Author Interview: Julie Christine Johnson

Julie Christine Johnson

[photo: Al Bergstein]

In Another Life is the debut novel by Julie Christine Johnson published in the UK on February 1, 2016, and in the USA a day later. An audio book will be released by Audible next month, and a German edition of the book will follow this spring. This is a big promotional push for a new author, so what is different about this book?

Set in Languedoc, France, the story tells the story of Lia Carrer, returning to France from the USA to the place where her husband was killed in an accident. Lia is a historian, specialising in the Cathars, and she intends to complete her unfinished research. But an experience on her first night introduces a hint of mystery and threat. Jetlagged and tired after a hot steamy bath, she stands at a window in her rental house at Minerve [below] and sees the scarred face of a man staring in from outside. With a loud screech from a Bonelli’s eagle sitting in a nearby tree, the man is gone. Was it a vision, a dream, or was he really there?

Julie Christine Johnson

[photo: Julie Christine Johnson]

What came first: the Cathars, Languedoc, or reincarnation?
Oh, what a delicious question! First, Sandra, a warm thank you for hosting me on your blog. It’s an honor to be interviewed by an author I admire and a joy to share In Another Life with your readers!

If one believes in reincarnation, then it must be supposed that souls have been returning to Earth in some living form for as long as they have been passing from it. But if we’re talking about reincarnation as a philosophical teaching, I believe the earliest mention is in a sacred Hindu text dating from the 8th century B.C.

Catharism was a migratory faith came to western and southern Europe by way of different Gnostic religions founded in Persia and the Balkans. The faith as represented in Languedoc In Another Life took root in the 11th century A.D.

Among the oldest discovered human remains is Languedoc’s Tautavel Man, who was found near a cave occupied periodically between 690,000 and 35,000 years ago (Tautavel Man lived 350,000-400,000 years ago). The village of Tautavel is in the heart of In Another Life’s setting: deep in a valley between the Pyrénées Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Standing high above the valley at the citadel of Quéribus, the village is tucked away far below. The scope of history in that view is breathtaking. Oh goodness, would you excuse me for a moment. I just had a story idea . . .

What is the difference between reincarnation, resurrection and time travel? And how did you decide how to proceed?
Very simplistically, the Judeo-Christian concept of resurrection is the transformation of the body to an immortal form. Although they considered themselves Christians, the Cathars did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. He was, to them, a spirit in human form and essentially one that transcended death. He would have had no need of resurrection.

Yet the Cathars believed in reincarnation, which is the rebirth of a soul—either in the same form, or into another human, or through a transmigration of souls from human to non-human animal. The rebirth is perpetual until atonement for past transgressions is made, a good life is lived, and final entry is granted into the realm of the God of grace. There is no immortality in reincarnation, only a temporary exclusion from heaven until you get it figured out. Of course, temporary could mean centuries!

It was the beliefs in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls into animal form that gave me my launching point into In Another Life. Although the focus is on reincarnation, I offer glimpses into transmigration with the interplay of the Peregrine falcon, and the Bonelli’s eagle, and of course the dove, which has become a symbol of the Cathar faith.

Time travel doesn’t interest me as a plot device. It seems too mechanical, too dependent upon logic and processes. My world is the world of faith and religion, where beliefs are held as sacred, upheld by tradition, and it is not for the believer to ask how, but to accept.

How did you avoid the danger of tipping over from historical into fantasy?
Oh, goodness, that was a danger I danced with, willingly. In Another Life is, at its heart, a fantasy built on fact. That’s what made it such a joy, and a challenge, to write. Although the story’s foundation is historical—the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, the crusade against the Cathars, the historical sites—the very notion of characters who emerge from one era to another by way of reincarnation allowed me to play with the notions of history (what we can prove), of the past (what we can make a reasonable guess at), of faith as fantasy. By writing a fantasy, I took tremendous license in building a world that is disconcertingly similar to, but fundamentally different from, our own.

Cathédral Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur in Narbonne [below] is a real place, used as the location for archivist Father Jordí.

Julie Christine Johnson

[photo: Julie Christine Johnson]

How important is the theme of identity in the book, and how did you approach building the characters of the people who are reincarnated? After all, they live in two worlds: today, and 800 years ago. How did you rationalize their use of modern technology, and the way they fit in with modern life, yet retain their core personality?
Identity, the loss of identity, emerged as I wrote and became one of the novel’s most important themes. For Lia, resolving her identity is everything. Losing her parents as a pre-teen, she had to seek a new identity in a place she’d never lived. Really, she doesn’t feel at home anywhere until she meets Gabriel, and his love becomes her home. When she loses him, she’s forced to either create a new identity or build one from the pieces she already has.

With Jordí, Lucas and Raoul, I let the inherent irrationality of faith step in. Rather than pursue a science fiction approach to their transition from past to present, where the mechanics of time travel are examined and perhaps explained, I kept to the theme of faith and used Biblical and other religious mythologies as my guide: what must Adam and Eve have felt, awakening to a world they did not know, but somehow understood? They were fully able to use the technology of their time. For me, the interest wasn’t in the how, but in the why, the who, the “what now?”

What I hint at in the narrative, however, is the role memory plays. That there is an understanding of modern life because there have been other passages through time where things were learned and retained by the body and brain, but those passages are not remembered. And that each man has experienced his transitions differently-hence, the fundamentals of reincarnation: that rebirth can occur in many different forms.

Which of course, leaves open all sorts of possibilities for future “past” adventures, doesn’t it?!

Lia Carrer, still grieving for her husband, is placed in a seemingly familiar geographical place, Languedoc, but then her understanding of reality is challenged. How does grief affect her perception of herself, her processing of the loss of Gabriel and her ability to be logical?
There is a conversation early on between Lia and Domènec when she talks about visions the bereaved have of deceased loved ones, and she draws parallels between the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation and the Christian story of the resurrection of Christ. It is supposed that the grief of Jesus’ disciples was so great, they imagined they had seen him, and in retelling the story of their visions, a legend grew into a religion. Really, Lia is giving herself this answer: she assigns the visions she is having to this same phenomenon. She’s trying to convince herself that grief has strained her hold on reality.

Yet, the irony is in Lia seeing Raoul for the first time as a ghostly image in her window, and the sighting of the Bonelli’s eagle just as she’s returned to the place where she’s determined to start over, to forgive herself for being alive.

Grief and healing defy logic. There is no timetable or right way to manage the loss of a loved one, except perhaps to accept that you will carry that loss forever. But it doesn’t preclude you from loving again, from finding joy in the life that remains. I wanted to show that it’s possible for these conflicting feelings—of mind, soul, and body—(recalling the flash of desire she feels for Lucas the first time she sees him, and the guilt that immediately follows) to coexist in this woman. Lia will always love and be in love with Gabriel, but she allows herself the chance to seek love again.

There is a theme running through this novel that only now occurs to me, perhaps because I have been too close to it; yet it is something I strive for, and that is acceptance of the now and moving forward with what you hold in your heart at the moment, without looking back or pushing against the future. There is an essential peacefulness in both Raoul and Lia that I admire. I think this is how they were able to find one another, at least this time around—their hearts were capable of and open to wonder.

Where is the line between historical events and your invention? And how did you decide where that line should be? Do you think readers of historical fiction expect the history to be 100% correct?
The line begins with the murder of Pierre de Castelnau. He was an emissary of Pope Innocent III, working to convert the Cathars to Catholicism. He was in fact assassinated near Saint-Gilles in January 1208, allegedly at the instigation of Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. His murder is cited as the event that launched the holy war against the heretic Cathars. This much is what historical records show us to be true.

From here I launched into pure invention. I gave the assassin a name and a story. I took the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation as my wings to make the leap from historical fiction into fantasy.

Although In Another Life contains elements of historical fiction, including real people and episodes, I would never claim that it is a work of historical fiction. It blurs and bends and breaks genre limitations.

The characters are fictional but the Chateaux de Lastours [below] is real, the place where Lia and Lucas meet, the place where Lia tells him she is in love with Raoul.

Julie Christine Johnson

[photo: Julie Christine Johnson]

Will there be a sequel to ‘In Another Life’? Can you give a one sentence outline?
Yes, I’m flirting with the idea! 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!

How many years did it take you to write your book, and what was the trigger that made you start?
In late June of 2012, I attended my first writers’ conference. I’d been writing short stories for two years and was having some success seeing them published, but I was aching to take on a novel. I went to the conference with three ideas for a novel in mind and after the conference, settled on the one that became In Another Life. It was the one my heart felt most connected to at the time.

I wrote the first words of In Another Life in early July 2012 and completed the first draft in mid-December 2013. Two major rewrites followed before I felt ready to seek representation. I pitched the novel at a writers’ conference in late October 2014 and three weeks later, on the same day, I had an offer of representation from my agent (Shannon Hassan, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency) and an offer of publication from my editor (Anna Michels, Sourcebooks).

How did you know it was time to stop researching, and time to start writing?
I feared that if I started with the research, I would never stop, or I would lose focus, and the magic of the story would become mired in the details. I had a solid foundation of Cathar history from time spent in the Languedoc and the research I’d done out of sheer interest in region and its past, without a clue I was setting the stage for a novel. So, I dove in and began writing the story. I layered in the research as I wrote. It was a continuous stream of sifting through and layering in details, then combing out the tangles until only what truly illuminated the narrative remained.

How did you immerse yourself in the setting in France, when you live thousands of miles away? Any tricks you can share?
My love affair with France goes back more than a quarter of a century, when I lived there as a university exchange student. I’ve returned many times for extended stays, occasionally alone, but often with my husband, who has also lived in France. The inspiration for In Another Life came straight out of three weeks we spent in Languedoc in April 2011, exploring the very roads and ruins as the characters of In Another Life. Below is the Chateau de Quéribus, the chateau featured on the front cover of the book being compiled by Lucas & Lia.

Julie Christine Johnson

[photo: Julie Christine Johnson]

What’s next? Are you writing another novel? Or short stories?
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. It’s one of those ideas that I took to that writers’ conference in 2012. Set in New Zealand, where I lived in the mid-late 2000s, 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.

What did you learn about the writing process while writing ‘In Another Life’ and what will you differently next time?
I began writing In Another Life with only an opening scene in mind. I knew Lia. I knew Raoul. What I would do with them, how I would bring them together, I hadn’t the first clue. I had no idea where I was going, what would happen in the middle that would get me to an end I couldn’t even fathom. I wrote scenes out of order, I wrote until I was so tangled up in my narrative I had to stop and start over from the beginning, after I had nearly 140,000 words and was still nowhere near the end. I laugh now, because it’s such an intricately-plotted book, you’d think I had story boards covering a wall at home, just to keep me straight. Nope. Just a tsunami of words.

I will always be a pantser. But I took a very different approach to The Crows of Beara, which I wrote while the first complete draft of In Another Life rested. Before I began the narrative, I spent a few weeks writing character sketches, playing around with themes, doing research, working through plot ideas. I had a very loose outline and some foundational plot issues sketched out. I wrote a 105,000 word first draft in 10 weeks. The third novel took longer, but only because I had many more demands on my writing time: one novel headed for publication, another in revision or on submission. But I approached it the same way: let’s figure out who we’re writing about—the story always comes from characters—and where they are—because a sense of place is vital to me. The plot becomes a series of “a-ha” moments along the way.

Each novel lives its own life, in its own time, each way into the story reveals itself as it will. I don’t have a system or a process whereby I roll up my sleeves and say, ‘Right, let’s do this. Let’s write a novel.’ What I do know is that story begins, is carried by, and ends with my characters. I hitch myself onto their wagon and write about where we go together.

Author Bio
Drawing from her experiences living abroad in lands as varied as France, Japan, Chad, and New Zealand, Julie crafts stories about characters searching for a sense of self and place. 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.

Julie’s second novel – a finalist for The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by Man Booker Award nominee Karen Joy Fowler – The Crows of Beara takes place in contemporary Co. Cork, southwest Ireland. Its story weaves together themes of animal conservation, copper mining, addiction, and art. Recently acquired by Ashland Creek Press, The Crows of Beara will take flight September 15, 2017. Julie is currently working on her third novel, Tui, which follows the journey of Holly Dawes as she emigrates from Seattle to New Zealand. When the little girl next door disappears, Holly learns there is more than one way to love—and lose—a child.

Author Links
Website
Chalk the Sun where Julie blogs about writing and life.
Facebook
Twitter
Julie Christine Johnson

‘In Another Life’ by Julie Christine Johnson [UK: Sourcebooks Landmark]
Read my review of In Another Life here.

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Author interview with Julie Christine Johnson http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1S3 #writing via @SandraDanby

 

Comments

  1. Sandra, thank you for introducing me to Julie Christine Johnson. The interview is outstanding. You asked astute questions and gave her room to answer leisurely. I’m tantalized by her thoughts and imagination. Her books are now on my acquisition list.

    • sandradan1

      Thx Shari, I really enjoyed ‘In Another Life’. It is very imaginative. Let me know what you think when you read it? SD