Today I had the pleasure of interviewing New York Times Bestselling Author Joan Johnston.
Tell me about yourself Joan.
Writing has made my life fulfilling and happy. Having said that, it’s one of the most grueling, demanding, and lonely jobs in the world. I’ve written 54 novels and novellas and have more than 10 million copies of my books in print in 19 languages and 25 countries. I’m a top 10 New York Times (highest #5) and USA TODAY (highest #8) bestselling author. I’ve worked with five top agents (Irene Goodman, Richard Curtis, Denise Marcil, Al Zuckerman and Robert Gottlieb) and four major publishers (Simon & Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins and Harlequin) over a 27-year career. I currently write for Random House (Penguin Random once their merger is complete).
When did you know you wanted to become an author?
I was working as an attorney in the largest firm in Virginia and had a six-month-old and a six-year-old, trying to be Superwoman and failing miserably. To escape from the stress, I started reading romance novels, where the woman faces great adversity and triumphs in the end.
After reading about 400 books a year for a couple of years, I read a not-so-good romance novel and thought, “I can write a book better than that.” (It’s a good thing every book isn’t written as well as Prince of Tides or none of us would ever think we could write a novel).
I was closing a $65,000,000 City of Virginia Beach bond deal in New York the same weekend as the 2nd Annual Romantic Times Conference. I went to the conference and met a few of my favorite authors and, lo and behold, “They had two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth—just like me!” The fact that those authors turned out to be “normal people” gave me the courage to start writing.
That summer I moved from Virginia to Florida to work for a different law firm and began writing my first book. I had to retake the bar exam, because Florida doesn’t have reciprocity. I passed the bar and sold the book.
Is there a central theme to your books?
My books revolve around abandoned and neglected children—whether they’re still children or grownups. I asked my mom why I’d be writing that theme, because my parents remained married until my father’s death when he was in his late sixties. She told me a story I’d never heard.
When I was 4 years old, my Air Force father left my mother and me and my two older sisters behind in Arkansas with my grandparents while he went to the Philippines. I went to bed every night with an 8x10 photograph of my father and cried myself to sleep until the picture was in tatters. I didn’t see my father again for a year. Hence, I was “abandoned” at an early age.
It was startling to realize how an unremembered part of my life affected my choice of writing theme.
What books have inspired you the most in your life?
Okay, you aren’t going to get the classics here. I mostly read Walter Farley horse books and Jim Kjelgaard dog books growing up. We lived in Morocco, where there wasn’t any TV, so those were the books I chose. I have a background in theatre, so I understand a great deal about character, plot, theme, and conflict from reading, acting in, and directing plays.
I love Mary Balogh’s Regency novels. Her theme is the power of love to mend families. Her stories are always powerful and poignant. Since I’ve become a New York Times bestselling romance author, I’ve mostly stopped reading romance. If the book is great, it’s too intimidating (“I’ll never write as well as that!) and if it’s terrible, why waste my time?
Instead, I read a lot of suspense, including Lee Child, Robert Crais, Brad Meltzer, and Stephen Hunter (love his Bob Lee Swagger novels). These books give me insight into the male point of view, something I need because I grew up in a family of six girls with one younger brother. I especially like books with a continuing story (which I also write), so I enjoy reading and re-reading W.E.B. Griffin’s World War II and police procedural sagas.
What’s a typical day in your writing routine like?
I write in the morning, because that’s when I’m most productive. I write directly on the computer at home (I’m still using Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS, which requires a Windows 98 computer to translate the DOS into a document that can be read by most computers). I’ll write until I reach a spot where I don’t have more to say, then go away for a while, think about where I want to go, then come back and write some more.
I don’t commit to a certain number of pages. I’ve discovered that it’s counterproductive for me to “just keep writing.” It’s too hard to cut copy after the fact. If you’re just going to cut it later anyway, my philosophy is: Why sit there writing junk? Come back when you have something worthwhile to put down on paper. I edit a chapter until it’s as good as I can get it, then move on to the next chapter.
What is it that you do to relax?
I play tennis and hike in the mountains. Tennis works up a good sweat, and hiking in the forest feeds my soul. I also go to the movies every Friday afternoon, “toprove I don’t have a real job.” If I had a “real job” I’d be at work Friday afternoons. Of course, folks don’t see me writing till midnight to make up for the fact I went to the movies on Friday afternoon.
Movies are a good source of learning for writers. Plots, characters, conflict—you can learn everything there is to know about writing a good book. I’ve seen The Impossible four times, because I wanted to figure out how that movie (about a family of five’s experience in the tsunami that killed 200,000) was able to make me cry. Is it the shared tragedy? Is it the reuniting of separated families? The latter theme is especially important to me, because my current Mail-Order Bride series, Texas Bride, Wyoming Bride, Montana Bride and Blackthorne’s Bride involves a separated family. I want to be sure to “go for the choke” when they’re all reunited in the final book.
Do you use an outline or do you write organically?
I write a 20-25 page outline for a 400 page book (which the publisher pays me to write), then I never look at it again. Okay, so I might peek at it if I get stuck and don’t know where to go. But essentially, I know where the story is going to end up before I start the book. If you think about it, however, 20 pages doesn’t tell you much except basic character, basic conflict, and resolution. Everything else has to come out of your head during the writing process, so you have plenty of places to go.
Having said that, because I write for a living, and because it’s important to finish a book in a prescribed period of time (I’m writing about two 400-page books a year), I never let my characters head off on a tangent. I don’t have the luxury of throwing away 50 pages when I figure out “This doesn’t work!”
Have you ever had writer’s block and what did you do to push past it?
Oh my God, yes. It was caused by an incident with a friend who told me, “Your life is out of balance. You’re spending too much time writing [Granted, I’d been writing 5 books a year for 5 years in order to pay my rent and feed my kids]. That’s all you ever do! That’s all you ever talk about. Get a life!”
I took what she said so much to heart that I became nauseous whenever I got near a computer. It took almost a year of work with a life coach before I was writing productively again.
Is there a certain time of day when you are most creative?
See 5 above.
How many drafts do you usually write of a manuscript and what is your editing process like?
I’m endlessly editing while I’m writing. Once I’m done, I’ll read through the manuscript and track the external plot (problems the hero and heroine have that have nothing to do with the romance) and the internal plot (relationship/romance problems the hero and heroine have) to make sure each step of both plots are inextricably intertwined and build to a climax/dark moment. I also make sure I have a denouement.
The book is “clean” when I submit it. That is, I have no misspelled words, no typographical errors, no problem with eyes turning from brown to blue.
If the book doesn’t make me feel something, it isn’t going to make the reader feel anything. I make sure I’ve focused on setting. I make sure I’ve employed the five senses. I make sure the conflict is never resolved until the very end. I make sure every chapter starts and ends with a hook—so the book is “unputdownable.”
What do you think of the recent changes in the publishing world?
The most difficult change for new writers is the fact that there are only a very few large publishing houses left. This means you have fewer choice of where to submit your work. E-books are great, but Amazon’s stranglehold on the publishing industry (forcing big publishers to conglomerate to survive) doesn’t bode well for the future. I fear that once Amazon has the monopoly they’re on their way to achieving, authors will find themselves earning a pittance, instead of the generous amounts Amazon is offering now in order to lure authors away from major publishing houses.
Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favorite, and if so why?
Okay, which of my 54 children do I love best? Not a fair question! I write books in a series, so they’re essentially all family sagas. Captive is a favorite because it was my first Regency novel. It’s followed by After the Kiss, The Bodyguard and The Bridegroom. The Cowboy, The Texan and The Loner are favorites because they were the first of my Bitter Creek series to become New York Times bestsellers. I love the current Mail-Order Bride series (see titles above), because it’s a prequel to my Bitter Creek series and a sequel to my Sisters of the Lone Star series, Frontier Woman, Comanche Woman and Texas Woman. And I can’t forget my Hawk’s Way series, where The Virgin Groom, The Substitute Groom and Sisters Found are among my favorites.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing Montana Bride, third in the historical Mail-Order Bride series. I have one more book in the series to write, Blackthorne’s Bride before all the sisters who were separated in the beginning of the series are brought back together.
I’m also excited to work on another Hawk’s Way book, which I’ve tentatively titled Susannah. I just need to find the time to write it!
And finally, I have the Benedict Brother series. The Benedicts are related to the Blackthornes, who are featured in most of my series novels. I’ve been trying to finish Unforgettable and hope to get to it sometime this year.
Where can we buy your books?
Readers can buy my novels wherever books are sold in stores or on-line. You can reach me directly at www.joanjohnston.com or find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/joanjohnstonauthor. I look forward to hearing from you!
Joan Johnston's Website
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Joan Johnston's Website
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