Q & A #28 With Tim Johnston – “Descent”

new-Descent-cover-flat-smallerIn the Q & A below, Tim Johnston mentions one of my favorite writers and writing instructors, Ron Carlson.

And here is a quote from Carlson that nails, perfectly, why Tim Johnston’s novel Descent works so well.

“It is not my job to explain the story or understand the story or reduce it to a phrase or offer it as being a story about any specific person, place, or thing. My job is to have been true enough to the world of my story that I was able to present it as a forceful and convincing drama. Every story is a kind of puzzle. Many have obvious solutions, and some have no solution at all. We write to present questions, sometimes complicated questions, not to offer easy or not-so-easy answers. Do not be misled by the limited vocabulary the American marketplace uses to describe the possibilities for story and drama. If we’re really writing we are exploring the unnamed emotional facets of the human heart. Not all emotions, not all states of mind have been named. Nor are all the names we have been given always accurate. The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up the crucible of their days and certainly not always—if ever—capable of articulating their condition.”

So much to like in that Carlson quote, but Descent made me think more than anything, that not all emotions can be named. Johnston embraces the puzzle, embraces the ambiguity and celebrates the complications. It is not an ordinary book and should not be approached, despite a cover and title that make it look like a traditional thriller, as anything other than a thoughtful novel about lots of stuff that can’t be explained.

A review follows (in which I’ll quote Carlson again). First, Tim Johnston answered a few questions by email. Given his busy schedule with all the praise being heaped on Descent, his taking the time to answer my questions was much appreciated.


Question: Did you set out with the objective of demonstrating that the thriller genre needed a solid re-thinking in terms of pace and flow?

Tim Johnston: Absolutely not. In fact, I had no thoughts about the thriller genre whatsoever. All of my training, schooling, and ambition has been in the literary genre, and so I was just trying to write the best damn literary novel I could. That said, I also wanted the novel to be compelling; I wanted it to appeal to those readers who simply crave a great story. Mainly, though, I was interested in my characters—in making them as real, complicated, and flawed as they could be. That’s why this so-called thriller isn’t paced like other thrillers, especially in the first two-thirds of the book: because I wasn’t writing a thriller. In fact, the first time I heard that word applied to Descent was when early readers and booksellers began providing little reviews and blurbs. And then my publisher got on board, deciding to market the book toward that—let’s face it—considerably more lucrative audience, and out into the world the novel went.

That said, if Descent has some sneaky pace-adjusting effect on the thriller genre despite my intentions, I’m totally OK with that.  The down-side: a good number of veteran thriller readers are going to go, “What the hell’s with all this character-development crap?” and move on.

Question: At The Tattered Cover in Denver, you mentioned that you don’t plot out the book but rather that you follow the characters as the writing goes. For the dedicated plotters out there who need a thorough outline before they start write the first sentence, is the seat-of-the-pants approach something that can be taught?

Tim Johnston: The seat-of-the-pants approach can be taught in the sense that it can be suggested, and tried out, like any writing process. In my undergraduate Fiction Writing classes I have my students read Ron Carlson’s craft book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, in which Carlson describes his philosophy and practice of “process as discovery”: how the actual act of writing creates the story as you go. What the students—and I—get from watching this master go through the process of creating an entire short story out of nothing more than a memory (the time a mattress flew out of the back of his truck on the freeway), and in one sitting, is that writing compelling fiction is a leap of creative faith; and that if you know too much about where you want the story to go and what you want your characters to do and say, and you are determined to by-god have them do it, then you are not likely to be surprised by your own story. And if you are not surprised, then the reader is not likely to be surprised. Having everything figured out before you begin is kind of like clipping the wings of creativity before you begin.

But really, that’s just one philosophy of process. There are plenty of plotters out there creating wonderful compelling fiction. Every writer must figure out what process works best for him or her. And likely that process will evolve over time, along with the writer’s skills and voice.

Question: Can you describe a bit of what that writing approach is like for you? E.L. Doctorow says it’s like knowing that you’re driving at night and you can only see what’s in your headlights in front of you. You might know your destination, but you don’t care about what you can’t see. Sound about right? What questions do you ask yourself about the character and moment to keep going?

Tim JohnstonTim Johnston: The Doctorow description does sound about right. Having a destination in mind isn’t quite the same as plotting. It’s like taking off from Iowa and knowing you want to arrive in Los Angeles, but not spending too much time looking at maps, trusting instead in your own internal GPS and knowing that there is no wrong turn, really…or if you do take a road that peters out into a cornfield, say, you will find some other road to get you back on track. And the funny thing is, along the way you may find you no longer want to end up in Los Angeles; you may find you want to end up in the Rocky Mountains, instead. My approach is to take it one scene at a time, and to give my full attention to that scene, as if it were the most important moment in the book. I try not to think about where this scene is supposed to get me next: all I care about is the scene, and I know that if I focus all my attention and skills on getting the scene right—getting it real, getting it true—then by the time I reach its end, I’ll know where I’m going next. Which is, as Hemingway taught us, a good place to stop for the day.

Question: It seems to me that one of the central themes of the book is the role of ‘belief’ in shaping character and the power of ‘belief’ in an individual’s ability to manage tough situations. Yet there’s not a heck of a lot of religion (organized religion) in the story. (Did I miss something?) Was this in your mind at the outset—essential human belief, on its own—as something you wanted to explore?

Tim Johnston: Belief v. lack of belief as a theme arrived without premeditation or intent. As with the seat-of-the-pants plotting philosophy, it’s completely foreign to me to set out with themes in mind to explore. The themes, like the plot, arise out of the characters—who they are and what they do scene by scene. Later, when I have a first draft in hand, and if I have managed to recognize them, I might go back into revision with one eye on these themes, checking them against some kind of over- or under-doing it barometer, but mainly I don’t worry about it too much. Certainly, in this book or any other, I was not in the least bit interested in saying anything about organized religion. But it is hard not to broach the subjects of belief, faith, and God in a story where the faith of at least one of your primary characters smashes up against such a huge and inexplicable loss. Also, I think it’s human nature even for the least religious of us to question—or entreat—some larger governing force when faced with such cruelty.

Question: There’s one scene that is, shall we say, “off-screen.” I think you know which one. Yes, that one. (If you’ve read the book, you know which I’m talking about.) Did you try to write it?  Yes or no? If yes, why didn’t you keep it?

Tim Johnston: If we’re talking about the same scene—no, I never tried to write it out. I wrote more about the lead-up to the scene than now appears in the book, making it more obvious—too obvious—what was about to happen, but I never attempted to write the scene itself. I knew that the other characters in the book would only be able to imagine that moment, try to fathom its various psychological, emotional, and physical extremities from that one character’s point of view, and I wanted the reader to have to do the same.

Question: The term ‘page-turner’ is often billed as a positive. But, but, but…..in the middle of a good read don’t you want to slow the sucker down and sip every sentence? For me, ‘page turner’ means I know what’s happening so I’m flipping pages to minimize the pain. Okay, that’s not really a question.Thoughts? Were you going for a mix?

Tim Johnston: For me, ‘page-turner’ refers to the experience of being so caught up in finding out what happens next that the most beautiful and sippable sentences in the world aren’t going to slow you down—indeed there’s a frustration in your reader’s heart and mind: you know that there’s some lovely writing going on, you’d like to slow down and take note of the lovely sentences, but you are just too darn eager to find out what happens next. The truth is, I was far more interested in writing a good literary novel than I was in writing a so-called ‘page turner.’  Not to say I didn’t want the story to be gripping, but I spent a lot of time laboring over sentences and developing characters, and that process when you are in the middle of it for so long feels like anything but page-turnery.

Question: Most overlooked contemporary writer? Okay, doesn’t have to be the ‘most,’ but care to name one? Or two? Which writers inspire you?

Tim Johnston: I go back to James Salter’s short stories again and again. I just love how much life he gets out of a single sentence. I’m always surprised how few of my students have ever heard of him.

Question: In case you haven’t looked, your two previous works have generated a total of 21 reviews on Amazon while ‘Descent’ has drawn close to 600. So, what’s next?

Tim Johnston: What else? I am working on a novel that will generate 1,200 Amazon reviews!


Tim Johnston’s Website

Tim Johnston’s presentation at the Tattered Cover

Ron Carlson Writes A Story

‘The Signal’ by Ron Carlson

The Signal





‘Five Skies’ by Ron Carlson

Five Skies







A thoughtful thriller? Sure. Tim Johnston thinks so—and pulls it off. Descent says a high-stakes premise rides better on the back of solid prose. If you are contemplating reading this book and if you are reading reviews (like this one), there should be no doubt at all about what you’re getting into. Yes, there are several scenes of intense action and extreme jeopardy, including a harrowing scene where you want so desperately for one thing to happen and of course, it doesn’t. Yes, there are elements of strong suspense. But the thriller moments are interspersed with watching real human beings grapple with the fallout of watching a family member vanish.

The four characters at the heart of Descent are the four members of the Courtland family. They are our prism into the fractured world of grief. Mother, father, daughter, son. On a trip to the Rocky Mountains, daughter Caitlin, preparing for the track team in college, goes out for a morning run. Son Sean tags along on a bicycle. Only Sean comes back—and he’s been injured.

The portraits of the father and son, Grant and Sean, drive the heart of Descent. It’s their strikingly different reactions to Caitlin’s disappearance that create a mountain of compare-and-contrast thoughts as we read and watch and wonder. Descent is about suffering through a parent’s worst nightmare, of finding a way to endure, of finding a way to literally get lost or lose yourself in the process of trying to figure it out. Sean finds trouble—and drifts—but we see his heart. Grant searches and stays close to the investigation and search while Angela stays at home, in Wisconsin.

But between Grant and Sean we see two very different men, each propelled by raw and real emotions. Johnston takes fairly major risks, at least in terms of relentless chase toward a traditional resolution, by drifting far from the central issue of Caitlin’s disappearance. There are chapters with Sean that feel as if we have gone far afield from the central search for Caitlin, but the book covers years and, well, Sean’s world felt every bit as real to me as Grant’s. Which reaction makes more sense?

The characters’ actions and responses are grounded in the wonderfully varied qualities that make each person unique and that’s Johnston’s real gift, to put the singular Grant Courtland on the page, not just “desperate father of missing daughter.”

The big finish, as the blurbs might say, packs a wallop. By the time the nail-biting scenes come (and we know they will) we are so fully invested in these people that we care and we care hard.

The writer Ron Carlson said, “I always write from experience, whether I’ve had them or not.” Reading Descent I got the feeling that Johnston channeled the four Courtlands and understood, completely, how four different people would react to one of the most challenging situations imaginable.


Q & A #27 With Gwen Florio and “Missoula” by Jon Krakauer

Missoula CoverIf you read Missoula (and you should) you’ll run across the name Gwen Florio about as as often as the names of the victims and perpetrators and prosecutors and defense lawyers in this harrowing account of sexual assault and rape on college campuses today.

Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven) cites Florio’s work throughout this account.

Gwen Florio is a former reporter (37 years) who left the business in 2013 and now works as an adjunct professor at the very university that is one of the key entities covered in Missoula. Gwen is also a fellow fiction writer and full disclosure that we now share the same publisher (Midnight Ink). She’s visited this blog before to talk about her mystery writing, but after reading Missoula, I asked Gwen to answer a few questions for the blog about her role and thoughts about being part of the story.

A full review follows.


Question: Did you have any idea that Jon Krakauer would be relying so heavily on your original reporting for his book? When did you find out your stories would be referenced throughout?

Gwen Florio: None whatsoever. And to be fair, the book largely relied on the same documents that I had obtained, although—props to Krakauer—he got much more. I didn’t realize that he’d very generously given me credit until the book came out.

Question: So, what did you think of Missoula?

Gwen Florio: That’s an oddly tough question. Because I was so familiar with the material, much of the book was review for me, and I’ve been curious how readers who were new to the situation might respond. (Several have contacted me and told me they found it riveting.) I very much like two things about it. First, the aforementioned reliance on documents, which make this book the polar opposite of the execrable Rolling Stone story. Second, the national, and even international (I’ve seen stories in the Canadian and British press) conversation it’s prompted on this crucial issue.

Question: The book is called “Missoula” but there have been similar issues in at the University of Colorado in Boulder and recently from college campuses all over the country. From what I know, the events in Missoula are hardly outliers. Agree? What do you think of the title and how is the book going over in…Missoula?

Gwen Florio: I was grateful to Krakauer for making exactly that point; in fact, he takes pains to inform us that Missoula’s rate of sexual assault is a little lower than average. That said, it really steams me when I hear complaints that the book unfairly singles out Missoula. So often, and especially here in Missoula, people seem far more upset about the title than the issue at hand. The argument, “We’re no worse than anywhere else,” is pretty embarrassing.

Question: Is there a way to fix this? I mean, a way to improve the training and the whole process, investigation through prosecution? How about the collaboration between a university and the city police force? Should there be more collaboration?

Gwen Florio: One of the issues the book points out, and that I also wrote about in my stories, is that in at least one of these cases, the university ignored its own agreement with the city to immediately report potential felony cases to the city police. So, yeah–more collaboration, stat. To the credit of the city police, that collaboration was strengthened, and more training mandated, even before the federal Justice Department investigation was announced.

Question: Um … college kids, drinking and hormones. Go. (What if Missoula was required reading for all college freshman? And is this situation a football star, jock issue? Or more than that?)

Gwen Florio: I think it should be mandated reading, and I think it will be a cold day in hell on the UM campus when that happens. The university has really tried to distance itself from the book, which is a shame. They could have seized the opportunity to show continued focus and leadership on the issue.

As for it being a jock issue, certainly sexual assault cuts across all categories of students and non-students alike. I think the cases involving athletes got such attention because for many years, the university so aggressively defended athletes charged in any number of alleged criminal cases. It was common, for instance, for university administrators to call the newspaper and complain about the placement of stories involving athletes in trouble, but the phones stayed silent when we reported on other students accused of running afoul of the law. There was a sense that at UM, as with many schools, athletes were a protected class. To the school’s credit, since the hiring of a new coach and athletic director, we’re no longer seeing stories on a regular basis about jocks getting in trouble.

Question: Do you think anything has changed in Missoula since you started reporting on these cases three, four years ago? Have the police and prosecutors changed anything? Has the university done anything more to improve awareness among students?

Gwen Florio: Certainly there’s more awareness. The university now mandates a sexual assault awareness online tutorial for students, which is much maligned by those same students—it involves watching some videos and taking a quiz. Likewise the city has instituted some programs that are better received, including a series of “bystander intervention” public service announcements. The police have gotten much more training, and individual officers have told me they appreciate it. The advocacy program for victims has been strengthened. And, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released this week, sexual assault reports to the Missoula Police Department are up 54 percent since 2012, likely indicating that women are more comfortable coming forward. That’s good. What’s missing?


Gwen Florio

We don’t know yet if a higher percentage of sexual assault cases are being prosecuted, nor what the conviction rate might be. The report also found that “rape myths” remain distressingly prevalent.

Question: Without going into a great deal of it, it’s clear you took a great deal of verbal and online abuse for your reporting about these cases—how did you deal with it? Has the release of the book created another wave of anger?

Gwen Florio: Oh, for sure. Most of the recent vitriol is focused on Krakauer, although they’ve regurgitated their old complaints about me, too—and, far more graphically and disturbingly, the women who came forward to report these cases. During the height of the controversy over these sexual assault cases, especially when UM’s quarterback was on trial for rape—he was acquitted—things got really ugly. Lots of abuse of a sexual nature, some of it violent, and references to where I live, etc. Important point: Simply ignoring it, which is the most common advice, doesn’t work. I took to posting screen shots of the most egregious stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and after some initial wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth among those writing this sort of crap, it quieted down to some extent. But for three or four years now, I’ve gotten anonymous letters in the mail (the address typed, cut out, and taped to the envelope; very old-school) from someone who has also contacted my book publisher, a local bookseller, my then-supervisors, and even judges, among others. The most offensive thing about those is the grammar; for example, “Your a dumb ass.” The incorrect your is bad enough. But everyone knows ‘dumbass’ is one word.

Question: Other than the fact your protagonist is a reporter, how has reporting informed your fiction writing?

Gwen Florio: Completely. Reporting forces you to observe how people look and act and, at least as important, how they talk. It throws you into fascinating situations, many of which never make it into newspaper stories but later provide fine fodder for fiction. Oddly enough, despite having spent a few years watching the mesmerizing, if frequently disillusioning, workings of our justice system, I haven’t written any court-based stories or even scenes. That probably needs to change.


Gwen Florio’s Books



I don’t know if it made any difference, but I listened to this in fairly intense fashion–the vast majority of it during an 800-mile road trip.

I have little doubt, however, that reading Missoula at a less frenetic pace would not lessen the cumulative jolt of being taken inside these powerful cases of college campus acquaintance rape and watching the very dramatic human fallout that results.

The themes in Missoula are manifold. Star systems for prized gladiators a.k.a., football players. Dual systems of justice with the university procedures and bureaucracy on one hand, the “outside” world’s laws and judicial bureaucracy on the other. Politics and subjectivity. Training and bias for investigators and prosecutors. Sex, drinking, rights of passage, entitlements, expectations, fitting in. And, in both the college-track prosecution and the criminal justice system itself, escape-hatch appeal opportunities that make a joke out of all the “process” that went before it.

Beyond the procedures of prosecuting date rape, Missoula captures the heavy, draining emotional training on all involved, particularly, of course, the women.

We have all read about how difficult it is for women to step forward following a rape, but Missoula makes it palpable and then shows us the agony involved, blow by blow and step by step. Why would there be confidence in the system when it’s this messed up? Krakauer makes a convincing case that the systems are not prepared, college campus and alcohol issues or not, to handle these cases. The vast majority of reported rapes are not prosecuted successfully.

Missoula dives deep into a spate of high-profile rapes on the campus of the University of Montana between 2008 and 2012. The attackers were football stars in a town that is nutty for the sport. Krakauer unspools the series of decisions that are behind the formal processes at the college and city level. The college comes across looking like a swift, decisive organization, no doubt with some quirky elements to its system. The consequences of the university’s decisions are plenty severe, especially for athletes in the limelight. When it comes time to describe how the criminal trial proceeds, Krakauer points out (and doesn’t have to point too hard) that trial rules these days and courtroom behavior make it easy for a defense attorney to mislead and confuse and jury. You read this thinking, can’t we make this a bit more fair? A bit?

One case involved a football player who linebacker named Beau Donaldson who pled guilty to having raped a young woman who he had known since grade school. She was sound asleep when she woke to find him mid-assault. (Missoula is quite graphic.) The other involved Jordan Johnson, the star quarterback who maintains throughout long negotiations and trial that the sex was consensual.

Missoula stresses the “acquaintance” or “non-stranger” elements here that make matters confusing–the nature of the relationship leading up to the assault, brief moments that might have been misinterpreted before the attack and how the women in each instance chose to handle the moment, particularly in their decisions to not shout out or being more forceful. However, “decisions” might not be the right word; more like “reactions.’ The football players, of course, had the size and strength advantages. In Jordan’s case, the woman involved had a male roommate not too far away on the other side of a closed door.

I won’t give away here how the prosecutions of Donaldson and Johnson ended up, but clearly claims of having a good character, no matter ample evidence that otherwise decent people have committed rape, does play a role in minimizing the penalty for one of the two.

Is the system capable of changing? I know Krakauer must think so. I’d like to think so. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Missoula to Vanderbilt University, there are certainly ample opportunities to show that new training and new approaches might yield better responses to how police and prosecutors engage with a crime, or any encounter on the street, from the very first moment.

I completely agree with the New Yorker review, by Margaret Talbot, that “Krakauer’s timely book is also a reminder of a crucial point that a subset of students evidently need to learn: a person who is too drunk to stand or walk properly, who is vomiting or passed out, cannot consent to sex.”

This is gripping, must-read book.