Timothy Johnson is a cross genre author whose first novel, Carrier, was published in 2014 by Permuted Press. It’s a great example of the potential that cross-pollination between genres can bring to a writing project, and anyone interested in doing the same should definitely check out what he has to say on the subject. Enjoy!
-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?
There isn’t much intrigue in my personal background. I had an average upbringing with loving parents, and I was privileged to live in an environment where I could let my mind wander. When I was in my mid-teens, it was almost a snap decision that I went to my dad and told him I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I’d felt the pull toward the arts for a while, of course, but I remember vividly walking into my father’s garage, the smell of gasoline vapors and grease, and telling him I didn’t want to play baseball anymore. I wanted to play music. He gave me that Clint Eastwood squint and said, “okay.”
I had a guitar a week later, and I practiced as often as I could. I started writing songs, and then I joined a band. I was going to be a rock star.
I didn’t become a rock star. I went to college instead, and while I had aspirations of carrying on my musical career, some part of me knew that was over. On a whim, I took an intro to creative writing class, and I found many of my musical skills carried over. There’s a rhythm to words. There’s a structure to storytelling much like composing a piece of music. And there’s harmony. I started writing poetry because it was a natural transition, and then I started pursuing fiction. When I committed myself to that identity of being a fiction writer, it felt right.
-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and what tools have you found to be most effective?
I want to move readers emotionally, and I want to share ideas. Perhaps more important, I want my readers to arrive at new ideas that never even occurred to me. I want them to see the ideas I missed, and in the hidden meanings of my stories, I hope they find a truth that resonates with them.
The tool that’s perhaps most effective for me is the brake pedal. It’s easy to get your fingers rattling over the keys, but if you let your digits get away from your thoughts, you’ll find you’ve written drivel you don’t care about, and your writing will have no heart or soul. So stopping and focusing on the ideas that are in front of me help me develop them. It’s like bricks and mortar. You have to have a solid foundation before you can start building vertically. You have to make sure that brick is aligned right before you can slap mortar on top of it and place another brick.
-How would you describe your path to publication?
My path to publishing Carrier was a confluence of random events. In other words, I was lucky.
I wrote Carrier over the course of about three years. It was off-and-on, but during that time, I never was doing it with the objective of publishing it. It was all about the legacy of it, simply writing this thing and making it exist. Through a few channels, I had made professional acquaintance with a fairly well-known apocalyptic horror author, and it came up in conversation that I had written a novel. He graciously offered to put me in touch with his contacts at Permuted. Of course, I said, “yeah, that would be great!” So he queried the former Permuted owner, Jacob Kier, on my behalf. Jacob turned me down because he already had another novel that he thought was too similar.
Fast forward a year, and Permuted was acquired by investors who were looking to grow the company aggressively. I queried them, and this time, they wanted my book.
An author friend of mine, Nick DeWolf, described the writing process as analogous to sitting in traffic. I thought that was the best metaphor for writing that I’d ever heard.
Generally speaking, I get to my computer late in the evening. I open up whatever I wrote yesterday, read over it, delete some of it, add to some of it, and when I get to the place I stopped, I just keep going.
-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?
Why? Do you know any?
I’m wrapping up a sci-fi/horror novel, and I have a few short stories in the pipe. The problem is finding the right outlet for them.
-What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out as a writer?
I started out in a fairly supportive literary community. I wish I’d known how rare that was. Over the years, I’ve met some amazing people, but writing, as in the writing process, is an extremely solitary experience.
-My favorite part of Carrier was the long, slow ramp-up of tension prior to the novel’s climax. How do you balance the need to keep a reader’s attention with the desire to set the right tone for the book?
I feel like the most important lesson I ever learned is that I’m not actually in control of this story. My reader is. I’m conveying various bits of thought patterns and sensory data, but the experience is only real on the receiving end where the story might be competing for the reader’s attention with Facebook and the TV that’s on in the background. So I have to trust my reader to follow through and to push on with the pace that I’ve set. I think that, as a writer, once you let go of the illusion that you have any control over the reader’s experience, you unchain yourself.
In many ways, I know Carrier was ill-advised for a first novel or even for a novel to achieve mainstream success. It violates a lot of formulas, but that’s what I wanted.
I wanted to showcase that there could be a measure of static in the environmental noise that could appeal to readers and pull them through. I wanted to show them images through a veil and invite them to lift it. I wanted apprehension and tension to be the bulk of the story, and I hoped that when readers arrived at the station where the train would take them away, they’d be ready for that release, and it would be satisfying.
-Which genre do you feel more comfortable writing in; Horror or Science Fiction? How do you incorporate the qualities of one into the other?
I describe myself as a sci-fi transplant. I’m a horror writer who keeps getting sci-fi ideas. But I really see the genres as having a harmony with each other. Sci-fi is setting and world building and technology. Horror is tension and fear and atmosphere. They marry each other in ideas, and those ideas are the heart of my stories.
-What do you feel is necessary for a solid multi-genre novel?
Stories are about the characters first. Without interesting characters who drive the story, there isn’t enough for readers to fall in love with. Heart and soul are necessities for a solid multi-genre novel.
Beyond that, everything has to be justifiable. You’re telling a story on a spaceship in the future. Okay, why not present day on an island? What about the spaceship is meaningful? Similarly, you have zombies in your story. Why not vampires or werewolves? What about your monster choice strikes the chord you are looking for?
I think bridging genres is as much about understanding what you’re trying to accomplish as it is about passion for the subject matter. An allure to the fantastic or the frightful will only get you so far. When you suck people in, you have to release them as a different person.
But I guess that’s the same for any genre. It’s just what makes a good story.
And that’s it. Thanks again to Tim for taking the time to do the interview. Here are some links: