Friday, February 19, 2016

Author Interview: Julie Christine Johnson, Author of "In Another Life"

I am very happy to welcome Julie Christine Johnson here to A Bookish Affair today! Julie is the author of "In Another Life," which I reviewed earlier in the week here.

1. What inspired you to write "In Another Life?"

I’ve lived in and traveled throughout France, so it seems natural that my first novel would come from this place that is my heart’s second home. In the spring of 2011, my husband and I spent a few weeks in Languedoc, and we fell under the spell of its haunting beauty and history. We passed our days clambering around medieval ruins and our evenings reading up on local history while sharing a bottle of gorgeous Languedoc wine. I had no idea at the time that I was researching a novel, but I left with a mental image I couldn’t shake: a woman standing on a cliff’s edge; below her stretches a valley laced with vineyards and studded with wind towers. Behind her, a man steps out from the ruins of a Cathar citadel. I was aching to find out who they were. Then I read about the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation and I knew I had my way in to the story. 

1. Who is your favorite character in the book?

It seems obvious to say Lia, the story’s protagonist, but I adore her. Yet I feel like I’m still getting to know Lia. By the novel’s end she’s just starting to come into her own, to realize her own emotional strength. I’m a few years older than Lia: 46 to her late 30s, but I see in her the same sense of purpose, a reinvigoration of character and self and determination that arrives with turning 40. You sort of look around and say, “Right. This is who I am at this moment. I am beautiful, strong, I have so much yet to give, to discover. Let’s do this. Let’s live.”  I’m not done with Lia, that’s for sure. 

2. I imagine you did a lot of research for this book. What is the most interesting or strangest thing you found during your research?

I mentioned above using the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation, which allowed me to move from historical fiction into fantasy. But what I loved playing with was an even deeper dive into the paranormal: the Cathars also believed in transmigration of human souls into non-human animals. The moment I read this, I imagined birds of prey soaring above the mountains and valleys of Languedoc, great raptors battling the good and evil within their own souls, souls that had at one time been human. And then I learned that the dove had become a symbol of the Cathar people, a tender and tragic reminder of all those souls lost to fire, torture, starvation and disease, eradicated by evil, yet rising above, pure and peaceful. Everything clicked into place: Paloma as the dove, Raoul as the eagle, Lucas at the falcon. In earlier drafts I emphasized the transmigration element to a much greater extent, but I gradually toned it down to make human-bird soul exchange more of a thread in the tapestry of the story, weaving in and out, catching the light or disappearing into the shadows. 

3. This is your first novel! Do you have any “lessons learned” for aspiring authors?

Mine is a bit of a faerie tale. But it’s proof that not every writer has a long and terrible road ahead. I began writing fiction in 2011, after taking a series of writing workshops in Seattle. Buoyed by early success in having short stories published, I went to a writers’ conference in June 2012 and it was there I realized I could, I must, try to write the story that was nattering around my brain. Two weeks later I wrote the first words of a novel that became In Another Life. 

After two years of writing and revising, I ended September 2014 with a draft of In Another Life that I felt was ready to query. I’d researched literary agents, compiled a query spreadsheet, and drafted and redrafted my query letter. Before I sent out any letters, however, I decided to give in-person pitching a go. I attended a writers’ conference in October and there I met the two women who would, a few weeks later, become my agent (Shannon Hassan of Marsal Lyon Literary, and the editor of In Another Life, (Anna Michels, Sourcebooks).

What I learned along the way is that developing a writing practice, and for me that means writing every single day, was critical to my success—the success of completing a first draft. I had to plan for my writing time, schedule it, guard it jealously. A writer must write. A writer must read. And a writer must send her work into the world, hear “No” over and over again, pick herself up each time, rinse and repeat. Although my first novel was quickly signed and set on the road to publication, I have stacks of rejections for other work. Those Nos are badges of honor because each one represents belief in myself, and if feedback is offered, they are learning experiences that make me a better writer. 

Be prepared for rejection, but do not see it as failure. That agent, publisher, journal wasn’t a good fit for your work or your work isn’t quite ready. Revise if necessary and keep going.

It takes a village to publish a book. No matter which path to publishing you take, traditional or independent, you cannot do it alone. Find mentors—writers at different stages of their careers—and listen, watch, learn. Ask questions, be humble, and don’t wait—reach out now. Writers’ blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter chats are all great resources for connecting with writers and finding your tribe. Reach out in both directions—up and back. Always be willing to help someone right behind you. 

And always, always be working on your next story. Don’t sit hitting refresh on your e-mail when you begin sending out queries or your novel is on submission with editors. The process can take months, a couple of years, even. Always be writing the next book. The first thing my now-agent asked me after reading and expressing enthusiasm for In Another Life was, “What else do you have?” I sent her a draft of my second novel and I had an offer of representation by the end of the week.  

4. If you could choose any three historical figures, or fictional characters, to bring with you to a deserted island, who would you bring and why?

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died in 1204, just four years before the start of In Another Life’s medieval story line. I would love to watch her, to pick her brain, to see how a strong, fierce woman conducted herself in that era. She lived long, loved hard, survived war, imprisonment, several husbands, and outlived nearly all of her children. What did she see when she looked in the mirror? 

Harriet Welsch, the heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel Harriet the Spy. I read Harriet the Spy when I was six years old and decided then and there I would become a writer. It took me another thirty-five years to get started, but I made it! Harriet would be in her 60s now. Before we left for that deserted island, I’d have Harriet show me her New York. Then we’d head off to the island, where there would be an endless supply of tomato sandwiches and egg creams and Dostoevsky. 

Aragorn. Because, deserted island. And, Aragorn. A girl can dream!

Meg, thank you for hosting me on A Bookish Affair, and thanks to your readers for their wonderful support of all things literary. It’s been an honor and a joy to be here!


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