Bestselling Author Launches His Next Thriller: Tim Johnston
By Alesha Damerville
By Jennie Lay
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS–On the eve of publishing his new novel, The Current, author Tim Johnston speaks with Steamboat Magazine about his gripping mysteries, the writing process and how the Colorado landscape has worked its way into his heart, and his stories. He’ll be in Steamboat Springs at the Bud Werner Memorial Library for a free community talk on Monday, Jan. 31
Jennie Lay:Your debut novel, Descent, was set in Colorado, and I’ll be honest, it haunts me on the back roads of Summit County to this day. Was there a real-life story that spurred that harrowing hostage tale? And why did you set it in this particular location?
Tim Johnston:There was no single real-life story behind my story, although in the years I spent working on Descent, and in the years since, there has been no shortage of real-life corollaries—most recently the incredible story of 14-year-old Jayme Closs. The story of the Courtlands came to me while I was living up in the Rocky Mountains, working as a carpenter. Something about that vast and wild landscape suggested the story of Midwesterners, like me, who were out of their element and in for some kind of big trouble. And what's the worst kind of trouble for a family? A child gone missing. Had I never gone up to the mountains as a carpenter, there would be noDescent.
JL:Have you visited Steamboat before. And because I know you’ve spent time in the Rockies, what are your mountain pursuits—skiing, biking, hiking, kayaking?
TJ:For years, my family took an annual winter trip to Colorado. We'd drive out there from Iowa in one shot, ski ourselves silly for five days, then drive back. Steamboat, Breck, Copper. Finally, my folks decided to stop renting and build their own house, and that's how I ended up in Winter Park working as a carpenter. Some days the snow was just too fresh and beautiful for carpentry, and in 15 minutes I was on the slopes. In the spring and summer I rode my mountain bike on any trail I could find, all of it a joyful research for the somewhat unjoyful story I was writing.
JL:Tell us about your writing life—or more importantly, what have you done for work and amusement over the years led to this bright spot in your publishing career, with two big books in four years.
TJ:After getting my MFA in Creative Writing LONG ago, I became a carpenter. I moved around the country, following the work, writing when I could. I spent ten years in Los Angeles, surrounded by other struggling artist carpentry friends, but after my story collection Irish Girlwas published (and promoted by David Sedaris on his 2010 U.S. tour), I landed a one-year visiting writer gig at George Washington University, and this led eventually to a job at the University of Memphis, where I was teaching when Descentcame out. I took a year off from teaching to write The Current...then another...and another.
JL:Where are you writing from these days—and are you teaching as well?
TJ:I came back to my hometown of Iowa City to write The Current, and here I still sit. I haven't taught any classes since I left Memphis, but I remain in touch with many of my students going back to George Washington University, two of whom have just published their first books. Astonishing.
JL:What was the inspiration behind The Current? And what lured you to jump to the Minnesota landscape for this story?
TJ:The setting and much of the backstory of The Current—a woman's unsolved death in small-town Minnesota—dates back to the last short story I wrote before I began Descent. In that story, called "Water," charges are never filed, the truth is never known, and everyone is damaged irrevocably, The End. Seven years later I was sitting in a café in Memphis reading student stories when two young women demanded that I stop reading student stories and begin writing theirs. These were young women in my mind, just to be clear, not actual young women, and they intended to take me back up to Minnesota and bring those damaged characters back to life in a new and longer narrative. Figuring out the connection between these two young women and those older characters was the engine that drove the writing of the novel.
JL:Congratulations on the early rave reviews for The Current! You are writing gripping page-turners. These are literary thrillers that pack a serious punch for your readers—as evidenced by critical acclaim and having a national bestseller right out of the gate. What do you see as the key elements to creating such well-honed suspense novels?
TJ:Thank you! To be honest, I have never set out to write a "thriller" or "suspense" novel. All stories rely on suspense to some degree, and true suspense comes not from the plot but from the reader caring about the characters caught up in that plot. So I begin by immersing myself in the lives of characters I may not know very well at first, but who become like my own family as time goes on. I like to put these people in a high-stakes situations—violence, abduction, loss—and watch to see how they respond. I want to make things as intense as possible, but also as true-feeling as possible, and if I can accomplish both of these things—while writing the best damn sentences I'm capable of writing—then I have written the novel I set out to write.
JL:You’ve written some pretty fierce women as the lead characters in your books. What made you decide to angle on a female perspective as you told these stories?
TJ:Women are the victims of crimes in these books—as they are in so many of the stories we see every day in the news—so they are naturally at the center of the storm. But, as with real victims, one does not want one's characters to be defined by whatever terrible thing happens to them, but by who they were before and who they are after. Especially after. Think 14-yr-old Jayme Closs, making her escape. Talk about fight. Talk about heart. That is the kind of character a writer wants to have at the center of his or her book.
JL:What are some of your favorite things to peruse for inspiration and ideas on a regular basis? Do you consume a lot of fiction or news or….?
TJ:I read a lot, beginning first thing in the morning, which, when I'm in the thick of my own writing, transitions pretty quickly into the day's work. Reading great fiction and non-fiction stories inspires the desire to write, but a lot of my ideas have come to me while working as a carpenter, or on a road trip, or just staring into space...and the idea for The Currentcame to me while reading student stories in a café. What works best for me is not to go looking for inspiration, but to be alert to its first beatings, which can sometimes be very faint.
JL:What are you reading now? And what book do you think everyone should read, in addition to your own?
TJ:Currently reading God's Kingdomby Howard Frank Mosher. I think everyone who loves great writing should read—and then re-read—Open Cityby Teju Cole. The sheer beauty of the writing captivated me for the first reading, but on the second reading the genius of the story's design—an intensely psychological one—opened up to me and blew me away. It's as far from "thriller" and "suspense" as you can get, but I find it riveting.
JL:If you could be a character from any book ever written, who would you want to be?
TJ:As a kid who grew up in a river town, and also 50 miles from the Mississippi, that's easy. All I lack is a raft and a friend to help to freedom.
Meet the author:Tim Johnston speaks about The Currentat 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.