Author Interview: Shelli Johnsonby Cassandra on 03/13/12
Shelli Johnson worked as a sports journalist and an editor for many years before finally following her passion and pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Publishers Weekly called her award-winning novel, Small as a Mustard Seed, “an intense & heartbreaking story of the fallout of war.” It’s available now as an ebook.
1.You have a background as a journalist. How do you feel that prepared you for a career as an author --- or did a passion for writing drive you to journalism?
I do have a passion for fiction writing, yes. Not so much for journalism, but I didn’t understand how different those two things were before I studied journalism in college.
The journalism degree, though, has helped tremendously in teaching me how to interview people. I’m not shy about asking people for what I need because of my professional training. Journalism taught me, too, how to research: where to look, who to ask, how to fact check, that kind of thing. I also learned graphic design in college: spatial relationships, typography, and how to use the software to do it so I was able to create my own website and book cover.
I also have a Master’s Degree in fiction writing. That training helped me slow down. Being a journalist on deadline means that you write fast and maybe miss certain less-important details because you’re trying to get to the main point. You don’t necessarily get to know people. You interview them, sure, and hear what they have to say, but that doesn’t mean you know why they do what they do, what makes them tick. There’s usually not that kind of time. What makes fiction real for the reader are the little details. Grad school taught me to slow down, to see everything that was happening in a scene, to delve deeper into the characters and understand their motivations. It also taught me to follow a story to its absolute end, however messy that may end up getting.
2. You won a grant from The Weisman Fund to start your own press. Can you describe some of the challenges associated with owning and operating your own press?
Here’s the biggest challenge: There’s no one but you to get things done, including editing, cover art, graphic design, marketing, and on and on. There’s also no making excuses or assigning blame or settling for good enough. If you want it done, and done right, you have to do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. It’s a lot of work and a lot of decision making. It involves risk and being out of your comfort zone. But it’s also very rewarding to have a vision for a novel and then to make that happen.
There are organizations such as the Independent Book Publisher’s Association (IBPA), where you can join a group of other small publishers banding together to help each other, where you can learn and network and get support.
I also don’t publish books other than my own so I can’t speak to that. I chose to start a small press to publish my own work so that the ISBN assigned to my books would be tied to my small press. (If you get an ISBN from, say, Smashwords then they are considered the publisher of your work). Also, when you publish your own work through your own small press, it gives your book more legitimacy in my experience, at least in the eyes of reviewers.
3. "Small As A Mustard Seed" has earned glowing reviews. Can you tell us about your inspirations and motivations for writing the book?
I was writing about the main characters—sisters: Ann Marie, the older one, and Jolene, the younger—for about 4 months, both of them as adult women. The story wasn’t really going anywhere and then one morning at about 2 a.m., I was in my little attic writing room when Ann Marie showed up as a 10-year-old in a barn, scared out of her mind, her father threatening to commit suicide. That scene came out of nowhere and I let it play out, let the characters do whatever they were going to do while I just wrote it down. It ended up being the first chapter of the book. Once I got that idea, the rest of the story simply came along with it. You can read that scene here.
The title, SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED, is part of a quote from the Bible about how a tiny amount of faith can make a difference. While the book is not Christian fiction, there is the idea of faith running through the story. As a reader once said, “In the end, sometimes a small amount of faith is all we have left.” The book also explores the after-effects of war, not only on the soldiers who come home but also on their families, how devastating war can be, not only for the people who fight in it but also for the generations of children that are raised by mentally-wounded veterans. As a writer, it always makes me glad to make somebody feel something so intensely that it sticks with them long after they've closed the book. Based on reader feedback/reviews, I believe I’ve achieved that with this novel.
4. You have over 4,000 twitter followers, 800 "likes" for your Facebook page, and an ever-growing legion of fans. Can you share any tips for authors starting their own social networking efforts?
Please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t go in hollering BUY MY BOOK!!! There’s nothing that turns me off faster to somebody than when they bombard me with tweets, links, DMs, emails about how to buy their books before they even get to know me. Hang out, add to the conversation, show your personality, build relationships, give your opinion, blog about things other than your book, help other people, and then start talking about your book.
Also, I got hooked up with Novel Publicity , which has been the single best thing I’ve been involved with to get connected to other writers, get marketing and publicity advice, have a place to ask questions and get answers, and learn about what I need to do to position my book and myself for success. They have a Blog with helpful advice, a Facebook Group to ask marketing questions, and a Karma Group where authors help each other out.
Finally, and I’m working on this, too: Find a balance in your life of social media time, working time, family time, writing time, reading time, sleeping time, and the-rest-of-your-obligations time. Burning yourself out, and it’s easy to do if you’re not careful, serves no one.
5. Would you like to share any teasers about your work in progress?
Here’s the summary: When Rose Harlen struts into PJ’s Tavern in the scorching heat of an Illinois summer looking to cool herself off, she ends up discovering Danny, a charismatic man who alters the trajectory of her life forever. Instead of following her dream of acting on stage, Rose chooses the stability and comfort of marriage. But Danny has a life-changing secret. While Rose’s world careens toward catastrophe, Helena Basinski’s life in Poland radically changes when her husband’s activities in the Resistance trigger their family’s deportation by the Nazis to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Helena is selected to serve in the camp’s brothel where one of the guards falls obsessively and dangerously in love with her. She survives the war but with memories that are bone deep and forever. Years later, after Rose’s world has been splintered and Helena’s shattered, the two women quietly but forcefully collide.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book.
Thanks for the insights, Shelli!
You can follow Shelli at: