A native of the Pacific Northwest, Julie Christine Johnson is a runner, a hiker, a wine geek and, since returning to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula after years of travel took her around the world, a writer whose short stories and essays have appeared in various journals including Mud Season Review, Flash Fiction by Women Writers, and Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim.
In October of 2010, Julie took her first writing class at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and her first short story, “Water Child,” was published in the June 2011 anthology Stories for Sendai. In July of 2012, she penned the first words of her first novel, and in February of 2016, that novel, In Another Life, was published by Sourcebooks.
Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life tells the story of a woman’s quest to solve an ancient murder and free a man haunted by ghosts from his past. As the suspenseful tale unfolds, she learns that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
What was your childhood like, and how did it help to shape who you are today?
My earliest memories vibrate with the aluminum-bright heat of southeastern Washington, where I was born, and mist over with the cool and gentle greens of the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Olympic Peninsula of northwestern Washington State, where I spent my childhood. I grew up in small towns, surrounded by breathtaking beauty: desert, mountains, forest, sea, wind, heat, rain. And at every turn, there were books. My parents’ greatest gift to their children was to instill a passion for reading. These two elements: a profound physical and emotional connection to my environment and an exploration of the world beyond through the magic of books shaped the writer I have become. I use landscapes to mirror the emotional intensity of my characters in the same way that environment shapes and shakes me.
How did you initially become interested in writing?
When I was six, I read Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy. I knew then and there I would be a writer when I grew up. I began keeping a journal and recording the world around me, but it took me another thirty-five years before I found my way to storytelling. Had to do a little living first.
From your first short stories through today, how have you grown and evolved as a writer?
I’ve learned to recognize my voice–that nebulous construct of writing style and common themes/metaphors in my work—and then to challenge it. Writing flash fiction and poetry in the midst of penning three novels has pushed me to seek greater precision in my language, to listen more carefully to the cadence and rhythm of my sentences. I’m also connecting with my characters on deeper levels now: I think I used to be fear them a bit, fear they were beyond my control. Now their power and potential are what push my stories forward; it’s always about discovering how the characters will change during the course of the narrative.
What inspired the story of In Another Life?
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.
In what ways was the story of In Another Life influenced by your own personal travels?
I was a traveler long before I began writing, but now I’m far more attuned to the stories unfolding around me, whether it’s an overheard conversation, an abandoned building, or a chance encounter. The doorways and windows into stories are everywhere, but I find I’m most open to the possibilities when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
It’s so simple, really, it’s almost clichéd, but it’s the writing itself. After those first few minutes of jangly nerves as you settle down, crack your mental knuckles, and quell the frisson of fear that you might not have any words left, you just begin. I love the act of putting words together that become sentences that become paragraphs and suddenly there are lives being lived in your pages.
What contemporary writers do you most admire?
Writers who transcend convention and genre, whose interests and storytelling abilities soar; writers whose love for language is so evident it makes my toes curl: Colm Toibin, Mary Doria Russell, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colum McCann, Tim Winton.
As someone who has traveled around the world, where are you most looking forward to visiting in the future?
Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Cambodia. Southern Africa. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon. Oh, so many places. I get overwhelmed by all the world I have yet to experience.
What are your favorite songs to sing at karaoke?
My repertoire is all pre-1985. I’m an ace on Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” I’m working on Toto’s “Rosanna” right now. Those high notes. So hard.
What are you working on next?
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, 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. And I’m flirting with the idea of a sequel to In Another Life, 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.