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.
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.
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.]
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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.