Tim Johnston has degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Memphis.
But his latest novel, the harrowing literary thriller Descent (Algonquin, $15.95 in paper), exists because he was working as a carpenter.
“I was actually working on a house in Colorado when I got the idea and started banging it out,” says Johnston, who worked with his dad renovating houses in Iowa and then later moved west to Los Angeles to build movie sets. “I spent so much time on my own doing mindless work, painting all these walls — the mind wanders. I’m from the Midwest, so the Rocky Mountains are kind of a mythical, amazing place for someone who lives with limited vistas and horizons. So I knew these characters were from the Midwest, coming out for a typical American recreation experience in the Rocky Mountains, and that something was going to go wrong.”
What goes wrong for the Courtlands — parents Grant and Angela, bound-for-college daughter Caitlin and teenage son Sean — is every family’s nightmare: After heading up into the mountains for a run, Caitlin disappears. But instead of turning into a police procedural detailing a frantic search for clues or a body, Descent focuses on the devastating emotional cost to Caitlin’s family as time passes.
“I didn’t set out to create a missing girl story,” says Johnston, who appears Thursday at Books & Books in Coral Gables and spent seven years putting together his first draft of Descent. “All I know is these characters came unbidden.”
Q. You focus on Caitlin’s family in “Descent.” Was that always the plan?
Writing a page-turner was the furthest thing from my mind. What was most interesting to me was not: The girl is missing — would she survive? What was interesting to me was the family that was left behind. We get inundated in the media with all these terrible stories, big headline stories about girls going missing and a big search and the FBI coming in, but that wasn’t really interesting to me. I wondered what happens when the story dies out, and there’s been no resolution, and the family is left to deal with their own grief. Whether the kid is alive or not, nobody can help them or tell them, and they have to go on with their lives. That’s what got me writing.
Q: Did you know the direction the story was eventually going to take?
I was writing about the father and son in the aftermath. I hadn’t written about the girl. I didn’t know if she was alive or not. Writing their story made Caitlin more important to me. I took a stronger interest in what happened to her, and I think that led to going down that page-turner path.
Q: Were any of the characters harder for you to write than others?
It was easier for me to write about the men in the beginning. I could relate to a father and son. You know how the book is chopped up into alternating points of view? I didn’t write it that way. After the initial catalyst of Caitlin going missing, the character I was most interested in was the father, so I started writing about him until I reached the point I couldn’t go on until I knew where the story was going. Then I picked up Sean and followed him quite awhile. … In the initial writing, the mother really wasn’t in the novel. She had sort of checked out through her own emotional difficulties; only later I went back and put her in. I have to say, once I got into writing her, I enjoyed her voice. It felt different from the others and it was liberating for me.
Q. Do you read thrillers?
I grew up reading Stephen King — anything exciting, I wanted to read. I got that trained out of me when I went to college and heard people talking about what’s good writing and what’s not good writing. At the University of Iowa, where I was an undergrad, nobody was sitting around talking about thrillers. … the truth is even though this book has been called a thriller, I really never thought of it that way. I kind of fought against it, to tell you the truth, because it doesn’t sound literary to me! But I own it — part of me was trying to write an interesting, commercially viable book.
Q. Do you feel there is a prejudice against genre fiction?
I’m teaching creative writing, where there’s a real emphasis on not writing genre fiction. Genre is a bad word, even though that’s all undergrads want to write — they haven’t had it whipped out of them yet. They’ve read genre fiction, and it’s what fires their imaginations. You don’t want to discourage them from writing what they want to write, but you want them to learn. … and then here comes their teacher who’s teaching them to write realism in this class, and I’ve got this thriller out, and they’re looking at me like: “Really?” … I think my theory is the more you care about the characters, the better you write realistically about them and the more exciting the story is going to be. This is the argument I make to my students, anyway.
Meet the author
Who: Tim Johnston
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-443-4408 or booksandbooks.com