Welcome back to the Author Spotlight! Meet PhilHellene Rob Johnson and learn about why he moved to Greece, and about his work.
Meet PhilHellene Rob Johnson
It seems these days I’m almost exclusively reading books set in Greece or by Greek authors. I love discovering new books and authors! Furthermore, I enjoy reading books set in Greece, written by non-Greeks. It gives me the opportunity to see Greece through fresh eyes – those who were not born into the heritage and culture, but fall in love with it as well, and sometimes for different reasons. Recently, I connected with Author Rob Johnson, a Brit who now lives in Greece. Keep reading to learn about Rob, why he moved to Greece and about his latest book set in Greece.
Q&A with Rob Johnson
Maria A. Karamitsos: You’re not Greek. Tell us briefly about yourself.
Rob Johnson: I was born and brought up in the south of England. After graduating from university, I worked for several years as an administrator and publicist for touring theater companies and then as a playwright. In between writing plays, I had a variety of temporary jobs (i.e. motorcycle dispatch rider and a fitter’s mate at a perfume factory). I’ve also taught English as a foreign language and been a freelance editor, mainly for environmental NGOs.
My wife, Penny, and I moved to Greece fourteen years ago, and we live halfway up a mountain on a 5-acre smallholding on the west coast of the Peloponnese with six (at the last count) rescue dogs, two cats, and four hundred olive trees.
MAK: How did you become interested in Greece?
RJ: When Penny and I first decided to move abroad, we considered various countries, and I was very keen on Spain as I’d been there several times and had only visited Greece once on a week’s package holiday many years ago. Penny, however, had a lot more knowledge of Greece and persuaded me to spend a fortnight here to get more of a feel for the place and its people. We spent most of the time on the Mani peninsula, and it was fantastic. I certainly learned enough during that brief period to begin to appreciate the warmth and generosity of the Greek people, the stunning landscapes, the history and, inevitably, the wonderful climate. After fourteen years of living here, I haven’t the slightest doubt that we (Penny) made the right choice.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? Why?
RJ: As well as our two-week holiday on the Mani peninsula convincing us that Greece was the country where we wanted to live, one of our main reasons for moving abroad in the first place was to escape the British weather. Before Penny and I moved to Greece, we were living in the heart of the Peak District National Park in England, and although it’s a wonderful part of the country, even the summers could be disappointingly sunless. Somewhat ironically, when we arrived here in early 2004, Greece was experiencing its worst winter in over 30 years.
MAK: The economic crisis didn’t drive you away.
RJ: As expats, we haven’t really been too badly affected by the crisis apart from the general rise in the cost of living. On the other hand, we know plenty of Greek people who have struggled to cope in terms of job losses and drastic cuts in pensions and wages, so Penny and I don’t have much to complain about. As Brits, we’ll probably be more personally affected by whatever results from the Brexit negotiations, but who knows how they will turn out?
MAK: Did you always want to be a writer?
RJ: I caught the bug at a very early age when I was about seven-years-old. A teacher at school asked us to dramatize a story we’d read about Robin Hood, and I loved doing that so much that writing became something of an obsession from that moment on. I used to write short plays and stories in my spare time throughout my childhood, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I got the opportunity to write professionally. The day that a touring theater company commissioned me to write a play for them was definitely one of the best of my life. Up until that point, I thought that being paid to do something I loved was little more than a pipe dream.
MAK: What made you want to be a writer/author?
RJ: As I mentioned above, I’ve always loved writing and making up stories for as long as I can remember, although it was my English teacher at secondary school who first put it into my head that I might want to think about taking my writing seriously. In those days, we had to write a composition about once a week which were basically short stories, and Geoffrey Chant – for such was the teacher’s name – seemed to like most my stories and usually gave me a very high mark. I was about 14 or 15 at the time, and I remember distinctly the moment when he handed me back one of my compositions that he particularly liked and said, “Have you ever considered becoming a writer when you leave school?” And so, the seed was sown.
Published in 2017 and based on the early days of his move to Greece, A Kilo of String is the latest book by PhilHellene Rob Johnson.
MAK: When did you publish your first book?
RJ: When the funding for independent, non-commercial theater companies dried up almost overnight in the late 1980s, the market for new plays became almost non-existent, and there was then a period of many years when I did hardly any creative writing at all. Some time after we moved to Greece, however, Penny realized there was something major missing in my life and coerced me into sitting down and writing something — anything as long as it made me less grumpy! Having only written plays before, I decided to try my hand at a novel, and eventually my comedy thriller, Lifting the Lid was published in 2013.
MAK: How many books have you published to date?
RJ: Including Lifting the Lid, I’ve published four books so far with another, Cremains, due to be released before the end of the year. Heads You Lose – the sequel to Lifting the Lid – was published in 2014, and after that, I switched genres to write Quest for the Holey Snail, a comedy time travel adventure that’s been variously described as “utterly bonkers” and “wonderfully mad”. Switching genres yet again, my most recent book, A Kilo of String, was published in June last year.
MAK: A Kilo of String is the latest book. What’s it about?
RJ: Even though I wasn’t writing when we first moved to Greece, I immediately started keeping notes about aspects of living here that I found particularly amusing or just came as a complete culture shock. (Our most overused word in the early days and weeks was “bizarre”.) Eventually, these notes formed the basis of a podcast series I produced — also called ‘A Kilo of String’ – so I thought how easy it would be to write a book that was loosely based on the podcast episodes. Easy? How wrong I was. But judging by the majority of the feedback I’ve received since the book was published, all the hard work, gnashing of teeth, sleepless nights, and Penny threatening to divorce me were well worth it (except for the divorce bit, of course).
MAK: Are any of your other books set in Greece?
RJ: Of the three novels I’ve published so far, Lifting the Lid is the only one that isn’t set in Greece, although there are a couple of chapters that take place at the Greek villa of one of the main characters. Heads You Lose (the second book in the Lifting the Lid series) is mostly set in modern Greece, whereas my comedy time travel adventure, Quest for the Holey Snail, is almost entirely set in Ancient Greece.
MAK: Why do you write about Greece?
RJ: “Write what you know” is a well-worn cliché, of course, but I think it’s absolutely right. I can’t remember who it was now, but a well-known author once said that fiction had to be even more credible than non-fiction or the reader would lose faith in the story. Now having lived in Greece for 14 years, I feel that I’m possibly more in tune with how things are here than back in the UK, and it’s obviously much easier to visit Greek locations for research purposes. Penny often tells me that I should set at least some of each book in various exotic places so we have an excuse to go there. Finally, I have readers from all over the world, and many seem to enjoy reading stories set in foreign countries — perhaps as an additional level of escapism.
MAK: Tell us a bit about your writing process.
RJ: Apparently, I’m what’s known as a “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants) in that I do very little planning before I start writing a novel, mainly because I enjoy the process of sitting down to write each day and not really knowing where the story and the characters will take me next. With Lifting the Lid, for instance, I kept having this sentence pop into my head that simply said, “It’s of no concern to me”, and the story developed from there. Working like this means that I have to do a lot of editing once the first draft is finished, of course, and I usually produce at least six or seven drafts before I decide that the book is fit for public consumption.
I write my first drafts in longhand and then type them up afterwards, which saves my back from sitting at a desk for hours on end but also gives me the opportunity to do some early rough edits. Oh yes, and I often seem to get my best ideas while soaking in the bath. Well, it worked for Archimedes, didn’t it? And Dalton Trumbo wrote most of his screenplays in the bath (e.g. Roman Holiday, Exodus, Spartacus and Papillon).
MAK: Share a story about a reader communication, and how that affected you.
RJ: Since humour features heavily in all of my books, I love hearing how much my readers have laughed when reading them and particularly comments such as “Thank you for bringing some much-needed laughter into my life!”, and “It brightened our days”. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine, and as one reader put it, “Many belly laughs make this delightful tale a terrific adjunct to a good health routine.”
More seriously, and with specific reference to A Kilo of String, I’m always delighted when Greek readers and expats who live in Greece say how much of the book they can identify with. I’ve received many such comments, but one of my favorites is “You capture the essence of Greece and the wonderful Greek people so well”.
MAK: Anything else we should know about you?
RJ: As well as my work as a writer, I’m also an olive farmer, and we produce organic olive oil, the quality of which we’ve often been complimented on. However, I must admit that I dread the olive harvest every year since it’s not only incredibly hard work and mind-numbingly tedious, but it’s also an activity which should be registered with the Dangerous Sports Association. I’ve had a whole variety of pulled muscles from lifting sacks of olives and slipping on greasy olive nets, and it takes me about six months to recover from olive harvesters’ elbow – in both elbows, I might add. I’ve had numerous cuts, grazes, and bruises from falling out of the trees, and I’ve suffered mild concussions on several occasions from bashing my head on an overhanging branch. I once read that, in ancient times, only virgins and young men sworn to chastity were allowed to harvest olive trees. If only I’d been an olive farmer in those days, I’d have had every excuse I could possibly have wished for.
MAK: What’s next for you?
RJ: I’ve just finished recording the audiobook version of A Kilo of String, so that should be available in the next few weeks, and Tantor Media have recently bought the audiobook rights to Lifting the Lid, which will be released in early February of next year.
I’m also just completing what I hope will be the final edit of my new novel, provisionally titled Cremains, which is a crime caper about a small-time crook, a psychopathic gangster, a drug-dealing undertaker, and an elderly woman who is tragically crushed to death under a falling baby grand piano.
Once that’s published, I’ll be trying something totally new for me and writing something for young children (mainly for the benefit of our four grandchildren) and then probably the third novel in my Lifting the Lid series.
Check out books from Rob Johnson
Thanks Rob for sharing your story. Check out his books sometime. It sounds like they just may induce some belly aching laughs.
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