"Unremarkable" man in cafe prompts novel from West Sussex writer

Surviving Me, published by Unbound at £9.99, is the first novel from Storrington’s Jo Johnson, aged 53.

Tuesday, 7th January 2020, 10:02 am
Jo Johnson

Jo explains: “I hadn’t planned to write a novel. I left the NHS in 2008 which gave me more time and energy but at times self-employment was lonely.

“Each day, I interspersed client appointments with visits to the Vintage Rose café, across the road from my office in Storrington.

“One day, I noticed an unremarkable middle-aged man sitting on his own in the back room of the café stirring his coffee and staring out of the window. I wondered what his back story was.

“I decided the man was called Tom and he was in trouble, escaping from his real life in a café, miles from home.

As I watched him, I wrote ‘At this point in time, I can accurately be described as unemployed, impotent, and a liar.’

“This became the first sentence of my debut novel, Surviving Me.

“As I drove around Sussex making home visits to people in distress, I thought more and more about Tom and what was happening for him. I passed a place called Selmeston in East Sussex and thought that would make an unusual female name for Tom’s wife.

“I always have the radio on as I drive, Zoe Ball in the mornings, Alison Ferns after lunch and Sarah Cox on the drive home. Tom’s wife is a dynamic and attractive radio presenter.

“I became increasingly consumed by my own story, at times hiding in the bathroom to scribble down the next instalment whilst my husband cooked dinner or entertained guests. Writing became a compulsion.

“I loved every minute of writing the story. It became more real than my everyday life and at times I forgot it was made up! I wrote a pivotal chapter on Christmas Eve whilst waiting for my children to finish ice skating. When they came out, I was in floods of tears because my main character had taken a course of action that had devastating consequences for him and his family.

“I’ve enjoyed the editing much less but I’m very appreciative of the professional editors at Unbound publishers for helping me turn my story into a page turner

“I love reading but increasingly find commercial fiction is becoming predictable, with so many books following the same pattern. I know I’m reading a great story when I read as I wait for the toast to pop up and I’m late to collect my kids. I wanted to write a novel like that, with great characters who make people laugh and cry.

“Many people find my work as a clinical neuropsychologist fascinating and it struck me that male depression and neurological disease could be the foundation for a multi-layered story.

“My book focuses particularly on the challenges of being male in today’s world and explores how our silence on these big issues can help push men to the brink.

“It tackles hard issues such as male depression, suicidal thoughts and degenerative diseases in what I’m told is an honest, life-affirming and often humorous way.”

The sequel is being written.

“This is my first novel but in addition to my clinical work I write and edit publications for several national neurology charities. In 2009 I won an unexpected Plain English Award. This spurred me on to write more.

“In 2011 I self-published my first neurology related book and felt humbled when My Parent has a Brain Injury: a Guide for Young People was endorsed by most of the leading neurology charities and later requested by a specialist American publisher. Routledge have since published seven of my books, five educational stories for children and two practical mental health workbooks with the same title: Shrinking the Smirch.”