When I interviewed Tim Johnston about “Descent,” his first novel, in early 2015, he was struggling to reconcile his sense of himself as a writer with the way his book was being positioned in the market. With the success of “Descent” and the publication of “The Current,” those concerns have faded somewhat.
“I had to come a long way to accept that whatever they position me as is fine with me,” Johnston sai during an interview in the same Iowa City coffee shop where we last spoke (the Iowa City native moved back to town in 2016). “The important thing is that readers find it.”
He’s feeling reasonably confident that readers — especially those who enjoyed “Descent” — will, in fact, find the new book. “It’s a benefit to everyone that this book is kind of in the same ballpark audience-wise.”
That audience might be described as readers who enjoy suspenseful stories penned by an author who takes the craft of writing seriously. “Descent” and “The Current” both have some genre bona fides — the first a thriller, the second a mystery — but categories aren’t particularly important to Johnston.
“I wasn’t setting out to fulfill any genre expectations. This sort of story seems to come naturally to me — a suspension structure I like build,” he says. He works to write stories that are ““interesting, compelling, true — and importantly, there is nothing unrealistic about them... I’m not trying to come up with the most thriller-y situations... I just have to write the book I want to write. I think it’s important to keep evolving.”
And he is certainly pleased when readers notice the literary aspects of his books. “It satisfies that egotistical part of me that wants to hear that,” he says with a smile.
Citing the author Charles Baxter, Johnston talks about language that is visible on the page — things like, in Johnston’s words “poetry in the prose, surprise in imagery and sentence structure, intentionality. I like that, too. It’s what I’m hoping readers who are alert to such things will see in my work.”
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He believes “The Current” — a story about two intertwined tragedies that occur 10 years apart and which threaten to upend small communities — might be even more appealing than “Descent” to readers of literary fiction.
“I think there’s something a little more literary about this one, a little more complex... and it doesn’t have that same kind of hook — will she live, won’t she live,” he explains.
For the new book, he made a conscious change to his style.
“Something that I noticed about ‘Descent’ after the fact was that I had taken on a kind of literary supervoice... using language beyond the ken of my character. It was a narrative mode that wasn’t, strictly speaking, native to my point of view character,” he said. For “The Current,” “I made a decision that none of the language would be beyond the capacity of the nearest point of view character.”
This choice grounds the story in its place and time. Meanwhile, another writerly decision around issues of point of view undergirds of the book’s most powerful passages. Johnston often has a scene shift from a tight third person to a second person narration — using “you” rather than “he” or “she.” He isn’t trying to insert the reader into the story, however.
“My theory about the second person is that it’s really a first person — a person talking to themselves about a different time in their life... Every time I’ve read a successful second person narrative, I’ve realized this is the character talking to himself at a different time or a different age. It’s a kind of extended addressing of the self... It’s a distancing, a kind of buffer.”
The new novel draws on a story entitled “Water” from Johnston’s debut short story collection, “Irish Girl,” in which a young woman is found dead in the river in a small town and the mystery remains unsolved. When he began the book that would become “The Current,” he was writing about two young women traveling together.
“I knew right away they were going back to that same small town... Not to push the metaphor too far, the challenge was to make those two currents become concurrent.”
“I tried to make it matter anew — make it come alive for me again.”
The book certainly comes alive for readers, but it doesn’t always come to neat conclusions with all of the book’s mysteries resolved. Johnston is OK with the ambiguity.
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“I like the different possibilities,” he says. “I’m more interested in the unsolved mysteries than I should be for writing books.” He says he imagines readers expressing frustration at these unsolved mysteries. “Maybe they throw the book against the wall,” he says with a laugh.
That seems unlikely, but even if they do, Johnston is making plans for his next book — though he’s pretty vague about them.
“I’m one of those writers who doesn’t believe in talking about the work in progress, except to say, ‘Yes, there is a work in progress.”