Hanging Out With Author: Kevin Johns
Kevin Johns is a pretty diverse guy: government employee, hockey player, musician, husband, father…
His debut novel, The Page Turners, was released in December. It’s about three high school friends who discover a book of spells and accidentally unleash dark magic on their town.
Adding to the tension in the book are complex issues affecting the trio behind the scenes: family separation, alcoholism, and tragic loss. Throw in hormones and, well, things can get a little crazy.
I enjoyed The Page Turners and I’m not usually a YA fan. The truest test, however, came when I gave it to my almost-13-year-old daughter. She gave it two big thumbs up, though we agreed that, due to the nature of some material, we’d rate it PG-13.
I had the privilege of interviewing the author recently, so without further ado, let’s get to it (questions in bold)…
Kevin, if you don’t mind, we’ll start by painting a picture of Kevin Johns, the person and writer, then move into a few of the heavier questions.
What kinds of books do you read? Favorite genre?
I’m a bit all over the place.
With fiction, I tend to stick to the classics. I’m a fan of modernist writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (They’re just absolute masters of the form.) At the same time, I’m a big reader of graphic novels and superhero comic books. So on any given day, you could catch me reading To the Lighthouse or an issue of The Amazing Spider-man.
I also tend to get obsessed with certain topics, so for my non-fiction reading, I’ll read every single book I can find on whatever my topic of obsession is at a particular time. I went through a phase where I read nothing but books about Bob Dylan. Then it was nothing but nutrition and exercise books. Lately, I’ve been reading about book publishing and marketing. When I discover a new topic that excites me, I focus on becoming an absolute expert on it. (That impulse probably has something to do with latent self-loathing and the inescapable fear of looking stupid!)
How old were you when you started writing?
I started playing guitar in rock bands when I was about thirteen years old. We immediately started writing our own songs, rather than doing covers, so I was writing lyrics on a regular basis from age thirteen onwards. I got into more long-form writing, in the form of screenplays, near the end of high school. I had four feature-length screenplays written by the time I started University.
Regarding short-stories and that kind of stuff, I can’t really remember much, but the first piece of writing that I would really consider worth remembering was a one-act play that I wrote, directed, and performed at a high school theater festival. It was called The Valley High Hecatomb, and was about a high school shooting – this was in the pre-Columbine days. Then, when Columbine hit, all these people were saying, “How could this have possibly happened?” and all I could think was, “I know how this happened. I wrote a whole play telling you this would happen!” The only thing that surprises me about high school shootings is that they don’t happen more often.
Do you create timelines and charts, ever the meticulous planner, when you write? Or do you just jam out the words and mesh the details later?
Oh, I’m absolutely a planner. I am a huge proponent of organization, planning, and structure when it comes to writing a novel. There is virtually no other discipline where people think they can just jump-in and it’s all going to magically come together. When was the last time you heard an architect, engineer, or CEO say, “Oh, I don’t do any planning or training before I start my work. I just dive-in head first, see where it takes me, and hope for the best!” Would you live in that house?! Would you buy that product? It’s a crazy way to go about creating anything, but, for some reason, when it comes to art, people think it’s all about natural born talent, a gift from the muse or the Gods, or some other such nonsense. Really, it’s all just about developing the appropriate skill-set, doing the planning necessary, and then executing through hard work and self-discipline.
Sometimes people will say to me, “You must feel so proud to have published a novel.” I feel good when readers say that they liked the book, but I don’t really feel proud that the book exists. I mean, it’s what I am trained to do. It is my skill-set. It’s not like I woke up one morning and there was a novel sitting there at the end of the bed. I did the training necessary, and then I executed on that training. It’s not magic and it’s not really something to be proud of. I’m a writer, it’s just what I know how to do. You don’t go to the dentist and say, “You must be so proud of how well you cleaned my teeth today!”
Favorite author(s) and Favorite book(s) and Favorite band(s):
Favourite authors: Virginia Woolf (prose) and David Mack (graphic novels). Favourite book: Mrs. Dalloway (prose) and Daredevil: Echo – Vision Quest (graphic novel).
Favorite Band: Bob Dylan.
Tell us somethingabout yourself that not many people know.
Up until late last summer, when I started promoting the release of The Page Turners, I had been away from the internet for something like three solid years. Prior to that, I had a strong online presence in that I edited and wrote for an online magazine. But when my first daughter was born, I left the magazine and basically pulled away from the internet completely. It was only last summer that I joined Facebook for the first time! It was kind of startling to get back into working online after a few years away. It’s amazing how fast the technology changes!
Kevin John’s ideal writing conditions … do you listen to music or prefer silence? Do you have a favorite place that you go, like the local coffee shop, or a nook in your house?
I would love to sit on a wooden deck behind a cottage, surrounded by pine trees, looking out over a lake, and just write an entire novel like that, completely on my own, without talking to another human being for a few weeks.
That’s the ideal. How often does it work out that way?
Never. I can’t afford a cottage. I work a full-time day job, and I commute two hours a day on public transit. I have two small children, and I play hockey on a couple of teams. My writing happens whenever and wherever I manage to find a few spare minutes to write. It can be frustrating, but, at the same time, I pity any author who needs a specific setting or certain conditions in order to write! That would be awful.
Where did you get the idea(s) for The Page Turners?
The Page Turners was conceived immediately after I finished my Master’s degree in English literature. I’d just spent an intensive period of time studying literature, and surrounded by fantastically intelligent people who were totally passionate about words and language. The Page Turners grew out of that environment, where I was questioning and exploring the relationship between the signifier and signifier, language and reality, fiction and non-fiction. I wanted to explore the role that popular fiction plays in our lives, how it shapes our notions of reality, how it can help us escape from our pain, but also how it may shape us in ways that could be considered antisocial. Is it better to face your problems head-on, or ignore them by escaping into fiction, and what would happen if we flipped that idea around, and the fiction escaped into reality?
I really liked one of your supporting characters, Ray Crawford the janitor, for the quirky humor he brought to the story. As the author, do you have a favorite character?
All of the characters in the book are, in some way, a part of me and I love them all. That said, I think Nate is probably the character that I identify with the most. I’m an angry, miserable person who has a really difficult time finding any happiness in his life, so writing Nate comes pretty easy to me! On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Diana. She is an optimist, a ray of light in a pretty dark story, and, of course, a girl, so she is the character furthest from myself, and yet I just love her. She is wonderful to write, because she refuses to crumble under the pressure of life. I feel like life has been slowly grinding me down for a long time now… I feel pretty tired, worn out, and beaten up most days, so it’s pretty exciting to write a character who can overcome the challenges she faces and come out on the other side the-better-for-it, unlike I’m generally able to do in my life. She is just a little girl, barely a teenager, and yet I wish I had her strength.
There are three small sections in your novel that you might call fiction within the fiction. That is, they are excerpts from fictional books of your creation that your characters are reading. I really liked the first one, Paradise Fields. Any plans of cultivating that in the future and making it a full-blown novel?
I have a prequel short-story to The Page Turners, called The Green Princess, and a good chunk of that story takes place in the world of Paradise Fields. All folks need to do to get a free copy of the story is pop by www.thepageturnerstrilogy.com and drop their email into the newsletter form.
And, of course, The Page Turners is a trilogy, so I have a feeling we might not have seen the last of the Paradise Fields universe and characters…
I think using those fictional stories to push your story along, and tie together some ideas, worked really well.
Thanks! It was fun to try to write in another author’s voice. The As Flies to Wanton Boys excerpt was my nod to Virginia Woolf. (The lady loved her long, poetic sentences filled with semi-colons!) For The Blood Bride excerpt my editor and I tried to create a style that read like a pulp author who was trying to write Victorian prose but didn’t really know much about that era and couldn’t be bothered to do the research! My editor kept having to ask, “Is this anachronism intentional or not?” It was fun.
How is the sequel coming along?
The sequel is written, and has been ready for edit pretty much since the release of book one. My editor, Adam Sumner (www.brillianteditions.com) will begin editing the book shortly, once we get some other projects completed. We will see how long that process takes. He and I have worked together on a number of projects now and have a pretty great shorthand and level of trust at this point, so I think it should move along fairly quickly. It will definitely be out this year. If The Page Turners: Blood can be called a horror novel, then book two can be called a sci-fi story. It will have a different feel than the first one. The name of the book was revealed to my newsletter subscribers earlier this month.
I hear that you recently started an online course for new authors. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
It took me 8 years to write The Page Turners. I wasn’t going to let that happen again with the sequel, so before I started writing it, I did some analyses and developed a step-by-step system for writing the second book. It worked phenomenally well, and I was able to write the entire sequel pretty much during the editing process of the first book. So I went from 8 years to about 8 weeks to write the second book. I was really excited by what I had developed and I kind of felt compelled to share my system with other struggling authors. I put together a one-day intensive workshop covering the material, and taught it at Carleton University, here in Ottawa, last December. I received positive feedback from my students, so I have now turned the live workshop into an online course, The Novel Writer’s Blueprint: Five Steps to Creating and Completing Your First Book. Now, rather than just sharing my knowledge and experience with just local authors here in Ottawa, anyone in the world can take the course! People can learn more about the course by visiting here.
After working so hard on my own novel for so long, it feels good to give back to the writing community and help other novelists to achieve their dream of writing a book. Thanks to the course, all those aspiring authors out there will be able to avoid having to make all the mistakes that I did! Writing a novel is a long, grueling process, and we all need a little help along the way.
On that note, I also have a free weekly video series called Mistakes Rookie Authors Make. Folks can visit here and sign-up to get a new episode every Monday, along with a free eBook: 12 Common Mistakes Rookie Authors Make (& How to Avoid Them!).
What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the past two years?
My second daughter was born about a year and a half ago. Creating life and giving that little person a chance at the happiness I’ve never been able to find in my own life… it doesn’t get much cooler than that!
That’s a wrap—thanks!