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Why you must read Alex Johnston’s Freedom Like A Shopping Cart

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Freedom Like A Shopping Cart is the story of Matlock, a frustrated, bored 19-year-old, stuck in a small town in Wales, facing an empty adulthood, and going nowhere fast.  He sleeps with his best friend’s girlfriend in a wild act of self-destruction, then hits the road in his beaten up old car with no idea where he’s going.  He ends up falling in with four other guys, all of similar age, all not knowing where they’re going in life, and they drive their way around Britain drinking, arguing, and getting into various misadventures all while trying to figure out what the hell it’s all about!  Most of them do in the end…

Great title.
It’s a unusual title, I know – I got it from a song by a punk band I used to love listening to.

What genre is it – your book, that is, not the song.
It’s probably best described as general fiction.  It’s definitely literary, but not in a pretentious way.  It’s a rites of passage story, a coming of age drama, and a road trip!

Anyone who likes funny-poignant books like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Catch 22 will like it.  It’s not genre fiction, but it’s written in a pretty accessible style and is fairly short, so I’d say that even if your usual thing is thrillers of fantasy you might like to give it a go.

What do we need to know about Matlock?
He’s 19 years old, intelligent (though maybe not quite as intelligent as he thinks, he’ll probably turn out to be kind of average by the time he’s 30), bored and frustrated.  He’s finished school and is kicking around his small hometown wondering what to do next, and then on the spur of the moment, off he goes, driving down the motorway with no idea where he’s heading.

He’s basically suffering from the same kind of low-level depression that I think a lot of us went through in our late teens/early twenties, but he doesn’t really realise this, so he spends a lot of time asking himself big questions – in between getting drunk with his friends.

The other important thing about Matlock is that no one knows his first name.  He’s incredibly secretive and embarrassed about it and goes to great lengths to hide it.  You’ll have to read to the end of the book to find out for yourself what he’s really called.

That’s a little weird. We’re intrigued, though.
Who are the other main characters?
There are four other main characters who join Matlock on his journey, all the same kind of age and all with their own issues.  There’s Joe, who is struggling with his own sexuality.  There’s Robert, who thinks very highly of himself and has a great deal of ambition but is tormented by the fact that he probably won’t achieve anything.  Then there’s Danny, whose major issue is the apparent impossibility of ever managing to get with a girl.

The final character is Phil.  It wasn’t really until I’d finished the book that I realised that unlike the others Phil doesn’t seem to have any major hang-ups.  Sure, his life isn’t great, but I think he’s the secret calm heart of the group, and in a way he acts as someone older readers who have passed all their own youthful crises can identify with.  Phil’s one of those people who is always going to be OK.

How much are these characters representations of yourself?
Ah, now that’s a good question.  I’m in my 30s, so the characters in the book are all around 15 years younger than me, and I hope I’ve made a good job of capturing what people are like at that age.  Obviously as a 33-year-old looking at a bunch of confused 19-year-olds, I’m going to think they’re idiots at times.  But the truth is, of course, that Matlock is very autobiographical.  I was probably very much like him at that age – though the road trip that he takes in the book never really happened.

Some aspects of the other characters are probably also taken from things that I felt during my teens or early twenties too.

Have you written any other books that we should read next?
This is the first one!  But I’m already nearing the end of a new novella, which I hope to publish later this year.  And there are already ideas for more bubbling up.

You must come back and tell us about them.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Alex!  I come from the South West UK and I live in Bristol, which is a great city.  A bit like Matlock in the book I didn’t go to university immediately after leaving school.  I bummed around working in hotels and bars and going off travelling a lot.  I did grow up eventually and I went to university to study history, while I was still just young enough to live the whole student life thing.  Since then I’ve been living in Bristol and working in various fairly dull office-type jobs by day, and writing by night.

American skate-punk – NOFX, Pennywise, Rancid, that kind of thing – was a huge obsession when I was younger, and I’ll still sneak out to a punk gig once in a while.  The title of the book comes from a song by NOFX, even though there’s no music in it, weirdly.  I’m pretty keen on adventure sports and I try to head out at weekends for some mountain biking or down to the coast to surf whenever I can.  And I still love travelling and try and take at least one good trip a year.  It’s a great way to get yourself in the mood for writing.

Do you have a website where we can keep up with your work?
I’ve got a blog here, with more news about the book: http://alexjohnstonbooks.wordpress.com/

How can we follow you on Twitter and/or Facebook?
I’m on Twitter at @AlexJohnston80
My Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alex-Johnston/430888180371495

How easily do new storylines come to you? If we give you four random words – Man, Woman, Airport, Darkness – can you give us a brief storyline?
I think I get my storylines from a mix of real life experience and random imagination. Your four random words could very easily make for the opening of a sequel to Freedom Like a Shopping Cart, as you’ll see if you read the book:

Young man arrives in foreign airport, in darkness, late at night.  This all seemed like a great idea eight hours earlier, but now he suddenly feels very small and very alone, and much to his own disgust he desperately wants to be at home with his mum and dad.  But it’s too late now – he’s in America and he needs to make the best of it.

It’s somewhere hot and sticky – Florida, I think.  He gets some cash from the cash machine.  Everyone seems bigger than British people, and the air smells funny.  The whole while he’s on the brink of tears with fear and homesickness, but this makes him more and more angry with himself, and it’s the anger that gets him onto the bus to the city.  He watches the lights and the cars travelling on the wrong side of the road, and when he gets down at the bus terminal in town he feels even worse.

There’s a late-night diner, and he goes in and buys a burger, but they’re closing up and they kick him out.  There’s one other late customer – a woman – and she strikes up conversation as they leave.  She’s older, old enough to be his mother, with blond dreadlocks and a smell of cigarettes to her.  She asks where he’s from and goes wild when she hears his British accent.  She offers to give him a ride to a hostel in the city and he gets into her car.  There’s a pitbull terrier in the back and it growls at him.  The woman tells him not to be scared and pulls out of the parking lot.  Too late he notices the half-empty whisky bottle in a brown paper bag wedged in beside the handbrake.  This could all go very, very wrong.  Or else it could turn out perfectly…

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