My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, a novel which People magazine says “transports readers to a time of Scotch-soaked bars, Walter Cronkite on the news, and astronauts as superheroes...Ingeniously plotted, deftly written, and engrossing.” Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press’ National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.
My First Publication
I’d been working on The Last Pilot for about three years when I heard about a new digital short story publisher being set up by a book editor who’d just gone freelance. This was 2011—the early days of mobile and apps—and I found the model intriguing. Digital-only short stories for 99p.
I’d never written a short story before, but I thought I’d have a go, see if I could get it published. It felt good to have a creative alternate to the novel, too—a counterpoint, if you will. I found it refreshing, and creatively stimulating. It was also an incredibly useful process. I learned how to build a house, which helped me with the creation of this skyscraper I was attempting…
book blogger (and publisher at HarperCollins in his day job), who had undertaken reading and reviewing a short story every day for a year. I knew Scott—I was a reader of his blog and we’d become friendly on Twitter, and I’d see him monthly at a literary night he ran in London. I also respected him. I knew if he reviewed it, he’d be honest. In fact, I think he said, If it’s shit, I’ll say so. So those were the stakes. Luckily, he didn’t think it was shit, and he said so. He gave it a very good review. He had one niggle though, and, as this was the niggle the digital publisher also had, I did another draft. Scott (and this will show you how generous he is) ran another review, based on the new version—and this review was freaking great!
A few days later, Scott forwarded me an email from the editor of a short story anthology called The Fiction Desk. I’d heard about them before. They published a beautiful, proper paperback book of short stories every quarter that you could buy from actual bookshops (as well as online). They also did an ebook edition for Kindle and iBooks.
Rob Redman, the editor and publisher, said he would be interested in taking a look at the story, if I felt like I wanted to submit it to them. I did. A few days later, these sweet, sweet words: If it's still available, I'd love to publish “Rocket Man” in our next volume. It was my first piece of published fiction, and it meant an awful lot. Rob did a couple of edits on the story and it was the most exhilarating experience I’d had with words. I loved the collaboration. And there was a contract! And payment! And contributor copies! Oh, happy, happy day! It was such a wonderful experience.
“The Rocket Man” was published in April 2011, and the anthology was called The Maginot Line. There are some tremendous stories in there. The title story, “The Maginot Line” by Matt Plass...“Exocet” by Andrew Jury… The anthology picked up some great reviews, too. And it was a real thrill to see it in the London Review Bookshop (one of my favorites). It served as a great calling card for me as well.
You can still buy the collection—there are a few print copies left (although not many—it sold pretty well) and it’s obviously available for Kindle and iBooks from Amazon and Apple respectively.
It was a hell of an experience, and I’m proud to have been published first by The Fiction Desk, which is still going strong. You can subscribe or buy individual copies of their anthologies here. And you can also submit your stories, too...
Author photo by Nick Tucker