Interview- Kevin Johns author of The Page Turners

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How long have you been writing for?

I started my first rock band when I was 13 years old. We never performed cover songs; we were doing originals right from the start, so I was composing lyrics on a regular basis starting at age 13. I was in bands all through high school, and probably wrote sixty or seventy songs over that time, so my interest in language got started by way of song lyrics.

How many rejections did you receive before you first became published and how did you stay motivated?

I recently found some rejection letters from when I pitched a few stories to Marvel Comics. The cool thing about the rejection letters is that they have the Marvel letterhead at the top, and even came in envelopes with Spider-man printed on them. Rejection doesn’t get more pleasing than that!

Other than the Marvel stuff, I’ve never submitted a query letter or synopsis to an agent or a publisher. All the bands I played in were punk rock bands. In the punk scene, if you want something done, you do it yourself. You don’t spend time and energy trying to get some corporate gatekeeper to give you their nod of approval. You just do it yourself.

The corporate giants of the record industry spent the last decade dying a well-deserved death, and the corporate publishing industry will be the next to go. Thanks to ebooks, print-on-demand, and the internet, writers don’t have to jump through hoops in hopes some mega-conglomerate will recognize their talent and publish their book. Now the challenge is just finding your audience and developing an honest relationship with them.

After University, I wanted to work as a journalist for an arts and culture magazine, so I started one. I worked for the magazine for several years, and I got to do interviews with artists I respected, I was able to attend cool events for free, and it afforded me the opportunity to polish my writing while simultaneously getting to know other amazing artists, writers, and editors. In the same vein, now that I’m ready to publish my novel, I’ve created my own publishing house to do it. That’s the future of writing and publishing, not query letters and slush piles.

There were more books published independently in 2013 than there were released by the traditional publishers. The challenge isn’t dealing with rejection anymore. The challenge is finding your audience and getting your art into their hands.

 Favorite Author and book when you were a child?

You know, I don’t think I read a lot as a child. I mostly just played road hockey and messed around Star Wars figures. I didn’t really start reading intensely until my early teens.

I certainly remember being blown away by some of the classics, like George Orwell’s 1984.Every kid needs to read that book.

Stephen King was definitely huge for me – I remember the four novels that made up The Bachman Books having a big impact; especially Rage, which was about a high school shooting. King has let Rage go out of print, which I think is really unfortunate. The opportunity to see into the mind of a kid who takes his classmates hostage at gunpoint could help a lot of people understand why these shootings happen in the first place. Many years ago, I wrote and directed a theatrical production about a high school shooting for that very reason. People see these horrible shootings and they think, “How can this happen?”, whereas I’m just surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Adult life is horrible in this grinding, soul crushing kind of way that leads to a sort of quiet surrender to the entropy, but teenage life is horrible in this absolutely immediate, totally intense way that can easily lead to explosive violence.

Anyway, getting back to literature, as a teen, I was also a huge fan of comic books. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion’s Preacher storyline, “Until the End of the World” was absolutely incredible, and I always thought Frank Millar’s Sin City book “That Yellow Bastard” was breathtaking. Those are some my favourites that I remember from my youth.

What music do you listen to when you write?

I spent about four solid years obsessed with Bob Dylan. He was literally the only music I listened to from about 2008 to 2012. The guy has over 50 albums, and transitioned through various different styles over the course of his career, so you can listen to him for years on end, still discover new things, and never get bored. I also felt like working my way through his catalogue was a cultural education regarding the second half of the 20th century.

 Then, about a year ago, I caught pneumonia and thought I might die. I was seriously out-of-my mind sick, and this illness also corresponded with some hugely stressful things going on at my day job, where I had come to the realization that the career path I’d ended up on was never going to be fulfilling or rewarding, no matter how much energy and passion I put into it.

So I was lying on my couch, in front of the TV, going in and out of consciousness, thinking I might die, and thinking that dying there on the couch might not be such a bad thing, and I flipped to the Ellen DeGeneres Show, right as this band Tegan and Sara started performing.

It was one of those magical moments where a piece of art just utterly connects with you in that beautiful transcendent kind of way. In that moment, Tegan and Sara appeared to me as a vision of Holy Angels hovering before the television screen. I saw them as messengers, sent from God, in order to give me to the strength to get well and go on living.

Needless to say, I’ve been pretty heavily into Tegan and Sara for about the last year, since I feel like they kind of saved my life.

That’s what great art does: saves lives.

Any superstitious rituals that you go through when beginning a new story?

 I have a full time job, and two young children. I spend two hours a day commuting to and from work on public transit. I also try to exercise on a regular basis. My free time is, therefore, extremely limited, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike or relying on superstitious rituals. My ritual is just doing the work, when I can.

Writing a novel isn’t like writing is song or a poem. It’s a long, lonely process that eats up hours and hours and hours of your life. When your hours are already limited, like mine, you just have to make do with the time available, and just pour your soul into the work.

I wish I had an awesome ritual I could tell you about, like putting on a grubby pink bathrobe and smoking a joint Grady Tripp-style, but, like I said, I just write when and where I can. 

Favorite book released in the last year?

Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday. It’s one of those books that makes you realize that how you thought the world works isn’t really how it works at all. Read that book, and you will never look at the internet the same way again.

In terms of horror books, I’ve been enjoying a lot of Hack/Slash lately, which is a great comic book series that I only recently discovered.

Favorite book released in the last 10 years?

I wrote my English Literature master’s thesis on David Mack’s Daredevil storyline “Echo: Vision Quest”. It is an absolute work of genius and my favourite piece of fiction from the last decade.

In terms of non-fiction, The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris had, by far, the biggest impact on my life. It changed my body, my mind, how I approach work, and how I approach problem solving in a number of huge ways. My novel, The Page Turners, would never have been completed were it not for the lessons I learned in The 4-Hour Body.

In terms of a favourite horror novel, I think Scott Smith’s The Ruins is absolutely top notch, and Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts” from the book Haunted is an unforgettable piece of horror writing (though you may WANT to forget it!).

Favorite quote from a book that is not your own?

 English prose does not get any better than this section of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

If I ever write a paragraph with one tenth of the majesty of that one, I’ll die a happy man.

Favorite quote from one of your own works?

Forget it. No way am I following up that quote from Virginia Woolf with one of my own. Just go back, re-read Virginia’s paragraph again, and then pretend I wrote it!

Advice for new writers who are struggling with character creation? 

I approach the crafting of narrative from a plot perspective, not one of character, so I might be the wrong man to ask for advice on character creation.

When I write, I just figure out what story I want to tell and what message I want to communicate to the reader, and the characters grow organically out of that. The characters need to serve the story.

I’m not one of those writers who comes up with these wacky characters, sticks them in a room together, and then just lets them bounce off of one another. When I picture my characters in a room together, my next thought, is: When do the aliens show up? Do you know what I mean? Like, When do the zombies attack? I’m not as interested in character quirks as much as I am in plot, story, and message.

E-Reader or Physical copy?

I read novels on Kindle and comics books on iPad. I think reading a physical copy is still preferable — that tactile experience of a real book and pages just can’t be recreated electronically. But e-copies are just so much more affordable, and my family’s budget is pretty tight, so that’s what I can afford to read.

What first inspired you to become a writer?

Probably my parents getting divorced. I think when a fundamental institutional structure like the family fails you at such a young age, it really installs a deep suspicion that society is flawed on a lot of levels and that most of what you are told as a kid is a complete lie. Those feelings of injustice and social isolation serve as great inspiration for the creation art.

Of course, then you become an adult, and it is no longer just a suspicion; instead you know for a fact the world is majorly screwed up and that most of what the masses are told by authority figures is a lie, so you never really run out of inspiration to write!

I mean, there’s a reason people like Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Earnest Hemingway, and Virginia Wolf all killed themselves. You can only see through the bullshit for so long, then, eventually, just want to put a bullet in your head or go for a swim with a pocket full of rocks. It’s unfortunate that the things that make you a great writer are the same things that ultimately crush you as a human being.

But that’s just the way it works. Those artists killed themselves, but the work they leave behind enriches the rest of our lives in such a profound way that we are able to go on living.

Tell us your favorite joke.

Like I said earlier, the real challenge these days is finding the audience for your work, so I’ve been reading a lot about marketing lately. And the whole time I’m studying marketing, I can feel the late comedian Bill Hicks looking over my shoulder. He has this hilarious bit that goes something like this:

“Anyone here tonight involved marketing? Yes? A few of you. Okay: go kill yourself.”

Pretty funny stuff.

So when I approach marketing of The Page Turners, on one shoulder I have this capitalist devil whispering: “Kevin, you need to do whatever it takes to sell this book and get the money to support your family. Nothing else matters in the world other than the ability to take care of your children.” And on my other shoulder is Bill Hicks, another one of my artistic angels, sitting there watching over me, and keeping me honest.

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