As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, aspiring author Tim Johnston happily availed himself of offerings from the school's prestigious Writers' Workshop. When it came time to pursue a graduate degree, however, "I didn't think of applying there," Johnston says.
Instead, he headed east, earning an M.F.A. at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But years later Johnston's Iowa roots (he was born and raised in Iowa City) revealed themselves, as he developed Never So Green (FSG), his young adult novel about a boy who discovers baseball--and some dark human truths-- during a confusing summer.
Never So Green was first born in the early 1990s, as a shorter work. "I had written a short story loosely based on a time in my life when I was [protagonist] Tex's age and it involved step-siblings and baseball," Johnston recalls. "The trouble was, my 'short' story was about 60 pages long!"
He eventually whittled the tale to 45 pages and submitted it to literary journals. "The Missouri Review really liked it," Johnston notes, "but they wanted me to cut it down by half." Finally, at about 25 pages, the Missouri Review published the story in 1993 and it was mentioned, though not featured, in that year's edition of Best American Short Stories. "It was a nice bit of encouragement," says Johnston, the kind of encouragement that inspired him to attempt a novel.
Writing a book wasn't a completely new endeavor for Johnston--he had previously drafted a novel for adults and had agent representation for a collection of short stories that did not sell--but he was surprised at the end result. "I thought it would be about the seven months [post-grad school] that I had lived in Japan," he says. "But the short story came rushing back to me; I sketched out the plot in 15 minutes. From there, Never So Green took on a life of its own.
In the book, 12-year-old Tex spends the summer with his mother, her new husband, Farley, and two stepsisters. Tex becomes fast friends with Farley's daughter Jack, and despite his misgivings, plays for the Little League team that Farley coaches. By summer's end, Tex's image of Farley is shattered by a secret that affects the whole family.
"There had been no inkling of the dark side of the story in my earlier version," Johnston notes, "but my brother had seen hints of it and he asked me about it." That element of the story must have been waiting to emerge all along, as Johnston saw a clear path to developing it. But Johnston never imagined his book as being published in the young adult genre. "I was thinking along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird," he says. "I was hoping it would be a book that adults love and that young adults love, too."
By the end of 1994 Johnston had sent Never So Green to several agents and left Iowa again, this time for Los Angeles,. He worked as a carpenter to support himself while waiting for reaction to the book. He received "very encouraging and enthusiastic" responses from editors, many of whom asked, "Isn't this a YA novel?"
Johnston admits, "I was stubborn about not pursuing the YA angle. I had my heart set on it being an adult novel; I wanted to play with the big boys." After a few years, though, he relented and asked Marianne Merola at Brandt and Hochman to try to sell Never So Green as a YA. The second editor to read it, Robbie Mayes at FSG, made an offer. "I don't know why I put up such a fuss about it," Johnston says now. "I think [my book] has a chance to be more significant being published for a younger audience."
Of course, an author's first book is significant in many ways. And like a certain other Iowa-set baseball story, Never So Green is turning out to be Johnston's personal "Field of Dreams."
"In writing programs, you prepare yourself to expect the least," Johnston says. "You're told that if you're published, your book comes out and has its day in the sun and then goes away pretty quickly. But there have already been so many wonderful moments for me since Never So Green came out. Everything that happens is such a great treat."
Some of those treats include a signing at Iowa City's Prairie Lights bookstore, an option for film rights, a book excerpt running in the Iowa Review and a recent feature on the Internet book club www.chapteraday.com.
Looking ahead, Johnston doesn't yet have plans to quit his day job. "I've got a pretty good arrangement with a contractor here," he says. "He's a musician so he is sympathetic to the creative mindset." Such sympathy allows Johnston some flexible morning work hours to fit in his writing. He has begun work on another book, but it's too early to tell where it will end up. "I feel like I'm writing an adult novel, but I'm not so sure," Johnston says wistfully. "The jury's still out."