Thursday, April 8, 2010

Interview with Peter Johnson, author of Grant's Indian

I’m pleased to introduce Peter Johnson, the author of Grant’s Indian. After reading the book, I corresponded with Peter and learned that he had an interesting story of his own to tell about his path to authorship and what the publication of Grant’s Indian has meant to him. I would like to share our discussion with all our blog readers as part of this week’s Featured Author spotlight:

How did you become interested in Ely Parker and what inspired you to write the book Grant’s Indian about him?

I probably first heard of Parker when reading about the Civil War as a kid. We had lots of Civil War books in the house, Grant's Memoirs among them, and Parker appears in several of them. But he's usually a footnote or an afterthought. Once I started writing novels, he became a natural character for me to focus on. The idea was to tell the story of the Civil War through the eyes of an outsider - in this case an American Indian. But he soon became the main character. There are a number of unanswered questions in his biography that only a novel can wrestle with, including (especially) how an 18-year-old Washington society belle came to marry a middle-aged Indian and (even more especially) how and why the Indian missed his own high-society wedding. My speculations about these questions are the emotional heart of the novel.

How long have you been writing and what made you want to write historical fiction?

I started writing novels as a sort of dare to myself in the early 1980s, when I was (as I still am) a professional actor spending a lot of time in regional theater, which lends itself to a lot of time on one's hands. I wrote a couple of mysteries that weren't terribly mysterious, a political thriller that failed to thrill, a baseball novel that whiffed and a coming-of-age novel that was identical to all other coming-of-age novels. For most of these I got agents but no publishers. Further, by the time they got into publishers' hands, they were dated -- actual world events made them no longer timely. I decided to write historical fiction because events in the distant past are unlikely to go out of date. A novel about the Civil War is as publishable (or not) today as it will be ten years from now, so it doesn't matter when a historical novel reaches a publisher. Timeliness & relevance are irrelevant.

Every author has a unique path to publication. Can you tell us a little about yours?

Sure. I got an agent for an earlier version of Grant's Indian some years ago, then more or less forgot about it while I did other things, like practicing law full-time. (I got my law degree at age 50 & passed the bar the day my first grandchild was born.) When I quit my law firm in 2003 I revisited the book and decided it was only half a book (It began and ended with the Civil War). So I finished it, shopped it around to agents and was encouraged by one agent to write another novel, which I did & which she now is shopping to publishers. Meanwhile the opportunity arose to publish an audiobook version of Grant's Indian. I've narrated audiobooks for 25 years, and a studio I was working at offered to produce it. So I narrated the audiobook and got it published by Audible.com, the download-only audio publisher. Then, since Audible.com is owned by Amazon, I took advantage of Amazon's print-on-demand feature to publish a print edition as well. So the audiobook has an actual publisher, while the print edition is self-published. Neat, eh? I could have waited a bit & got a legit publisher for the print book, but I wanted to get it in print for my father's 90th birthday in the fall of 2009, since he features prominently in the Writer's Note at the end and is responsible for my interest in the Civil War (his grandfather fought for the North & his father collected the Civil War books I now have custody of). I'm glad I did so. Dad died suddenly in February 2010. He kept a list of the books he read over the last 20 years (about 50 annually) and Grant's Indian was one of the last. (Though I don't think it killed him.)

What other books have you written? What is your current work in progress?

As I indicated above, a bunch of unpublishable genre fiction, all quite witty, but dated. I have a historical novel circulating among publishers. It's about a 19th-century actor who is also an amateur sleuth, embroiled in foiling his fellow actor John Booth's plot against Lincoln. (He fails.)

What makes this a book that people must read and why?

It will keep people entertained and off the streets for a few hours. Actually, I'd prefer that people listen to the audiobook, which allows them to read and be ON the streets at the same time. The audiobook is 16 hours, good for a number of long walks.

What authors were your early inspiration and who are some of your favorite current books or authors?

The direct inspirations for Grant's Indian are (1) George McDonald Fraser, whose series of Flashman novels puts a historical nobody at the center of all the important events of the 19th century and (2) the Nero Wolfe mystery novels of Rex Stout, in which the legman Archie Goodwin recounts the sleuthing of genius detective Nero Wolfe. I think of Parker as Archie to Grant's Nero Wolfe. My favorite current authors are mostly mystery and thriller authors: Robert Parker, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill, P.D. James. They remind me that a plot, like a shark, has to keep moving or it dies. Since I teach law school, I also read a lot of Supreme Court and other legal opinions. Justice Stevens writes well & is usually right. Scalia writes brilliantly & is often wrong. I look forward to Justice Sotomayor's future opinions. I had a copyright case before her as a District Judge & her opinion was very imaginative. The best legal writing is good practice for fiction, because the writers have to organize factual material quickly & efficiently into a coherent & persuasive narrative. Justices Holmes and Cardozo will likely make appearances in my next couple of books, so I'm reading them as well. Cardozo likes inverted sentences ("Murder let us call it then, for murder surely it was."). Holmes likes to shock ("Three generations of imbeciles are enough.")

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some advice which may help others get past similar problems?

The biggest stumbling block is that nobody much cares whether I write something or not. The way to get past it is to realize that, if I don't write the story that's in my head, nobody else will. Also, my head will explode.

Where can readers find more information about you and your books?

http://www.peterjohnsonbooks.com/

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I'm not important. The books are. There is another historical novel out there looking for a publisher and two more in early draft form.


Many, many thanks for sharing a little about yourself and your book, Peter. It was a pleasure for me to read Grant’s Indian. I gained a whole new appreciation for the era during which the U.S. expanded so rapidly and underwent so many changes. I’m looking forward to your next book!
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