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Russell Johnson is an attorney in North Carolina, but he was originally from Charleston and his family comes from McDowell County. His first book, “The Moonshine Messiah,” is a mystery set in the coal fields of West Virginia. Bill Lynch spoke to Johnson about his book and the long road to getting published.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lynch: When did you take an interest in writing?
Johnson: You know, I think I always knew that I wanted to be a writer – double majored in English and history and minored in creative writing and toyed with the MFA route idea.
I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a starving writer. And so I did the law school thing instead, but I promised myself that I was going to write a book by the time I was 30.
And then I think when I was maybe like 33, I actually started putting some words down.
Then it was when my wife and I found out that we were about to have our second child, I told myself, “You know, if I don’t write a book before this baby’s born, life is just gonna get in the way, and I’m never gonna do it.”
And so, that’s when I really got serious. I got out my calendar and I marked off 100 days. I got up at 4:30 every morning and wrote 1,000 words, and by the time I got to the end of it, I had a book, sort of.
But it was awful. It was really bad. But at that point, I knew I could do it, and I caught the bug, you know, I knew I was hooked.
And so I’ve been diligently pursuing it, ever since then.
Lynch: What happened to that original book? Is “The Moonshine Messiah” that that book?
Johnson:No, that one will never be seen.
My writing journey has been, I think, sort of a lot of what seemed like fast starts and then long delays.
That first book was kind of a John Grisham-esque legal thriller. And so when I finished it, I wrote it and rewrote it like three times and finally got to where I thought I was ready to query, you know?
It’s like, well, “I’ll just approach John Grisham ‘s agent, you know? Why not just start right at the top?”
And so I just shot out an email with a query letter and first chapter,, thought, “what the heck?” and just kind of kept going about my day.
Like an hour later, I had an email back from the agent’s assistants saying, “We liked the first chapter. Send us the first 50 pages.”
And so I did that.
Then, it was like an hour later and they said, “We like this. Send the first 100 pages.”
And so I did that.
And then maybe a day later, they said, “Okay, send the whole manuscript. We’re intrigued.”
I was like, “Wow, I’m gonna get John Grisham’s agent. This is easy.”
And of course, they passed on the book.
Now, I’ve spent probably a few years trying to get an agent for that book, rewriting the book. It just never never worked out with that one. And when I finally gave up on it, and decided to try something new is when I wrote “The Moonshine Messiah.”
I sort of knew what I was doing a little bit by then. So I wrote that one in like six months, and it got an agent, almost right away. And so I was like, “Okay, now, I’ve made it. This is we’re going to be cooking here.”
I wrote this book in 2016. So, it was like –six years, went through three agents, and I ended up placing it myself with Shotgun Honey.
Lynch: Talk about putting together the book and coming up with the story.
Johnson: So originally, I was very influenced by Elmore Leonard. He’s my favorite writer, and I love the “Raylan Givens” character.
I started as a short story where I just kind of had the idea of trying to flip the gender and have a female Raylan Givens-type character.
Instead of putting it in Kentucky, I put it in southern West Virginia, because that’s where my parents are from.
I’ve grown up with some kinds of stories of life in the coal town, and they grew up in McDowell County, and War, West Virginia.
So, I placed it there.
Lynch: It’s a “Mountaineer Mystery.” Were you always drawn to that particular genre?
Johnson: You know, I didn’t realize how much I was until I started trying to write and I kept kind of finding myself writing mysteries, even when I hadn’t set out to.
I’ve thought about this some. When I was very young, my family would go on a lot of car trips.While my dad would drive, my mom would read to us and I guess what she had available were Nancy Drew mysteries.
And so maybe that just imprinted something there on me early on.
When I set out to start writing, I really thought I’d do more kind of legal thrillers, which are in the mystery genre, but whatever reason, I just kind of gravitated more towards crime fiction and traditional mysteries.
Lynch: As it’s mentioned, this is a “Mountaineer Mystery,” which does suggest more than one. What else have you got? Did you have a sequel already planned?
Johnson: Yeah, the sequel is already written. It should come out probably in the May or June kind of timeframe, next year, and I’m working on the third book in the series, which I think is probably gonna be the last book in this series –at least, with Mary Beth, the main character for “The Moonshine Messiah.”
Lynch: What was the most difficult process of putting this book together?
Johnson: I would say the waiting is the hardest part.The writing part is fun and revising is fun.
Trying to get published is really really hard. The worst – rejections are fine. I can handle rejection. The worst part is long stretches of silence.
You know, it’s sending things out and waiting to hear. That, to me, is the most difficult part.
Lynch: The book is called “The Moonshine Messiah.” Russell, thank you very much.
Johnson: Thank you.