Author Interview: Heather Taylor Johnson

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Heather Taylor Johnson has just released her debut novel Pursuing Love & Death. We were able to find out a little more about the book and its author in this recent interview.

Hi Heather, welcome to Beauty and Lace. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

What made you want to be a writer?

Writing was something that always gave me confidence, always made me feel proud of myself. I think that might point to the fact that perhaps I had a talent for writing at a young age. Maybe. I don’t know. But it definitely means that I’ve always liked it.

You were born and raised in America, what prompted the move to Australia?

First love break-up. We were both skydivers, and that’s a very small culture, so it seemed I couldn’t get away from him. We had also moved together to my dream place (Arizona) so when that didn’t work out, I had no idea where else to go. I wasn’t getting accepted into the grad schools I’d been applying to so I thought, why not something TOTALLY new? Then it all fell together: go to a place where I wouldn’t be reminded of the pain I’d felt from the lost love, some place with nice weather so I could skydive year-round, some place where a school would want my foreign dollars. Australia seemed perfect. And it is widely known that Americans love Australians and the idea of Australia.

Pursuing Love & Death is your debut novel, can you tell us a little about it?

My father once asked me to write something about him, and the more I thought about it the more I realised that I didn’t know enough about my dad to do that. So I ended up writing about a family who have to come together for one member’s wedding, and just how difficult it is for them to communicate. There are a lot of message banks involved. A lot of conversations left un-had. Aside from them working as a unit to convey something larger to my audience, each character brings their own overladen baggage, if you will, to the occasion. Their stories are sometimes quirky, sometimes sad and sometimes relatable. I think the book has a saga feel to it, yet it takes place over one week. I’ve tried my best to bring the tragic and the comic together because I’m a lover of John Irving, and he has made me cry on more than one occasion for having both of those in one single scene (read The World According to Garp if you don’t know what I mean!)

You have published two books of poetry previously, what inspired the switch to prose?

Actually I have three books of poetry, and I have never / would never switch from one to the other. Pursuing Love and Death is my fourth novel manuscript, so I’ve been writing prose, seriously, for as long as I’ve been writing poetry. I think I’m really lucky to have those two loves in my life – they’re such distinct forms and I love them each passionately, in very distinct and disparate ways, yet at the same time they complement one another in the larger picture realm, which is, ultimately, ‘language’.

Can you tell us a little of your journey to publication?

My first novel manuscript and my third one had a lot of pats-on-the-back – Varuna mentorships, major publishers bringing them to the acquisitions table, long-listings for major prizes like the Vogel, receiving grants – so I always thought I’d get there one day, just not with those books (though I’m not giving up on the first one, which is, in fact, about losing a first love amidst a backdrop of skydiving drop zones!) It took me a while to come to terms with them not being failures, but in fact being works of art which involved honing my skills. I have a very enlightened friend to thank for that: Sonja Dechian.

I had actually entered three publishing residencies at the Varuna Writers House with Pursuing Love and Death. The first two didn’t even long-list me and the final one – the HarperCollins / Varuna award – gave me a spot. That just goes to show 1. Be persistent and 2. It’s really a matter of finding the right reader at the right time. After having worked for a week with an editor at the beautiful yellow house in the Blue Mountains I went away feeling half-confident, half-terrified. What if, after all that time, they didn’t want it? Then I’d have to chalk it up to ‘honing my skills’ again and move on. But what if they did want it? Luckily they did. And, after 13 years of honing my skills, that was wonderful.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Mostly my family – both my American one and my Australian one, and now I seem to be venturing out into friends-as-family and even my dog. Place is enormous in my writing, too – no doubt the migrant factor at play. I read a lot. If I’m writing poetry, I’m reading poetry every time I sit down to write. If I’m writing prose – well, that doesn’t work because I read prose every night and most mornings so novels are always on my mind.

Johnson Heather Taylor 2013

Do you have a favourite place and time of day to write?

Yes, definitely. I love my backyard, under the oak tree, and I love the afternoon. I always go out there with a bottle of water, my journal and a pen. When I’ve been out there for an hour or two, I go inside to type up what I wrote in my journal. This allows me to edit that little bit so 800 words become 1000, or a poem becomes a better poem. I’ve discovered recently that I tend to want to write after watching ‘The First Tuesday Book Club’.

Are there favourite mediums for you depending on what you are writing? I always found myself much happier, and more comfortable, writing poetry with pencil and paper.

I suppose I just answered that above. I’ve never written a poem directly onto a computer – always the journal and a pen. I have written new chapters directly onto a computer, but that’s usually when I’m in serious-mode. As in I’m doing major edits or I’m at a writers’ retreat and writing all day.

How do you juggle work, your family and your writing?

I’ve only just started working. For the last 15 years I’ve either been doing graduate studies in Creative Writing or having/raising babies and writing from home. I’m 39 and I’ve just taken on university lecturing full time. The short answer is: I’m not juggling it because I’m not currently writing (outside of the 5 minute writing exercises I do with my classes). I’ve realised this is not sustainable so I’m trying to think of ways to negotiate a different workload for next year and future years to come, but in the meantime it must be said that I have an incredibly supportive husband who encourages me to go away with friends for a few days at a time during school breaks and create our own writing retreats. These are tremendous space-finders.

Is there anything new you are working on that you can tell us about?

I have a poetry manuscript I’ve been working on for about 3 years and am doing major edits on now. It’s a collection of poems written from the points of view of female literary heroines who were written by males (so Caddy from the Sound and the Fury, for instance, and Lolita and Medea, as well). There are 7 (maybe 8) of them and they communicate through emails, so there’s a narrative going on as well as a showcase of their individual poems. I love it so much I’m loathe to rush it. I’ve also been working on a novel for the past 3 years – but that’s taking so long because I had too many false starts. It took me a very long time to realise I just needed to accept that I was in poetry-mode and let that run its course. Now I’m in novel-mode and thrilled to be there, but not finding the time to devote to it. I’m hopefully a year away from a first draft. It’s so hard to tell, but I do know that it’s the most difficult novel I’ve written because there’s too much stopping and starting of the actual writing.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman informs everything I write. My poetry is very autobiographical and often deals with love: of my husband, my children, my parents, my identity, my home. It’s very much located in the domestic sphere and I’ve often wondered if that turns people off – publishers, magazines, critics, prize givers – then I’ve thought ‘stuff it’. You have to write from your heart and your mind, but most of all your heart, and that’s what’s in my heart. Pursuing Love and Death is the first novel I’ve written where men play major roles (as well as Aussies!) It was scary, definitely bringing me out of my comfort zone, but I still feel I’ve approached those men from a feminine place, so that they, too, are thinking about love, family, etc. Both the novel and the poetry collection I’m currently writing are heavily centred around female relationships – sisterhood, really. I’ve come to realise how much women need women in these last few years. Our close female friends are such extensions of ourselves and we need them to be emotionally healthy.

To find out more about Heather Taylor Johnson you can find her at her website: heathertaylorjohnson.comAnd her book is available through Harper Collins and in all good bookstores.

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