Author's book takes flight
Interview by William E. Robbins
Photo by Paul Williams
The Kenosha News
May 28, 1997
Fifteen years ago, Michael Craft Johnson began penning a novel about a newspaper reporter investigating the disappearance of a wealthy heiress. Now, that book has been published—and it’s garnering rave reviews.
Flight Dreams is the product of numerous revisions, bears a new title and boasts an entirely new complexion when compared to the early drafts, says Johnson, who as an author goes by the name Michael Craft. (Craft is his mother’s maiden name.)
“The basic plot line is intact,” he says. “But I did not think of it as a mystery in the conventional sense.” That, however, is what it became.
“By the time I got it to almost its final revision, when I at last was able to interest a New York agent, Mitchell Waters, in representing me, he suggested we try to sell it as a two- or three-book mystery deal. He said it has the potential, and with the right editor it can be tweaked enough to make it more of a conventional mystery.
“I owe Mitchell a great debt of gratitude for making this happen. He located very quickly an editor at Kensington Books, a New York publisher of 400 or 500 titles a year. They do a lot of series.”
Johnson signed a contract to write three books in what is dubbed his Mark Manning series, after the protagonist.
Johnson, 46, who is gay, says his book has a gay orientation. “Kensington had never done—I don’t like to call it a gay series—but I will call it a gay-focus series. They had never done that. I guess it’s telling of perhaps a certain direction in society right now that a major publisher would think itself lacking for not addressing that market. By ‘gay focus’ I simply mean that in this case the central character is gay. In this first installment in the series he discovers his sexuality, and because of that I think that this book and the series as a whole will be of particular interest to gay readers.
“But it is not being marketed strictly as a gay novel to a gay market. It’s sort of interesting, in the first review we saw in print—which was generally positive—there was not a single mention of the gay aspect of the plot. Both my editor and I found that astounding. And encouraging, for whatever crossover value the novel has.”
Johnson’s first published novel, Rehearsing, came out in 1993 as a trade paperback. Flight Dreams is being released nationally in hardcover. A year from now it will appear as a trade paperback and the second installment in the series will be released in hardcover.
Craft is still learning about the publishing business. “There was an earlier version of the jacket that you see (which depicts the back of a nude man). As it turns out, the earlier version was just a promotional run, to supply their salesmen with as they go around to bookstores. The difference between the two is that in the earlier version, the person on the cover was wearing underwear. Both my agent and I thought that gave it sort of a tawdry edge that we didn’t especially care for, so we pushed hard to change it.
“We were led to believe that wouldn’t happen in a million years—that they would never change what they had already come up with once it’s out there. My editor went to bat for me. I got a fax a couple of weeks before I received the first printed book. It was from my editor saying, ‘Good news. We’ve debriefed our hero.’”
And not in the military sense.
The central character in Flight Dreams is Mark Manning, a 38-year-old investigative reporter who works at a large Chicago daily newspaper called the Journal. “The paper happens to resemble the Tribune,” Johnson says. “I worked there (as an editorial art director) for 10 years.”
During the course of the series, Manning will investigate various cases that come along. “In this one, he’s investigating the disappearance of a wealthy North Shore heiress. People in this area may instantly think of (candy heiress) Helen Brach, and that in fact was the case that inspired the plot.
“The similarity really ends there. I was just fascinated by the idea of a missing heiress from the North Shore. It is a mystery and from the beginning our hero does not believe that she has been murdered. He thinks that she’s disappeared of her own free will. He’s faced with an ultimatum from his publisher: prove this.
“This is all happening on the eve of the seventh anniversary of her disappearance—when she will be declared legally dead and the bulk of her fortune would be distributed, in accordance with her will, to the Catholic archdiocese of Chicago. Another substantial chunk of her money would go to a federation of cat clubs that she was involved with.”
The religion and cat aspects all serve as clues that play into the action plot, he says. “This story is very different from Rehearsing,” he adds. That was mainly a character study, thin on plot. This is sort of the reverse of that. Flight Dreams is really plot driven, as mysteries tend to be. There is a problem, we need to solve it. Let’s go out and gather clues and hopefully by the last page have all the details buttoned down.
“Not that character is slighted here. There’s a lot more character development than you would normally expect.”
The book’s subplot has Manning grappling with the issue of his own sexuality. And that subplot will lay the groundwork for the subplots for the rest of the series, Johnson says. The book contains some steamy sex scenes.
“I think readers here at the local level deserve to be aware of that up front. People who might be offended by explicit erotic material—I would simply advise them: Don’t buy it and don’t read it. That’s your choice. And for those who might enjoy it: Buy it and read it. That’s your choice. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression of the book. Those scenes are few and far between. But they are there. They’re part of human nature.”
Flight Dreams is available through any bookstore, he says. If it’s not on the shelves, it can be ordered.
The book is drawing critical praise. For example, noted mystery-book critic Harriet Klausner wrote: (Flight Dreams) is a brilliantly beautiful debut and an enticing who-done-it . . . an evocative and at times erotic literary work.”
Snooper Reviews, which assesses mystery books, said: “In a well-plotted puzzle, Craft captures us from the first page.”
The next installment in the Mark Manning series is almost wrapped up. It is as yet untitled.
“It’s bigger in the number of pages and overall scope of the story,” Johnson says. “It’s set in Chicago in the summer of 1999. It will be published in 1998. It has an exciting plot: An astronomer a the local planetarium who has recently arrived from his war-torn eastern European homeland has just announced the discovery of a tenth planet in the earth’s solar system. Manning is assigned to the story, which he doesn’t like because he sees no controversy in it.” But Manning quickly determines that there is, indeed, a great deal of controversy.
Johnson enjoys writing. “I mean this sincerely and not in a mawkish way: The wonderful thing for me about writing is doing the writing. You’re creating worlds, whole new realities. You’re calling the shots. It’s profoundly creative in the sense of bringing something out of nothing.
“It’s just plain fun. It’s also gratifying to sit back when it’s finished and to realize that you’ve accomplished it with a certain finesse. A certain grace.”
© 1997 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Reproduced with permission