Johnston has degrees from the University of Iowa and the
University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches in the
creative writing program at the University of Memphis.
his latest novel, the harrowing literary thriller
"Descent" (Algonquin, $15.95 in paper), exists
because he was working as a carpenter.
was actually working on a house in Colorado when I got
the idea and started banging it out," says
Johnston, who worked with his dad renovating houses in
Iowa and then later moved west to Los Angeles to build
movie sets. "I spent so much time on my own doing
mindless work, painting all these walls ó the mind
wanders. Iím from the Midwest, so the Rocky Mountains
are kind of a mythical, amazing place for someone who
lives with limited vistas and horizons. So I knew these
characters were from the Midwest, coming out for a
typical American recreation experience in the Rocky
Mountains, and that something was going to go
goes wrong for the Courtlands ó parents Grant and
Angela, bound-for-college daughter Caitlin and teenage
son Sean ó is every familyís nightmare: After
heading up into the mountains for a run, Caitlin
disappears. But instead of turning into a police
procedural detailing a frantic search for clues or a
body, Descent focuses on the devastating emotional cost
to Caitlinís family as time passes.
didnít set out to create a missing girl story,"
says Johnston, who spent seven years putting together
his first draft of "Descent." "All I know
is these characters came unbidden."
You focus on Caitlinís family in "Descent."
Was that always the plan?
Writing a page-turner was the furthest thing from my
mind. What was most interesting to me was not: The girl
is missing ó would she survive? What was interesting
to me was the family that was left behind. We get
inundated in the media with all these terrible stories,
big headline stories about girls going missing and a big
search and the FBI coming in, but that wasnít really
interesting to me. I wondered what happens when the
story dies out, and thereís been no resolution, and
the family is left to deal with their own grief. Whether
the kid is alive or not, nobody can help them or tell
them, and they have to go on with their lives. Thatís
what got me writing.
Did you know the direction the story was eventually
going to take?
I was writing about the father and son in the aftermath.
I hadnít written about the girl. I didnít know if
she was alive or not. Writing their story made Caitlin
more important to me. I took a stronger interest in what
happened to her, and I think that led to going down that
Were any of the characters harder for you to write than
It was easier for me to write about the men in the
beginning. I could relate to a father and son. You know
how the book is chopped up into alternating points of
view? I didnít write it that way. After the initial
catalyst of Caitlin going missing, the character I was
most interested in was the father, so I started writing
about him until I reached the point I couldnít go on
until I knew where the story was going. Then I picked up
Sean and followed him quite awhile. Ö In the initial
writing, the mother really wasnít in the novel. She
had sort of checked out through her own emotional
difficulties; only later I went back and put her in. I
have to say, once I got into writing her, I enjoyed her
voice. It felt different from the others and it was
liberating for me.
Do you read thrillers?
I grew up reading Stephen King ó anything exciting, I
wanted to read. I got that trained out of me when I went
to college and heard people talking about whatís good
writing and whatís not good writing. At the University
of Iowa, where I was an undergrad, nobody was sitting
around talking about thrillers. Ö the truth is even
though this book has been called a thriller, I really
never thought of it that way. I kind of fought against
it, to tell you the truth, because it doesnít sound
literary to me! But I own it ó part of me was trying
to write an interesting, commercially viable book.
Do you feel there is a prejudice against genre fiction?
Iím teaching creative writing, where thereís a real
emphasis on not writing genre fiction. Genre is a bad
word, even though thatís all undergrads want to write
ó they havenít had it whipped out of them yet. Theyíve
read genre fiction, and itís what fires their
imaginations. You donít want to discourage them from
writing what they want to write, but you want them to
learn. Ö and then here comes their teacher whoís
teaching them to write realism in this class, and Iíve
got this thriller out, and theyíre looking at me like:
"Really?" Ö I think my theory is the more
you care about the characters, the better you write
realistically about them and the more exciting the story
is going to be. This is the argument I make to my