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From Cop to Author: How Therapy Transformed Matt Johnson’s Life

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson edged toward the parapet of the high building and peered into the darkness. Below, on the concrete, was the body of a young girl who had fallen during a roof party. Dealing with death and injury are regular trials for police officers and in his twenty years as a London copper, Matt Johnson had seen more than his fair share of tragedy. 

But this day was to be even more challenging. As he looked down at the body he began experiencing a flashback to another traumatic incident: the shooting, in 1984, of a young female constable while on duty outside the Libyan Embassy in London. PC Yvonne Fletcher was Matt’s friend. He was with her in her final hours, driving her to the hospital where she later died. 

That experience left Matt with a range of torments which plagued him over the coming years: mood swings, irritability, disturbing dreams and sleep deprivation. But it was after his flashback nightmare on that rooftop, that day in 1999, that his situation became grievous. Driving home after the end of his shift he began shaking, sweating and feeling intense pain. Matt believed he was having a heart attack. He quickly found medical help. 

A Career Ends

The doctor’s diagnosis was unexpected: Matt had suffered an anxiety attack. And that was not all. The medic told him that he was suffering from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. 

That diagnosis put an end to Matt Johnson’s career in the police but opened a new path – towards writing. Now, twenty years later – after much counselling, hard work and a little luck – he is a successful author of a crime fiction series and also acts as a television script advisor on police procedures and methods.

His new career was triggered by a counsellor whose help Matt sought to cope with his PTSD. Writing therapy was a relatively new concept at the time but, under her guidance, Matt Johnson began writing about his swirling emotions and the effect of two decades dealing with murder, terrorism and shootings.

It was quite painful early on but what I learned was that writing about your experiences, rather than talking about them, involves a good deal more thought. Writing is 10, maybe 20 times more effective than talking. The more I wrote the better I got.

After months and multiple therapy sessions, there was an unexpected development. ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ the counsellor asked.

I just laughed. It was never on the agenda. I thought: ‘Who would want to read a book about my experiences when there are hundreds of other officers with similar experiences?’ At most it might be of interest to a researcher in a university.

New Career Begins

He forgot about the idea. Moved to Wales. Set up a boarding kennel. Got on with his life. And then a new idea began to take shape. Instead of writing an autobiography about the effects of stress on serving police officers, he could reach a much bigger audience if he wrote fiction that drew on his experiences.

One evening Matt sat at his computer and began transforming all the notes he’d made during therapy into a novel. It took almost three years to write Wicked Game, a book based on the experiences of a former SAS soldier, now policeman, called Robert Finlay.

Though rejected by several literary agents, the book became a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2015. One Easter weekend, it was downloaded 10,000 times; Finlay’s background in the army and intelligence services seeming to resonate strongly with members of the armed forces.

A Twist of Fate

But then came the lucky break that many budding authors dream will happen.

The Irish based author and journalist Antony Loveless was on a reporting assignment in Afghanistan. He started chatting to a RAF crewman whom he’d spotted sitting reading next to his Chinook helicopter.

Loveless was so interested by the crewman’s description of the book he had on his Kindle – Wicked Game – and the author’s history, that he bought a copy himself. And then Loveless recommended it to his own literary agent. A few weeks later Matt was taken on as a client by Watson-Little Ltd and began getting publishing offers.

Wicked Game, refreshed with the help of a professional editor, was published via Orenda Books in 2016. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, it had impressive endorsements from David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James, author of Inspector Roy Grace series. Two more Robert Finlay books followed: Deadly Game in 2017 and End Game in 2018, both to critical acclaim.

Fiction or Autobiography

What about the reaction from the people in whose worlds these books are set; Matt’s former colleagues in the army and police? No issues on that score: the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

It’s quite humbling sometimes because you know you are writing about something from your career background that people know very deeply and if you get it wrong, misrepresent their world, they can be very harsh in their judgement.

But I’ve had quite the opposite. Some people claim they recognise the people I’ve featured in the books. They’re wrong! Others have said they know the story is real. But they’re not … nor are these books autobiographical. I’ve just attempted to write in a way that comes across as authentic.

So authentic in fact that the master of spy thrillers, John Le Carré, wanted to meet Matt Johnson to discuss a plot device in his second novel Deadly Game.

It was surreal. There I was sitting in his house in Cornwall eating scones and jam and he asks me about the spy element in the book and where I got the story from. I said it was entirely made up. He wasn’t entirely persuaded. He said it was so close to a real story, one that really happened, that it was uncanny.

Matt Johnson’s clearly come a long way since that day in 1999 when he believed he was falling apart. Has writing solved the problems caused by his PTSD? The answer is an unequivocal no. PTSD, he says, isn’t a condition that’s cured, it’s one that you learn to manage.

Loud noises and crowded spaces can trigger a recurrence of his anxiety. So too can some speaking events if he strays too close to certain experiences. But his home amid the mountains of Wales, a place where he can walk his dogs and tend to his bees, offers him the tranquility that helps keep the symptoms at bay.

Writing has been critical to his salvation. He loves what he’s doing now even if at times he feels he’s still on uncertain ground.

I feel like I’m a novice surfer whose had a few lessons, paddelled out to sea, turned to face the shore and somehow picked up the perfect wave. I’m heading towards shore, grinning from ear to ear but I’m not very safe. At any moment I could crash and fall off. But I’m enjoying the moment.

What’s next on the horizon for Matt I ask? A film adaptation? A TV series? His lips are sealed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard both are in the wind….

Welsh authors

This conversation with Matt Johnson was part of the Cwtch Corner series on where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books. To read other interviews click here

What I’m Reading: Episode 25, January 2020

For the first time in 2020 I’m sharing with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Last year I had the opportunity to listen to Matt Johnson, an author from Wales, explain how writing had helped him deal with post traumatic stress disorder. Matt had served in the army in Northern Ireland and then as a senior police officer in London, both experiences taking a toll on his mental health. 

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

I’ve now been reading his debut novel: Wicked Game. It’s a fast-paced novel that draws on his experiences in the front line through the character of former special forces operative Robert Finlay. He’s just moved from the Royalty Protection team to a new job as a police inspector in a London suburb. But his past involvement in a terrorist siege is putting his new life in danger.

Matt self published this novel in 2012 but in 2015 it was picked up by Orenda Books – they also published his next two titles.

I’m half way through and can’t help wonder why we haven’t heard more noise about this author.

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi

My current audiobook is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s an extraordinary book. Kalanithi wrote it after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 35 when he was on the verge of completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon. He didn’t live long enough to see it published.

It’s more than a memoir about a man facing mortality; it’s a meditation on life; the relationship between doctor and patient, and the intersection of science and literature.

This is such a deeply moving book that I have to take it in small doses.

What I just finished reading

The year got off to a fabulous start with The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

But then it came crashing down with two books I had to abandon.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was the book club choice for January. As a fantasy novel it was always going to be a challenge for me but I was willing to give it a go. After 50 pages I’d had enough. It had neither a plot or characters that interested me, nor was it particularly well written.

Independence Square by A D Miller

My attention turned to Independence Square by A. D Miller which is due to be published next month. I’d read his earlier, debut, novel Snowdrops set in post-Glasnost Russia and thought it was well paced and well observed but lacked good characterisation.

I expected he would have ironed out those flaws by his second novel only to find more of the same issues. His new book has a dual time narrative (frankly I’m getting rather tired of those now), moving between Ukraine at a time of political turmoil and London, 10 years later. Connecting the two threads is Simon Davey, a former senior British diplomat who lost his job because of something that happened in Kiev a decade earlier.

It had potential but fell far short of my expectations.

What I’ll read next

Usually this is a hard question because I simply don’t like to plan my reading.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

But my reservation of the next book club selection Little by Edward Carey came through in the library. So of course when I went to collect it, I absolutely had to have a browse (yes you can roll your eyes given it was only a few days ago I said I had 264 unread books at home). And I found Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I’ve been keen to read more by her ever since experiencing The Housekeeper and The Professor. It’s currently the Japanese Literature Challenge so what a perfect opportunity to do just that with this novella.

That should keep me quiet for a little while.

Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.

This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

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