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Interview: March 14, 2008

March 14, 2008

Joan Johnston's latest novel, A STRANGER'S GAME, is the seventh installment in her bestselling Bitter Creekseries. In this interview with's Carol Fitzgerald and Hillary Wagy, Johnston describes what inspired her to write about a woman wrongly convicted of her father's murder and recalls an unfortunate experience from childhood that subconsciously surfaces in her work. She also explains what prompted her to leave her career in law to pursue writing full time, shares her thoughts on the appeal of romance novels and reveals details about her upcoming series, The Benedicts of Richmond. What served as your inspiration for the storyline in A STRANGER’S GAME?

Joan Johnston: I've seen quite a few stories about people wrongfully convicted, who are later proven innocent. When I started writing A STRANGER'S GAME, I gave my heroine a reason to kill her father and the desire to do so --- she had motive, means and opportunity --- so the reader can see how she might have been convicted of the crime. For me, the challenge as a writer was to help my hero and heroine figure out who really committed the crime, and to give them a really great villain to fight against as they solve the puzzle of "whodunit" and move on with their lives together.

BRC: I like the way you featured the subject of childhood abuse in A STRANGER’S GAME. Three main characters --- Breed, Grace and Jack --- all carry the physical scars of abuse with them, and each still deals with the emotional scars that follow them into their adult lives. Are these characters based on actual case studies you researched, or are they fictional? Please tell us more about creating these characters and entwining their fears and scars together in the book.

JJ: At about book 27 (I'm on book 47), a friend pointed out to me that all my novels have as an underlying theme, "abandoned and neglected children." I wondered when and how this theme might have come up in my past, since my parents were married and lived together until my father died when I was grown with children of my own. I finally asked my mother about it, and here's what she told me:

When I was four years old, my father, who was in the military, was transferred to the Philippine Islands. For the first month after he left, until the photo was in tatters, I went to bed every night with his picture held to my breast and cried myself to sleep. I didn't see him again for a year. I have no memory of being "abandoned," but it obviously left a lasting impression in my subconscious --- and has found its way into the pages of my books. I have healed my own pain, by healing the pain of my (very fictional) characters.

BRC: Dirty little secrets take center stage in A STRANGER’S GAME. Infidelity, addictions, murder, cover-ups, betrayal, desertion and lies are at the heart of life in Austin, Texas. Secrets have the potential to become common knowledge when you write them down in a diary as Stephanie did. Adding the diary into the story gave you a way to write a lot of plot quickly. Did you always know the diary was going to be a part of the story?

JJ: Stephanie's diary appeared pretty early in my plotting process. I was looking for ways the heroine could discover who had really murdered her parents. Sex-addicted Stephanie's diary --- with its record of her sexual exploits --- appeared. It wasn't until I came up with the diary that I realized someone was killing her lovers!

BRC: The unscrupulous methods politicians use to win an election, gain media coverage and control other people’s lives portray politics as dirty business. Ann Wade plays the dirty politician with dirty secrets of her own and a lust for power. Knowing your book would be released during an election year, did you have politics as part of your plot outline, or did the politics aspect evolve as the characters evolved?

JJ: I admit it crossed my mind that this book would be out during an election year. It was important to me to make Ann Wade Pendleton (the governor of Texas, and the secondary heroine's mother-in-law) despicable without making her a caricature. As I was writing, I found very little about her that was likable. I suppose you could say I should have added more likable traits. But when she spoke for herself, she turned out to be a very carefully controlled and manipulative person --- the outer face and behavior perfect (as with so many politicians) to hide the (sometimes sordid) truth about the person on the inside. I'm delighted to say Ann Wade will return in the sequel to this book!

BRC: What kind of law did you practice? Did your experience as an officer of the court give you insight into the working of a murderer’s mind? That is, do you think most murderers feel vindicated and empowered by their heinous acts?”

JJ: I practiced local government law --- the issuance of municipal and industrial bonds to finance water & sewer and other public works. It was the repetitive (far from creative) work of reading 80-page, single-spaced water & sewer indentures and Official Statements that caused me, in part, to leave the law and start writing novels.

My experience with murderers comes entirely from my extensive TV and movie viewing. (I see virtually every movie that comes out in the theater --- great to teach what subjects are drawing the interest of contemporary audiences, and great for seeing plots and characters.) I also read the newspaper, watch the news and read extensively across many genres. Most importantly, I have a great imagination! I think to myself: How would I feel if this had been my life and this is what I faced? How would I feel? What would I do? And out comes this character on the page.

BRC: A STRANGER'S GAME is a hybrid of a thriller and a romance, heavy on the thriller aspects. While maintaining this balance of plot and story, how did you maintain the tension of a thriller while taking the reader through the development of a love relationship? What balance did you seek when you wrote the story? Did you seek to make the thriller or romance storyline dominate?

JJ: I hope the reader will be equally enthralled with both the thriller and romance aspects of A STRANGER'S GAMEIt's often difficult to find the fine line between getting enough "thriller" plot in the book to please suspense readers, while satisfying my romance readers with the development of the love story. In this case, I had two wounded people who are forced to band together to solve the crime, and during that process they realize that they've found someone they can trust, and therefore love.

BRC: Grace’s character is a dichotomy. On the one hand she is the victim; on the other hand she exhibits vengeance. Take us through the process of balancing the traits through the pages and choosing a winning combination that has the reader engaged with the character.

JJ: Grace's character is necessarily molded by the fact that she became at orphan at age 13, when someone murdered her father and stepmother --- for which she is convicted and goes to prison. There's an emotional land mine --- frustration, anger, pain, loss, helplessness --- to watch explode when Grace finally is free. Instead of "moving on with her life," she chooses to seek both revenge and justice. I think the latter is the more challenging of the two choices, and the one I'd want my "heroine" to pursue. Once she made that choice, I was just along for the ride!

BRC: “The last thing Grace wanted in her life was a man… the truth was she hadn’t been immune to the romance novels she’d gotten out of the library at Giddings (prison)… women in those books always found true love and lived happily ever after.” What is your opinion as to why real-life women are attracted to men who remind us of the heroes in romance novels?

JJ: The women in romance novels face great adversity and, through the power of love, triumph against that adversity in the end. Romance novels offer a positive outlook on life (that love is powerful and can "conquer all") that allows many women who read them to believe that their own lives will also turn out happily --- with the "flesh-and-blood" men with whom they share their real lives. It's the proverbial "happy ending" with men who are loving and caring and helpful and brooding and contrary --- and all the things our fictional (and real life) heroes can be --- that keeps women coming back to read romance novels again and again.

BRC: By falling for Grace after a one-night stand and believing her, Breed risked his job as an FBI agent. As for Grace, she targeted Breed to help her and unexpectedly fell in love with the handsome Texan, but she risked being sent back to jail. They played with fire and didn’t get burned. Talk to us about how you “grew” the trust between these two characters who stood to lose so much by their relationship.

JJ: Trust is built when two people expect certain (good) behavior from one another --- and get it. Neither Breed nor Grace grew up with parents who allowed them to trust. So, it's a huge step when they begin to trust each other. I simply put them in dangerous situations where they must trust each other and had them behave in a trustworthy manner toward each other.

BRC: What role did Kate and her twins, Lucky and Chance, bring to the novel?

JJ: Kate and the twins are potential victims who might be killed by the villain --- raising the stakes for the hero, Kate's younger brother. Of course, I'm planning a sequel, so I took advantage of the opportunity to include Kate and her love interest, Jack McKinley (who have also appeared in previous Bitter Creeknovels).

BRC: While this is the first book that I have read in this series, I never felt like I was playing "catch up." What do you do to ensure that your work reads well for both those who are reading your series and those who are just finding you now?

JJ: I only include previous characters from the Bitter Creek series in the story who are intricately involved in the plot. And I don't repeat a huge biography of the character. We learn who they are (or might have been in previous novels) through what they do in this book.

BRC: I understand that these Bitter Creek novels have "companion titles," if you will, that are not romantic suspense, but rather straight romance. What can you tell us about these for readers who want even more Bitter Creekback story?

JJ: I've been told the Bitter Creek series is a cross between "Dallas" and "Dynasty." I took a rich and powerful family (the Blackthornes) and put them in conflict with a poor and struggling family with a ranch right in the middle of their Bitter Creek empire (the Creeds), and set up the series so the characters are either killing each other or marrying each other. It's been a lot of fun! Titles include THE COWBOY, THE TEXAN, THE LONER, THE PRICE, THE RIVALS and THE NEXT MRS. BLACKTHORNE.

BRC: As a novelist who combines writing romance side by side with tragedy and suspense, what true-life characteristics of romance make it possible for romance to survive and thrive during the bleakest moments of our lives?

JJ: I think Barbra Streisand said it best: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world."

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

JJ: I'm working on the first book in a brand new paperback series,The Benedicts of Richmond. It's the same family drama I've done in previous books, with a thriller plot and a sexy romance. The first of these romantic thrillers will be in stores in March 2009. Check my web site, for the title. And, to all you readers out there, if you join my reader list, you’ll receive e-letters from me regularly with news about upcoming books --- and other exciting developments in my life as an author.