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An interview with Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

We’re delighted to have an exclusive interview with Johnny Rich, author of our first publication The Human Script. Published just last month, the book is already garnering some great reviews including praise from author Tom McCarthy, whose last novel, C, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Want to know more? Read on…

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Q: In your own words, what is ‘The Human Script’? 

JOHNNY: It’s £2.99 as a special introductory price from all good eBook stores. Proceeds go to a good cause: new shoes for an iguana I’ve adopted who recently lost his mother in a boating accident.

The Human Script is also my novel. I chose the title because it means many things in the context of the story.

Most obviously, it means the human genome, the genetic code written in a four-lettered alphabet that makes our species different from chimps, chipmunks or chickpeas and which – to some extent at least – determines the story of our lives.

Then there’s ‘the human script’ as a path we are compelled to follow. The book explores how free we really are. Why do we make the choices we make? Is it nature? Nurture? A complex interplay of both? Or perhaps neither – and if it’s neither, where does that decision come from? Is it the soul or just random? God, perhaps, or someone having a joke at our expense? And if all this doesn’t leave room for genuine free will, are we not just following a script?

‘The human script’ is also Fiction itself with a capital F: stories about humans and humanity and, I suppose, the lack of humanity essential to creating the dramatic conflict that makes a story worth reading.

Oh, and there’s at least one more meaning of ‘human script’, but you’ll have to read the book for that.

Q: There are a lot of allusions to literature and philosophy within The Human Script. What or who were your biggest influences when writing the book? 

JOHNNY: I can’t say because I don’t know. Necessarily, I cannot possibly know what has influenced me most. Try thinking of a vegetable. Now tell me why you chose that vegetable. Ha! See? It’s not possible.

This is one of the issues the book explores: how the tiniest causes can have spectacular implications. A tiny mutation, a letter change in the genetic code, might kill or change a life. An idle word might traumatise a child. And reading a book at a moment when the mind is perfectly receptive might shift your whole personality. Or nothing might happen. Sometimes, as I say in the book, a butterfly might flap its wings and the weather turns out fine, but the butterfly rarely gets any credit.

There’s a short story by Borges about a man who tries to write Don Quixote by copying exactly the human condition of Cervantes. He doesn’t want to rewrite it. He wants to recreate his life experiences to be so like the author’s in such minute detail that the words just flow out identically. Of course, it’s impossible. Similarly, I can’t piece together a lifetime’s causes and effects. Even my own. Literary influences are like genes – only together do they have the impact they do and no one can unpick the importance of any one in isolation.

Having said that, genetics also betrays ancestors – towering achievers so great that their evolutionary leaps become the hallmarks of their descendants. I have to count Shakespeare in there, the Bible (as a cultural and literary work more than a theological text), myths and legends, modernists like Joyce and Eliot, and postmodernists like Borges, Vonnegut and Eco. There’s books I read as a child – Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen – and things that friends have written. That all sounds very pretentious though. I also love a good rom com, blue-grass-electronic-garage music and poor puns.

Q: Chris Putnam, the protagonist in The Human Script, is a scientist working on the Human Genome Project. What makes this particular area of science so fascinating? 

JOHNNY: The HGP was a scientific undertaking more ambitious than putting a man on the moon. Okay, people were less likely to be vaporised by the nothingness of space in the process, but it was more intellectually ambitious because it promised an understanding of the nature of human existence and cures for everything from the common cold to cancer.

Of course, like the moon shot, a lot of that ambition was just hype – or at least, the timescale to realise the benefits was compressed from centuries of work to just a few years. The scientists involved knew perfectly well they wouldn’t find out much to start with, but, goddamnit, there was a horizon and they just had to sail over it.

When humankind goes on an adventure like this, it’s actually an exploration of ourselves, of our capacity to understand. That couldn’t be more true than when the object of the quest is to discover, quite literally, what makes us human. But – like the mice in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who find out that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is forty-two – whatever we discover is almost bound to disappoint because it will only ever raise more questions. These questions are at the heart of my book and the HGP was just a gift in terms of a starting point. In wrapping paper. With a bow.

Q: Science and literature are often seen as antithetical. What makes their combination so interesting in The Human Script

JOHNNY: It’s all just knowledge, thought and creativity. The boundaries are bogus. If you’re not interested in science, in art, in philosophy, in politics, then, frankly, what the hell are you doing with all your human curiosity? Science is among the greatest of human endeavours and what it can tell us about the universe, about ourselves, is just too damn good to leave just to scientists.

Q: Tell us about the process of writing The Human Script? How did it happen? 

JOHNNY: Mostly by turning up to work at my desk every day and getting on with it, although there was a lot of thinking beforehand and a lot of reading and research.

My research trips were a cool excuse. A friend who worked behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum let me come and watch her sequence the genes of fruit flies. She was bemused why I would find it even remotely interesting to see what to her was such a mundane activity. I also blagged my way into the Sanger Centre at Hinxton outside Cambridge, which, at the time, was just this huge coding factory for the Human Genome Project.

And whenever I read an interesting book, I just contacted the author and asked to chat on the phone. People are very indulgent to writers and so I found myself talking to the geneticist Steve Jones, rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and a homophobic, fundamentalist priest from Norfolk who gave me tea in fine bone china and had a doily on a biscuit plate.

I’d been accepted to study an MA in Creative Writing at UEA and so I set myself a deadline to plan every chapter before the course started, but not to write a word of the book itself (save for a few snatches that might – or might not – slot in somewhere). On day one of the course, I started the first chapter and just slogged through methodically like a mule on a treadmill. It took about eighteen months to do the first draft.

Literary agents were all over it. Unfortunately publishers weren’t so keen. They had a unfathomable desire to earn something called ‘a living’ and didn’t believe my book would help that happen. It’s true – it’s not a commercial book. One publisher arranged a meeting and then cancelled when the marketing department told him they’d veto it.

So I pretty much forgot about it. And then it was more than a decade before, one evening, in front of the TV, I just replied to a Facebook post by Red Button and attached the manuscript to an email.

Q: How do you feel now that The Human Script is out in the big wide world of readers? 

JOHNNY: I think James Brown captured it. I feel good. I knew that I would.

Q: What do you hope people take away from The Human Script

JOHNNY: The Human Script is a postmodern novel – I admit it – but all that self-aware tricksiness of most postmodern literature just isn’t emotionally very engaging. I wanted to write a story that carried all those intellectual ideas, but which also makes people feel something. Ideally, something sad. The catharsis of tragedy is ineluctably sublime or, to put it a less poncy way, who doesn’t love a weepy?

But the feelings should have a point. And I’d love it if that point is to unsettle, to make the reader sense that all is not right with their understanding of the world and that they need to think a lot more about a lot of stuff before those feelings will go away. And maybe they’ll want to reread the book.

And tell their friends. After all, do you know what happens to an iguana’s feet if they get chilly? Me neither, but I’m sure it’s not pretty.


To organise your own interview with Johnny or to request a review copy please contact Caroline and Karen at:

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One comment on “An interview with Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

  1. Pingback: The Human Script by Johnny Rich. | bookemstevo

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