10 Questions for Varian Johnson (Plus a Giveaway!)

The first thing that struck me when I met Varian last October at KitLitCon was that this man has an absolutely fabulous laugh. When he laughs, it rings out across the room, and you can’t help but at least smile, if not laugh along. It was then that I knew I had to interview him. (Didn’t matter that I had never read any of his books!) Thankfully, he was generous enough to give me an ARC of Saving Maddie, which I found to be an interesting, thoughtful read.

And, thankfully, he was kind enough not only to give me an interview, but to include it in the week-long blog tour for the book. Which brings me to this: I have three copies of Saving Maddie to give away to three lucky readers. Just leave a comment (include your email, too, please) about something that struck you from the interview. Oh, and double entries for tweeting this, too (just let me know). You have until March 21st to enter.


MF: You’re a civil engineer and you write books. Awesome! How do you manage to reconcile/juggle those two (vastly different) careers?
VJ: They actually work pretty well together, most of the time. At least to me, it seems like I work different parts of my brain when I’m designing bridges versus writing a book. Because of this, I don’t feel nearly as wiped out at the end of the day as I would feel if I had a day job in, say, copyediting.

That being said, it can be tough to juggle everything. I try to get up very early in the morning to get my writing done. I’m fresh and eager then, and the idea of having to leave for the day-job really pushes me to take advantage of the little writing time that I have.

MF: What led to your decision to become a writer?
VJ: I always wanted to be a writer. Ever since elementary school, I was always working on short stories, mini-novels, and very bad poetry. But I was also very good at math and science, so when comparing options, being a well-fed engineer seemed like a better life path than becoming a starving author.

However, while in college, I couldn’t shake the writing bug. I eventually begin working on novels while juggling everything else, and was able to start on a manuscript that would become my first published novel.

MF: What was the initial inspiration for Saving Maddie?
VJ: I think Saving Maddie was born from a number of different things. I’ve always been interested in religion, and because I was so adamant on avoiding religion in My Life as a Rhombus (I didn’t want to bog down the novel with the religion versus abortion debate), I was really itching to explore it in my next novel. Also, I really wanted to explore the idea of saving someone, which was also a minor thread in Rhombus. And while Saving Maddie isn’t an autobiographical story, I very much felt like Joshua when I was a teenager—I felt like everyone was trying to force me to be this two-dimensional person. I was the smart one. The good one. I felt like few people saw the real me. But looking back on it, I’d bet that a lot of my classmates felt the same way, and perhaps I was just as guilty of seeing them in very confined ways as they were of seeing me. I found that while I liked most of the characters in the book, I related to Joshua most (says something about me, doesn’t it?).

MF: Do you have a favorite character or scene?
VJ: I don’t have a favorite character, but I have two favorite scene—the motel scenes. Without going into too much detail, I felt that both of these scene were the perfect storm of everything I’d been trying to say in the novel—the combination of love and loss, friendship and sacrifice. In these two scenes, we not only see the real Joshua, but I think we get a glimpse of the man that Joshua is destined to grow into.

MF: In your books, you seem to tackle tough subjects like abortion or religion, and work at finding a balance between all opinions. Is this something you consciously try to do, or is it just the way you look at life/writing/storytelling/issues?
VJ: I try really hard to find a balance between opinions. As an author, I don’t feel it’s my place to dictate want a reader should think or believe. Rather, I want to make it hard for the reader; I want him or her to struggle with what’s going on in the novel, to try to see all sides of an argument. Nothing, not even fiction, is all black and white.

MF: What do you hope people will take away from your book? (Saving Maddie in particular, but all of your books in general…)
VJ: Hmm…that’s a tough question. On one hand, I don’t have any expectations for what people will take away from my novels. Some will read my books for entertainment purposes only, some won’t. Going back to a previous answer, I guess I want my readers to realize that life is complicated; there are no easy answers. What works for one person may not work for another. And that’s okay. We don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinion, but we need to try to respect it.

MF: When did you start blogging? What inspired you to do it? What do you get out of blogging — if anything?
VJ: I started my blog back in the summer of 2005, after hearing author Chris Barton talk about blogging. I wanted a way to interact with the kid-lit community and to talk about my take on the writing life. While I’m not able to blog as much as I’d like, I love how blogging makes me feel so connected to the kid-lit community.

MF: Did you choose to write for a YA audience, and if so, why?
VJ: I would not be a YA author if not for Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. That novel totally changed the way I thought about the genre. Hard Love is equal parts funny and painful, and while it’s about a straight boy falling in love with a lesbian, it’s so much more than that. I loved the voice and the immediacy of the novel, and I knew after finished it that that was the type of books I wanted to write.

MF: Are there five books — lets be particular here: how about by people of color, since I, in particular, seem to be lacking in that area — you think everyone should read?
VJ: Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia
Every Time a Rainbow Dies, also by Rita Williams-Garcia
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Tyrell by Coe Booth
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

MF: If you don’t mind telling us, what’s next for you?
VJ: I’m actually working on a companion novel to Saving Maddie. I can’t say much about it, other than it’ll be from Madeline’s POV.

Thanks so much for your time, Varian! (And don’t forget about the giveaway!)

And, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the other stops on the tour.
Melodye Shore in The Author’s Tent.
Reading in Color with Ari.
Gwenda Bond’s Shaken and Stirred
Edi at Crazy Quilts

14 thoughts on “10 Questions for Varian Johnson (Plus a Giveaway!)

  1. Yay, another morning person! Although I tend to fritter away my own morning time on blog reading and house cleaning….

    Thanks for the list of book recommendations. And Saving Maddie sounds fascinating.


  2. I have read all of Varian's books. The fact that saving Maddie is from a male POV fascinates me. I also found it interesting how Varian wanted to explore saving someone from a teenager's view. From my experience as a teacher, I hope that many YA will identify with both Maddie and Joshua.


  3. Oh, you are so right about Varian's laugh. It's like sunshine coming into the room every time he's around. Great interview Melissa, the list of books about people of color is particularly helpful to me.


  4. I completely agree that it is so important for YA authors especially to blog or at least have an active online presence. It really helps connect them to their readers. I lvoe being able to talk to authors or follow them via their blogs or Twitter.

    I really need to read Hard Love, since it inspired Varian to write such awesome YA! I've read all five books he mentions (well I'm currently reading Every Time a Rainbow Dies) and they are all fantastic. If You Come Softly is quite sad and Jumped is powerful. Anything by Christopher Paul Curtis is sure to be funny and educational in some way.

    Can't wait for the sequel to Saving Maddie =)


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