In 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 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 presentation at the Tattered Cover
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.