland is set in the fictional Scottish town of Dundule, but D.D. tells us this story is universal. It could be set in working class communities throughout the world. Ultimately, Disnaeland is a heartful message about humanity’s capacity for cooperation.
However, it gains a unique power from its Scottish setting, and no better is this communicated than through the use of Scots dialect and accents. It’s very title, ‘disnae’ means ‘does not’. This world disnae work for the people, disnae bring them happiness or joy, and maybe disnae need to exist in this monstrous form.
D.D. tells us that unlike many regional dialects of the British Isles, Scots dialect has roots in a real written language, Scots. He could draw from standard spellings from this language to write Scottish vernacular. It’s a strong, beautiful language and D.D.’s thankful for the resources available to him.
Martin Goodman’s Ectopia, originally published in 2013, has been republished as an audiobook that’s available on Spotify! It’s now massively accessible with powerful, dramatic narration that enriches already brilliant source material. Listen to the greatness in just a click – right here.
Pru, how are you? Introduce yourself!
Coming out of a post graduate degree in an uncertain industry has certainly been a little stressful but the determination I had during this production still remains the same. I’m a 23-year-old Northerner looking for ways to have the adventure of a lifetime doing great things!
Describe Ectopia to us in your words:
Ectopia is a reflection of what the world could come to in under 300 pages. Homophobia, hate crimes, sexual violence and nasty experiments. It also manages to pull through with an escapist romance in a post-apocalyptic world where science struggles to define humanity.
How does Ectopia benefit from an audiobook?
Ectopia is a very vocal, visceral book. Originally a movie idea, as I recall Martin saying. It makes sense to hear the emotions and feel what the characters are going through. It really makes you curl your toes and leaves you with a gaping mouth.
What’s a particular (spoiler free!) moment that benefited from being adapted into an audiobook and why?
There are many… ones that make you gag, and smirk and ones that shock you unexpectedly. In some ways, Ectopia reflects the unexpected reality of our present. The brother and father’s volatile relationship leads to a dramatic change in the book. I think that’s the moment that best benefited from being audio.
Could you tell us about the actors involved?
Emma and Dan brought everything an actor should especially with their own individual talents. Emma’s ability to bring such a natural delivery with the smaller part of Karen was great to record on the final day. She was really easy to get along with and communicate with which made my job easier. I’m glad I could give her a relaxing environment too.
Dan’s versatility and ability to evoke heavy emotions was stunning and I loved watching him from behind the studio. He was juggling both rehearsals for his showcase and this long production of Ectopia – so kudos to him!
How did working on Ectopia come about, and what drew you to the project?
This project was a key part of my MA Publishing Dissertation at Manchester Metropolitan University. There were editorial options and things relating to social media, but the fact there was an option to produce a full audiobook struck my eyes. I love production and it is a growing industry… I knew I would get the most out of it as well as get leadership and team working opportunities.
What was working on the project like and what was the process?
It was fun and exciting as I was bringing it all together and overseeing the flow of it which was satisfying. Like any other production, there was a lot of planning. Meetings with Martin on Zoom, talking about what we feel will do the book justice and how we can make it happen.
Being a student and a former user of a studio during my Bachelors, I contacted Raz our engineer immediately and was able to get the studio booked. From then it was a matter of auditions over a dozen actors from the North, all so amazing that I could actually give them feedback and keep them in my books!
Emma wasn’t needed until the end but we had our own little meetings. For me, Martin and Dan, we were able to meet for lunch and have a tour of the studio and begin production for 3 long days the day after.
Wrap up was kind of emotional but very relieving. I just wanted to sleep by then! It was making notes for the dissertation and keeping the social energy constant that tired me out the most… as well as the early mornings!
Dan had to shoot off to his showcase but we all got a nice picture together in the studio and then the rest of us went out for drinks… from then it was a matter of still checking up on the edits and proofs.
What was your favourite part of the project?
My favourite part must have been the auditions and letting the two know they got the part… its always those moments that get you excited for it all.
What was the most surprising part of the project?
Can’t really say… I wasn’t surprised we went over studio time and I wasn’t surprised it was a stressful process when things didn’t work out. It’s all a part of production and it was a matter of being calm and persistent.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to do audiobook production at a small publishing company?
Be ready to make things happen on your own. Unlike big publishing houses where money and space is more available, you have to make do with what you’ve got. More importantly, you can’t always guarantee yourself another gig so it’s always good to keep looking for other projects or even pitching your own to the publishing house!
Q: You wrote Ectopia as a PhD. Why?
Martin Goodman: I wrote complete drafts of the book before any Creative Writing PhD came into existence. They were sent out into the world by top agents like Mic Cheetham and Deborah Rogers, and kept coming back. I told Deborah to forget it and I would write her a novel that would sell instead – (On Bended Knees, to be reissued by Barbican Press in March 2020). That worked. Editors’ responses showed Ectopia was already too edgy for the mainstream. I didn’t want to trim it back and compromise it. The PhD gave me some really tough and knowledgeable readers, top lecturers in a top university, whose job was to push me beyond my limits. Nothing I could write was going to scare them. They had to make sure it was good enough to get through a viva. It made no difference to them whether it sold or not. The times I kept going back to this book, starting it from scratch, meant it was elemental in some way, one of those books I had to write. The PhD was my commitment to doing that as well as it could be done.
Q: Did the PhD process make Ectopia more formal or academic?
MG: Part of a PhD is that it pushes the field forward. To do that you have to study the field. It’s called action research. You read those writers who have been brilliant at what you’re trying to do, and see what you can learn from them. I was writing a dystopia, so I checked in on classic dystopian fiction … Zemyatin’s We, Brave New World, 1984, Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Never Let Me Go and lots more. They helped me answer questions, and find ways to go and not to go.
Q: Such as?
MG: Writing about the future, you need a new language. You don’t want it dated and you don’t want it obscure. Clockwork Orange showed ways to go and not go. The final chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale is set way in the future and treats the novel as a found and ancient text. I was going to do that too, and this taught me not to bother. Oryx and Crake ends without a resolution – it leaves the reader to decide. I’d done similar things with my own books, but as a reader I was unhappy with Margaret Atwood’s decision, so I chose to write a proper ending. A lot of dystopian fiction, from Huxley through Orwell to Atwood to Ishiguro to Ray Bradbury, is secretly about a writer’s sense of threats to their livelihood and a state’s attack on literature. Once I recognized that, I decided to avoid it. The references in those 20th century books are literary. In Ectopia, they are filmic. My teenage character isn’t me. I’m into books. Film’s where he’s at.
A: You wrote an ‘exegesis’. What’s that about?
MG: For the PhD you write 20,000 words about the process of writing the novel – the ‘exegesis’. That’s when the process can get academic. I’m a novelist. I invented this character of an academic and wrote in that voice. It wasn’t good enough. Literary critics do a much better job. My supervisors kept pointing out that expertise was in being articulate about my own process. So that’s what I went for.
Q: Was the PhD funded?
MG: I paid for it myself. I did it in distance learning mode, which meant I could continue my day-job as a secondary school teacher. It was hard work, but worth it. Part of keeping sane as a writer is keeping the creativity flowing, not letting the day job swamp it. The PhD gives that discipline. If you’re working and writing like that you have no time for holidays and a social life, so you save enough to pay for it.
Q: Why did you call it Ectopia?
MG: I ran with a lot of titles. That one stuck. It sounds like dystopia and has a classic ring to it. Read to the end and you’ll discover the medical links as well. For me it’s got another meaning. ‘Ectopia’ is the state of being on the outside of things. Writers have that marginal sense – themselves as witnesses rather than participants; books as more real than life. Being gay adds to marginality – and Steven, the main narrator of Ectopia, is the gay brother of the last girl. A big part of my finding the courage for this book was reading all the novels of James Purdy and then flying to New York to interview him. He was my favourite living writer and one of those gay writers who influenced me … like Patrick White, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Francis King, Denton Welch. His books never compromised. He wrote from the heart of himself and against the grain. it was an ectopic life and, in writing terms, as rich as they come.
Q: You say it’s narrated by a teenager. Does that make it a teenage book?
MG: It’s a book about teenagers. Teenage readers who are into edge fiction should enjoy it. ‘Teenage fiction’ is an adult label though – it’s censorship. it says this book doesn’t cross limits about sex and drugs and language and violence and whatever. Ectopia does cross all those limits. I didn’t censor the book when writing it so I’m not going to start censoring it now. It’s a subversive book. If I was censoring it, I’d probably give it a 15 certificate. Pre-teens shouldn’t go near it.
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