Michael Craft Johnson moves
into the big leagues,
with a contract to write
his next novel for
St. Martin’s Press
Interview by William E. Robbins
Photo by Paul Williams
The Kenosha News
April 23, 1999
Five years ago, Michael Craft Johnson wrote a short story about a character who discovers dark secrets when he visits a house important to his childhood. Today that short story is the basis for Body Language, the third installment in Johnson’s murder mystery series featuring gay investigative reporter Mark Manning. The novel is published by Kensington Books and will hit bookstores nationwide May 1.
But Johnson’s next Manning book has already been purchased by giant New York publisher St. Martin’s Press. In the publishing world, that’s like vaulting to the major leagues.
“I’m very excited about that,” said Johnson, who writes under the name Michael Craft. “It was time for my contract renewal with Kensington. I did better with St. Martin’s. There are no hard feelings anywhere. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the people I worked with at Kensington and nothing but eagerness to work with the people at St. Martin’s, which has an illustrious track record with gay fiction in general and mysteries in particular.”
Body Language takes the Chicago-based Manning to a new geographic setting—and takes Johnson to a new literary level. “I really feel I’ve found my own voice for mystery writing,” said Johnson, whose full-time job is communications director [for a local manufacturer]. “The book has received great reviews. This is, most agree, better than the previous ones, Flight Dreams and Eye Contact.”
In Body Language, Manning quits his job at the Chicago Journal and moves north to the fictitious town of Dumont, Wisconsin, where he intends to buy the local daily newspaper and rediscover his family’s roots. “But on Christmas Day, moments before dinner is served, his wealthy cousin Suzanne Quatrain is bludgeoned to death under his own roof,” Johnson said. “Manning, who finds the body, is caught with blood on his hands. In the eyes of a zealous prosecutor, he becomes the prime suspect.”
Johnson wrote the kernel of the book as a short story. Five years ago, after he had drafted Flight Dreams but before he had sold it as a series, Johnson was fishing around for a new writing project. “A writer friend suggested that I write a short story,” he said. “Out of nowhere, through pure creativity, I had the notion of someone going to a big old house they had visited as a child, and they discover dark secrets.”
Johnson never published the short story, but filed it away for possible future use. Ultimately he realized the story could be the springboard for a Mark Manning book. “There was nothing in it inconsistent with the Manning character,” he said.
Johnson suggested the short story be put at the beginning of Body Language—as sort of a prologue—followed by the main body of the book. “But my editor thought that the short story would be an impediment to the action of the main story,” he said. “So I chopped up the short story and sprinkled it through the main story. The short story is in there almost word-for-word. Every time there’s a flashback, that’s the short story.”
For the first time, in Body Language Johnson uses first-person narration instead of the omniscient third-person format. “The transformation was easy for me,” he said. “First-person is a very natural voice to write in. I’ve heard conflicting advice. On one hand, it’s deemed an easy voice to write in. On the other hand, it’s a difficult voice to write in well. Beginning writers usually are not encouraged to write in first-person.”
Johnson likes the thinking-out-loud quality of first-person narration. “And when a story so precisely focuses on a central character, it’s natural to write in the first-person. Of course, the challenge is that the character has to be in the entire story and witness or overhear everything.”
Third-person does have its own advantages, he said. “The reader is piecing together the story without the central character always being present. And with first-person, you can’t truly get into the head of another character, as you can with third-person.”
Manning’s love life is tested again in Body Language, Johnson said. “It has to do with the arrangement he and [his companion] Neil arrive at when Manning hatches a plan to buy the newspaper in Wisconsin. Neil is an architect who followed him from Phoenix to Chicago, and just because Manning now wants to pitch his tent in central Wisconsin doesn’t mean that Neil is interested in joining him.”
The couple try a long-distance relationship in which they see each other on weekends. “As the story develops, the arrangement gets complicated.”
St. Martin’s bought the next Manning book—tentatively titled Name Games—on the strength of a draft Johnson’s agent shopped around, as well as his previous books. “They know exactly what they are getting, and they are pleased,” Johnson said.
After the fourth Manning novel is released next year, Johnson might create for St. Martin’s another mystery series with a straight woman as the central character. “My publisher, my agent and I will take a hard look at where I should be heading with my writing,” he said. “There are probably more Mark Mannings after four. But we feel it’s probably time to launch another series without a gay focus, for the purpose of attracting a broader audience.”
This fall, Johnson will teach a fiction writers’ workshop at Carthage College. The class will be open to the general public.
“It will be a night class,” he said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It will be a really supportive atmosphere, putting students to work writing—and learning to be their own toughest critics. My goal is to get them to produce publishable fiction.” The odds of getting a first novel published are against them, he said. “But I can help people cross a few hurdles.”
Body Language is Johnson’s fourth published novel. His first was Rehearsing, which centered on the world of theater. “In the den I keep an attractive pile of my own books,” he said. “Now I’ve got four. And that’s just sort of a wonderful feeling.”
© Copyright 1999 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Reproduced with permission