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August 4, 2016

Suicide isn’t Painless









We are happy to welcome author Doug Johnstone to the Blog, the latest stop on his blog tour for his new thriller, THE JUMP, which has just been released in the US. In this piece, Doug talks about the difficulty of writing about suicide, which is one of the major themes of THE JUMP, and his desire to write an honest book on the subject.


Writing about suicide isn’t easy. Nor, it seems, is it very easy to read about. My latest novel, THE JUMP, came out in the UK last year, and while the general reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, there has been an interesting element to that reaction lingering underneath. At a library event recently, an audience member put his hand up to ask a question.

"Have you ever contemplated or attempted suicide?"

I replied that, despite suffering from mild depression in the past, I hadn’t.

"Then what gives you the right to write about it?"

The simple answer is to ask “what gives anyone the right to write about anything they haven’t actually done?” On the evening in question, I tried to explain that as long as you treat the subject matter with empathy and respect, then an author can write about anything he or she damn well likes.

But what’s more interesting about that question is that I can’t picture anyone asking it about murder. Or torture. Or rape. Can you imagine?

“Have you ever raped and murdered anyone?”


“Then what gives you the right to write about it?”

In crime fiction, readers seem absolutely prepared to read all sorts of graphic stuff --- page after page of torture, violence, beatings, murder and so on, yet that doesn’t always seem to apply to self-harm.

There is very little in the way of graphic descriptions of suicide in THE JUMP. Instead, it seems like the very idea of suicide is offensive to some. Perhaps this is down to a still-lingering religious sensibility. Or perhaps it’s because we all fear that it could so easily happen to us.

I was being honest when I told that guy I had never contemplated suicide. I’d like to say that I never will, but I have enough experience of mental health issues that I know that’s unrealistic. There but for the grace of God, and all that. Any of us, I think, given the wrong turn of circumstances, could end up in that desperate situation, and who knows how any of us would cope under what must be unbelievable stress.

I’ve wanted to write an honest book about suicide for a long time without ever really realizing it. I’ve skirted around the subject matter for a decade, but finally met it head on in THE JUMP. Set in South Queensferry just outside Edinburgh, it focuses on Ellie, a middle-aged mother whose teenage son has jumped off the Forth Road Bridge six months before the book opens. The story starts with Ellie, up on the bridge, still obsessed with her son’s death, finding another teenage boy about to jump. She talks him down, seeing a second chance for herself, a shot at redemption, but her world unravels quickly as she realizes the mess this other boy is involved in.

It’s a thriller, sure, with many of the tropes that go along with that. There are corrupt cops and child abuse, secrets and lies, murder and cover-ups. But at its heart, THE JUMP is a book about coping with grief, about the abyss left behind when a loved one succumbs to suicide, and about how the hell we go on with our lives in the face of that monstrous loss.

Writing THE JUMP wasn’t easy, and maybe it’s not the easiest book in the world to read, either. But hopefully, if I’ve done my job well enough, it’s tense and thrilling, engaging and thought-provoking. And hopefully readers will find it a worthwhile use of their time.

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