Book plot was in the stars:
Michael Craft gives his hero an astronomical interest for second book in series
Interview by William E. Robbins
Photo by Bill Siel
The Kenosha News
June 10, 1998
A lifelong interest in astronomy provided the blastoff for Michael Craft Johnson’s latest mystery featuring a gay investigative newspaper reporter. Eye Contact, the second installment in a series of murder mysteries “starring” fictional Chicago newspaper reporter Mark Manning, has just been published.
“I’ve been interested in amateur astronomy since I was a boy,” said Johnson, a Kenoshan who is communications director at [a local manufacturer]. “Not enough to study astronomy or make a career of it, but it’s always fascinated me and I’ve always had a healthy awe for the heavens.”
The book, written under Johnson’s pen name, Michael Craft, begins with the supposed discovery of a 10th planet. “Early on, Mark Manning has suspicions that something is amiss with this claimed discovery. It turns out that his suspicions are very well founded. As the story progresses, what started out to simply be a false claim of scientific discovery progresses in Manning’s investigation to become a broader and broader coverup of something dastardly.”
Johnson grew up in the ’50s and ’60s during the space race. “It seemed to me only a matter of time before we’d find far-out neighbors to add to the solar system—like adding Alaska and Hawaii to the flag,” he said. “I daydreamed a lot about what it would be like out there. That intrigued me enough that the notion stuck with me as being something worth writing about. That’s what triggered my idea for the story.”
This is the second book in the series, published by Kensington Books. Johnson has written a third Mark Manning mystery and is in the process of finalizing a contract for more Manning books. “The third book is called Body Language and it’s finished, it’s sitting on my editor’s desk,” Johnson said.
Both Flight Dreams, which is now out in paperback, and Eye Contact have been enthusiastically reviewed by gay and mainstream publications.
What’s Eye Contact about?
“A murder has occurred and that’s known early in the story. The plot behind the murder in not known. And that’s really the crux of the book. Manning is trying to find out who’s behind it. Two thirds of the way through the book, he and the reader know whodunit, but they still don’t know why. And that’s what the last section is about—the conspiracy starts to unravel.”
Johnson wrote the draft of the third book, Body Language, in less than three months, much faster than his previous books. “I’m getting faster at writing and I hope I’m getting better. Body Language took me 10 weeks to draft. To me, that seems like speed writing, especially since it took me 12 years to get my first novel, Rehearsing, into print.”
Being under contract to produce one book a year is, well, a novel experience, he said. “Writing under deadline, when you know the work is, in effect, pre-sold, takes away a lot of the insecurities that you have as a writer when you’re just writing on speculation and wondering if you’re even going to be able to get someone to read it.”
Johnson’s Mark Manning mysteries are gaining an audience. Johnson is even getting fan mail. “The publisher puts its Web address on the title pages of the books. At their site they have a link to all of their authors’ e-mail, and I’ve started getting fan mail from people I don’t know. All along I’ve gotten nice notes from friends. You sort of expect that. Now that I’ve started hearing from people I don’t know at all, that makes my day.”
In addition to the surface plot, Johnson makes sure his books carry a meaningful subplot. “The subplots work at a more personal and emotional level,” said Johnson, who is gay.
“In Flight Dreams, it dealt with Manning’s grappling with his own sexuality and ultimately coming out. In Eye Contact, that realization is now behind him, and he’s happily involved in a relationship with another man—but that relationship gets tested. Manning now deals with the issue of fidelity.”
Johnson works closely with his Kensington editor, John Scognamiglio. In the first two Manning mysteries, the editor suggested major changes.
“Keep in mind I didn’t set out to write murder mysteries. That was my agent’s idea in terms of selling [the first manuscript] to my publisher. It was understood from the beginning that I would work with my editor in turning these stories into marketable mysteries. So he suggested extensive changes to the first two books. And I’m grateful for them.”
For Body Language, however, the editor’s input for revisions was minimal. “And this tells me I’m either getting better at it or at least I’m producing more of what he expects to see—or both. The truth is, I’m writing much more efficiently.”
Are characters totally fabricated?
“I like to tell people that I am in every character in the book, but no one character is me. Beyond that, fleshing out characters, making them believable as opposed to just plot devices—of course you draw upon your knowledge and memory of people you know and have known. No one could invent a realistic character out of whole cloth with no real-world counterparts, but I do try very scrupulously at the same time not to write characters that would be identifiable as people I know. That’s just not nice.”
Johnson has readings scheduled in Chicago and Milwaukee. Also, plans call for him to read at the grand opening of a new coffeehouse at Kenosha’s Southport Book Center when the facility is completed.
Johnson’s books are nationally distributed and available at stores such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. “It’s interesting because I travel quite a bit in my day job. And I frequently pop into a book store and see if I can find my stuff on the shelves. And about half the time, I do. And that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Johnson is satisfied with his progress as a writer.
“Mine is not yet a success story in the sense of achieving best-sellerdom, and I’m realistic enough to know that that may never happen,” he said. “But it’s very much a success story in the sense that I have had a dream my entire adult life to establish myself as a published, working novelist. And that seems to be happening.”
The name’s the thing
Who comes up with author Michael Craft Johnson’s book titles?
“It’s a collaborative effort between me and my publisher,” said Johnson, whose second Mark Manning mystery, Eye Contact, has just been published. “I came up with the first book’s title, Flight Dreams, which is thematically tied to the book. I had no idea that Eye Contact would be the title of the second book. My editor named it.
“In fact, when I read the galleys of Eye Contact, I actually made a few author’s changes to revise the text to reflect the title. I thought, I’ve got to work in ‘eye contact’ in a book titled Eye Contact.
“When I got involved in drafting book No. 3 in the series, I came up with a title—I’ve forgotten what it was. But when I asked my editor about it he said, ‘Oh that’s not going to work at all.’ So I wracked my brain trying to propose something that I thought he’d like. I made literally pages of notes, trying to tie a title to the story.
“Then I just sat back for a moment and said, ‘Now what would John [his editor] call it? He called No. 2 Eye Contact, and knowing what novel No. 3 is about—what’s like ‘eye contact’? It came to me in a burst: ‘body language.’ We have Eye Contact and now we have Body Language.
“I faxed him with the idea and said, ‘If you liked Eye Contact—and you ought to, you wrote it—you’ll love Body Language.’ He got right back to me and said, ‘You’re right. I do love it.’
“Body Language ties much more neatly into its book than Eye Contact does into its book. But I would say that—it’s my title.”
© 1998 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Reproduced with permission