Tim Johnston’s literary thriller Descent, coming this month from Algonquin, is a mystery about a girl who vanishes in the Colorado Rockies. The debut novel received a starred review from PW and has been praised by bestselling authors Mary Roach, Lisa Unger, and Caroline Leavitt for its power and haunting prose. Johnston’s 2009 collection of short stories, Irish Girl (Univ. of North Texas), won multiple awards. The title story was included in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, a 2005 anthology of David Sedaris’s favorite short fiction.
Johnston began drawing at an early age, and art was his gateway into storytelling. “My best friend became my best friend because he, too, was a drawer, and in junior high school we drew our own comic books and sold them at lunch for 25¢ a pop,” he says. “We weren’t the type to sit around waiting to grow up to become artists.”
Johnston’s evolution from illustrator to writer was an organic one: “As with drawing, I didn’t think about what I was up to; I only knew that I had some image, scene, or story that I needed to render on paper.” Stephen King’s Carrie inspired him to experiment with storytelling. He recalls that after reading the classic horror novel, about a girl who exacts vengeance upon her mother and those who bullied her in school, he wrote “a thickly detailed tale about a boy who visits mayhem and bloodshed upon the principal’s office of his school—a work of the imagination that earned me great admiration among my chums and that these days would’ve gotten me into a great deal of trouble and counseling.”
Near the end of his teenage years, Johnston stopped drawing altogether and focused on short stories. Heartbreak brought out his inner narrator, and “it was just my luck to get the writing bug while going to college at the University of Iowa, which was like getting the Catholicism bug while living in Rome.”
He went on to get his M.F.A. at University of Massachusetts, publish a few short stories, and land a literary agent.
While working as a carpenter in Hollywood and honing his writing craft, Johnston had his first novel, Never So Green, a YA book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “Six years later I was finishing up a long stint at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire when I learned that my story collection, Irish Girl, had won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction for 2009. [Then] David Sedaris recommended the collection to his audiences on his 2010 U.S. book tour—an incredibly cool thing he does with a new book every tour.”
Johnston credits the stirrings of success and Sedaris’s support as part of what propelled him back into academia. “The Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the book of stories, the Sedaris endorsement, and a desire to stop swinging a hammer for my living all inspired me to apply for teaching positions and fellowships after 22 years away from academia—and it happened that a writer from outside of the university system was just what the folks at George Washington University had in mind for their Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer Fellowship.”
Johnston spent nine months back on campus, teaching fiction workshops while finishing Descent, but afterward his career seemed to stall and he returned to carpentry. “Some years ago, following the advice I’d been hearing all my writing life that a writer writes every day, no matter what, I worked every day on a novel for two years—getting up early and hammering away at the next sentence, paragraph, chapter, for a couple of hours before I had to go off and begin hammering for real.” He finished the novel, revised it for six months, and revised it again with his agent’s help, but it failed to gain traction with editors.
“I fell into a pretty sizeable funk,” Johnston says. “I stopped writing and contented myself with reading books and building stuff. I stopped communicating with my agent. I was not waiting to hear from any editors anywhere, nor they from me.”
A year passed, during which Johnston went to Colorado to help his father and stepmother build a house. “I came back with the first 200 pages of Descent, and a new process: now, I would not work on the book unless I knew I had the entire day to do nothing else—no ticking clock, no looming threat of the job site to distract me. And no wonder the book took me six years to finish, because there weren’t many of those days.”
When asked, Johnston is hard pressed to say what makes a story great. He believes that a compelling one operates on so many levels that it “transcends” the typical story norms. He believes that character is the most important element. “You can have the most exciting and suspenseful plot in the world, or the most beautiful sentences ever composed, but it’s the characters that make your story matter—that induce that most essential of responses from a reader, which is empathy.”
This is what Johnston set out to explore with Descent. He wanted to write a book so suspenseful that it would captivate the audience from start to finish. “I knew I wanted to write a story that would be stellar on the level of plot—a story that would excite the reader’s need to know what happens next. But I also wanted that story to be about the most authentic, complex, conflicted, messed-up characters I was capable of creating—which is one reason it took me six years to write the novel, I think: I had to live in those characters’ skins a very long time to understand them.”
The inspiration for Descent came from Johnston’s fascination with certain news headlines. “For a long, probably unhealthy amount of time, I’ve been... not obsessed with but captivated by the idea of the totally random, totally undeserved act of violence; by how prevalent it is in our world, how often we read about it or see it play out on TV, and yet how certain we remain that such a thing could never happen in our town, our school, to our neighbors—least of all to our own families.”
Johnston was also captivated by the way we’re able to quickly process and move on from such disturbing reports. “The Courtland family in the novel, I think, were my way of attempting to understand the other side of the headline—to know what happens to a family after the TV crews have gone away, after the world’s attention has moved on to the next grim story.”
Johnston says that the book seeks answers to the following questions: “What happens when you can’t go on? When the town is your town, the bad luck your bad luck, and your world has changed forever?” He hopes that by exploring these questions, a semblance of hope might be found. “Terrible, unthinkable things happen to real people every day, and there is no story that will comfort those people as they live through what really, finally, cannot be imagined. But for the rest of us, I hope Descent will be like that imaginary young woman in the book who speaks to Caitlin, who has suffered and struggled and survived to tell her story to a gymnasium full of young women, as if by doing so she can put some kind of blessing on them.”
When Johnston’s not writing, he’s reading voraciously and teaching creative writing at the University of Memphis—where he loves being a mentor to young writers. “On my better days,” he says, “I understand that even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.”