Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson chat about writing and murder
Sometimes writers write alone. But other times, they write together — as Sarah Rees Brennan and her friend Maureen Johnson did at a recent writing retreat. And while retreats might be a bit of a sacred space, Brennan and Johnson are pulling back the curtain for EW readers in this exclusive conversation they had while sitting across from each other with their laptops.
They discuss Brennan’s just-released book, In Other Lands, which follows a schoolboy named Elliot as he discovers a fantastical new world, and Johnson’s forthcoming Truly Devious series, out in January 2018, which centers on a haunted boarding school. Oh — and since Brennan is editing a murder mystery and Johnson is writing a murder mystery, they talk about that grisly but endlessly fascinating subject, too.
Check out their conversation, below:
In Conversation in Strange Lands: Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson
SARAH: Hello Maureen. Let me set the scene for our readers. Is it not so that we are, at this time, in Italy sitting in chairs less than one foot apart from each other?
MAUREEN: That’s true. So, Sarah, books?
SARAH: I’ve heard of them! In fact, I believe they have led me to make the kinds of friends where we sit in a beautiful silence making crazy eyes at each other over the tops of our computers as we type to each other. (WORD PICTURE.) We also go to foreign lands that we might work upon said books in company. What book are you currently despairing about, I mean working on?
MAUREEN: I just want to say that a lot of times I write at home. I really want to let people know that 99 percent of the job appeal is being able to work with no pants on next to your dog.
SARAH: I don’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t have a dog or a home. Our processes are wildly different. But of course Maureen, you are free at any time to wear no pants among friends. #nopantsamnesty
MAUREEN: Take a better look over the top of your computer.
STILL MAUREEN: But to answer your question, I am working on book two of the new Truly Devious series. (That may not be the series name. Right now, only book one exists and it is out in January.) What about YOU?
SARAH: *takes a better look over the top of her computer* Oh my.
STILL SARAH: When I said I have no home, I meant that a couple of years ago I gave away all my possessions (the place where I donated my stuff thought a library had closed down) and decided to wander the earth like a restless spirit. Then a small hiccup occurred and I had to go live with my parents for eight months. Now, Italy! Who knows where I live. But I am always writing. I like to have the company of my friends: people frown on dogs living out of suitcases. Currently I am editing a murder mystery I call the Monster and making my friends hold my hand over the release of my new book In Other Lands.
MAUREEN: By hiccup, do you mean how you had cancer? I think that is the hiccup you mean.
SARAH: This has been a weird year for all of us! I saw a comic online — a web comic, if you will — with the caption 2016, showing a dumpster fire. Then there was the panel for 2017, on which were transcribed the tragic words “I miss when the fire was contained.”
MAUREEN: IT’S A GOOD THING WE HAVE BOOKS. How about you tell us about In Other Lands?
SARAH: Friend, I will. I wrote In Other Lands long before all of these fiery shenanigans. It was meant to be a short story for my blog. Since it is now a book, you may suspise it ran long, and you suspise correctly. This meant there was no deadline. Indeed writing it was a weird thing I was doing! But I remember vividly a day out in London, sitting on a picnic bench and straight-up lying to my friends that I had to write, just because I was having so much fun writing. I think there is a deep need for that kind of joy right now. Always! But also, RIGHT NOW.
MAUREEN: I think there are two things in there: one, how much books and writing sustain us. And two, how we in particular function as a group of writer friends. A lot of people seem to be curious how that works. Because writing is such a lonesome (not lonely, necessarily) activity. Literally, right now, there are five us sitting in a circle each doing our own thing. We can look up and ask questions, get help, just complain. This is such a good way to keep going. Again, especially in 2017. I think this is a good year to remember to connect with others.
MAUREEN AGAIN: But also, your book. Can you give a little summary? Or a long summary? Or something in between? Listen, the key word here is summary. Or just read it to me.
SARAH: For some reason, this makes me think of another important friend function–your friends chase you around! I have an example of this literary process. This November, five (that number keeps coming up) of my beautiful writer friends came to visit me in Ireland, since I was temporarily incapable of traveling. This despite the fact they are all busy and one suffering with long-term health issues of her own (this means you, Maureen. You’re my hero, Maureen). You rented this extremely crazy house. There was a hall of dragon statues? The heating didn’t work. And in this house, we carefully considered what to do, and came up with chasing you around about the romance plot of Truly Devious. Perhaps you would enjoy to talk about that feeling. Did it perhaps seem like you were being hunted by a pterodactyl while your hair was on fire?
MAUREEN: It’s true that I tried to evade capture. I was struggling with that and everyone sat on me until it was worked out. That’s friendship. I went to Romance School. No one let me move on without working it through. Including you. You were there dispensing wisdom and dropping romance plots all over the room. Someday we will find the romance novel you haven’t read and we will put it in a museum. I was given a diet of romances to read in my exceedingly creepy upstairs room where the tree branches scraped against the windows at night and the bathroom was covered in alarming frescoes. I had some strange middle of the night moments there.
SARAH: The strange middle of the night moments are when novels are born. Also let me read that romance novel before you put it in the museum. I am a teller of tales, by which I don’t mean “I write books” but “I force my friends to listen to long summaries about all the media I have ever experienced.” I’m like, “I will find a model for this. Have you read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s least well-known book for children? No? All right, let me tell you about it, glad you asked.” And they will return: “I didn’t ask. I would never ask.”
MAUREEN: Your recreation of novels are genuinely one of the great joys of my life. Sarah can re-create any book she has ever read, which is every book. It begins with an AHEM, and then 10-30 minutes of increasingly high-pitched recitation of the book as it TRULY IS and perhaps not as the author intended. Sarah gets right to the truth of it. Maybe my favorite one was when you told the story of a sea monster that was trying to have sex with a boat.
SARAH: A classic! I can’t say I’ve never misled you guys. Once in France (we truly do take this show on the road) I told a group about a novel dear to my heart. The next morning at breakfast, everyone was super angry with me and wouldn’t pass me the pain chocolat. Apparently they all went to bed and bought the book — a personal triumph — and it wasn’t exactly what I described? I had added a gay spy?
MAUREEN: The books you describe are always the true books. You’ll say something like, “Oh, [name of book]! That’s the one about the man who lives in a hedge maze and has fallen in love with a sandwich but he’s being pursued by a cloud in the shape of feelings.” And we’ll say, “What?” And she’ll say, “AHEM…” And then fifteen minutes later we will understand that she is right and that’s exactly what the book is about. Sometimes these recitations end with you falling into a pool.
SARAH: This may be how we clashed on your romance plot. I am a somewhat high-key person. As Maureen has mentioned, even my voice is pretty high. My very sneeze sounds like a hamster caught in a door. Whereas Maureen, you remain calm. You make the wry joke. You employ the soothing and mellifluous tone. So your romance was somewhat downplayed, and I expressed the thought that perhaps we could add pirates and an explosion. And everyone else said, “Well, maybe not that, maybe this…” There always has to be someone at each of the extreme ends of every book-talk field, and then in the middle people trying to grab the ball and make the whole game work.
MAUREEN: Exactly. Everyone brings something. Everyone has a different expertise. But everyone is DEEPLY engaged.
MAUREEN, ONCE MORE: You never did give us that summary of In Other Lands.
MAUREEN INTENSIFIES: Sarah, what is it about tell everyone what it is about.
SARAH: I do love the engagement. As a wee writing child holed up in my room or reading novels behind the bicycle shed at school (I was very popular), I always dreamed of writers’ groups like the Inklings, or Byron’s traveling circus of writers forced to pen tales of horror and have threesomes in the Swiss Alps. I think writers are always in conversation, even if only with the books they love, which brought them to writing.
SARAH: Which leads me to In Other Lands, which is very much engaged with the fantasy novels of my childhood. I loved Narnia. I loved the Lord of the Rings. Lloyd Alexander. All these chances to visit magical worlds, which is of course just another way of talking about reading. Except the people in these magical worlds often were not like me. For one, they were ATHLETES. Shedloads of proficiency with swords. Harry Potter is a total jock. I wanted to write about someone who came into a fantastical world as a nerd, fully up on all the relevant books and movies, trying to interrogate and re-tell the story as he was living it. Trying to talk to mermaids and not drown.
SARAH: Speaking OF the books we love, you wrote Truly Devious because of your deep love of mysteries. I have never met anyone who has watched as many obscure British crime shows as you. We have shouted a great deal about Agatha Christie together. How was it to construct your very own intricate mystery?
MAUREEN: Do you like screaming at whiteboards? If so, I have some good news!
MAUREEN 2: EVEN MORE MAUREEN: Truthfully it was amazing and an excuse to lead the full true and classic crime lifestyle that I have dreamed of living since I was about ten. No one could stop me. I was knee-deep in classic crime while listening to true crime while looking at pictures of evidence from cold cases. I was reading textbooks on forensics. I was living my best life. I will solve a murder someday, Sarah, I will.
SARAH: I know you will. I will impede the solving of that murder by committing many incidental crimes. Your dedication to working out mysteries is part of what makes you a truly formidable critique partner. As I mentioned, I am now writing a mystery, and last year in Cornwall you carefully piled thoughts like enormous gold bars, laid lovingly on my chest. “But what is going on, Sarah?” “I don’t know!” I cried. “Who can know such things?” Maureen knows. She always knows.
MAUREEN: I’ve never murdered anyone.
MAUREEN, INNOCENTLY: Never never.
SARAH: I think I may have incidentally solved a murder?
TOO SARAH, TOO FURIOUS: I have faith that together we can solve anything. Which I think is beautiful. Thank you.
NOTE BY SRB: We are now hissing “THANKSSSS” at each other over a friend of ours. He is looking puzzled and concerned.
NOTE BY MJ: We’re being quiet. Shhhhhh. Should we go, Sarah? I think there is a pool that needs falling into and I want you to tell me the plot of that romance novel about the pony-loving amnesiac in the highlands at murder Christmas.