Tim Johnston Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tim Johnston
Photo: Dave Boerger

Tim Johnston

An interview with Tim Johnston

Tim Johnston discussed his first adult novel, Descent - the inspiration behind the book, and how he came to write a thriller.

Descent is essentially a literary page-turner with a plot ripped from the headlines—a teenage girl mysteriously disappears while out on a run—but the telling of the story is so unlike any other thriller. You go into remarkable depth about how this sudden disappearance affects every family member, showing each character's own secrets and tribulations. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for your novel?

This story, and these characters, snuck up on me as I was doing the finish work on a house way up in the Rocky Mountains. I was all alone up there for months, happy just being a carpenter for a while—that is to say, not actively trying to write—when this family of four, the Courtlands, became so prevalent, so insistent in my head that one day I had to drop what I was doing—painting a bathroom, as it happens—and begin writing.

The inspiration was a combination of the solitude, the carpentry, the astounding mountains themselves, and the books I was reading at the time, which were infused with an American West harshness, vastness, and lyricism that thrilled me. This was suddenly the kind of novel I wanted to write—although it would be a long time before I would admit to anyone, least of all myself, that I was writing a novel.

The ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter, and the storytelling technique may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but in fact they were two sides of the same coin of creativity: as a literary writer, I wanted to write as well and gracefully as I could, sentence by sentence, about my characters. But I also wanted the novel to be more than literary; I wanted it to be the kind of story I loved to read before I knew the world made a distinction between a great story and great writing. I wanted it to be both.

While Descent is a work of literary psychological realism, it is also a heart-racing, suspenseful read. Did you set out to write a thriller?

I did not. All my training as a writer is in literary fiction; likewise my ambitions. When I began to write Descent I had in mind to write the best sentences and paragraphs I was capable of writing, and to write, as Hemingway decrees, truly—even if the story seemed ripped from the day's headlines. No: because it seemed ripped from the day's headlines. For, in fact, it was the familiarity of such news that fascinated me and made me love these characters: the idea that no matter how many times we see such stories in the news, still none of us ever believes such things can happen to us, to our loved ones, until it does—and when it does, there is nothing familiar nor sensationalistic about it; it must be lived for the first time, day by day, hour by hour. I wanted to write that story—the familiar but also a one-of-a-kind story of loss and survival—as truly and artfully as I could.

At the same time, I wanted to satisfy that young reader in me who used to tear through novels for the sheer plotful excitement of them. I wanted to write a book that would be at once lovely to read, sentence by sentence, but also entertaining in the most primal sense—a book where the reader's urge to slow down and savor is continually at odds with her desire to rush ahead and find out.

The Rocky Mountains serve as the majestic setting for your novel; the setting is so important that it essentially serves as a primary character. While grand and breathtakingly beautiful, the Rockies also take on a sinister context. Why did you choose this part of the country for your setting?

I don't believe I chose the Rockies as a setting any more than I chose my characters or their story: it all arrived together in a package deal. And it all arrived because of my circumstances at the time of working on that house up in those mountains. But, as is generally the case with fiction writing, the significance of the setting evolved along with the novel's characters, themes, and structure. The Courtlands, I now understand, are the descendants of men and women who looked at the mountains beyond the plains and saw more territory to be seized as their own. Good old-fashioned Manifest Destiny. As modern recreational Americans, my characters were attracted to the grandeur and beauty and mythic wildness of the mountains; they came for what passes for adventure in our times, and could not have known that the vast majority of the Rockies are still as wild and dangerous as they've ever been.

The ending of the book is really unexpected and heartbreaking. Did you know how the story would wrap up from the very start or was it also a surprise for you?

Every semester I tell my students (parroting much more credible writers and teachers than myself), "If you are never surprised by where your story is going, chances are your readers won't be either." Stories that reach their intended endings, never quite soar. In the case of Descent, it was even worse: having the ending in mind all but killed off the novel itself—though I did not understand this at the time. At the time, I had reached the point in the story where I could not write another sentence without committing to the projected ending, and I just could not do that. And then, suddenly—almost a year later—it came to me that I could not live with that ending. And when I understood that, a new ending altogether took shape, and once I committed to that ending, the pages began piling up again. (Note: For the careful and curious reader, that original and projected ending is actually and secretly IN the finished novel, disguised as just another scene along the way toward the ending.)

David Sedaris selected your short story collection, Irish Girl, as one of his favorite books of 2009, and included your title story in the short story anthology he compiled and edited, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. You're the only author in the collection who is relatively "unknown." How did Sedaris find out about your work? And what was it like for your career when he recommended Irish Girl to audiences during his 2010 book tour?

"Irish Girl" the short story was first published in the beautiful but now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine. The story went on to win a 2003 O. Henry Prize, and a year after that I was alerted by my agent that David Sedaris had chosen the story for his anthology of favorites—a decision which placed my name in the company of many of my story-writing heroes: Richard Yates, Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro ... a surreal development I still haven't come to terms with. When my manuscript of stories won the 2008 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, a prize that included publication, I thought we might entice Mr. Sedaris's interest—or at least jog his memory—by naming the collection after the story he'd chosen for his anthology. This incredibly generous man not only provided a wonderful endorsement for the jacket, but he went on to hold the book up before one packed auditorium after another on his 2010 book tour, and my little volume of stories got some of the most head-spinning publicity available short of an Oprah sticker or a glowing New York Times review. I can't even guess how many people bought and read Irish Girl because of him—to say nothing of the several New York editors who became interested in seeing my novel when it was ready, one of them because Sedaris called him up directly and told him to seek out my agent. Neither do I underestimate the significance of The Sedaris Factor when it came to being taken seriously by the two universities which have hired me since. I wrote the stories but Sedaris gave them a fighting chance in a culture that little notices slender collections by unknown writers. Understating it to an embarrassing degree, my debt and gratitude to the man is enormous.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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