Desert Winter

Backdropped by a snowy scene of Kenosha’s harbor, as seen from the Kenosha Public Museum, author Michael Craft displays copies of his newest murder mystery, Desert Winter.

Kenosha writer pens latest mystery,
plans to direct play

Interview by Kenosha News Staff
Photo by Bill Siel
The Kenosha News
February 5, 2003

       This writer needs a flow chart to keep track of all his projects. He’s a literary juggling act. Over the past two years, Michael Craft Johnson has written four books and a play.
       “I’ve been busy,” understated the prolific Kenosha-based author, who has carved out a niche in the gay-mystery genre with his popular Mark Manning series and is building a readership among mainstream mystery fans with his Claire Gray series.
       The Mark Manning series features a gay investigative reporter. The Claire Gray series features a successful Broadway director who moves to Palm Springs, California, to teach theater. The second installment in the Claire Gray series, Desert Winter, has just been published. The first was issued last year. And the third—already written—is due out next year. The sixth installment in the Mark Manning mystery series was published last year. And Johnson has written a play, titled Photo Flash, which will be produced by Kenosha’s Lakeside Players in the fall.
       His most recent books have been published by St. Martin’s Press, a major New York publishing house, and they are sold in bookstores across the nation.
       “I’ve been writing a lot over the last two years,” said Johnson, whose pen name is Michael Craft. The seventh Mark Manning mystery has been outlined and contracted with St. Martin’s. “When it’s published next year, I will have about one million words in print. It’s been a long haul, and now I’m in a bit of a lull.”
       Johnson, who is vice president for communications at G. Leblanc Corporation, somehow manages to find time to write prodigiously—and draw positive reviews from book critics. “If you don’t make the time to write, it won’t get done,” he said.
       Although the Manning and Gray series are separate, they contain strong plot ties. For example, some characters appear in both.
       In Desert Winter, protagonist Claire Gray is directing her first major play at the college where she now teaches, a production of the suspense classic Laura. “She needs a particular kind of clock as part of the stage setting,” Johnson said. “She discovers that she might be able to borrow it from an eccentric antique collector.” The collector agrees to lend her the priceless clock, but when she goes to his estate to pick it up, she stumbles on his body in the kitchen. It’s quickly determined that he was murdered.
       And while Johnson was writing that book, he himself stumbled, figuratively, on the idea for a play. “I was working on the outline for Desert Winter, doing plot research, and I looked into Laura,” he said. “It had been a play, a book and a movie. I read the book, then I read the play, and then I watched the movie, and I saw how it translated from one medium to the other.” No two were exactly alike. “There were similarities, but also some striking differences—different characters, different narrators. It was very instructive, and very inspiring.”
       Johnson had considered writing a play for a long time. He has acted in several Lakeside Players productions and directed one. And his books often relate to the theater. His research into Laura gave him an idea: Why not write a play that would also become a book?
       “I had the germ of a plot, and I conceived the third Claire Gray mystery, Desert Spring, as the basis for a play. I used the plot twice—as a stage play and a novel.” He opted to write the play first because it’s a more compact medium. “I thought it would be easier to expand and novelize a play than it would be to condense and dramatize a novel.”
       Writing the play was both challenging and exciting, he said. “A stage play is far more restricting than a novel in terms of writing, simply because, by and large, it takes place in a single room and in real time. There’s no jumping around from one place to another or from one time to another. You can’t get into characters’ heads. Basically, everything you know is what people say. I found the drafting process for the play a lot of fun. It went quickly. I had already meticulously outlined the plot, which is how I work, and when I got down to putting the play on paper, it took only about three weeks.”
       Over the years, he had read hundreds of scripts in addition to the plays in which he performed, so he has a well-honed sense of stagecraft. Now Johnson will cast and direct Photo Flash. Lakeside Players will produce the play in September as the opening production of its 30th season, which makes the event a sort of double celebration.
       The plot of the play—and the book—involves a famous movie producer who attends one of Claire Gray’s plays and winds up dead in her swimming pool. “Some of the circumstances point to Claire herself as having had a motive,” Johnson said. The play has eight characters. “Four men and four women and one interior. Two acts and one intermission. It’s a very conventionally structured play.”
       It’ll be a thrill to see his characters come to life on stage. “I’ve been recruiting everyone I can think of who I want to audition for the play. I intend to deliver a first-class production, from the casting down to the set design.”
       For information on auditions, which will be held in May, e-mail the author from his Web site,

Copyright 2003 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Reproduced with permission.

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