Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Interview with Karen E. M. Johnston

Karen E. M. Johnston is a British author residing in Chantilly, Virginia where she spends her days writing and her evenings are spent with her British husband and three American sons… who haven't the slightest trace of a British accent.

What was your path towards publication like?
I guess if you’re asking how I became a writer of fiction, I would have to say it was when I went into advertising after college. Writing copy to sell a product is the best form of fiction, right?

To be serious, after a career in advertising, my husband and I moved to America and had three kids. When my British husband and I moved to the United States from the UK to the green pastures of New Jersey (south Jersey—all peach orchards and corn) I made a decision to stay home to take care of the boys.

But as much as I loved my offspring, I knew I would go insane if I didn’t do something else, so I signed up for an online course. I had a choice of art history or writing articles for magazines. I chose the latter and never looked back.

But it was a path paved with many, many rejection slips.

Fortunately, the letters starting with Dear Author became fewer and fewer, and I started to receive “great” rejections letters. Then I got a few articles published.

One online magazine mistook me for a man, Mr. Johnston, and because I was afraid that they might rescind their offer to publish my online article (which happened to be about English Pubs) I did not correct their mistake and I went on to sell a number of articles to them as Mr. Johnston. Shh.

It was about this time that I realized I was being taken seriously as a “writer”. People, other than family and friends, were reading my words and saying nice things about my writing. When asked what I did, I no longer whispered the words, I’m a writer.

With the help and input from my three boys, and lots of time spent reading to them at bedtime, I came up with my own stories.

Living very close to Manassas and a Civil War battleground, I wrote my first children’s novel—The Witness Tree and the Shadow of the Noose: Mystery, Lies, and Spies in Manassas (a humorous Civil War ghost mystery). This came out in 2009. Then I wrote my second book, Big Boys Don't Spy, selling both books without an agent, I have now have signed with a wonderful agent at Curtis Brown to represent my Young Adult novel.

What is your biggest obstacle when it comes to pitching yourself as an author and what steps have you taken to overcome that obstacle?
As a storyteller, put me on a desert island with my laptop and my characters and I’m in heaven. Put me in front of a crowd of real people, and my legs feel like overcooked spaghetti and I can feel my blood coursing through my veins.

How do you balance your life as an entrepreneur with your duties as a parent or spouse?
I have three teenage boys and a husband who works very long hours so I could fill every hour as my role as wife and mother, but I love my writing; my keyboard is like another appendage, and my characters are my other family, and they need my time, too.

That's why I treat my writing just like a “proper” job.

Once the boys have left for school and my husband has gone to the office, I sit down and try and write for five hours every day. I ignore the chores. I ignore email and the telephone, and I simply write.

The thing with a novel is that it’s long. It takes time to write—a long time, and I take about nine months per novel so it’s too easy to say to yourself, I’ll write tomorrow.

The way I work is to set myself goals. One thousand words then I get a coffee (or a piece of chocolate). One chapter and I get to call my friend for a chat.

I also try not to write in the evenings. That’s family time—even though my fictitious family calls me day and night, they have to wait their turn.

What is your best advice for getting past writer's block?
To be honest, I don’t think it’s so much writer’s block as getting stuck in a story. And for me, that usually comes down to the fact that I do not fully understand my characters and their goals and motivations. Until you really know that, there’s no way you can write a convincing plot.

When I find that the words are just not coming, I tiptoe through one of my how-to books; a favorite being Blake Synder’s SAVE THE CAT.

What was the best writing-related advice you ever received?
The best advice I was ever given was "write what you love to read and don’t chase a market".

Writing a novel is a huge investment in time, so you need to keep loving your novel, even when you’re in the middle of the creating process and the novel is driving you crazy. And readers are loyal and canny. They’ll know if your heart is in your book (and so will the editors who you’re hoping will buy the book).

If you don’t like vampires, don’t write about them. Write from the heart.

What do you feel is the single most detrimental thing an entrepreneur could do to destroy his/her career?
Giving up believing in yourself and giving up your feeling of self worth (I guess that’s two things).

At a recent writing conference, I heard that many writers give up just as they are on the cusp of being published. They are that close, but don’t realize it. We tell our children all the time to never stop believing in themselves, that they can do anything they put their mind to. Well, guess what. So can we.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
Big Boys Don't Spy (Kitsune Books) is a humorous mystery about a sixth grade boy obsessed with spying. It has recently been nominated as a 2011 Finalist for the Florida Publishers Association Awards in the Children's Fiction category (winners to be notified in November 2011).

Remember the injustice of being eleven, when five-year-old monsters were considered cute, no one cared about your opinion, and teenagers, like aliens from another planet, scared the pants off you? Welcome to Will Wand’s world.

Set in the Washington DC suburbs, with the CIA Headquarters around the corner, Will Wand has his first assignment--to save the world, or at least to uncover the mole in his mother’s advertising company. Will strongly suspects his bossy, annoying cousin Penelope, visiting from the UK, is a double agent, and when he finds her diary written in code, he knows he’s onto something, but if I tell you anymore, I’ll have to kill you.

Tim Roland, author of The Comic Guy series. Scholastic Inc said, “This kid-sized spy tale takes the reader on a secret, but entertaining mission full of clever codes, surprises and fun.”

How did you come up with the idea for your book?
The ideas for most of my stories come from all sorts of place: life, my children, and sometimes a germ of an idea that has a party in my brain and, if I’m lucky, gives me an invite.

For this book, I must give total credit to my eldest son, Thomas. He was always a huge James Bond fan, and together we worked out the plot and came up with all the fun spy stuff that my character Will uses and the spy capers that Will embarks upon.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
Coming up with the chapter titles. I wanted to do something interesting that played on the James Bond theme, so I ended up taking the James Bond movie titles and playing with them: Live and Let Spy, The Park is not Enough.

Did you have to do any special research for your book?
I have to do a fair amount of research for my Civil War mysteries but not so much for BIG BOYS DON’T SPY. That said, I did take my boys to the International Spy Museum in DC, which they loved, and I can highly recommend to anyone planning a trip with kids to DC.

If you could choose just one thing for your book to accomplish, what would it be?
If I could encourage a child, who wouldn’t usually choose to pick up a book, to choose my book over screen time, I would be very, very happy.

What’s ahead for your writing?
My third middle grade novel, THE PHANTOM ARMY, another humorous Civil War Ghost mystery (My first humorous Civil War Ghost Mystery—THE WITNESS TREE AND THE SHADOW OF THE NOOSE was published in 2009) is due out December 2012.

I just started a young adult novel about a teenage girl who finds out her crush has a short list for invites to the upcoming prom and she's fourth on the list. Not a happy chappy.

I’m at the early stages of the novel, my favorite part, when I start to get to know the teenagers I’m about to spend the next nine months with. I love the drama, the passion, the raw excitement, the hope, the utter despair and the incredible depth of emotion my characters share with me. Give me a teenager any day.

What encouragement can you give writers who face rejection?
It’s so SUBJECTIVE. Like art and wine tasting. What works for one person may not work for another. Trust your instinct. Believe in yourself, and work hard.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write. Don’t give up. Perhaps bend a few rules. And write every day. Nothing new there, I know, but this is one of the few professions where everyone starts off in the same place. Every single writer is unpublished first. So write!

The most surprising thing I discovered after I received “the call” and realized that I was about to be a published author was that nothing actually changed. I was a writer before I was published and I’m still a writer.

Learn more about KEM Johnston at www.kemjohnston.com

Order Big Boys Don't Spy from Amazon.com

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Do not reprint this post without permission. © Alyice Edrich

This post was sponsored by The Dabbling Mum.

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