An Interview with author Shelli Johnson
April 9, 2014
Tell us a little about your debut novel, Small as a Mustard Seed:
As a child in 1960′s rural Ohio, Ann Marie Adler finds herself caught between her father, Frank, a veteran who survived the war in Korea but with devastating post-traumatic stress, and her mother, Adele, who is blindsided by the mental illness that accompanied him home. In a series of escalating dangerous episodes, Frank confuses reality with soul-searing memories, believing he’s still a soldier fighting for his life in battle-torn Korea. During the delusions, Ann Marie and her younger sister, Jolene, become the enemy, which leaves them fearing for their lives. Unable to fully protect her daughters, Adele scrambles to keep order while her husband’s threatening and unpredictable outbursts slowly tear the family apart.
You can read an excerpt here: http://shellijohnson.com/excerpts/small-as-a-mustard-seed/
You used to be a sports journalist. How did your training as a journalist help prepare you for a career as an author?
The journalism degree has helped tremendously in teaching me how to interview people. I’m also not shy about asking people for what I need because of my professional training. Journalism taught me, too, how to research: where to look, who to ask, how to fact check, that kind of thing.
I also have a Master’s Degree in fiction writing. That training helped me slow down. Being a journalist on deadline means that you write fast and maybe miss certain less-important details because you’re trying to get to the main point. You don’t necessarily get to know people. You interview them, sure, and hear what they have to say, but that doesn’t mean you know why they do what they do, what makes them tick. There’s usually not that kind of time. What makes fiction real for the reader are the little details. Grad school taught me to slow down, to see everything that was happening in a scene, to delve deeper into the characters and understand their motivations.
You own your own small press. What are some of the challenges you’ve had with operating your own press?
Here’s the biggest challenge: There’s no one but you to get things done, including editing, cover art, graphic design, marketing, and on and on. There’s no making excuses or assigning blame or settling for good enough. If you want it done, and done right, you have to do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. It’s also incredibly rewarding, though, to have a vision and to make it into reality; that makes the challenges worth it.
What advice would you give to a writer looking at going independent?
Have faith. If this is what you want to do, that you’d rather go indie than traditional or maybe the traditional way just isn’t working for you, then step out and do it. It involves risk, but so does leaving your house in the morning. It’s going to be a lot of work, but so does anything worthwhile. You’ll probably be out of your comfort zone a lot, which means you will grow and achieve things you never thought yourself capable of. Expect obstacles from the start and they won’t derail you when they finally show up. Be professional. Write quality work. Have it edited. Put your absolute best foot forward. And finally: Don’t give up. A lot of people expect instant success (meaning weeks or months) and when that doesn’t materialize, they give up. Sometimes, success takes a long time. Sometimes, it takes writing four books and countless hours of promotion and missing your kids/family and maybe it will take years. Keep your eyes on the prize. I’m going to say that again because it bears repeating, plus I need to hear it, too: Keep your eyes on the prize.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I write every day. I tend to write in the morning because there are fewer distractions. But I don’t have a set time or a set of rules that I follow. The biggest advice I can give is not to follow everyone else’s rules, to figure out what works for you and do that. I can tell you for sure that I don’t write outlines. Outlines don’t work for me. What I love most about writing is getting surprised by the story, having it veer off in a direction I never anticipated, never planned for, & so I’m just as shocked as a reader would be about what happened. Anyway, I find that outlining doesn’t allow for that in my case. I know too much about what’s going to happen, or worse, I don’t let the story do what it wants because I’m trying to stick to the outline.
What is the best writing advice you ever received?
Two things: write without editing in your journal for 15 minutes every day and trust the story.
For writing without editing: writing steam of consciousness ~ whatever comes to mind, zero editing or judgment ~ lets you open up your mind. It lessens fear of the blank page and the worry of measuring up. It eases perfectionism. It allows you to tap into the subconscious where, IMO, all good stories come from. It allows you to make connections on the page that you might not have thought of but your subconscious knew were there.
And for trust: The story knows what it wants to be. You just need to get out of the way ~ with your thoughts on what it should be or what you want it to be, trying to make it sound a certain way, wanting it to convey a certain message or have a certain moral ~ so it can tell itself. If you don’t trust the story, you won’t let it be what it wants, which is to get messy & go off on tangents & look like a hodge-podge of ideas until, gloriously, it comes together as a novel in the end. You have to be willing to let your writing grow naturally, even if that ends up being pages and chapters or even half a novel that you later end up cutting out. You have to do that, otherwise you break the story’s magic.
Do you belong to a writing group?
Yes, but it’s not a regular thing. I read other people’s work and give feedback. They read mine when my books are fully completed. I’ve found that getting feedback while I’m in the middle of a book is just not helpful for me. I need to have a complete draft done before I can go back and start editing/rewriting it. I don’t like rewriting chapters before I know the whole story. When I belonged to a regular writing group, where we met weekly/monthly, I found that it was distracting and made it harder for me to work. So now I have a couple of friends whose work I read as needed and they do the same for me.
How important do you think a web presence is for authors?
I read a blog post a little while ago from a reader who loved a book & wanted to contact the author. When she found out the author didn’t have much of a web presence, she wasn’t as excited about that author anymore. Maybe that isn’t fair, but that seems to be the way things are now. Yes, it takes time to set things up so they look professional, but it’s absolutely worth your time to do it.
I think it’s imperative that, at a minimum, authors have a website, are on Twitter, and have a Facebook Page. Times have changed & the first thing that people do when they want to know something about you is check out the web.
When I first joined Twitter, I wasn’t even sure I would like it. At first, I thought it was pointless; you know, what do I have to say in 140 characters or less? Nowadays, I think it’s a great place to meet other writers, to get some support when you need it, to just talk to people instead of being holed up by yourself all the time, to let people know about what you’re working on, and finally to learn new things that will help your own writing. Somewhere I read that Facebook has something like 800 million users. That’s an enormous potential audience for your work.
Do you have any tips for writers and social networking?
Please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t go in hollering BUY MY BOOK!!! There’s nothing that turns me off faster to somebody than when they bombard me with tweets, links, DMs, emails about how to buy their books before they even get to know me. Hang out, add to the conversation, show your personality, build relationships, give your opinion, blog about things other than your book, help other people, and then start talking about your book.
Finally, and I’m working on this, too: Find a balance in your life of social media time, family time, writing time, sleeping time, and the rest of your obligations time. Burning yourself out serves no one.
Finally, what are you working on now?
Another novel: When Rose Harlen struts into PJ’s Tavern in the scorching heat of an Illinois summer looking to cool herself off, she ends up discovering Danny, a charismatic man who alters the trajectory of her life forever. Instead of following her dream of acting on stage, Rose chooses the stability and comfort of marriage. But Danny has a life-changing secret. While Rose’s world careens toward catastrophe, Helena Basinski’s life in Poland radically changes when her husband’s activities in the Resistance trigger their family’s deportation by the Nazis to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Helena is selected to serve in the camp’s brothel where one of the guards falls obsessively and dangerously in love with her. She survives the war but with memories that are bone deep and forever. Years later, after Rose’s world has been splintered and Helena’s shattered, the two women quietly but forcefully collide.
Here’s an excerpt: http://shellijohnson.com/excerpts/unpublished-work-in-progress/
Shelli Johnson worked as a sports journalist and an editor for many years before finally following her passion and pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Publishers Weekly called her award-winning novel, Small as a Mustard Seed, “an intense & heartbreaking story of the fallout of war.” It’s available now as an ebook.
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