By Leslie Lindsay
Gorgeously written with a descriptive hand, this debut is one not to be missed. I was immediately transported to the southwestern region of France (Languedoc, to be precise), and found the poetic writing had me yearning for the luxuries found only in Europe. Through Julie Christine Johnson’s evocative use of words had me bathed in a richness of wonder, scent and visual images. Be sure to scroll to the end of the interview where you can link to Julie’s website and learn all about her editing services, query clinic, and story development services.
Lia Carrer, a historian by education finds herself seeking out southern France as a grieving widow, following a freak accident of her cyclist husband. She plans to rebuild her life, but she does not plan to fall in love.
Blending romance, mystery, history, and suspense, IN ANOTHER LIFE is ultimately about love and loss, but it harbors an ancient murder, a fantastical view of reincarnation and time travel, presented through the lens of an alternating time period between present-day and medieval France.
Today I am honored to welcome Julie Christine Johnson to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, Julie! I am so excited to have you pop by and chat with us about your deeply moving and poetic debut, IN ANOTHER LIFE. I understand the story was inspired by the Languedoc region of France and that you have many France-based stories tugging at your heart. Can you speak more to your inspiration for this particular story?
Julie Christine Johnson: Leslie, what a joy and honor it is to be here with you. Thank you for hosting me and spreading the word about In Another Life.
My husband and I spent a few weeks in the region in spring 2011. We’ve both lived in France and traveled all corners of L’Hexagone, but it was the first time we’d explored Languedoc in depth. We were enthralled by the scenery, the history, the culture—which are inextricably linked. History lives and breathes in the medieval ruins and Roman roads, the vineyards and the mountains. It is a culture shaped by the contours of its lands and one that worked its way deep under my skin. I left with a mental image I couldn’t shake: a woman standing on a cliff’s edge; below her stretches a valley laced with vineyards and studded with wind towers. Behind her, a man steps out from the ruins of a Cathar citadel. I was aching to find out who they were, but I knew she was from the present, he from the past. Then I read about the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation and I had my way into the story.
L.L.: So I have to admit, I had never heard of a Cathar before—heretics, yes, but Cathars, no. Can you give us a tiny history lesson where this is concerned, and how does it fit into Lia’s story in IN ANOTHER LIFE?
Julie Christine Johnson: Catharism was a migratory faith that came to western and southern Europe by way of different Gnostic religions founded in Persia and the Balkans. The faith as represented in the Languedoc of In Another Life took root in the 11th century A.D. The Cathars considered themselves Christians, but because of their disavowal of the resurrection of Christ, their views of the afterlife, and the radical ways they practiced their faith, including integration of women and rejection of tithing, the Catholic church declared them heretics and worked to convert the Cathar faithful to Catholicism. The assassination of prelate Pierre de Castelnau in January 1208, which was blamed on a nobleman sympathetic to the Cathars, launched a crusade against them. The Cathars were all but eliminated from Languedoc by the mid-1200s, just three decades after In Another Life.
Lia made the Cathars and their faith the subject of her dissertation, but her research focused on their beliefs in reincarnation and the afterlife. Yet the questions of why Pierre de Castelnau was murdered and by whom needled her. Since history never shows who wielded the weapon and committed the murder, I took that and ran with it, straight into the story!
“Johnson’s heartbroken researcher wends through the lush landscape and historical religious intrigue of southern France seeking the distraction of arcane fact-but instead, like the reader, is transformed by the moving echo of emotional truth. An imaginative, unforgettable tale.”
— Kathryn Craft, author of The Art Of Falling and The Far End Of Happy
L.L.: The first portion of the book reminds me a bit of UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, and also a bit of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, both feature an independent woman struggling with a loss and personal tragedies (death, divorce) and the desire to reinvent herself in another country. Because I found IN ANOTHER LIFE so riveting, I wonder if you were inspired by some of your own personal discord to pen this story? Can you explain?
Julie Christine Johnson: What a wonderful question. I lead writing workshops and just yesterday, I took my class through a writing exercise where they identified symbols, and metaphors, and themes that appear consistently in their work. I made my own list, and this theme of reinvention, of how a change in geography forces a change in the soul, is something I write to quite often.
Without a doubt, my own experiences living, working, and traveling abroad have affected me profoundly. They have brought me to an understanding of who I am as a woman, an American, an artist. They led me to a career coordinating study abroad and exchange programs for university students; they brought me to my husband, whom I met in a French class. Most recently, in the late 2000s, my husband and I quit our jobs, sold everything we owned, and immigrated to New Zealand. I think I’m rather addicted to reinvention. Certainly, experiencing life outside my borders, whether literal or figurative, is of enormous importance to me. And I love writing about it.
L.L.: I absolutely love how you go back and forth in time between contemporary Lia and medieval France. As E.M. Forster writes, “a good mystery should always have the reader brooding in the past.” Was there a particular time period you found more enjoyable, or more challenging to write?
Julie Christine Johnson: Oh, wow, I love that! <author madly scribbling quote on Post-it note>
I found myself downshifting when I slipped into the thirteenth century. My language changed, the cadence and rhythm of the sentences became richer, more symphonic. It was the first time I’d written something set in the past and it touched the part of me that craves to disconnect from the present world, from the pace and virtual chatter that leave me breathless.
Now that I think of it, this may be part of the reason I write so often about characters changing borders and living in unfamiliar places: there is a certain dream-like quality, a filtering out of the non-essential, when you are learning to exist in a place where you have few familiar social cues. You live completely in the present, becoming a blank slate that is filled by sensory information. There is a rawness, a vulnerability, to being a “foreigner” that is inexplicable and priceless, as long as that foreignness is a choice, and not something thrust upon you by war or economic or political crisis. There is nothing romantic about being forced from your home. This forced dislocation is something I’ve been excavating in my writing and it’s taking me to some painful places, past and present.
Lia is definitely brooding in the past, and it comes back to capture her completely.
L.L.: Your use of colors and sensation is remarkable. In fact, I recently read an article from The New York Times that describes just how evocative a descriptive word can be for the reader. Was this a conscious effort on your part, or is it more of a pleasant byproduct the reader experiences as a result of historical fiction well told?
Julie Christine Johnson: Thank you so much. When writers speak of voice, I think this is it. It’s just me, my style. Maybe it comes from writing shelf talkers for wine when I was a retail wine buyer. You know, “This Pinot Noir tastes like walk through a late-November forest, where scents of woodland mushrooms and fallen leaves waft from the ground and the air carries the notion of woodsmoke and fresh-baked apple pie from the nearby village.” Ha!
I’ve been working hard on learning how to earn those descriptives by writing flash fiction—stories told in 1000 words or fewer—to sharpen and punctuate my language with urgency. And poetry. I attended my first poetry workshop last year and it transformed me as a writer. Poetry is about capturing the fullest of emotions in the fewest words, the most perfect words. It’s good, hard work for someone with a natural tendency to layer it on thick.
But In Another Life, flirting with fantasy, in a place that is so haunting and mystical, seemed to call for a dreamy, generous, lyrical voice. When I think of writers who make my blood quicken, it’s Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Ron Rash, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They craft lush and creamy sentences I want to scoop up with a spoon.
L.L.: Let’s move into the business side of writing. I understand IN ANOTHER LIFE is your first published novel. Can you share a bit about your journey?
Julie Christine Johnson: Mine is a bit of a faerie tale. But it’s proof that not every writer has a long and terrible road ahead. I began writing fiction in 2011, after taking a series of writing workshops in Seattle. At my first writers’ conference in June 2012 I realized I could, I must, try to write the story that was nattering around my brain. Two weeks later I wrote the first words of a novel that became In Another Life.
After two years of writing and revising, I ended September 2014 with a draft of In Another Life that I felt was ready to query. Before I sent out any query letters, however, I decided to give in-person pitching a go. I attended a writers’ conference in October and there I met the two women who would, a few weeks later, become my agent (Shannon Hassan of Marsal Lyon Literary, and the editor of In Another Life, (Anna Michels, Sourcebooks).
What I learned along the way is that developing a writing practice, and for me that means writing every single day, was critical to my success—the success of completing a first draft. I had to plan for my writing time and guard it jealously. A writer must write. A writer must read. And a writer must send her work into the world, hear “No” over and over again, pick herself up each time, rinse and repeat. Although my first novel was quickly signed and set on the road to publication, I have stacks of rejections for other work. Those Nos are badges of honor because each one represents belief in myself, and if feedback is offered, they are learning experiences that make me a better writer.
L.L.: What advice would you give your younger writing self?
Julie Christine Johnson: Why did you wait until you were 41 to begin writing? I know why. You were afraid that if you took the dream off the high shelf where you shoved it so many years before, and you failed, you’d have nothing left to hope for. Pshaw, girl. The only failure is in not trying. Glad you got yourself sorted out.
L.L.: Are you writing more France-based fiction? What’s next for you?
Julie Christine Johnson: My second novel, The Crows of Beara, will be published September 2017 (Ashland Creek Press). I’m in the midst of working with my editor on revisions. It’s set in contemporary southwest Ireland, with a thread of magical realism woven through (of course, it’s Ireland!). I sent a draft of a third novel to my agent recently. Set in New Zealand, it’s perhaps the most personal of my stories. At least it started out that way. It became something else entirely by the end. It’s the first time I’ve written a child as one of the main characters.
But I don’t think I’m finished with Lia. I’m researching a sequel to In Another Life. Tentatively titled The Salt Road, it will be set on the border between France and Italy with Lia on a modern-day pilgrimage through the mountains, following closely in the medieval footsteps of a character from In Another Life, whom we met only briefly. Who else returns from In Another Life will be a surprise—even to me, at this early stage!
L.L.: Julie, thank you so very much for chatting with us today, it was much illuminating. Best wishes with IN ANOTHER LIFE.
Julie Christine Johnson: Leslie, you made this so easy and so enjoyable. My gratitude to you, and to your followers, for supporting writers with such grace and enthusiasm. All that we write is for you; readers are our raison d’être. Thank you.
Bio: Julie Christine Johnson is the author of the novels In Another Life (February 2016, Sourcebooks Landmark) and The Crows of Beara (September 2017, Ashland Creek Press). Her short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal, Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt, the anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss and featured on the flash fiction podcast, No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs. Julie also teaches writing workshops and is a freelance story/developmental editor working with writers preparing their query letters and synopses. “Bringing others to the page is nothing but joy!”
A runner, hiker, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state with her husband. In Another Life is her first novel.
For more information, or to follow Julie Christine Johnson on social media, please see:
IN ANOTHER LIFE can be purchased from:
[Special thanks to Suzy Missirlian. Author and cover images courtesy of Julie Christine Johnson. Languedoc region and wine images retrieved from Wikipedia on 1.14.16. Ireland image from L. Lindsay’s personal archive]