Sharon M. Johnston is one of Australia’s new voices. She’s a talented YA author and active blogger over at http://downunderwonderings.blogspot.com/. She has just been short-listed in the Australian Literature Review’s YA Short Story Competition with her tale KARMA. Keep an eye out for her work! Here she decides between donuts and danishes, threatens to spit ball Lady Catherine de Bourgh (boo-rah!), and talks about the joys of Holly Black’s White Cat.
1. I first knew I was a writer when …
I can’t pinpoint the moment. I had written for years to help deal with things, like the suicide of a friend, and for fun, but when I finished Mishca I posted an excerpt on a YA community site called Inkpop I got amazing feedback from teens and that’s when I thought I could maybe BE a writer. Since then the crazy ideas keep banging inside my head, waiting to be unleashed into my laptop. Getting a story published in the Australian Literary Review’s The Basics of Life makes it feel ‘real’ for the first time though, like I’m no longer playing pretend-wannabe-writer.
2. The book that first let me know I loved spec-fic was …
Holly Black’s White Cat (recommended to me by YOU!) I’d read a lot of mixed genre spec-fic, but this was the first alternate reality one I’d read and I got a much deeper appreciation for the genre.
3. The sentence/line/phrase/paragraph I wish I’d written is …
“We’re the ones who aren’t normal. People are supposed to be like that: obedient, calm, working together. It’s us who can’t focus, who can’t work together, who can’t do the Feeder or Shipper jobs we’re the ones who aren’t normal. We’re the ones who have to take the mental meds just so we don’t go loons.”
4. You get to be your favourite character for the day – who do you choose, where do you go, what do you do?
I love Elizabeth Bennet. If I were her for the day I would spit ball Lady Catherine de Bourgh, dack Wickham at a party and put Lydia in a room with a whole bunch of shiny things in a hope it would distract her.
5. Donuts or danishes?
Danishes, you know the ones with icing on top and the jam and custard inside hhhmmmmm. They seem to have them at continental breakfasts.
Your short story Growth is in The Australian Literature Review’s Basics of Life anthology. What can readers look forward to in Growth?
When you have a loved one diagnosed with terminal cancer you can feel so isolated and alone. One of the ways I dealt with the news my dad was dying was writing Growth. Readers will come on the journey with me of the denial, the hope, the ultimate acceptance of the situation and my resolution to help others in my dad’s situation.
Mackay is relatively remote from other population centers. How would you describe the local situation for Mackay fiction writers?
When you write in a regional city you really rely on making strong connections online. There are very few opportunities for face-to-face interaction with industry professionals, so you need to be internet savvy, particularly in social media. I was fortunate enough to make some great connections through the Queensland Writer’s Centre and Inkpop. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for the same organisation as one of Australia’s best speculative fiction short story writers, Angela Slatter, who encouraged me to pursue short stories as a way to expand my publishing opportunities. Her success in short stories has resulted in three anthologies, Black-winged Angels, Sourdough and The Girl With No Hands. Being able to tap into the advice of someone in the industry is so beneficial and inspiring.
Through Inkpop and my group blog YAtopia, I’ve gotten what I would describe as ‘writing cheer leaders’ – fellow writers who encourage me and push me as a writer. They also act as critic partners. I am also fortunate to have amazing alpha readers, a fantastic beta editor, Katrina, who was a literature lecturer, and a plethora of beta readers. Because I’m not able to make the Mackay Writers meeting, I rely on these connections to keep me motivated and going. I also think it’s important to try and go to one writer’s festival each year, even if it’s 1,000km away. Last year I went to the CYA Conference and I’m hoping to return again in September. There is a regular literary festival for school children with Whitsunday Voices, but I’d really love to see a regular festival like the Bundaberg festival or regular Queensland Writer’s Centre regional workshops in town. Face-to-face opportunities are invaluable. I know Mackay writers really appreciated the opportunity to meet The Australian Literature Review’s editor, Steve Rossiter, when he came to town. It’s so rare to have access to industry professionals without having to make a trip out of town.
The Basics of Life anthology was recently published (and launched at Collins book store Mackay), providing you with your first commercially published story. How does it feel to have your writing published?
A lot of aspiring writers never get published, but to be published alongside someone like Sophie Masson is just amazing. I have come into my writer’s journey with my eyes wide open. I know Australia is one of the toughest markets to break into. It’s hard to secure an agent or a publishing deal, so getting published through The Australian Literature Review is a great step for me. It’s also affirming to know that I’m not just “pretending” to be a writer. When you hear it from friends and family it’s not the same as reading that a story you’ve written has been picked up for publication. The reaction from people I know has been amazing as well. The fact that it’s such a personal story makes it all the more satisfying. I really look forward to hearing what people think of the story as I’ve given them a part of me.
Prior to Growth being published in Basics of Life you were active on fiction writing website Inkpop. Could you explain, for those unfamiliar, what Inkpop is and what kinds of opportunities it provides for fiction writers?
Inkpop is what I would call a writer’s community and it’s geared towards writers of youg adult fiction. Members can post their work and receive feedback from other members. If a member really likes your story they will ‘pick’ it. Each month the five stories with the most picks, known as the ‘Top 5′, receive ‘Top Pick’ status and are reviewed by a US HarperCollins editor. Not only do you receive a review, but you also have the chance to be published. My novel Mishca was voted as a ‘Top Pick’ last year out of more than 25,000 pieces of work on the site and has received nearly 700 comments from members, who are predominately US teens. Mishca is the highest ranking Australian novel on the site. While US HarperCollins didn’t pick up Mishca, it has given me an established following and a great place to connect and promote. It was like undertaking pre-publishing market research with your target audience.
Carrier of the Mark is the first story off Inkpop to be published by HarperCollins and it comes out later this year. I became friends with the Carrier author Leigh Fallon through Inkpop and we are both members of YAtopia, which was founded by other fellow Inkpop friends of mine Kelley Vitollo and Wendy Higgins (who I suspect will also be big in the YA scene in the future). I was so excited to be given the opportunity to be a member of an international group blog, something that would never have happened without the connections I made on Inkpop. Wendy was also my first Beta editor for Mishca. I also met Jeyn Roberts, author Dark Inside through the site. It’s been fantastic to watch her publication journey from slushpile querier to being the author of one of the most anticipated YA releases of 2011.
Ultimately, Inkpop gives authors the opportunity to gain valuable feedback, connect with other authors, to get feedback from a HarperCollins editor and the chance to be published. I get to interact regularly with my target audience and ensure my writing is fresh and current. Other writer communities that I’m a part of and would recommend include Figment and Book Country. I’m hoping that the success of The Carrier of the Mark will encourage publishers and agents to look at different ways of finding writers and measuring the potential success of a story.
Your short story Karma was runner up in the AusLit April Short Story Comp and received feedback from novelist Sara Foster. How would you describe your story Karma?
Karma deals with the concept of universal balance. It revolves around the main character Justin, who is a member of a clan who is responsible for dishing out Karma, both good and bad, to ensure the Scales of Righteousness stay in balance. If the scales are out of balance, the binds on Chaos loosen and he will be free to wreak havoc on earth. It is Justin’s job to deliver vengeance karma, which is for those who have committed serious crimes and show no remorse. His whole ethics are rocked when one of his assignments is sorry for what she has done.
The idea for the plot came to me after a very bad year. I’d lost my grandma and my dad and my writing career had stalled. I felt like I was due for something to go right. And that’s when I thought: what if there were people responsible for karma. I had planned to make it a novel, but when I saw the YA competition on The Australian Literature Review I decided to write it as a short story for the competition.
You are currently expanding Karma into a novel manuscript. What joys and/or challenges does this task hold for you?
Because I had always intended it to be a novel, it feels very natural to be expanding it. The feedback from Sara Foster was amazing and perfect for turning it into a novel – the fact that her main critic was a cry for more was a real ego boost too. Her feedback was perfectly geared for this process and she gave me a whole lot of questions she was left wanting answered.
I realised when I was researching that I had used a lot of Greek mythology unintentionally, with the exception of The Fates. When I researched the characters of Doom and Chaos I discovered their relationship and interwove that into the plot. It also helped me further expand the clan concept and world building. A lot of research needs to go into the world building and I’ve been heavily influenced in this area by a post from agent and author John Cusick where he talks about creating unique terms to make the world truly your own. Inspired by that post, and Sara’s feedback on some concepts needing to be more personal, I developed a terminology for Karma based on my research into Greek mythology.
One of the greatest challenges I face is time and the internet. Working fulltime with a family leaves little time for writing, then there’s that pesky internet. I write best at the beach and unfortunately I’m not getting the time to go there as often as I used to. On top of that I’ve got so many competing writing ideas. I just finished my contribution for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and revising my entry for the May Auslit competition. I have two novels as works in progress, a short story that I hope to submit for the Ho Ho Horror anthology and plenty of other ideas knocking on my brain wanting to get out.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I love reading anything unusual, whether paranormal, supernatural or a story with a great twist, though I predominately read YA. I’m a big fan of Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson series and Tara Moss’s The Blood Countess and Rebecca James’s Beautiful Malice. They’re all inspirational to me. Across the Universe by Beth Revis is my favourite book that I’ve read this year and I’m also a big Sookie Stackhouse and Mortal Instruments fan. I really want to read more Australian stories this year. I recently bought The Understudy’s Revenge by Sophie Masson and it will be one of my next reads.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters, and what makes them stand out for you?
I’m an absolute sucker for Elizabeth Bennett. I love her strong will, how she deals with her family dynamics and how she gets Darcy in the end by being herself. I’m not a fan of clingy, needy female main characters. Having a teenage son, I’d really like to see more male main characters out there for that age group.