A Recent Interview with Joan Johnston

QHave you always wanted to be a writer and when was the lightbulb moment that made you decide to go for it? How did you get started? What did you do before you were published?

A
I never aspired to be a writer. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theatre and always wanted to be an actress, and later a director. When I graduated from college, there were no college theatre teaching positions open, so I went to working typing for a weekly newspaper at $1.65 an hour. Within a year, I was the news editor and drama critic.


QWould you share your story of getting published? Starting out, did you have any rejections, if so, how many and would you tell us the story of how you sold your first book? How many books did you have written before you sold? How has your career as a writer evolved from your first sale until now?

A
I was a lawyer and had to close a $65,000,000 City of Virginia Beach bond deal in New York the same April weekend as the second annual Romantic Times conference. By then, I’d been reading romances for two years and had many favorite authors, among them Jude Deveraux and Robert Gellis, both of whom were scheduled to be at the conference. I took all my books to get them autographed (and did!) and realized from talking to the authors I met that they were normal, ordinary people (not the inaccessible icons I’d imagined).

In June, I transferred from the law firm in Virginia to the small office of an even bigger law firm in Florida. That summer, I studied for the Florida bar exam (Florida has no reciprocity, so I had to take the bar again) and began writing my first book. To make a long story short, I passed the bar and sold the book.

I had contacted Linda Marrow at Pocket Books (who was then an assistant editor), whom I’d met at the RT conference, and told her I had to be in New York on business in six weeks. I asked her if it would be all right if I stopped by to visit her–and oh, by the way, I had 120 pages and a synopsis, and would she take a look at them. Linda said she’d be happy to see me. I had also met Damaris Rowland, who was an editor at Berkley, and I called her and asked the same thing, and she agreed.

The Friday before the Tuesday I was supposed to be in New York, I called to find out whether Linda still wanted to see me. The truth was, I had to be in Washington, D.C. on business and would be making a special trip to New York just to see her. If she’d read my proposal and wasn’t interested, I didn’t want to waste my time or hers. Linda said, “Sure, come on ahead.” Years later, I discovered she not only hadn’t read my proposal yet, she had to go hunting for it.

I walked into Linda’s cubicle at Simon & Schuster on April 24 about 11 a.m. (it’s like the birth of your first child, you never forget…). It was tiny, windowless and stacked with manuscripts. After a little prelimary chit-chat, Linda said, “I loved your book. I’d like to buy it.”

We talked about whether I wanted to use my own name or a pseudonym (I wanted to write under my own name, which was no problem). I mentioned I’d like to have a cover by Harry Bennett (the artist who’d done the first Tapestry book by Maura Seger, which was where my book would be published). Linda said she couldn’t promise anything (but I did end up with a cover by Harry Bennett on A LOVING DEFIANCE, my first published novel). Finally, she talked about the advance I would receive–$3,500. All of this was done without an agent.

Linda said, “So are we all set?”

I told her I’d have to think about it. Because, you see, I had a

luncheon engagement with Damaris Rowland, and it was possible she might also want to buy the book. I left Simon & Schuster with an offer to buy my first book outstanding. (Even then, I could say no to the first offer…or at least, let me think about it.)

Damaris was interested in my book, had even shown the proposal to Nancy Coffee (who was editing Kathleen Woodiwiss), but Berkley wanted some revisions before they would buy. I left lunch and called Linda and said, “What do I have to do to accept your offer.”

“Just say yes,” she said.

And I did.

I started out writing historicals because it was easier (in my mind) to hide the fact that the characters were all “me.” However, with the glacial rate of publication of my books (my first three books were published over FIVE years!), I had time to do more writing.

My contemporary writing career didn’t run quite as smoothly as my historical career. I wrote two books for Silhouette that got published without an agent), but didn’t sell that well (For good reason. I was writing only what the characters did, not what they felt about what they did). I then submitted nine proposals, one after the other, to Silhouette in a pretty short period of time, all of which were rejected. (I’ve never written an entire book, or even a proposal with chapters, except for that first book, only a 10-20 page synopsis of the book for consideration by a publisher). I gave up and kept writing historicals.

Two years later, I was giving a speech on “Where do I Get My Ideas” when a Harlequin editor asked me to submit to her a proposal for the book about wolves that was one of the ideas I’d mentioned in the speech. The Silhouette editor to whom I’d submitted all those proposals two years before said, “Send that proposal to me first.” I did (a four-page proposal), and she bought it (NEVER TEASE A WOLF). I’ve been published by Silhouette ever since.


QDid you have an agent before you made your first sale? How long have you had your current agent? What advice would you give a new author looking for an agent/editor?

A
I made my first sales, to historical and contemporary editors at

different houses, without an agent. I’ve been turned down for

representation by a great many agents for a variety of reasons. I’m on my fifth agent in eighteen years of publishing. I’ve been with him for about two years. I’ve left various agents for various reasons over the years, some to do with disagreements on outlook, some to do with my growth or the growth of my career.

My best advice to anyone in dealing with an editor or agent is

“EVERYTHING is negotiable.” Don’t agree to terms in a publishing or agenting agreement that aren’t favorable. If they want you and your book, they will modify terms to suit you.

YOU are in charge of your career. You have to know what you want and tell your agent; an agent has no idea what your dreams and desires are–including how much money you believe you’re worth. I’ve never met an agent who thought I was worth as much as I thought I was worth. It’s up to you to get them to ask for what you want. You have to be able to say NO–and take the risk of having to walk away–or you have no negotiating power. Too many romance authors (nearly all of whom are women) are afraid to turn down the first offer, and that first offer is rarely what the publisher is really willing to pay. Agents will not/cannot press for more without the author’s willingness to do so.


QHow long does it take you to research and write a book? Do you write more than one book at a time?

A
I only write one book at a time. I tried doing two once, a historical and a contemporary, but the contemporary characters started speaking with a western twang.

Each book is different. I’m always doing research, even when I’m not. Does that make sense? A writer is ALWAYS a writer, even when she’s not writing. Your eyes and ears are always open for new ideas and new experiences. As for “formal” research, I do as much as the book requires. I cut newspaper and magazine clippings, I read books, I go to movies, I travel, I do interviews, whatever is necessary till the book feels “real.” I do enough research to get a feel for the major plot points and conflict, then write. I fill in the holes later and check facts to make sure what I’ve written works.


QHow do you meet the demands of dealing with the press and promotion and still make writing a priority? Do you have a writing schedule? What is it? How many hours per day, pages, days per week, etc.? How many books do you write per year?

A
I believe in author self-promotion, but I hire someone to do the actual postcards, phone cards, posters, web site, etc. It does take time, but it’s time well-invested, as far as I’m concerned.

I try to write in the morning, as that’s when I’m most creative and productive, but when I’m on a deadline, I can write from early morning till late at night. Usually that means write an hour, off ten minutes, write forty-five minutes, off fifteen minutes, write two hours, off an hour, write ten minutes, off ten minutes, and so forth. I write while it’s flowing, get to a place where I don’t know what the characters are going to do, leave the computer to think, then come back when I’ve figured it all out.

I have no idea how much I write over a day, a week, or a month and each book takes as long as it takes. When I first started writing full-time and had to make a living, I wrote five books a year for five years. The most I’ve written in a single 24-hour period is 90 pages (the end of a 120-page short story). The fastest I’ve written a 400-page book is 72 hours over 10 days. I had one chapter written when I started. It was a new genre for me, and I’d been thinking about it for a year. I type 120 words a minute. That book is one of my favorites and is now in about a 10th printing. IT ISN’T THE PROCESS, IT’S THE PRODUCT. Get it?


QAre your settings based on any real places? How important is the setting to the success of your stories?

A
I frequently travel to do research for my books, and the firsthand information I pick up is invaluable in creating a realistic setting and giving the sorts of details that make readers believe they’re really there. My Bitter Creek series is set in Texas where the King Ranch currently exists. I’ve also set books in real places in Montana and Wyoming, although I make up mythical towns to put in their stead.

My most historically accurate set of novels is the Sisters of the Lone Star series, FRONTIER WOMAN, COMANCHE WOMAN, and TEXAS WOMAN, which covers the history of the Republic of Texas from 1836-46 and has real historical figures and incidents depicted.


QWhen starting a new book, do you start with character or plot?

A
Sometimes it’s the character, sometimes it’s the situation. Since I write continuing series where the main character in one book was a minor character in a previous novel, I often know who the character is going to be. The challenge is coming up with some dynamite situation–terrible trouble–for the character, so readers will stay with him or her throughout the book.