The reviews for Tim Johnston’s new novel The Current, like those for his debut Descent, tend to have a curious contradiction within. People Magazine says The Current “soars above the constraints of a traditional thriller.” “If it sounds like a mystery, it is, but not in the traditional whodunit mode,” says Kirkus. Reviewers seem eager to categorize the novel even as they admit it doesn’t conform neatly to any category.
Maybe it’s best to enter into the mesmerizing, lyrical pages of The Current without thinking of it in genre terms. It’s a novel of secrets revealed, lives lost, connections found. On the heels of the book’s release, I spoke with Johnston about that pesky genre question, balance and inspiration, going at your own pace, and “the highest magic of storytelling.”
Thrillers are often seen as plot-driven, and indeed a huge amount happens in The Current — matters of life and death, violence, the unearthing of secrets, reckonings. But the writing is also beautiful and often meditative. The New York Times says, “Johnston writes in gracefully exact language with genuine heart,” which is a lovely way to put it. How do you balance writing in a genre that demands movement with carefully crafting sentences and paragraphs? Is it even a question of seeking balance, or does it happen naturally?
First of all, thank you. I think the key to balancing action with language is not thinking too much about it, but to write the story you want to write in the style you want to write it, and for me this means writing about Character first and Plot second. True, The Current has enough life-and-death, actiony elements to be placed in the thriller or crime camp, but I didn’t set out to write that kind of book; I actually don’t read traditional thrillers or crime novels, so why would I try to write one? I’m just trying to write to the best of my abilities no matter what’s happening, plot-wise, and that means taking my time with the story and with the sentences. The end result may make some readers of traditional thrillers a little…restless, while others may find themselves drawn more deeply into the world of the novel.
Speaking of balance, you’re exploring two different timeframes ten years apart in The Current, each with its own as-yet-unsolved crime. Which of the two came to you first? Did you know all along who the perpetrator of each crime would turn out to be, and whether the reader would have those answers by the time the book ended?
The earlier crime, the one from ten years ago, has its origins in a short story I wrote, in fact, ten years ago, called “Water,” which appears in my story collection Irish Girl. In that story a young woman drowns in a river, in small-town Minnesota, under suspicious circumstances. The crime is never solved and at the story’s end the surviving characters are wrecked and torn asunder…and that was just fine with me at the time; the story was always more about how the characters were affected by the crime than the crime itself. Eight years later, when I began to write about two young women who take a road trip in the dead of winter to that same small town in Minnesota, but who end up fighting for their lives in the same river, I had very little idea of how the two crimes were connected, if they were at all, who had committed them, or if we would ever get those answers definitively. Finding all of that out was what drove the writing of the novel. The other idea that compelled me was how seldom the truth is known absolutely, and how justice plays out in a justice system that is so inherently and reliably flawed.
What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about life as a writer? Are the challenge and the reward linked for you, or separate?
The most challenging thing for me is the non-writing times, when I am between stories or novels. Young writers are told that a writer writes every day no matter what, but I’m no longer young and I gave up on that idea long ago. I don’t like to force myself to write when I have not been driven to it by some compelling voice, or character, or scene (or the momentum of a work already in progress); I need that pressure to build, or to come charging out of the blue, seemingly. And yet the longer the non-writing goes on, the more I despair about it, even though I know that I am, at some level, always writing, that the wheels are always turning, and when that irresistible voice or character comes out of the blue it’s not really out of the blue because I have been nurturing it all the while during my hibernation, getting myself lean and hungry again for the actual physical writing. As for the reward: it’s having survived those hibernations to write again, and to have done so again and again over the course of 30 years, going at my own pace and writing the stories and novels I wanted to write—and, of course, knowing that they are out there in the world and being read.
You seem to have a gift for going deep inside your characters no matter who they are, from teenage girls to men who know they don’t have much time left to live. How do you inhabit each of these different characters so fully, especially for those whose experiences diverge from yours?
Giving the reader the sense that he or she has understood—even lived—someone else’s experience is, I think, the highest magic of storytelling, and so a writer must be a kind of empathy junkie, getting as fully and truly into the experiences of his/her characters as he/she can. My own method of doing this is to spend a long time getting to know my characters in the moment, scene by scene, as the narrative unfolds. I don’t try to know them beforehand, as some writing how-to books advise, but learn about them by being with them. For instance, I didn’t know much about Audrey and Caroline, twenty-year-old college women, until I put them in motion—and especially when I had them stuck with each other on a long road trip. Getting to know characters is like getting to know people in real life; it takes time. It takes watching and listening. Which for me is one of the primary joys of writing—finding out who people are by what they say and do. When it’s working in the fiction, I don’t feel so much that I’m inhabiting a character who is not like me, as I do that I’m inhabiting a character who, but for a few twists of fate, biology, history, whatever, is very much like me. Maybe the trick has less to do with empathy and more to do with multiple personality disorder.
As a fellow writer I know this isn’t the kindest question, but your eager readers will want to know: what’s up next?
Short answer: A new novel!
Long answer: Readers who’ve noticed the publishing dates of my books know not to get their hopes up for a speedy turnaround. I’m just not one of these book-a-year type writers, but the kind who is likely to take as much time as he can—or must—between books (hibernation!). Ray Carver once said he liked to give himself time between books to become a different kind of writer, and I have always loved that quote. Which is not to say I’m notat work on the next thing. But I am also one of those uncooperative types who doesn’t like to talk about a work in progress, except to say, without hesitation, Oh, yes, for sure, there’s a work in progress…
By Tim Johnston
Published January 22, 2019
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.