Tue
Aug 29 2017 1:00pm

Q&A with Roger Johns, Author of Dark River Rising

Read an exclusive Q&A with Roger Johns, author of Dark River Rising, and make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of this thrilling debut mystery!

Roger Johns is the debut author of Dark River Rising, a tense and expertly-plotted mystery set against the bayous of Louisiana. A former corporate lawyer and college professor, Mr. Johns has now turned his focus to his love of crime fiction. Recently, the author was generous enough to answer questions about his debut novel, Louisiana as a setting, and what it's like transitioning from lawyer to author.

What is the significance of setting your debut novel in Louisiana?

This is a very interesting question because so many things about the book changed during the writing process. Scenes and characters came and went. The timeline underwent a few revisions. Even the name, gender, and occupation of the protagonist changed—more than once. And all of those changes were the result of a good deal of deliberation. The setting, however, never varied, nor did I ever have any internal debate over where the story would take place.

Without any conscious decision on my part, the events just began unfolding in Baton Rouge, and I never questioned that. It never occurred to me to consider any other location. As I look back on that, I realize now that it’s because the city and the state still hold a great deal of personal meaning to me—even though I have lived nearly half my life away in many interesting places.

Read Roger Johns's guest post “Start with Setting: A Focus on Time and Place”!

I was born and grew up in Louisiana, and between 1974 and 1987, I went to college and law school in Baton Rouge. I had some very intense life and work experiences in Baton Rouge and Lafayette—a town fifty miles to the west—experiences that altered me in fundamental and fairly dramatic ways. And that is something that has not been duplicated since or elsewhere. You get to know a place and develop feelings toward it when you experience it so intensely. There’s a lot of emotional intensity in Dark River Rising, and I think that’s possible because that’s exactly how I experienced the town.

What draws you to crime fiction?

Crime fiction has fascinated me since I read my way through the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries as a little kid. The struggle between the criminal and the crime fighter, between the prosocial and the antisocial mindsets—which is something that exists in every place and time—is just too interesting to ignore and so much fun to explore as a reader and a writer.

Plus, I like the idea that the crime fighter can win the day, even on a very unlevel playing field. The criminal operates unencumbered by all of the legal, political, social, and ethical constraints (the “honor among thieves” bromide notwithstanding) that tie the crime fighter’s hands, yet the crime fighter can still win. Not always in real life, but certainly in the world of crime fiction.

The crime fighter, often at great personal cost, proves to have just that extra little bit of physical or intellectual capability that’s needed to outfight or outwit an opponent that seems destined to win. So, in a sense, the crime fighter is, by definition, always the underdog, and it’s easy to develop a rooting interest in the underdog. As readers, we can vicariously experience what it’s like to have and to use those capabilities. And I would guess that virtually all readers—probably even criminals—find the good-guy-wins ending to be pretty satisfying.

What was the transition like from lawyer and educator to author? What challenges, if any, presented themselves?

The transition was slow and bumpy. The premise of Dark River Rising sprang out of a question that occurred to me during my time as a business law professor. Thinking it might be a good idea for a novel, I toyed with the idea off and on, more or less expecting that it would turn itself into a book just because I was convinced that it was such an unbelievable idea and that that’s what unbelievable ideas were supposed to do.


The biggest surprise was discovering that, after so many years in the ultra-precise professions of law and academia, the freer world of fiction writing is where I feel most at home.


At some point, after a lot of getting nowhere, I realized that a good idea for a book is not the same thing as a good plot, so I sought professional help in the form of a novel-writing class taught by a very talented, well-published crime novelist in Atlanta. After a few more false starts, mostly due to a change in employment and a failed attempt to return permanently to the Southwest, I retired a few years early.

Like so many who try the early-retirement experiment, I learned that such was not my road. When I announced to my wife that I was going to have another go at finishing my book, she suggested that if I didn’t finish it on this attempt, then perhaps it was time to administer last rites. That was, to say the least, a very motivating prospect to contemplate.

Probably the biggest challenge was adjusting to the idea that writing fiction is a relatively unconstrained experience. As a financial institutions lawyer, I worked within an absurdly complex, rigid set of rules and procedures, where any deviation or misstep was fraught with peril. Likewise, as an academic, the universities where I taught always had very specific expectations about my teaching and service. And the pathways one navigates in academic research can be amazingly narrow.

Writing fiction frees me from most of that. Sure, there are constraints of plausibility and readability, but the world I create and populate is largely in my hands, and that took some getting used to. Ironically, I am absolutely certain that without the enormous discipline I was forced to develop as a lawyer and a college professor, I would succumb to my natural inclination toward laziness and be unable to produce book-length manuscripts—especially stories as intricate as mysteries where all the parts have to fit together with the precision of watch work.

You craft some pretty gruesome scenes in Dark River Rising. What is your brainstorming process/how do you come up those ideas?

I like putting things together that don’t typically go together, and the opening scene in Dark River Rising would be an example of that. Also, extremes of thought, word, and deed are always more compelling than normal, even-keel activities, and they will always have a home in crime fiction. So my thinking tends to gravitate in those directions.

Plus, I have a tendency to write the kinds of things I like to read. The practitioners of the more gruesome criminal arts are the ones we most want to get caught—Jack the Ripper, Hannibal Lecter. So, for me, it’s an attempt to build in, from the beginning, a strong need for the antagonist to be brought down in the end.

Describe Dark River Rising in less than five words.

 Intense, funny, dark, uplifting.

What do you want readers to think or feel after finishing this book?

Most importantly, I want readers to feel entertained by the story—to feel as if they have spent a few hours in the presence of some very realistic characters and have gotten good value for the time and money they exchanged for the book. And, of course, I hope they will find the characters interesting enough that they’ll be willing to spend more time with them in the future. Also, I’d like the reader to come away from the book with a sense of Louisiana that is slightly different from its typical portrayal in fiction. So often the state is depicted through the lens of either New Orleans or Cajun country, but there’s quite a bit more to it than those two areas.

As this is your debut novel, what parts of the writing process surprised or challenged you the most?

The biggest challenge was learning to trust a different part of my brain. Having subjugated the creative to the logical and the efficient for so many years, the prospect of making the shift from instruction to entertainment was intimidating. Fortunately, I got a lot of encouragement and hand-holding from my wife and my critique group members. The biggest surprise was discovering that, after so many years in the ultra-precise professions of law and academia, the freer world of fiction writing is where I feel most at home.

Read an excerpt from Dark River Rising!

What are you currently reading?

I tend to have several books going at once. At the moment, I'm reading the Natchez Burning Trilogy by Greg Iles. From start to finish, it's nearly 2,400 pages, and I'm about 280 pages in. I'm also reading X, the 24th volume in Sue Grafton's series about P.I. Kinsey Millhone. These Honored Dead by Jonathan Putnam—a fascinating historical whodunit involving the pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln and his landlord and good friend Joshua Speed. And Wait for Signs, a collection of Walt Longmire short stories by Craig Johnson.

What would be your murder weapon of choice?

Well, technically, murder is unjustifiable homicide—something I don’t know if I could ever do. That said, on the justifiable side of the street, my weapon of choice is something so atypical that if I reveal it here, you can be sure that if anyone ever winds up dead by such means, the police would be at my door by sundown, waving a search warrant in my face with copy of this interview attached. So, I’m thinking maybe I should keep this a secret.

If you could team up Wallace with any other detective, real or fictional, who would it be and why?

This is a great (and, for me, a very easy-to-answer) question. However, I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground. As a debut author, I’m more than a bit nervous about hitching my protagonist’s wagon to a more established character’s star. But since I was told that this was the one question I absolutely could not skip, then with great humility and fingers a-tremble, I type the name Walt Longmire, protagonist of Craig Johnson’s superb mysteries set in Wyoming.

Both Walt and Wallace are smart, physically capable, physically fearless, and strong willed. But they also have their softer, more human sides, and they’re not afraid to show them—not afraid that by showing those sides of themselves they’ll be judged weak or incompetent. And readers know that it’s that willingness to be an uncloseted, whole person that renders them able to understand and outwit the people they go after.

That said, it’s also true that the other characters Walt and Wallace interact with see them as singular individuals—different in some subtle but important way. Against a proper opponent, it would be fascinating to watch them compete with and complement each other, to see how they would negotiate those moments when disaster is looming, time is short, and each is convinced they’re right about what to do next and that the other person is wrong.

And due to a most fortuitous alphabetic coincidence, such a story would be easy to shelve in the bookstore because Johns and Johnson will always be right next to each other. Lucky me. 

[Author’s Note: Craig Johnson, the creator of the Longmire series, was kind enough to provide a wonderful blurb for my debut novel, so here I find myself repaying his generosity by exploiting his masterpiece. Craig, if you’re reading this, please take this as a true compliment from a most loyal fan.]
 

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Dark River Rising by Roger Johns!

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Dark River Rising Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2017/08/qa-with-roger-johns-author-of-dark-river-rising-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 29, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET September 5, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

 

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Roger Johns is a former corporate lawyer and college professor with law degrees from Louisiana State University and Boston University. He was born and raised in Louisiana, though he and his wife now live in Georgia. Dark River Rising is his first novel.

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57 comments
1. Lori byrd
This sounds so good. Thank you for the chance to win.
Lori Byrd
2. Sunshinehdfan
This sounds so good. Thank you for the chance to win.
Rena Sollish
8. Rena
This looks good. Can't wait to read it.
Janice Santillo
9. themommazie
Interesting interview. Hope I win the book.
Lori Provenzano
10. Mountainesque
"Intense, funny, dark, uplifting" sound like perfect descriptors for a
satisfying, escapist read, presuming it ends on the uplifting part. I'd be game for this!
Sally Schmidt
11. bigcootie
Great beginning! I have to read this. Thanks for the giveaway.
13. Lynda Schoenfelder
This would be so awesome to win!
Jackie Wisherd
15. JackieW
Always enjoy reading authors new to me. Would enjoy reading this book and reporting on it at my book club.
Michael Carter
16. rubydog
Good interview!
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks ---
Kim Salmi
18. Coffeebean
i really like the sound of this mystery...very intriguing and i could see myself engrossed in it cover to cover !
L Peters
22. leepcat
Can't wait to read it. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.
Nicole Sender
23. minibea
I'd love to win an audiobook copy of Dark River Rising by Roger Johns! Sounds like a real thriller.
nikilsend(at)outlook(dot)com
Barbara Lima
24. barblima636@gmail.com
With "Harvey" causing great flooding, it's interesting to hear about a river rising!
susan beamon
25. susanbeamon
I can always use another audio book. They help me driving.
Laurent Latulippe
27. krag48
I'm looking forward to reading this.
Meredith Miller
28. meredithfl
I love audiobooks. I'm looking forward to this one.
James Joyce
29. JamesPatrickJoyce
It's always been Louisiana. Too good a deal to shake a red stick at, I'll tell you that much.
Jennifer Hodges
30. ViolinGeek
Enjoyed the interview. Smart not to reveal weapon of choice!
Susan Pertierra
31. orchidlady01
Crime fiction with the description of "Intense, funny, dark, uplifting" sounds like it will be an interesting thriller book.
Linda Leonard
32. linsleo1
Great interview! Wishing you success with your debut book "Dark River Rising" and your newfound freedom you are experiencing in writing.
Susan Morris
33. Samfor3
I loved reading your interview. It seems where we grew up and went to school will always play a big part in our lives. Can hardly wait to read this book!
Martha LaChance
34. mlachance9
Hoping to win this to give the author a try.
36. sue gannon
looks great thanks for chance
Anita Yancey
37. rosewood780
The book sounds fasinating and I love the setting. Thanks for this chance to win it.
38. kmint
I absolutely love a great mystery!
Lorraine Bowen
39. rainey54
Sitting on the shelves next to Craig Johnson sounds like a good omen. Good Luck with your new job as an author.
Teresa Ward
40. tward57
I love crime fiction and mysteries! I like to see if I can figure out who did it before I get to the end. This sounds like something I would enjoy reading. Thanks for the contest to win a copy!!
Pat Murphy
41. murphyp2011
Interesting . I think Wallace and Walt would get along well. Might be some headbutting .
Andrew Beck
43. queerbec
I liked reading about his creative process, moving from lawyer to mystery writer and the way the characters and plot and timeline changed as he progressed
Jane Schwarz
46. Janeschwarz
Insightful interview. Interesting story concept. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.
Marisa Young
47. Risa
Interesting interview. Would like to read book.
Diana Coomer
48. dlcoomer
Would love to read as he sounds like a very interesting author.
L
49. LStirling
He had me at the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew! Sounds like a very good book. Just the kind of Suspense Thriller I like!
Priscilla Pursell
50. pp9cf7
Lawyers make great authors. I can't wait to get my hands on this book.
Deb Philippon
52. DebP
This sounds like a book I would enjoy reading. Wish me luck!
Karina Thibodeau
53. Storm992472
This sounds like it is right up my alley. Thank you for the chance.
Karina Thibodeau
53. Storm992472
This sounds like it is right up my alley. Thank you for the chance.
Sue Dittmar
57. SKDittmar
I love Louisiana and the interesting place it is. Thank you for writing about it.
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