Johnny Worthen – an extraordinary author with so much talent that I’m sure Pan McMillan will be offering him a three book deal in no time – stopped by for a little chat at the Writer’s Corner to promote his new book, Eleanor: The Unseen. Now, I’ve reviewed Eleanor: The Unseen [read review here], but let me just say that if you’ve read Beatrysel and Eleanor: The Unseen, you’ll probably agree that this is one author you need to keep tabs on. So, without further ado, let’s go pick at his brains, shall we?
Monique: Eleanor: The Unseen is the first book in your young adult trilogy; tell us, what inspired you to write the book?
Johnny: The idea began from the Navajo legend of the Skinwalker, an evil magician who can change his shape to do evil to good people. I ran into the legend years ago in Tony Hillerman’s book by the same name. Just about every culture in the world has some kind of shapeshifter legend. It’s a universal trope, something Joseph Campbell would say is part of the human condition. I imagined the possibility that the legends were actual histories, people describing the same phenoomen but from different standpoints. The idea has been rolling around in my brain for a long time. Then one day while I was driving through the desert of New Mexico I saw Eleanor in my mind, a shy but extraordinary girl, afraid and lonely, abandoned but full of love. I was thinking through the themes of change and courage, acceptance, uniquencess and adolescence – my boys at that age themselves. It all came together in a flash on that lonely western desert road and Eleanor, complete with name and longing eyes, stayed with me and became the daughter I never had.
Shifter novels are all the rage these days, especially seeing as vampires have become such a passé topic. However, you’ve gone out of your way to avoid the clichés in shifter mythology by picking a ‘creature’ that’s not often used in novels. What type of research went into the book?
I didn’t do much research beyond identifying the myths and universality of the trope. I knew I wouldn’t be using anything established in the mythological or literary traidtions. None of them would entirely describe what was happening, but all of them would be fitting to some degree. The characters refer to some of them as they try to unravel the mystery. Ultimately, however, every myth falls short to describe what’s happening and show themsevles to be just legends and second-hand accounts from scared prejudiced people. The paranormal aspect of the the book, the “shape-shifting” is not at the center of the story, it is a complication — the underlying metaphor.
There are times when you touched difficult topics in Eleanor: The Unseen, which includes: racism, bullying, sex, etc. Other young adult authors try to avoid – or tiptoe – around these subjects, but you just delved into it headfirst and somehow it added character to your novel. Was it a calculated risk you took or did it just happen without you realising?
Young adult readers are pretty cool and you have to approach them with the respect they deserve – they’re buying and reading more than any other demographic. They’re more worldly than many authors give them credit for. To approach my YA, the only changes I made to my style was to keep the swearing down and the sex PG. Everything else is as I’d have written it for adults and, knowing how adult it was, I knew adults would be reading it too.
It’s been called a paranormal, a romance and even a horror, but I see it as a fable, a coming of age story of the ultimate outsider, a trope we all can identify with. The challenges and problems needed to be real and threatening, sugarcoating any of it would be dishonest. I allowed myself one supernatural element, the rest is raw and real. Poverty, bigotry, sexism, cruelty, life and death, but also hope, love and caring, forgiveness, understanding and change. ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN is a small book about a modest girl in a tiny rural town, but it is the biggest book I’ve ever written.
I don’t know if anyone else has made this connection, but there’s an almost Carrie-esque scene in Eleanor: The Unseen. At the school dance, things happen that I didn’t see coming. Could you explain why you would choose that path for Eleanor to take instead of, say, Eleanor having one moment of feeling like a princess?
Very astute. You’re the first to catch it. Carrie was well in my mind when I planned that scene. The two characters are much alike, but different in some key ways. To the scene though, I knew I was creating a parallel and the response would be telling, but to be honest, I didn’t know what would happen.
When I wrote it, I set up the pieces and let it play out. Eleanor did what she did and I recorded it like a stenographer. That’s how scenes work for me sometimes, there’s magick there, the characters have their own will and I’m only a witness. After it was out, I looked at it again and saw that it could have gone no other way. Maybe one day it will play out differently, but then and there…
Without giving spoilers, I would say the key difference is Eleanor’s relationship to her mother which is much different from Carrie’s. That relationship is the core of Eleanor’s reaction and existence in Book One. Also, the crises is Eleanor’s own; it is her doing, her mistake. It reveals her in more ways than one. As much as anything else, it is an exposure of her motives and wants. She is someone who has spent her entire life concealing everything, she has betrayed herself. She reacts as a coyote would when caught out in the open.
Okay, David and Eleanor is a thing and I quite like them together. I mean, he’s really good for her and they’re kind of cute. But after the initial girly reactions, I’ve started shipping her and Robbie Guide together, just because he’s so in tune with her true nature. Do we get to see those two interact more in the upcoming books?
Oh yes. Their relationship gets more complicated and in depth. Go back to the kiss on the cliff in ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN and read it again believeing that the purple prose is not purple, but the best description possible for a new phenomona neither have encountered before. Add the limits of age, the oppression of parents, the scars of war, the gossip of small communities, fear of the unknown, and you’ll see the story is far from over.
Speaking of upcoming books, give us some details of the upcoming ones! When? Where? What? Come on, tease us and please us, Mr Worthen.
I have written the trilogy. They’re at my publisher’s. I was adamant that Book One be a standalone. As a reader, I always feel tricked if I pick up a book, enjoy it, and get to the ending and there’s not one. I’m looking at you George RR Martin. ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN, has an ending, but it’s also the beginning of the rest of the series. The final chapter of Book One sets the conflict for Book Two. Look at it as a broad picture and you’ll sense it.
So far I’m told to expect CELESTE, THE UNSEEN Book Two, to be released one year after ELEANOR. I know… I hate it too, but I’m told they know what they’re doing. There’s some talk about bringing DAVID, (Book Three) out six months after CELESTE, cutting it for Christmas release, but nothing’s been finalized. We’re in edits now with CELESTE but like I said, the triliogy is done, so killing me won’t solve anything.
Oh, I have to ask you this … I know I sometimes struggle to write male characters, mostly because I write what women desire in a man (hotties galore! *drools*). Was it difficult to write a teenage female protagonist, considering that you’re a male author?
I think woman have a harder time writing men than men do writing women and I’ll tell you why: Mothers. Not everyone ha
s a father, or a father they sympathize with and understand (we’re a shit species sometimes), but we all have mothers. Men can draw from that for their females, and themselves for their male characters. Women are often only guaranteed half that equation. This is a complete generalizaiton though, I know that. There are plenty of great fathers out there and a few shit mothers, but I had the opposite.
I was a teenager. Most of us were, right? I have teenagers. I stil think of myself much as a teenager. I’m shocked to see the gray in my hair to this day. It wasn’t hard to slide back into a purely teenage mind. It’s about unloading prejudices and garbage. Forgetting a few lessons so we can learn them again. And then for a girl, it was about vulnerablity.
Western society for all its advancement is still patriarchal. Woman are a subjegated class. Even at the top, women are born a step behind their brothers. Down at the bottom, it’s even worse. Be young and poor, fatherless, different and a girl, and you have the recipe for a very vulnerable character. You have Eleanor.
This one’s completely off-topic, but I’ve been wondering … How many tie-dye T-shirts do you own?
Right now I have about twenty in circulation, but I love these new five I just got and keep putting those on. I have a drawer of another twenty that I’ve worn through, and about twice that many have been lost to time. There have been years of my life when I wore a tie or a uniform and when I wanted to be happy, I’d put on a tie-dye. That goes back to my Grateful Dead days. I reached a certain point in my life when I was done compromising on some things and decied I wanted to be happy all the time. I wear tie-dye because it’s beautiful, because it’s not just clothes, it’s art. Every shirt I wear is hand made, by artists who make the world a brighter place one shirt at a time. You don’t wear it for yourself – you hardly see it unless you look down, and hopefully you don’t do that too much. No, you wear tie-dye for your friends. You’re welcome.
So, Beatrysel is out and Eleanor: The Unseen is out, what can we expect in the future? Are you working on anything else that’ll probably be even more spectacular? Give us the details of what we can expect from Johnny Worthen.
The next big thing from me will be THE FINGER TRAP. Scheduled for next year and in edits now, it is an adult mystery/comedy where I unleash Tony Flaner, a sarcastic smartass loafer who has to become his own detective when his life collapses around him. It might not surprise you to see him in tie-dye and complaining about his weight. It’s a fun commentary on American absurdity and a ripping good yarn. There are important themes about maturity and family, completion and debt, video games and quiche, but it’s a summer read, a casual strole. The key is in Tony, Tony Flaner – Flâneur referring to the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. And it’s funny.
Where can people find you? Come on, I’m sure there’s an Annie Wilkes out there dying to know.
About the Author:
JOHNNY WORTHEN grew up in the high desert snows and warm summer winds of the Wasatch Mountains. He graduated with a B.A. in English, minor in Classics and a Master’s in American Studies from the University of Utah. After a series of businesses and adventures, including years abroad and running his own bakery, Johnny found himself drawn to the only thing he ever wanted to do — write. And write he does. Well versed in modern literary criticism and cultural studies, Johnny writes upmarket multi-genre fiction – thriller, horror, young adult, comedy and mystery so far. “I write what I like to read,” he says. “That guarantees me at least one fan and a hectic job for my publicist.”
When not pounding on his keyboard, attending conferences and conventions, Johnny Worthen can be found with his wife and two boys in Sandy, Utah.