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Interview with J.R. Johansson, Author of <em>Insomnia</em>
[box type="note"]A few years ago, I was volunteering at the SFWA table at WorldCon when I got to chatting with a fellow YA author and Game of Thrones fan. At the time, Jenn Johansson had sold German and Italian rights but had not yet sold to a publisher in the US. Now she's just six weeks away from the US release of her debut novel, Insomnia (Flux), the first book in the Night Walker series. Plus, she has another thriller on the way from FSG/Macmillan. Today, we get to hear a little about her unusual road to publication and get the first look at the Insomnia trailer.[/box]
Instead of sleeping, Parker Chipp enters the dream of the last person he’s had eye contact with. He spends his nights crushed by other people’s fear and pain, by their disturbing secrets—and Parker can never have dreams of his own. The severe exhaustion is crippling him. If nothing changes, Parker could soon be facing psychosis and even death.
Then he meets Mia. Her dreams, calm and beautifully uncomplicated, allow him blissful rest that is utterly addictive. Parker starts going to bizarre lengths to catch Mia’s eye every day. Everyone at school thinks he’s gone over the edge, even his best friend. And when Mia is threatened by a true stalker, everyone thinks it’s Parker.
Suffering blackouts, Parker begins to wonder if he is turning into someone dangerous. What if the monster stalking Mia is him after all?
Okay, first talk to me about the initial. What does the "R" stand for and was this a choice to attract more male readers or the way you always imagined your name on books?
The R stands for Rose which is my middle name. I originally planned to go with Jenn Johansson, but when I wrote Insomnia with a male protagonist, I decided that going by my initials would make it more gender neutral. Some guys have been known to doubt whether a girl can write an authentic guy voice. This way readers would have to choose based on the cover and concept and nothing else.
I always wonder if that really has an impact on the way guys read. I feel like I pay so little attention to the author's name. Except when I'm like, "I know her!"
Yeah, I had the same debate with myself, then my agent forwarded me an article where they'd done a poll on guys and (especially with teenage guys) it does seem to matter to some of them. So I figured it didn't hurt anything and we switched.
Dang it, Jenn, let me keep my illusions. Now you sold foreign rights quite a while before you sold US rights. That's surprising for an author based in the US and writing for the US market. How did this come to pass?
Yeah, it was pretty unexpected. Shortly after we went on sub, we got an email from a YA scout who said she'd gotten her "sticky scout fingers" on the manuscript. She'd read it on her vacation and absolutely loved it. She wanted to know who had the rights because she was planning to send "a glowing recommendation" to her clients the following morning. My response to that email was, "Wow! That's so nice to hear...oh, by the way, what the heck is a scout?" So yeah, color me unprepared. Within a couple of weeks we were at auction in Germany and shortly after that we sold in Italy. It was a whirlwind intro to the world of publishing for my debut novel, but I learned so much in a very short time. I think part of my situation was because thrillers and mysteries have been selling bigger overseas for a while and just recently started getting hotter in the US.
Your next book sold to FSG/Macmillan which makes us pub sisters. (This means you have to give me an organ if I need one and lend me money whenever I ask.) What was the submissions process like for you the second time around?
Huzzah! Pub Sisters! I'm totally cool with the organ and money deal...as long as it goes both ways. It does, right? Right, Leigh? :) The second time around, submission was vastly different. First of all, the total number of editors I went out to with this book was less than the total in the first round alone with Insomnia, and we had people very interested from really early on. All of this in spite of the fact that I'd say this new project is quite a bit darker and scarier than Insomnia. In the end, we ended up selling at auction to FSG which was crazy exciting. I think this time around I was more prepared, and it still surprised me. I also think it's very apparent how much the US thriller/horror market has changed in the past year.
I'm excited to see more YA thrillers and horror on the shelves. Are there particular challenges to writing thrillers for the YA audience?
Me too! Me too! Ahem...right, as for your question. Yes, although many of the market challenges are becoming less every day. For a long while thrillers had to have some kind of paranormal aspect or tie-in for it to sell well here. For some reason contemporary, real-world thrillers were hard to place. I think it's safe to say we've turned the corner on that one, I see more sales for realistic thrillers all the time. The way this market is beginning to thrive makes it a really exciting time to write in this genre. And it's not all that surprising. How many of us read Stephen King or Dean Koontz as teenagers?
But Insomnia has a strong paranormal element, as does Stephen King's and Dean Koontz's work. Help me understand the sub-genre breakdown a little better.
Correct, but the new thriller I sold to Macmillan does not and I'm not sure it would've sold as readily if I'd taken this one on submission back when I submitted Insomnia. I mean those subgenre areas that have been closed previously are now opening up and it's nice to see. When I mentioned King and Koontz, I was talking about the idea that thrillers/horrors as a whole becoming more popular in YA shouldn't be surprising because teens in general have always liked being scared.
I know I did. I read It at sleepway camp. Mistake. What can we expect from Insomnia and will I require a night light?
With Insomnia, I tried to keep the tension very high from beginning to end. I wouldn't consider it gory or overly violent, although it has it's moments. It's mostly just very intense. One aspect that really helped with building the tension is the fact that the main character, Parker, is suffering from such severe sleep deprivation that he literally cannot tell reality from the lies his mind is feeding him. It makes him the ultimate unreliable narrator. Throw that kind of character into the heart of people's nightmares, make him fight for his life, and add in a new deadly threat that could be of his own making. Yeah...I'd probably recommend a night light.
Possibly two. We're excited to be getting the first look at your trailer. Can you tell us a little about the process of making it?
I'm so happy to be sharing it here! It was a really fun process to make a trailer. I love doing creative things outside of writing. It's a nice outlet and I had a blast with this. I'm all about music and tone. For me it all comes down to the music matching the feel of the story. This music had the perfect vibe to it that I was looking for and I listened to a LOT of music before I found it. After I had that crucial step in place, the images I used were so perfect it was like they came straight out of my head. I was able to use the actual font from the cover of the book, so that lent a nice bit of continuity. I'm really happy with the finished product. It's creepy and dark with more than a hint of madness—just like the book. Hope you enjoy!
To celebrate the trailer reveal and the release of INSOMNIA, Jenn is giving away a signed ARC, an INSOMNIA bookmark, postcard, and a branded candy-pill bottle. Plus, this giveaway is international!
J.R. JOHANSSON has a B.S. degree in public relations and a background in marketing. She credits her abnormal psychology minor with inspiring many of her characters. When she's not writing, she loves reading, playing board games, and sitting in her hot tub. Her dream is that someday she can do all three at the same time. She has two young sons and a wonderful husband. In fact, other than her cat, Cleo, she's nearly drowning in testosterone.