It’s a pleasure to welcome author Tim Johnston to Thoughts in Progress today to talk about his captivating novel, DESCENT, which is garnering tremendous critical attention and has become a New York Times, USA Today and Indie Next bestseller upon publication in January.
The book just recently went on sale in paperback and it’s already ascending the Indie Next bestseller list. Thanks to Michael and the good folks at Algonquin Books, I have a copy of DESCENT to giveaway in celebration of the paperback release. Please see the end of the post for more details on the giveaway.
A combination of a great story and beautiful writing, DESCENT is both a thriller and a work of remarkable literary sensibility. What makes it unique is not just that it’s a tautly paced thriller with a sense of mounting suspense, but that it’s also a story of the survivors, the family members left behind. The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, who are taking a family vacation before their daughter leaves for college. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic. Written with a precision that captures every emotion, every moment of fear, as each member of the family searches for answers, DESCENT races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion.
As the late Alan Cheuse said on All Things Considered said, “This is much more than your typical thriller. Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky… Johnston is an excellent writer. You want to set this one down so you can take a breath, and keep reading—all at the same time.”
Please join me now in giving Tim a warm welcome and we have a conversation with him about DESCENT. Welcome, Tim.
DESCENT is essentially a literary page-turner with a plot ripped from the headlines—a teenage girl mysteriously disappears while out on a run—but the telling of the story is so unlike any other thriller. You go into remarkable depth about how this sudden disappearance affects every family member, showing each character’s own secrets and tribulations. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for your novel?
This story, and these characters, snuck up on me as I was doing the finish work on a house way up in the Rocky Mountains. I was all alone up there for months, happy just being a carpenter for a while—that is to say, not actively trying to write—when this family of four, the Courtlands, became so prevalent, so insistent in my head that one day I had to drop what I was doing—painting a bathroom, as it happens—and begin writing.
The inspiration was a combination of the solitude, the carpentry, the astounding mountains themselves, and the books I was reading at the time, which were infused with an American West harshness, vastness, and lyricism that thrilled me. This was suddenly the kind of novel I wanted to write—although it would be a long time before I would admit to anyone, least of all myself, that I was writing a novel. The ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter and the storytelling technique may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but in fact they were two sides of the same coin of creativity: as a literary writer, I wanted to write as well and gracefully as I could, sentence by sentence, about my characters. But I also wanted the novel to be more than literary; I wanted it to be the kind of story I loved to read before I knew the world made a distinction between a great story and great writing. I wanted it to be both.
While DESCENT is a work of literary psychological realism, it is also a heart racing, suspenseful read. Did you set out to write a thriller?
I did not. All my training as a writer is in literary fiction; likewise, my ambitions. When I began to write DESCENT I had in mind to write the best sentences and paragraphs I was capable of writing, and to write, as Hemingway decrees, truly—even if the story seemed ripped from the day’s headlines. No: because it seemed ripped from the day’s headlines. For, in fact, it was the familiarity of such news that fascinated me and made me love these characters: the idea that no matter how many times we see such stories in the news, still none of us ever believes such things can happen to us, to our loved ones, until it does—and when it does, there is nothing familiar or sensationalistic about it; it must be lived for the first time, day by day, hour by hour.
I wanted to write that story—familiar but also a one-of-a-kind story of loss and survival—as truly and artfully as I could. At the same time, I wanted to satisfy that young reader in me who used to tear through novels for the sheer plotful excitement of them. I wanted to write a book that would be at once lovely to read, sentence by sentence, and entertaining in the most primal sense—a book where the reader’s urge to slow down and savor is continually at odds with his or her desire to rush ahead and find out.
The Rocky Mountains serve as the majestic setting for your novel; the setting is so important that it essentially serves as a primary character. While grand and breathtakingly beautiful, the Rockies also take on a sinister aspect. Why did you choose this part of the country for your setting?
I don’t believe I chose the Rockies as a setting any more than I chose my characters or their story: it all arrived together in a package deal. And it all arrived because of my circumstances at the time of working on that house up in those mountains. But, as is generally the case with fiction writing, the significance of the setting evolved along with the novel’s characters, themes, and structure. The Courtlands, I now understand, are the descendants of men and women who looked at the mountains beyond the plains and saw more territory to be seized as their own. Good old-fashioned Manifest Destiny. As modern recreational Americans, my characters were attracted to the grandeur and beauty and mythic wildness of the mountains; they came for what passes for adventure in our times, and could not have known that the vast majority of the Rockies are still as wild and dangerous as they’ve ever been.
The ending of the book is really unexpected and heartbreaking. Did you know how the story would wrap up from the very start or was it also a surprise for you?
Every semester I tell my students (parroting much more credible writers and teachers than myself ), “If you are never surprised by where your story is going, chances are your readers won’t be either.” Stories that reach their intended endings never quite soar. In the case of DESCENT, it was even worse: having the ending in mind all but killed off the novel itself—though I did not understand this at the time. At the time, I had reached the point in the story where I could not write another sentence without committing to the projected ending, and I just could not do that. And then, suddenly—almost a year later—it came to me that I could not live with that ending. And when I understood that, a new ending altogether took shape, and once I committed to that ending, the pages began piling up again. (Note: For the careful and curious reader, that original and projected ending is actually and secretly in the finished novel, disguised as just another scene along the way toward the ending.)
David Sedaris selected your short story collection, Irish Girl, as one of his favorite books of 2009, and included your title story in the short story anthology he compiled and edited, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. You’re the only author in the collection who is relatively “unknown.” How did Sedaris find out about your work? And what was it like for your career when he recommended Irish Girl to audiences during his 2010 book tour?
“Irish Girl” the short story was first published in the beautiful but now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine. The story went on to win a 2003 O. Henry Prize, and a year after that I was alerted by my agent that David Sedaris had chosen the story for his anthology of favorites—a decision that placed my name in the company of many of my story-writing heroes: Richard Yates, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro . . . a surreal development I still haven’t come to terms with. When my manuscript of stories won the 2008 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, a prize that included publication, I thought we might entice Mr. Sedaris’s interest—or at least jog his memory—by naming the collection after the story he’d chosen for his anthology. This incredibly generous man not only provided a wonderful endorsement for the jacket, but he went on to hold the book up before one packed auditorium after another on his 2010 book tour, and my little volume of stories got some of the most head-spinning publicity available short of an Oprah sticker or a glowing New York Times review.
I can’t even guess how many people bought and read Irish Girl because of him—to say nothing of the several New York editors who became interested in seeing my novel when it was ready, one of them because Sedaris called him up directly and told him to seek out my agent. Neither do I underestimate the significance of The Sedaris Factor when it came to being taken seriously by the two universities that have hired me since. I wrote the stories, but Sedaris gave them a fighting chance in a culture that little notices slender collections by unknown writers. Understating it to an embarrassing degree, my debt and gratitude to the man is enormous.
Tim, thank you for joining us today and sharing how this story came to be. It’s always interesting from a reader’s point of view to know what inspired an author to pen a certain story.
Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with Tim, here’s a bit of background on him.
|Author Tim Johnston (c) Dave Boerger|
TIM JOHNSTON is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Descent, the story collection Irish Girl, and the young adult novel Never So Green. Published in 2009, the stories in Irish Girl won an O. Henry Prize, the New Letters Award for Writers, and the Gival Press Short Story Award, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.
In 2005 the title story, "Irish Girl," was included in the David Sedaris anthology of favorites Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Johnston's stories have also appeared in New England Review, New Letters, the Iowa Review, the Missouri Review, DoubleTake, Best Life Magazine, and Narrative Magazine, among others.
Tim holds degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He currently teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Memphis.
Here is some of what others are saying about DESCENT:
“I’ve read many variations on this theme, some quite good, but never one as powerful as Tim Johnston’s Descent. . . . The story unfolds brilliantly, always surprisingly, but the glory of Descent lies not in its plot but in the quality of the writing. The magic of his prose equals the horror of Johnston’s story; each somehow enhances the other. . . . Read this astonishing novel. It’s the best of both worlds.” — Washington Post
“Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. . . . My heart's still pounding even now as I'm trying to describe the novel, recalling just about every turn and twist of the action, remembering how engaged I was, and how surprised I felt at just how far Johnston could wander from the main premise and still keep me with him. . . . You'll want to set this one down so you can take a breath, and pick it up and keep reading—all at the same time.” — Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Outstanding . . . The days when you had to choose between a great story and a great piece of writing? Gone.” — Esquire
“Tim Johnston’s high-wire literary thriller . . . will leave you gasping.” — Vanity Fair
“A compelling thriller that is both creepy and literary. [Johnston’s] character development is superb…The emotions of the father and brother are raw and painful. The kidnapper is multifaceted, an evil man given to acts of kindness. Even the minor characters, including the sheriff and his family, are sharp-edged. Descent is not just a mystery. It is an emotional story of evil, fear, acceptance and irony… [Descent] quickly rises to a literary height with its complex story and multilayered ending.” — The Denver Post
“Johnston has a poet’s eye for the majestic and forbidding nature of the Rockies, and a sociologist’s understanding of how people act under pressure. He also has a knack for creating characters that the reader will come to care about, no matter how flawed they are. Combining domestic drama with wilderness adventure, Johnston has created a hybrid novel that is as emotionally satisfying as it is viscerally exciting.” — Publishers Weekly, starred and boxed review
Thanks to Michael and the great folks at Algonquin Books, I have one print copy of DESCENT to giveaway. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. only and will end at 12 a.m. (EST) on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter widget below and following the instructions. The widget may take a few seconds to load so please be patient. A winner will be selected by the Rafflecopter widget and I’ll send an email with the subject line “Thoughts in Progress Descent Giveaway.” The winner will have 72 hours to reply to the email or another winner will be selected. PLEASE be sure to check your spam folder from time to time after the giveaway ends. If you win and you’ve already won the book somewhere else or you just decide for whatever reason you don’t want to win, once again PLEASE let me know.
Thanks for stopping by today during Tim’s visit. Do you enjoy thrillers that seem to be ripped from today’s headlines?
a Rafflecopter giveaway