Interview: Tim Johnston, author of ‘Descent’ and Iowa City native, reads at Prairie Lights

Tim Johnston reads at Prairie Lights on Jan. 29 -- photo by Dave Groeber
Tim Johnston reads at the Prairie Lights on Jan. 29 at 7 pm — photo by Dave Groeber

Author Tim Johnston visits Prairie Lights on Thursday at 7 p.m. to read from Descent, a novel that has been roundly praised for both it’s thrilling storytelling and literary style. His previous work, the short story collection Irish Girl, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and the title story was recipient of the O. Henry Prize.

Little Village recently spoke with Johnston about about his new novel, his writing process and the wonders a plug from David Sedaris can do for a writer’s career.

Little Village: You grew up in Iowa City. Did growing up in a city with such a literary heritage inspire you to become a writer?

Tim Johnston: In the beginning I don’t think it was a conscience influence. My mother was in the poetry workshop in the late ’60s, but as a youngster, I was actually a drawer. Once I discovered that I loved books and writing, I looked around and realized I was in one of the most significant literary cities in the world.

Your second book, Irish Girl, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and in 2010 was the book David Sedaris touted on tour. What did these moments do in terms of establishing your career?

In my case, I don’t think there has been any single point that’s established my career; there have been stepping-stones. I was thrilled when my first novel, Never So Green, came out. It was published as a YA novel. That was a big moment, to have an actual book out there in the world. A few years later I put together the book of short stories and began sending it out to contests. As it happened, David Sedaris had liked the title story and included it in his collection of favorites, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.

How did that selection affect your trajectory as an artist?

Significantly. The Sedaris endorsements and the awards the book won have led to a surprisingly large turn of events for a book that I had measured expectations for. Just a few days before it went to press Sedaris came back with a great blurb, and later he mentioned it in the New Yorker as one of his favorites of the year, and then he chose it as the book he would recommend on his 2010 U.S. tour. Before that, I’d had the idea to do some book events for Irish Girl, and I’d been in contact with some independent bookstores, but hadn’t gotten much traction. After the Sedaris endorsement, I began contacting book stores where he was scheduled to tour and the response was completely different. The first one said, “Oh yeah, we’d love to host you, we have your books already ordered.” The famous Sedaris Shadow Tour — or Stalker Tour — took shape from there.

Your new novel, Descent, is classified as a literary thriller and centers around a young girl’s disappearance while on family vacation. What was your inspiration for that plotline?

I was doing finish carpentry work on a house that my father and stepmother had built up in the Rockies. I was putting writing aside and taking a breather. It was that time and isolation in the mountains that conspired to drum up the idea of these characters, these fellow Midwesterners, who come up to the Rocky Mountains for a typical American family vacation. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, something must go wrong, or else why write a novel?

Was there a single moment when you knew you finally ‘had’ the story?

For a while, I just tried to ignore that family. I thought if I just started writing what first came to mind it would fizzle out. When the characters became resilient and pestering, I said all right, and I put down my paintbrush, and I began to write. I wouldn’t even admit that I was working on a novel until I had 200 pages. There is no greater feeling than when you are becoming obsessed with a story — when you’re thinking about it at night and you get up and work on it first thing in the morning.

Your characters in Descent are flawed yet relatable people. Do you have a specific strategy for character development?

I believe that my characters ought to be as real as I can make them, and the development of these characters had to do a lot with the process. I decided early on that I was going to go as slowly as I needed to go, that every moment and sentence was going to have my full attention, that I was going to be in the character’s head at that moment and not rush to get to the next plot point. I wanted to have a compelling story of course, but I was more interested in having a believable story. The missing girl story is a sensational-sounding one that could easily be turned into a genre plot, but I was always focused on making real, complex, flawed characters. I was trying to stay in the moment.

What is your writing process today?

I think my process is always changing. There was a book I tried to write after my YA book. My process was to get up every day like I’d been told to do and write no matter what. But after I finished the book and my agent sent it around, it just didn’t go anywhere. When I began working on Descent, I decided I would not work on the book unless I had the entire day to work on it: nothing looming over my head, no ticking clock, I would just be a writer that day. I feel like that is how it’s got to be with me right now. I have to clear away a lot of time and space in order to immerse myself.

And when you aren’t writing?

I like to believe that even when I’m not writing, part of me is still writing. When I’m reading books, I’m thinking about the next book.

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