Author Interview: Shelli Johnson
Hi, Shelli. Welcome to my blog. We’re pleased to have you here. Thank you for allowing me to interview you.
Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to us?
Hi Lissette! Thanks so much for having me. My name’s Shelli Johnson & I used to be journalist. I worked in the Sports Department of a major metropolitan newspaper for several years, covering mainly high-school sports. While I like sports ~ I’m a big football fan ~ being a hard-news journalist really wasn’t for me. So I went to graduate school in Chicago and got my Master’s Degree in Fiction Writing. I’ve also been a professional editor (well, still am freelance). What I mainly write now, though, is novels. I’m married, am a mom to two young boys, & just recently moved to South Carolina.
How long have you been writing?
Since I was 5 years old. I’ve always loved writing. The earliest memory I have of it is writing a story in the first grade & having it selected by the teacher to be read to the Kindergarten class. I don’t even remember what it was about. But I do remember thinking that writing was all I wanted to do.
Tell us a little bit about 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.
Here’s an excerpt: http://www.shellijohnson.com/excerpts/small-as-a-mustard-seed
SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED won two awards: a grant from the Weisman Fund & the Grand Prize in the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.
How did you come up with the idea for this story? Was there any research involved in putting it together?
I was writing about the main characters ~ sisters ~ for about 4 months, both of them as adult women. The story wasn’t really going anywhere, and then one morning (about 2 a.m.) one of them showed up as a 10-year-old in a barn, scared out of her mind, her father with a gun to his head & threatening to pull the trigger. That scene ended up being the first chapter of the book. Once I got that idea, the rest of the story just came along with it.
Yes, a lot of research. I knew nothing about schizophrenia or Korea or being a veteran. I didn’t know what it was like physically or mentally to be in any kind of battle at all. So I read a lot of personal stories & interviewed veterans. The story takes place in the 1960’s. I wasn’t even born in the 60?s so I had to interview people who were around back then. I’ve never had a sister so I had to talk to people about that. When I first started, I didn’t have any kids, so I had to talk to moms about parenting.
Let me tell you a cool thing, though, & why I believe the universe is a friendly place. I’d jot notes in my journal like I need someone who knows about schizophrenia and a week or so later, I got introduced to a woman who had lived with an adult schizophrenic & who graciously answered all my questions about how it was to be with him when he was off his medications. Later, I jotted, I need help with the medications, and shortly afterward I met a man who’d been a pharmacist in the 1960’s & who knew all about what drugs were used to treat schizophrenia back then and how severe the side-effects were. That kind of thing happened over and over again while I was writing that book. It made me trust & believe that I’d always get what I need.
Was it difficult in writing about post traumatic stress disorder and the hardships that the family faces after Frank comes home from the war?
Yes, parts of it were a challenge. You’ve heard that old advice: Write what you know. Well, I didn’t have any personal experience in living with a traumatized veteran or being a sister or being a mom at the time. Some of the best advice I ever got was from my grad school historical fiction professor (Mort Castle, a fine writer if you like horror). He said write what you know doesn’t have to do with personal experiences necessarily. It has to do with feelings.
For instance, I’ve never had a sister, so I wrote about the relationship I would’ve liked to have if I’d had one. Even though I’ve never been in a war, I knew how it felt to be overwhelmed & scared. I may have never had someone threaten me the way Frank did his children, but I still have had other experiences where I felt trapped & terrified. I transferred all those feelings into the characters.
Is this the only genre that you write under? Or have you experimented with others – such as Short Stories, Romance, or even Poetry?
I’ve written some short stories and poetry but purely for my own entertainment or to learn something new. None of that, by choice, is published.
What are you working on now?
The book I recently finished will be coming out in 2012. It’s still untitled as of yet. Here’s a brief description: 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.
And you can read an excerpt here: http://www.shellijohnson.com/excerpts/unpublished-work-in-progress
Currently, I’m writing my third novel. It’s about World War II from the point of view of a German soldier. I hope to have it out by 2014.
Who is your favorite author and how has he/she inspired you to write?
Years ago, Stephen King was the biggest influence in pushing me toward being a fiction writer. When I was a kid, my family & I went on vacation up to a cabin in Maine. There was no running water, no electricity ~ “roughing it like the settlers” my dad said. Not great, though, for a 12-year-old girl. Under one of the bunk beds, I found a box full of Stephen King books & I spent those 2 weeks reading his early work, which is absolutely fantastic. I wanted to be able to do what King did ~ make people feel scared, angry, happy, whatever ~ just by telling them a story.
But for being a better writer, I’d have to say John Steinbeck. East of Eden was one of the first books I remember reading where I didn’t just get lost in the story but also looked at the sentence structure, the dialogue, the way he used symbols & imagery to convey a point.
Is it easy for you to find inspiration when sitting down to write your stories?
Actually the inspiration usually comes when I’m doing something completely different: listening to music, tweaking a recipe, going for a run.
When I was writing my novel, SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED, Tim McGraw’s Red Rag Top was playing all the time on the radio and so that song set a kind of tone for the writing in that book. Strange how that happened, but it did.
I tend to keep a little spiral notebook in the kitchen with me to jot down ideas that come up while I’m tinkering with a recipe. That notebook is all stained and dog-eared now but still some of my best ideas to fix a problem in my story came while I was measuring out flour or pouring in vanilla.
I also love running. After a few miles, it clears my head right out so I can think of ideas and hear the characters instead of my own mind chatter. I’ve come up with many a story idea after mile three.
What’s your favorite book?
That’s a hard question, especially if I can only pick one (so I’ll pick 3 ~ lol).
Favorite book that influenced my career: The Long Walk by Richard Bachmann (aka Stephen King). One of the ones I read in that cabin years ago. It made me see the possibility of having a life as a fiction writer. So I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that book.
Favorite book I read this year: hands down, World War Z by Max Brooks. (phenomenal zombie novel)
Favorite book I couldn’t put down: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. (excellent page-turner about a deadly virus)
Do you have any recommendations for books that you think the blog’s readers may enjoy?
Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (actually a novella, best ending ever)
The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey (thriller, takes place in Chicago ~ my fave city)
Clockers by Richard Price (fabulous, gritty book about a drug dealer & a cop)
The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair (a beautifully-written collection of linked stories)
Sword of Shannara series by Terry Brooks (addictive fantasy)
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (probably the best book on writing that I’ve ever read)
When thinking about writing new material, do you take the time to outline your story or do you just go with the flow and see where it takes you?
Go with the flow. 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’s your favorite past-time?
We just moved, so lately it’s been sitting down in a quiet room with a cup of coffee and my iPod. Usually, though, it’s reading a novel. I also dabble in photography. (Another seems to be giving three answers to your one question ~ lol).
Do you have any writing tips or suggestions that you would like to offer the blog’s readers?
Here’s the advice I love to give to other writers:
- Don’t write for somebody else, write for yourself.
- Don’t pick a topic you’re not passionate about.
- Don’t force traits on your characters. Let them be who they are.
- Don’t try to force the story along because you’re in a hurry & need to get done.
- Don’t try to make someone else happy at the expense of yourself.
- Don’t ignore your gut.
- Don’t give up. Really, that’s the easiest thing to do when the years go by & the rejections pile up & you’re not where you want to be.
- Don’t listen to everyone else’s rules. Find what works best for you & do that.
- And the biggest one (so it bears repeating): Don’t give up.
- Finally, my blog’s about following & achieving your dream. Many people have found something to spur them on there: http://www.shellijohnson.com/blog
So there you have it, Everyone, a lovely interview with Shelli Johnson, author of the stirring and quite emotional book, Small As A Mustard Seed. We hope that you’ve enjoyed learning more about her and her writing.
Synopsis: 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.
About The Author:
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Kent State University, Shelli Johnson went to work at a major metropolitan newspaper for several years, the majority of which was spent in the sports department. While there, she won a Hearst National Journalism Award and two departmental Associated Press awards for her reporting. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, where she completed her award-winning novel, Small as a Mustard Seed.
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