Descent is the kind of novel where you hold your breath while you are reading. It's also the kind of novel where the sentences are so gorgeous, you want to underline them. The story of a family torn apart when their daughter vanishes after a morning run, it's harrowing, heartbreaking and tense.
Tim Johnston is also the author of the Young Adult novel Never So Green, and the short story collection, Irish Girl, the stories of which won an O. Henry Prize, the New Letters Award for Writers, and the Gival Press Short Story Award, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. In 2005 the title story, “Irish Girl,” was included in the David Sedaris anthology of favorites, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Tim’s stories have also appeared in New England Review, New Letters, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Double Take, Best Life Magazine, and Narrative Magazine, among others. He currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.
1) I’m always interested in the origins of an idea. What sparked the book? How did the final story differ from your original idea?
For most of my adult life, I've made my living as a carpenter, and this book—or the characters—came to me at a time when I was actively not trying to write. I had all but completely cut myself off from all things writerly, publishy, agenty, by driving a truckload of tools up to the Rocky Mountains and throwing myself into completing all the finish work on a vacation house my father and stepmother had built up there. I'd been up in those mountains—way up there, on the far downslope of the Great Divide—for months, all by myself, working away, when this family of four began to make themselves known to me. Of course I did my best to ignore them, but they persisted, and grew more and more distinct in my mind, until one day I set down my paintbrush and said, OK, and opened up my laptop and began to write. All I knew about them then was that they, like me, had driven up to the Rockies from the Midwest, and that this common American undertaking was going to prove to be the worst kind of turning point in their lives.
I had in mind a story that dwelt in the aftermath of incredibly bad luck: how a family goes on with their lives once the headlines have faded and the world has moved on. I had not intended to have a concurrent story about the missing daughter—about her singular, personal struggle to survive. I also had an ending in mind that I thought I was writing toward until, after a long long period of paused writing, I realized I no longer wanted to reach—that that ending simply would not do for the characters I'd come to know so well. The concurrent story of the daughter contributed to this realization that I couldn't end the novel as I'd intended to, and when I finally understood another way to end it, I wrote very quickly and efficiently until the book was, suddenly, done.
From a craft point of view, I do believe that because I didn't know the ending—or only thought I knew the ending—the characters and the plot have a less...guided feel to them than might otherwise have been the case. In other words, I think that my surprise translates into a greater sense of surprise in the reader.
2) You’ve been praised for your ability to make the novel both highly literary and yet also a grab-you-by-the-throat thriller. Is any of this a conscious decision?
The "thriller" aspect of the novel was definitely not a conscious decision. When you spend six years writing a book, it does not feel exactly like a grab-you-by-the-throat project; it feels the opposite of that—very plodding, very painstaking. Also, all my training and ambition have always been in literary fiction, and I had no conscious awareness of having a knack for the suspense, or thriller genre, except that I'd loved such books before I went to college and learned that the smarty-pants world makes a distinction between a great read and great writing. With Descent, I was mainly trying to tell the best story I could, at the maximum reach of whatever literary skills I'd learned. That said, I did not want to write a so-called quiet literary novel, but wanted to write a novel with a compelling storyline—even a "commercial" one: a story that would appeal to more than the MFA holders of America. I do think that much of the suspense of the novel came after I had a first draft in hand and I'd begun re-organizing the material, and working with the first readers and editors. Only then—hearing from these readers and editors—did I begin to realize that this might be one of those books that keep people up past their bedtimes. And I'm OK with that.
3) The structure of the story is so effortless, and so absorbing that I was wondering about the way you write. Do you plan things out in advance or just follow your pen? Are you an outliner? Do you have rituals?
Definitely NOT an outliner! Beyond the opening events of the novel—what is now the prologue-like section subtitled "The Life Before"—I really didn't know what would fill all that middle space between a novel's beginning and its end. The way I proceeded, after that opening section was finished, was to follow the character who interested me most, and that character turned out to be the father, Grant Courtland. So I stayed with him and wrote his story—perhaps a hundred pages worth. Then I did the same thing with his son Sean, then his daughter Caitlin, and lastly his estranged wife Angela. The novel's plot hinges on the fate of Caitlin, but it was the four-way story of survival that most interested me and kept me going. Once I understood how to end the novel, the last 100 pages or so were written much as they now appear, structure-wise; but one of the real pleasures of revising this book was figuring out how to braid those four earlier story lines together for the most compelling and, yes, suspenseful narrative.
I do have one ritual, which is to read good fiction whilst I drink my coffee in the morning. When I realize I'm no longer processing the words in front of me, but have spun off into my own sentences, I know it's time to get to work.
4) There’s so much in this extraordinary novel about how life can change in a second, how, in a way, there are parallel lives we could have led if not for one action that occurred. Could you talk about this please?
Well, I think this is something that fascinates all of us humans: this sense of awe at the little accidents and seemingly innocuous choices that lead us to where we one day find ourselves, wonderful or horrible as that place may be. Some folks call this process Fate, or attribute it to the will and designs of a higher power, while others, like me, tend to believe that most of the things that have happened to the inhabitants of this planet—and to the planet itself since before it was even a planet—have been the result of accidents and natural laws, among which is the law of randomness. When something really terrible happens, we humans instinctively review events in reverse, and we can't help but imagine what would have been if only we hadn't done this, or done that—or if this random thing on its own trajectory hadn't intersected with our own. In the novel, some characters struggle with faith, while others look to the randomness of the world to give back what it hath taken away—and indeed the plot does operate on the belief that just about any damn thing is possible.
Personally, I look back on the little accidents and innocuous-seeming decisions that led me to go work on that house in the Rocky Mountains, without which there never would have been the Courtlands, or this novel, period.
5) What’s obsessing you now and why?
Presently I'm kind of obsessed with time. It took me so long to write this novel, and certain parties are already asking, Where's the next one? I know that the time I took has much to do with the kind of book I wrote, and I wonder if I have the time to take my time again. I mean, the world spins on, and there's all kinds of crazy shit out there just waiting to happen, and yet I'm a creature of a certain arrogance, or willful ignorance, that tells itself it has all the time in the world!
6) What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What's it like to spend six years writing a novel, and then have to wait another 2.5 years after it's been bought before it's actually published?
A: It blows.