Sunday, March 10, 2013

Interview with Maureen Johnson by Becky Lejeune

I am delighted to share Becky Lejeune's interview with Maureen Johnson from her recent Tattered Cover event in Denver. This was the final stop on her MADNESS UNDERNEATH tour. MADNESS is the second installment in her Shades of London series. 

BL: You are very active on Twitter, so describe the Shades of London series in a tweet:

MJ: Madness Underneath is oh, no some ghosts!

BL: Shades of London is a bit different from your other books, what inspired the series?

MJ: I wanted to write a mystery. I’m a huge mystery reader... I read two mysteries a day as a kid and I was thinking, “I really want to write a mystery. That’s actually what I love.”

I was doing research in England for The Last Little Blue Envelope and I just started to think “I really want to set something here properly. Properly in London, properly kind of out of the city.” I was on a historical tour and they were telling all of these ghost stories and I was really… disappointed in the quality of the ghost stories. I thought they were lame and I wanted to tell a better one – and make it a mystery as well.

I sort of had it in my head that I was going to do a mystery and then started looking for the right mystery to hang it on.

BL: You’ve said there are to be four books in the series as a whole. So far in we’ve got Jack the Ripper and Bedlam, what other dark historical influences can we expect?

MJ: There’s a lot of stuff underneath the ground. That’s all I’m going to say. The next book is called The Shadow Cabinet but if I say anymore I run the risk of spoilers.

BL: Do you know now how the series is going to end, or is it sort of book by book?

MJ: I absolutely know. The ending is set: book three is all mapped out and book four, I know exactly what that’s about.

BL: You’ve also got a collaborative project coming up based on Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series, how did that come to be?

MJ: I’m doing a collaborative project with Cassie Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan, called The Bane Chronicles. We came up with the idea because we hang out a lot together - we work together, we’re friends.

Sarah is the funniest person in the world. Sarah reads more than anyone I’ve ever met. I mean, I’ve met some people that read a lot but nobody reads as fast as Sarah. One time, she was staying at my house - I went to bed at 11 - and by the time we got up in the morning she had read two books overnight! It’s no joke. And she can summarize books in the funniest way possible – she isolates what’s kind of great and funny.

She did all these funny summaries of Cassie’s books and things she wanted to have happen in them, ‘cause she has an evil imagination. She loves to break readers’ hearts, that’s her favorite thing. I love Simon from Cassie’s books and we had been sort of joking around and speculating on things that we would do if we were in charge. It was through those conversations that we realized we could actually take Magnus, who has this whole past that has never been explored - he’s been alive for many hundreds of years – and let the two of us loose on it.

That was the idea. It was just out of a bunch of joking conversations that we were like, “You know what, we could actually do this. It would be really fun.”

BL: When did you decide you wanted to be an author and how did you get started?

MJ: When I was really little. I mean it’s just sort of always what I did – I was a very kind of indoor kid. I was writing from the time I was little. I didn’t always know exactly how it was going to work out but I was pretty confident – I was weirdly confident that it would be all ok.

BL: What does your typical writing day look like?

MJ: I don’t have one. I don’t have a typical writing day. It depends on what I’m doing, like right now I’m on tour so that’s very much a tour activity and sometimes it’s very much a travel activity… but it really depends.

When I am really writing hardcore, I try to keep hours very normal. I try to start in the morning and cut off at a certain point in the evening. I don’t like to work into the night - I used to and then I kind of felt fried ‘cause you work all the time. You actually come at it fresher if you keep the hours kind of straightforward.

BL: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

MJ: I have been both and I do both. I don’t have a set method. I’m not one of those people that’s like, “I have a routine, I have to start a fire, I have a special pen and my special hat.” It varies with me.

BL: Since you are so active on Twitter, how do you balance work time and Twitter?

Twitter is easy for me to do, it’s very automatic to me and I can Tweet something in seconds. In many ways it’s like the comment I would make to someone if there were more people sitting there… Twitter has filled in the gap for the imaginary people I think are around me at all times and so this has really just fed into a delusion of mine. Psychologically it is both wonderful and - a professional might say - it’s probably bad, but I think it’s great.

BL: Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known when you started out as an author?

MJ: Yeah. Things I wish I’d known when I was starting out: not to worry so much, to sort of know that you’ll never feel quite done with the book. Not to really stress out. Sometimes you have to write and the more time you spend worrying is sort of wasted time. You can’t really fail. A lot of times you think, “But this time I’ve failed. This time it kills me – this book will literally kill me!” A book has never killed anybody yet. 

BL:  What question do you wish people would ask at events?

MJ: Um, would you like to hold all of these kittens that I brought? That is the question I would like to be asked. And I eagerly await that because I would like to hold a lot of kittens! I think that may seem like a facetious or a simple statement but in fact that is mostly why I go places, to be around dogs and cats. I’m staying here with Kate, my agent, and she has two dogs… I couldn’t stop thinking for days about how, oh, the doggies will sleep with me! I’m basically a five year old.

BL: Of all of your characters, who’s your favorite?

MJ: You know, I don’t want to choose favorites. But having said that, I really love the Martin family, which is a group of four characters in Suite Scarlet, Scarlet Fever, and the upcoming third Scarlet book. I love them – they maybe are my favorite. That’s sort of my happy place, when I’m writing about them.

BL:  What advice do you have for people who want to write?

MJ: [My] advice to people who want to write is really just to keep going. A lot of times – pretty much always – you’ll work on something and think, “I can’t do this. This is too hard. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m lost. This is terrible. I’m the worst.” Fill in the blank. You will think you are the worst. If you don’t, you may be fine but you may have a serious ego problem, but in general most people feel at some point like they have failed. Or that it’s too hard. Or that it can’t be done... If you feel that way, it’s normal. Just keep going. Really, just keep going through that. The only way a book doesn’t get done is if you don’t finish it, but there’s never been a book that couldn’t be finished, I think. You will feel that way, just keep going.

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