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Interview with Joan Johnston

Note: Joan Johnston is one of the authors who will be appearing at Love Is Murder, Feb. 4-6, 2011, in Chicago.

1. Joan, you are an incredibly prolific writer as well as a successful one. Tell us about your habits as an author. Can you share any tips for staying focused and productive? You’ve said you write one book at a time. Do you work on other ideas, but only write one at a time? It seems like you must have a lot in the hopper, as well as what you are working on.

I’m currently working on a five-book series called the Benedict Brothers for Mira. The first book of the series, Invincible, will be in stores October 26. The next book in the series, Unforgettable is due October 1. I also just signed a three-book contract with Ballantine Bantam Dell to write a series of historical westerns call the Mail Order Brides. I’ve been thinking about the western historicals while I work on this contemporary series with a suspense element, but I only write one book at a time. I’m always writing in my head.

I sold my house and moved in August, so staying focused on writing has been a challenge. But I love writing books in a series and want to be sure my novels (both contemporary and historical) are the best they can be. So the secret to being focused and productive is . . . keeping the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Being prolific (I’m on a three-book-a-year schedule right now) really is about putting in the time to do the work.

2. You describe your latest books as “romantic suspense.” Could you define that term? How are these books different from your earlier romances?

In a romantic suspense, as opposed to a romance, the suspense is more than just a device to keep the characters together in the same place. I write suspense rather than mystery because I’m not good at keeping secrets. Usually the reader knows who the villain is in my books. The literary question is: Can the hero and heroine, through their combined efforts (that’s the romance part), keep the villain from prevailing?

3. Your fans clamored for you to continue the saga of the Bitter Creek characters. The cast is staggering. How do you keep all that straight? Please share any suggestions for plotting and character development. How do you keep all the names straight?

Characters become real people when you write about them, so they’re easy to tell apart. But the truth is, I do make mistakes. Readers are quick to point them out.

One of my favorite reader “catches” was the fact that in The Cowboy (first book in the Bitter Creek series) Trace and Callie had a three year age difference, even though Ren was supposedly pregnant with Callie at the same time as Eve was pregnant with Trace. That led to some serious finagling on my part–and a fabulous storyline that resulted in a lot of powerful scenes in later books in the Bitter Creek series (especially The Texan and The Loner).

4. You are obviously good at branding yourself. How did you nail down your brand? What has helped you clarify who you are? How does it help you promote your books?

I’ve written a lot of the same kinds of books–powerful family dramas–even though they may be historical, contemporary or contain suspense elements. The logo “Escape with Joan” came about when I was looking for a specific brand that I could use to describe the experience I wanted readers to have with my books. I began reading to escape from the stresses in my life, and in this challenging world we live in, that’s the escape into adventure and romance that I hope to provide for my readers.
In purely practical terms, it also helps to use the same size and font for your name on the cover, and to have some continuity in the look of your covers. I’ve been lucky to have long-standing relationships with publishers (Ballantine Bantam Dell, Harlequin, Pocket Books and Avon) who’ve maintained a Joan Johnston “look.”

5. Your publication story is unusual. You went straight to two editors and asked to meet them in New York. Do you think that could happen today? And you are very clear about reading the genre and taking classes before trying your hand at a book. What advice would you give unpublished authors based on your journey?

I still think it’s possible to meet an editor at a conference, make a connection and then submit your work directly to that editor without going through an agent. However, for this route to work, you need to have written a book that’s publishable without a lot of editing. In other words, the onus is on the writer to know the genre (hence, the rigorous reading I recommend) and have some idea where his or her work fits into the needs of the publishing house to which he or she is submitting.

Which means, if you want to write for a particular house, you need to be reading everything that house is publishing in the genre in which you want to write, so you’ll know what they’re currently buying. Remember, whatever is being published was bought at least a year ago. This doesn’t mean you have to write exactly what’s being published; it does mean you have to be in the same ball park. Right now, publishers aren’t taking risks. I always remind myself I’m not writing the great American literary novel, I’m writing commerical fiction, which means that it needs to appeal to a broad audience, so the publisher can sell a lot of copies (which is why they’re in business).

A note about choosing a genre in which to write: Remember that publishers are going to want another book in the same genre as the first one. They’ve spent a lot of money (hopefully) getting your book out to an audience, and now that you’ve established an audience, they want another book along similar lines. So don’t write a vampire novel (popular right now) unless you love writing vampire novels. Having said that, I’ve made a point of watching which way the market is trending and changing what I’m writing to fit the market. So I started in historicals, changed to contemporaries and will be writing historicals again (along with contemporaries). The market moves. You can’t stand still.

6. I love your line “go for the choke.” Please explain what that means. Your characters do, indeed, tug at the heartstrings. Please share how you accomplish that.

If a scene doesn’t bring me to tears, it isn’t going to do the same for readers. I’m looking for ways to provoke powerful emotions, which is what I call “going for the choke.” It’s always amazing to me that just changing one word–or removing or adding a single line–can “ruin” the choke. So be careful when you write. If you write a great scene and have “found” the choke, don’t lose it by editing it out.

Okay, so how do I do it? I’m not quite sure. The “choke” arises out of the scene, the characters and the emotions they evoke. It’s a sort of “payoff” the reader has been waiting for–which suggests there are also elements of conflict and pacing. It’s sort of like mental instability. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

7. Your characters get into some highly unusual situations, but you manage to make the reader BELIEVE these situations could happen. You are a whiz at making the reader suspend his/her disbelief. How do you do your magic?

I wish I knew. I’d write a “how-to” book and make a fortune. The magic probably comes fro
m me believing it, and writing that belief into the book.

8. You read a lot of books by men, but you write for a general audience, and I assume that your fan base is more female than male. What do you, as a reader and author, get from male authors that you don’t get from women?

I love books about war; I love cowboys; I love strong men who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Women aren’t (usually) allowed to write about war, presumably because we don’t have credibility on the subject, and more men than women are interested in the subject and men prefer to read a book about war written by men. I’d love to write a book about war (especially WWII). It would be an interesting challenge to try and get it published with my name on it.

I grew up in a family of six sisters and one (much younger) brother and my military father was absent most of the time. Reading books written by men gives me a great deal of insight into how men think and how they attack an issue (although not so much about how they feel). One of the reasons I enjoy W.E.B. Griffin’s books so much is that not only does he write about war, but he writes about soldier’s feelings about the war and about the women in their lives.

A former attorney, Joan Johnston is the best-selling, award-winning author of 50 novels. Invincible will be available in stores on October 26, 2010. Visit her at

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