New York Times’ Bestselling Author
One of the leading romance novelists in the country, Joan Johnston has written forty-six novels – including her first hardcover original, THE PRICE, published in March 2003. Indicative of her growing popularity, she has had seven New York Times bestselling novels in recent years: THE NEXT MRS. BLACKTHORNE (2005), NO LONGER A STRANGER (2005), SISTERS FOUND (2002), THE LONER (2002), THE TEXAN (2001), FRONTIER WOMAN (2001), THE COWBOY (2000).
Johnston is a former attorney and college professor who launched her writing career in 1985. She holds a J.D. degree with honors from the University of Texas at Austin Law School, a master’s degree in theatre from the University of Illinois in Urbana, and a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts from Jacksonville University in Florida.
QDid you like to read as a child?
“I was a big reader growing up. I read all the Jim Kjelgaard dog books, all of the Walter Farley horse books. When we lived in North Africa, we had no TV for two years, so I read everything in the library.”
QHave you ever had a writing class?
“I took a creative writing class in the eighth grade and wrote short stories. That was the extent of my writing experience before I wrote my first book.”
QHow did you learn how to write romance fiction?
“A lot of what I learned, I learned from going to writing conferences where a lot of my favorite authors – like Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, and Roberta Gellis – would give speeches. I’d go to seminars and learn how to write better conflict…how to write better characters…how to create better settings…how to keep the narrative together with the narrative, and the dialogue with the dialogue…how to speed up the book with dialogue and slow it down with narrative…how to do verisimilitude: don’t just say ‘the church,’ say ‘the First Presbyterian Church on the corner.’ But I also read over 1500 romance novels before I wrote my first novel.”
QHow did you make your first sale?
“I contacted Linda Marrow, who was then an assistant editor at Pocket Books. I had met her at the Romantic Times conference I had attended in New York while I was still a practicing attorney. I told Linda I was going to be in New York for business in six weeks, and asked if it would be all right if I stopped by for a visit. I also mentioned that I had 120 pages and a synopsis, and would she take a look at them? Linda said she’d be happy to meet with me. Meanwhile, I had also met Damaris Rowland, an editor at Berkeley, at the same conference, and asked her the same thing. And she agreed.
“So 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 her time or mine. Linda said, ‘Sure, come on ahead.’ Years later, I discovered she not only hadn’t read my proposal, 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 preliminary 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 chose to write under my own name). I mentioned I’d like to have a cover by Harry Bennett. Linda said she couldn’t promise anything (but I did end up with Harry doing A LOVING DEFIANCE, my first novel). Finally, she told me what my advance would be: $3000. And 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 from Berkley, and it was possible she might also want to buy the book. It turned out that Damaris was interested, but Berkley wanted some revisions first. So I left lunch, called Linda and said, ‘What do I have to do to accept your offer.’ ‘Just say yes,’ she said. And I did.”
QHas it always been so easy to get your books published?
“I started out writing ‘historicals’ because it was easier (in my mind) to hide the fact that all the characters were all ‘me.’ My ‘contemporary’ writing career didn’t run quite as smoothly. I wrote two books for Silhouette that got published without an agent, but didn’t sell that well.
“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 manuscript – or even a proposal with chapters – except for that first book. My proposals are really a 10- to 20-page synopsis.) So I gave up and kept writing ‘historicals.’
“Two years later, I was giving a speech on ‘Where do I Get My Ideas.’ A Harlequin editor heard it and asked me to submit a proposal for a book about wolves, which was one of the ideas I had talked about. When the Silhouette editor – to whom I had submitted all those proposals two years before – heard, she said, ‘Send that proposal to me first.’ I did and she bought it (NEVER TEASE A WOLF). I’ve been published by Silhouette ever since.”
QHow has your writing changed over the years?
“I’ve learned to let the reader know not just what the character is doing, but how the character feels about what he’s doing. Fortunately, early in my career, a friend who is a sales rep for my first publisher gave me the best ‘how to’ writing advice I’ve ever gotten. One day I was complaining to her that another author at the same house was getting so much more attention and had such better sales than I did. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘I care about her characters. I don’t care about yours.’ So I went to work to find out what that author was doing that I wasn’t. And I learned to write a better book, which meant learning to ‘go for the choke’ – in other words, creating characters who lived and breathed and tore your heart out.”
Q You’re an extremely prolific writer, always producing at least two new books a year. Do you work on them simultaneously?
“I only write one at a time. I tried doing two once – a ‘historical’ and a ‘contemporary’ – but the ‘contemporary’ characters started speaking with a western twang.”
QDo you have a writing routine?
“I try to write in the morning, as that’s when I’m creative and productive. But when I’m on deadline, I can write from early morning until late at night with a break every hour or so. I write while it’s flowing, get to a place where I don’t know what the characters are going to do, then leave the computer to think. I come back when I’ve figured it all out.”
QHow many pages per day are you able to turn out?
“I have no idea how much I write over a day, a week, or a month. Each book takes as long as it takes. For instance, for THE PRICE, one chapter took four days; another took six hours.
“The most I’ve written in a single 24-hour period is 90 pages – and that was the end of a 120-page short story, which was due on a Monday and it was already Saturday afternoon. But, at other times, I can sit at the computer for 24 hours and I don’t get anything. I might get a paragraph.
“I once wrote a 400-page book in 72 hours over ten days. I only had one chapter written when I started, and it was a new genre for me. But I’d been thinking about it for a year. That book is one of my favorites and is now in its 10th printing. It isn’t the process. It’s the product.”
QWhere does your inspiration come from?
“I once woke up in the morning with a whole story in my head. I had gone to bed worrying about it. I didn’t want to lose the thought and go search for paper. The only thing handy to write on was a paper plate, so I had to write in circles to make sure I got it all down before I ran out of space. By the time I was through, about 45 minutes later, I had 15 pages of a chapter – essentially, the way it turned out in the book.
“A lot of the time, I’ll be in the car going somewhere and an idea will come to me. I try to always have paper with me, because you’ve got to write it down when the inspiration strikes. If you wait, it will go away.”
QHow much research goes into your books?
“Each book is different. I’m always doing research, even when I’m not. 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 until the book feels ‘real.’ I keep researching until I get a feel for the major plot points and conflict, then I write. I fill in the holes later and check facts to make sure what I’ve written works.”
QWhen you start a new book, which comes first – the characters or the plot?
“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 story.”
QDo you plot everything out in advance, or just let it flow?
“You must put your characters in terrible trouble and keep them there, so readers won’t be able to put the book down. I do start with a synopsis, which is usually about 20 pages for a 400-page book. But once I start writing, I never look at it again. The characters will take me where they need to go. That said, I don’t let them get too far afield from where I want them to end up. If they start off on a tangent, I rein them in – or, as I’ve learned from experience, I’ll end up throwing away a hundred pages that I can’t use.”
QWhat do you enjoy reading these days?
“I’m currently into mysteries – Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Jeffrey Deaver, David Baldacci, Brad Meltzer, and Jonathan Kellerman. Although I’ll always write relationship books, I’m moving into adding mystery elements to my stories. Essentially what authors do is read in the direction they’re going. For example, I probably read 600 or 700 ‘Regency’ novels before I ever wrote my first one – because I loved the genre.
QWho is your favorite author?
“W.E.B. Griffin. Even though he writes military novels, they have strong relationships, and World War II is one of my favorite periods.”
QWhat’s the downside of success that is rarely discussed?
“I need to finish at least one book a year to earn a living. So the challenge for me over the past ten years or so has been how to balance my professional and personal life. A friend chided me for being so focused on my career at the expense of everything else. I wonder if I would be where I am today if I hadn’t been so focused on my career. There’s a reason why women so seldom create great art, music, or literature. It takes a tremendous commitment of time and emotional energy. We all have to make choices, and I did the best I could to be both a loving, caring mother to my two children and become a New York Times bestselling author.”