It’s only right that a former comics writer should have a superpower – or at least that’s one way of describing it.
Barry Hutchison has been startlingly prolific, with more than 170 books for children in his own name, more than 15 for adults as Barry J. Hutchison and more than 20 under the pen name JD Kirk.
“What’s your secret?” was my first question when he spoke to me from his home in Fort William.
“I just type really quick,” he said.
Of course, as we talk, it’s clear that Barry’s staggering output and industry success is almost all down to sheer hard graft – but there’s something else.
His brain doesn’t seem to work like everyone else’s, and even more surprising, he only realised this after a conversation with his son.
JD Kirk on A Dead Man Walking
He recently released the 18th instalment of his multi-million selling DCI Logan series, A Dead Man Walking, which went straight to the top of the Kindle charts.
It sees Logan and his team racing to solve the mysterious death of a billionaire in his stately Highland home.
The series has sold more than three million copies as well as 500,000 audiobooks and is an Amazon number one bestseller.
He said: “When I started out as a full-time author, I was writing children’s books. People think of Harry Potter and that all children’s authors are billionaires. That’s definitely not the case.
“I would be writing my own work and also ghost-writing for publishers. I could often be working on four or five books at a time.
“I was seen as a safe pair of hands for hitting a deadline. A publisher might get in touch and say: ‘We need five Ben 10 books in a month.’
“I was skint so I’d go, ‘I’ll do them all’ because I wanted them to keep coming back and I made damn sure they were done on time. I’d do 16-hour days, just hammering out these words.
“So now this feels like quite a sedate pace for me. I’m putting out four books a year and I only write in the morning.
JD Kirk on image-free thinking
“I’ll also say very quickly, I have this thing called aphantasia which means I don’t see mental pictures,” he said.
“Most people, when they shut their eyes, will see a mental image of some kind.
“If you said, imagine a beach, they might picture the sea, a palm tree and sand.
“I shut my eyes and I see darkness. What I get instead is almost like a list of words, a list of attributes for a beach.
“Having spoken to a lot of authors, if they’re writing a scene or describing a character they will picture that then have to translate it into words.
“For me it’s always words, it’s never a picture, so I think I skip a step, which means I can write quickly.
“I had no idea about it until a few years ago. I assumed everybody thought the same way I did.
I don’t see words, I sense them. I’m just aware of the words somewhere deep down in my head.”
“Then my son was saying something about picturing things in his head, I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’.
“I said to my wife and daughter, ‘he thinks he can see things’ and they said ‘what are you talking about, of course he can,’ and then I realised I was the odd one out.
“Suddenly a lot of things made sense. I remember when I was a kid my dad saying to count sheep. And I was thinking, what sheep? There are no sheep.
“I don’t see words, I sense them. I’m just aware of the words somewhere deep down in my head. It’s almost a feeling and then they’re just there, instantly accessible.”
Does he believe this is an advantage?
“I definitely think it is like my writing superpower because I’ve always just thought in words and not in pictures.
“I have no idea what any of my characters look like, so if people say ‘who do you see playing that character?’ I’ve got no idea! DCI Logan is a big guy who has a coat and that’s my entire description of him.”
Barry thinks not giving too much physical description is a good thing, especially for children’s books.
“You want kids to put themselves in the story. They are that character,” he said.
“I don’t strongly picture what characters look like and instead it’s their behaviour and their speech.
“There’s a rhythm to their speech, how I identify them, so that’s why the characters – hopefully at least – sound different because they have a rhythm to the way they speak.”
Beano fan landed dream job
Barry has written around 200 Beano strips including Bash Street Kids, Ball Boy, Gnasher and Nipper.
“I was obsessed with the Beano as a kid, so when I got a chance to write for it, nine-year-old me could not have been happier.”
It was a librarian in Caol, near Fort William, where Barry grew up, who inspired him to read – and then write books – and he knew aged nine he wanted to be an author.
“The librarian transitioned me from comics to books. One day I was looking for a book about ninjas and she gave me a notebook and said, ‘go and write a story about ninjas’.
“I wrote a terrible short story in this notebook and she wrote my name on the spine and put it on the shelf.
“And I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”
Seam of dark humour in DCI Logan books
Barry believes it’s the humour in his DCI Logan novels that most appeals to fans.
“They are proper crime novels, it’s serious stuff, people die, people get kidnapped and bleak things happen, but there is this seam of dark humour that runs through all that character interaction.
“People are far more invested in the characters than they are in the individual storylines.
“One of the main characters gets pregnant and I had four people email me to say that they had started knitting baby clothes!”
A Dead Man Walking is “more contained” than the others. “I wanted to do almost a tartan noir Agatha Christie.
“It’s a locked room mystery. It all takes place in one night. They are trapped in a manor house by Storm Agatha and they have to figure out who is the killer.”
Barry said people new to the series don’t have to read the books in order, although that’s the best experience in getting to know the characters.
“Each one is a standalone mystery so you can jump in to any one of the books that takes your fancy and hopefully if you enjoy it you’ll then go back and read the earlier ones.”
- A Dead Man Walking by JD Kirk is published by Zertex Crime and is available in paperback, Kindle and audiobook on Amazon and in bookshops.