Thursday, July 09, 2009

Author Interview ~ Liz Johnson

LIZ JOHNSON grew up reading Christian fiction, and always dreamed of being part of the publishing industry. After graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a degree in public relations, she set out to fulfill her dream. In 2006 she got her wish when she accepted a publicity position at a major trade book publisher. While working as a publicist in the industry, she decided to pursue her other dream-becoming an author. Along the way to having her novel published, she completed the Christian Writers Guild apprentice course and wrote articles for several magazines.

Liz lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she enjoys theater, ice skating, volunteering in her church's bookstore and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nephew and three nieces. She loves stories of true love with happy endings. The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn is her first novel. Keep up with Liz's adventures in writing at

You started out as publicist in this industry. What made you start writing?

I don’t think it’s easy for me to separate being a publicist from my writing. I suppose it all boils down to a love of books, passion for the written word. I’ve always loved reading and writing, so I just knew I wanted to work in the Christian publishing industry. I don’t think I consciously knew that a degree in public relations would open the door for me to get into publishing, but when it was time to declare a major in college, I just thought it sounded interesting, and it involved a lot of writing. I thought I had some aptitude for writing, so it seemed like a solid fit.

After college, finding a job—especially one in publishing—was harder than I thought it would be, so I signed up for the Christian Writers Guild apprentice course. I learned a lot about writing, and I continued playing around with stories (terribly written stories) until I was hired into the industry. And then it was a my good friend and fellow publicist Kelly Blewett who told me she couldn’t wait to read the book I had told her I wanted to write. Her accountability got me from the dreaming stage to the sitting down and really working out The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn.

What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Discipline. Always has been and it probably always will be the hardest part for me. I can daydream forever about ideas and characters and scenes and settings. Sitting down in front of my computer and committing to stay there until I’ve written 1,000 words is so hard for me. I thought getting a writing buddy would help, and it has—to an extent.

When I told my mom that my friend Jess and I were going to get together every Monday to write for an hour, she laughed. She figured we’d sit and talk the whole time, but it’s worked pretty well. We usually compete to see who can write the most words in the hour. Jess almost always wins. And when we do feel chatty, we usually end up talking about plot ideas, characters, or just bouncing ideas off each other.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

Sure. I mean, my characters wouldn’t be mine if they didn’t have reflections of me tucked in there. My relationship with Jesus Christ is really important to me, so it’s essential that my faith is reflected in their lives. A lot of times the spiritual lessons that I’m learning end up being core themes in my WIP.

On a more individual basis, I’ve noticed that certain characters have picked up some of my bad habits—Kenzie Thorn has a terrible habit of putting her foot in her mouth, which I’m completely guilty of. Sometimes I give my characters traits that may be similar to my own struggles but aren’t exact. While writing my second manuscript, I realized that I have a terrible habit of shopping any time I’m feeling stressed and worried, and I saw that my hero had his own comfort activity in drinking coffee, which I really hate.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

It’s an ongoing process, learning to trust myself as a writer. As I’m writing a new story, I bounce ideas off of my writing buddy, family, and friends, trying to get as many suggestions as I can. When I’m finished with the first draft, I usually have one moment of feeling like I’ve written something really good. Then I plunge into self-doubt. It usually comes in the form of, “Man, this story really stinks,” while I’m rereading it. And then comes that moment when I decide I can do nothing else to improve it on my won, so I give it to someone else to read.

When suggestions and comments come back, I try to take them all with a grain of salt—unless they’re good. :) Something my publicity manager taught me was if I hear the same comment from two different people, I should pay attention to it and really see if the change would make a difference. I make those changes, then give it another reread. After that, I let go of the manuscript. I send it to my editor, and I trust her. When doubt invades, I trust my editor to give me awesome feedback.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn is my first novel, releasing from Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense on July 14. It’s the story of Kenzie, the governor of Oregon’s granddaughter, who teaches a GED prep course at one of the state prison complexes. Myles Parsons is just another student in her class until he kidnaps her and reveals that he’s actually FBI Special Agent Myles Borden. Reeling from his claim that her life is in danger, Kenzie refuses to go to a safe house and insists that they go together to discover who’s behind the plot to kidnap and kill her.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

There are a lot of little inspirations for this book. I think that a big part of developing Kenzie’s story was where I was at in my own life. I had just made two major moves in the span of six months, and I was 1100 miles from my family. I felt like the only one I could lean on was God, so reliance on Him became one of the key themes of Kenzie’s story.

I also had a friend from high school who made some really poor choices and ended up in prison for five years. His sister asked me to write to him, and I did. We wrote back and forth for years, and his letters made me wonder if there was anything that would cause someone to willingly go to prison. It all just developed from there.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

Kenzie came along with the story. I definitely had most of the story plotted out before I really knew who Kenzie was, which I don’t think is unusual in suspense novels. As I wrote action sequences, her “sweet and spicy sides,” as Myles calls them, showed up. One minute she’d have herself completely under control and then the pressue would build inside her, and she’d explode with all this built up tension, usually with a super-sarcastic comment aimed right at Myles. I thought a lot about the strength she needed to teach inside a prison and her desire to be there.

Early on in the book she has the opportunity to leave the prison and take a job teaching kindergarten. I asked myself a hundred times what she could get inside the prison that she couldn’t get from teaching at an upscale elementary school. The first answer I came up with: A good plot. But that was cheating. The second answer: The knowledge that she was helping men turn their lives around and giving them a hope for when they reached the outside. I love that altruistic side of Kenzie.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

As cliché as it sounds, finishing my first quality manuscript was the most amazing moment. The worst part about writing it was actually writing it. Finding time to bond with my laptop and being disciplined was hard. The discipline is still hard, but finding time in my schedule has gotten easier, as it’s become a priority.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

I hope readers are encouraged to rely on God even when friends and family let them down. I hope that like Kenzie and Myles do in the book, readers will find hope in knowing that God is walking with them in hard times and that His eyes are on those that fear Him.

What does your writing space look like?

Oh, my word. I must have the worst example of a writing space. I typically write on my bed. I sit with my back against a stack of pillows and my laptop sitting on my lap. I have one little bedside lamp on, and the only other light comes from my screen. I have three bookcases in my room, plus the stack of books on my nightstand, so I feel inspired by the words that I know are on all of those pages—even if I haven’t read half of them. Of course, on Monday nights I write at the dining room table—either mine or Jess’s, depending on the week. Then I’m inspired by the speed with which she types. :)

What kind of activities do you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?

I try to get some physical activity 3 or 4 times a week. Getting out of the house and makes me forget my deadlines, if just for an hour. If I don’t make it to the actual gym, I like to go for long walks. Just being active and in the shadow of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs inspires me, and reminds me that I am small and God’s plan is so much bigger than I am. I’m a big fan of the theater and musicals, so I usually try to go see a Broadway Across America show at least once a year and a really good concert every couple of months. When I moved to Colorado Springs I took ice skating lessons, and when I’m especially worn out, there’s still nothing better than the chill of the ice and chapped cheeks when I’m flying around the rink.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

Nearly all of my short stories, articles, and novels start in my mind with either a title or the first line. The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn was born from the title that just popped into my head. What had she been kidnapped from? Why? Who kidnapped her? As I started answering those questions with things that were already going on in my mind, like my correspondence with a friend who had been in prison, the story started to take shape.

From there I wrote the first four chapters to get a good feeling of where it was going. Then I did a loose outline to keep me on track. I wrote the rest of the story consecutively over the next three months. Then came the hard part. I had to give it to friends to read. I had three friends read that first draft for me. They all got back to me really quickly with their notes and I incorporated them. Then it was time to submit. After that came four rounds of revisions with my editor before Steeple Hill offered me a contract. But it really made Kenzie’s story better and it made the call about publication sweeter than I ever thought possible.

What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?

I have a lot more memories of my mom reading to my brother and sister and I when we were kids than I have memories of actually reading as a kid. My mom homeschooled us until I was in 5th grade, and she assigned a lot of Newberry Award winners, and I distinctly remember doing projects on The Island of the Blue Dolphins, but I never liked the book.

I do remember reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare when I was about 8. I love that book to this day and have read it at least 10 times. There’s something magical about the story of a girl who doesn’t fit in, doesn’t belong because she sees beyond the walls that everyone else in the Puritan community has erected around an old Quaker woman. I think every girl feels like she doesn’t fit in at some point, and we all hope that someone will see something special in us and that we’ll find a place to belong. Nat Eaton provides that for the heroine Kit, which is why he was my very first literary crush. He still tops my list.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

Reading is so important for writers on so many levels. Personally reading lots of different types of books has helped me clarify who I am as a writer and how I want to communicate my message. I’ve read several very literary type books, and they’re beautiful, but that style is not me. I’ve also read some Christian fiction that is amazingly well-written and with an intriguing plot, but I find the faith element so subtle that sometimes I spend the whole read looking for the spiritual elements. That’s helped me realize that I want the spiritual element in my writing to be clear and applicable without having to hit anyone over the head with it.

On the other hand, there are authors who I love that I wish I could write just like them. But I’m not them. So I read all of their books and study their style and see if there are things they are doing that I can emulate while maintaining my own voice.

Having been a publicist, what marketing tips would you give to new authors that you have seen be particularly successful?

The biggest publicity and marketing tip I can offer is to be available for everything. Take every radio interview that you can line up. Answer every online interview that’s offered. Never turn publicity down. And it seems obvious, but courtesy counts. Be organized and know when you have an interview so that you’re prepared to answer the questions that are asked and do so in a timely manner.

I’ve been very blessed to work with many authors who know the importance of doing the small things and building relationships with media and reviewers in smaller venues, so that when the major national shows come knocking they are practiced at building those relationships and know how to knock the producer’s socks off.

If your publisher offers to do some sort of marketing and publicity for your book, talk with them about it and take them up on everything they’ll offer. Free bookmarks? Take them and pass them out to everyone you know and even people you don’t know. Are they setting up a blog tour for your book? Ask how you can be involved. And whenever possible collect the names and e-mails of the visitors to your blog and website. The contact info is amazingly helpful to most publishers who can then reach out with e-mail blasts to hundreds or thousands of readers who already know and love you.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

I recently finished my second romantic suspense novel, which isn’t under contract yet, but is currently in consideration with my editor. It’s not a follow up to The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn, but it has some overlapping characters and is a rousing romp into fictional Crescent City, Colorado. Since finishing that manuscript, I’ve been working on a proposal for a contemporary romance set in my home state of Arizona. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens with both of these stories.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

One of my favorite nonfiction authors is Mark Batterson, the pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC. In his book Wild Goose Chase, Mark says that it’s really easy to pray and just keep praying, waiting for God to answer. But at some point we need to recognize when He’s given us the means to accomplish what we’re asking for and act on it. That’s really applicable to me and probably many other writers. We sit and pray for God to give us the words, but we end up waiting, failing to act on the talents He’s given us. So pray for the words, but know when to stop praying and start typing.

The Kidnapping of Kenzie Thorn is available from Love Inspired Suspense. To read a review, click here.


David Murdoch said...

It's great when christian fiction authors talk about their faith:

"What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

I hope readers are encouraged to rely on God even when friends and family let them down. I hope that like Kenzie and Myles do in the book, readers will find hope in knowing that God is walking with them in hard times and that His eyes are on those that fear Him."

God Bless