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Q&A  •  18 June 2024


Anna Johnston shares the real-life inspiration behind her debut novel

We caught up with Anna Johnston to learn more about The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife, her writing process, and which fictional character she’d most like to have dinner with.

What was your writing process like? Did you have a writing routine or any regular rituals?

I’m a very visual person whose love of storytelling comes from years of writing and performing plays and short films throughout my youth. When I write, I see every chapter play out like a movie scene in my head, complete with a cinematic soundtrack! Emotional connection is also a key component of the process for me. As my friends and family will attest, I’m a major empath, but this empathy doesn’t just stop at real humans! I feel deeply for my characters and can often be found weeping at my computer or in fits of giggles over something that happens to them. I’m not sure if this makes for good writing or if I should seek help! Nonetheless, I don’t feel I could write without this emotional attachment and it’s the best gauge I have of whether something is working.

When it comes to getting words on the page, I’m a wanna-be plotter but primarily a ‘pantser’ flying by the seat of my pants and discovering the plot as I go. I find it vital to have the main structural points in place and then fill in the gaps. Like many people in the last couple of years, as an understanding of the condition has increased, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Sometimes this is great when hyper-focus kicks in and I can edit for twelve hours straight. At other times, it makes it particularly challenging to sit at a computer for extended periods, and I’ve had to come up with creative ways of structuring my days. Jotting down ideas on my phone wherever I am is a great way of finding inspiration.

How did you first come up with the idea for the book? 

The idea for the novel began with the creation of my protagonist Fred, who not only shares my late grandfather’s name but also his delightful, selfless and endearing nature. Pa was my best friend, whose gratitude, humour and kindness lit up any room he was in.

People over eighty are often under or misrepresented in the arts, so I wanted to create not just an elderly character but an elderly hero who inspires hope and shows that worth, unlike eyesight, does not diminish with age. Pa provided the perfect inspiration. He had countless strengths, but his poker face wasn’t one of them! He was so honest that he found it terribly difficult to even play a card game that required cheating.

Plot stems from conflict, so I contemplated what would happen if you placed such a man in a situation where he was desperate enough to deceive (if he believed he wasn’t hurting anyone). Doppelgängers and cases of mistaken identity have always fascinated me, and I began developing the idea of one man being able to redeem another man’s life, even after death. The story grew quickly from there.

Although I was initially studying to become a doctor like my dad, I ended up working in aged care, which provided the perfect setting for the book. When Pa was diagnosed with dementia, I followed my heart into his nursing home to become the social support coordinator so we could spend more time together. The book draws heavily on my experience during these years, touching on issues of aging, grief, dementia, isolation, purpose, love, connection and the power of identity. I was also greatly inspired by my grandparents’ beautiful marriage, which breathed life into the novel. I often wonder what prompted multiple people to publish this story and I can only believe that their love somehow got into my keyboard and onto the page. The characters, plot and setting of the novel are all fictional. But the love? That’s entirely real.

What surprised you most about the publishing process?

The incredible support of other authors and the book community. In an industry where you’d expect fierce competition, there’s been nothing but genuine joy for others' success – everyone lifts each other up. It’s truly special.

Also, how down-to-earth and lovely my publisher is! Kindness is something I always look out for in people, and she and her team have it in spades. 

If you could have dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Pooh Bear. I love the way he looks at life and believe he contains as much wisdom as he does honey.

If you were a character in a novel, what would be your signature quirk or catchphrase?

As someone who loves playing practical jokes (so long as they don’t hurt anyone!), I think that would have to be my quirk. I often wish it was Groundhog Day, so I could try out as many pranks as possible without repercussions.

What fictional world would you want to live in, and how would you survive or thrive there?

The Magic Faraway Tree in the Enchanted Wood. Moonface undoubtedly has the prime real estate with the slippery-slip, so I’d probably have to make a tonne of toffee to convince him to move out. I would persuade the Angry Pixie to do an anger management course and convince Silky to give me the elusive recipe for her pop biscuits. After that, I would thrive visiting lands at the top of the tree, whilst Dame Wash-A-Lot does all my laundry. What more could you ask for?

What's the weirdest talent or skill you have that not many people know about?

I can do a very respectable impersonation of a trumpet using just my hands.

What's your go-to karaoke song, and how well do you perform it?

'9 to 5' by Dolly Parton. Let’s just say there are dance moves and an on-point Southern American accent.

Where is your happy place and why?

Anywhere my family is (especially if they are at Disneyworld in Florida or in Cornwall, UK!). They are the froth on my cappuccino.

What is your #1 tip for aspiring authors?

The first draft is just telling the story to yourself. Run to the finish line without looking back! Stopping to polish prose and grammar in your first draft is like icing your cake batter. Resist the urge to compare your writing to published books – the published ones have been through the editorial carwash many, many times to get that sparkly!

Feature Title

The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife
The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife is a warm, life-affirming debut about a bizarre case of mistaken identity that allows a lonely old man one last chance to be part of a family.
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