A Peek at the Creative Space of JJ Johnson

It’s my pleasure to welcome author JJ Johnson to Creative Spaces today. JJ’s debut novel, This Girl is Different, was published this spring by Peachtree Publishers. It was recently named as a 2011 Parents’ Choice Silver Honor winner. Here is a brief synopsis:
Senior year is about to start, and Evie is starting at a mainstream high school for the first time. Until now, Evie has been homeschooled by her counter-culture mother, which gives her a view of the world unlike you average teenager.
High school is a social minefield, and Evie finds herself confronting new problems at every turn, failing to follow or even understand the rules. Mainly, she is disturbed to encounter teachers who abuse their power and discriminate against their own students. That’s when Evie, her best friend Jacinda, and boyfriend Rajas start an anonymous blog to give the students a voice.

Eventually, the three lose control of the blog and a number of students and teachers are attacked through increasingly abusive and anonymous posts. Suddenly, Evie has accidentally gone from providing a forum for free speech to creating a place for online bullying–which is the last thing she wanted to do.

Kirkus Reviews said, “Outspoken Evie, with a voice so endearing and provocative that it will make readers pause often to think, quickly discovers in this witty debut that high school is full of biased rules, abuses of power and a lack of civil liberties. . . . Readers will never look at high school–or life–the same.”
To learn more about JJ Johnson visit her website.
Describe your workspace.

My workspace is my MacBook Air and an imaginary bubble surrounding me. As much as I’d love a home office with an antique desk, bookshelves, art, and dappled sunlight filtering through the windows, that is so not my reality. My house is too tiny for an office, and my daily obligations wouldn’t allow me to spend time there anyway. So I take my work—and my bubble—with me. I write in coffee shops, at my child’s school, the public library, the dining room table while kids light-saber duel around me.

Describe a typical workday.

Honestly, there’s no such thing. I grab time whenever and wherever I can. That said, I usually spend an hour or two on publicity stuff—website updates, interviews, Facebook, e-mails, etc—and when that’s done, I write for a couple of hours. That’s a good day. When I’m up against a hard deadline, though, all bets are off, and the house goes to pot, because I just have to get it done.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1. I have a sticker on my computer. It’s a stained-glass-ish painting of a kangaroo bounding in front of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia. My family lived down under in 2009-2010, and the country there occupies a huge part of my heart. It’s a beautiful reminder that it’s a big world, and that I want to experience as much of it as I can.

2. A postcard of art by Shepard Fairey (2005) that says ‘Make Art Not War.’ It reminds me why I do what I do—because I want to live in a world where people create more than they consume, where art and human kindness are valued over profits and violence.

3. Taped inside my notebook is the Marge Piercy poem “For the young who want to”. The whole poem is great, but the last few lines really speak to me:

The real writer is one / who really writes. Talent / is an invention like phlogiston / after the fact of fire. / Work is its own cure. You have to / like it more than being loved.

To me, it means that your reasons for writing, your motivation, your validation, everything has come from within. By all means, accept critique from trusted friends and editors, but the rest of it you must block out. You can’t get distracted by rejections, bad reviews, or any of the other machinations of the publishing industry. “Work is its own cure.” If that’s true for you—if you can’t not write, then you write.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I make or buy a yummy drink and I clear off whatever table/couch/bench/rock where I’m sitting. I usually start with editing, so I’m not confronted immediately with the dreaded blank screen of a new chapter.

What do you listen to while you work?

I’ve never been able to listen to music when I work. I listen to the brown noise option from the sanity-saving SimplyNoise.com

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Each of my novels has its own drink. This Girl is Different was iced coffee. Random was chai. The novel I’m currently writing is unsweetened iced tea. The drink becomes part of the ritual of focusing: make the drink, clear off the table, pop in the earbuds, take a sip, start writing. It becomes Pavlovian.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The white/brown noise helps. But it’s not an all-or-nothing venture; when I need a little break, I check Facebook or email, or I get up and walk around. I’m not a machine or anything. Really it just comes down to one basic question: Do you want to be an author, or don’t you? A writer is someone who writes. It’s that simple.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I generally start off a novel by writing notes longhand, although I dread doing so and kick and scream all the way. Then I put it in the computer—I use Scrivener, which is the best novel-writing software known to humans—and off I go.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

The writer Robert Olen Butler says everything you experience goes into a compost heap—everything you think and do and see and feel gets thrown in there, and breaks down into rich, fertile soil. That’s what you grow your novels in.

I’ve learned to respect the time it takes to think up a novel. A few months of busy daydreaming—repainting the house, teaching myself to reupholster furniture—that’s when stories coalesce. My house is filled with things I’ve made while “baking” my novels.

This painting of trees–eucalypts on the right, blending toward north american deciduous on the left, (24 x 36” acrylic)–is a product of my busy daydreaming while “baking” a novel.

When I’m ready, I start scribbling notes in my notebook. Then I take to the computer and get to page 50 or 100, and THEN I realize I probably should have made an outline. So I go back and write each scene on a sticky note and plot out a huge mind-map, which gets taped to the dining room wall for a while.

The map of my current novel. It’s approximately 3×5 feet of newsprint, and the stickies are color-coded. Chartreuse = scenes & plot points (it’s an escalating plot, you can tell by the shape of the line), Blue = “bad guys”, Purple = surprises & plot twists, Pink = details to remember and character traits.  Bottom right corner is a list of major themes.  I’ve fuzzed the writing out because my editor would kill me if I gave away secrets!

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I’m constantly forced to share my workspace, and I can tell you who I LEAST like sharing it with: ice cube rattlers, cell-phone talkers, compulsive pen-clickers, and heavy sighers. Anyone else I can pretty much deal with.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

A fellow author once told me, “Your words are medicine for someone out there.” On bad days, that keeps me going. Find what keeps you going. And may the Force be with you.

5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of JJ Johnson”

  1. toquemag

    My favorite quote from JJ Johnson in this interview is: "I want to live in a world where people create more than they consume, where art and human kindness are valued over profits and violence." Also glad to have the visuals–so important and often overlooked in blog posts!

    As my oldest daughter is entering high school this fall, I'm thinking Evie is right up her alley. Thank you Jennifer and JJ.

  2. mfantaliswrites

    THis is a great interview, Jenn. What a natural talent, JJ! I love the book map. As a visual person, that just makes sense to me, and I think I should try it. It helps me to see what other authors do.

  3. Miranda "Sibo" Paul

    What a great interview. Loved learning yet another great writer is also a Mac user (there seem to be a disproportionally large percentage of us using Macs), and sometimes makes an outline halfway through 🙂 Thanks for the post!