Friday, January 29, 2016

Tim Johnston Spotlights Suspenseful Family Drama During Kidnapped Daughter's Search...

The Rocky Mountains!
When she'd seen them for the first time, from the car, her heart had begun to pump and the muscles of her legs had tightened and twitched. In a few weeks she would begin college of a track scholarship, and although she had not lost a race her senior year (COURTLAND UNDEFEATED! ran the headline), she knew that the girls at college would be faster and stronger, more experienced and more determined, than the girls she was used to running against, and she'd picked the mountains for no other reason...
The sun was still climbing the far side of the mountains...Caitlin was not yet running but high-stepping in a brisk pantomime of it, like a drum majorette for a parade consisting of the boy alone, wobbling along behind her on the rented bike. The boy wanted to go back for sweatshirts, but it was July, she reminded him, it would warm up.
His name was Sean but she called him Dudley, a long-ago insult which had lost its meaning. They'd come into town the day before, up from the plains on the interstate, up through Denver and then into the mountains on a swinging cliff of road that swung their hears out into the open sky, into dizzy plungings of bottomless green, the pines so thick and small of the far slopes. Up and up they'd climbed, up to the Great
Divide and then down again--down to nine thousand feet there the resort village appeared suddenly in the high geography like a mirage. The wintry architecture of ski shops and coffeehouses at midsummer. Chairlifts hanging empty over the grassy runs. Impossible colors at this height and air like they had never breathed before.
Now. in the blue morning, they drew this air into their lungs and coughed up white clouds. The smell of pine was like Christmas. "Here we go," Caitlin said, and she turned onto a road called Ermine and began to run in earnest, and the boy followed...

By Tim Johnston

While the Courtland family slept, Caitlin and Sean, their children, got up early to go on their first run; i.e., Caitlin would be running and Sean would be following on his bike. Caitlin had asked to come here for their vacation, so that she could train before starting college and the whole family had been willing to support the star of their close family.

But Caitlin had never descended from her first run... Sean'd had an accident on his bike and later was found by other hikers...He remembered that he'd try to tell Caitlin not to go--there was something about the man's eyes when he'd stopped to help... 

Sometimes when I'm reading the early information on a book, I get some idea about what it might be like. For instance, many called it a thriller, so I expected something like Charles G. Orion's Summit Murder Mystery Series...Not!

In my own thoughts I can only refer to this book as a Literary Dramatic Suspense novel. To me, there were few thrills--in fact, the story line does not lend itself to fast-paced thrills, in my opinion...

This book is about a kidnapping of a young girl but there is very little time spent on Caitlin. Indeed the story surrounds the impact of her loss on the remaining family. We see the trauma, the separation of the parents, not necessarily on purpose, but based upon what they felt needed to happen. The father stays in Colorado, while the mother returns home with Sean, after he was out of the hospital with a permanently damaged leg injury. Readers are privy to what is happening with each of the remaining family members and captured in their respective pain, struggles, regrets, as well as hopes.

Caitlin and Sean had stopped at a rest area where a statue of the Virgin Mary had been placed. Sean had braved a question that had been bothering him about whether their father was screwing around--then explained what he'd seen. She remembered a time when he had stopped living with them for awhile. But that apparently was far in the past. He had come back with part of his fingers missing--a mystery that kept both of them wondering...

And then Sean had been found, taken to the hospital and Grant and Angela quickly learned that their life had been turned upside down! 

Jessica Ennis seemed to fit our
runner's goals...and she wore
red sneakers that day...only to...
Don't do it, don't you do it, don't you get into that car, but she did, and he told her to buckle up and she did that too and they picked up speed, rocking along over the dirt road, his hand on the upright stick shift as upon some elegant cane, until he would suddenly throw it with slamming violence, as if this were the only way it would work...
It was late morning. They'd be up by now and showered. Sitting in the cafe next to the motel drinking coffee and reading the local paper and trying not to look too often out the window--trying not to even though they'd chosen the table without discussing it, for the view that would include, any second now, the paired familiar shape of daughter and son, exactly as their minds saw them, demanded them, moving careless up the strange street. Maybe, waking up in the strange rooms, even in separate strange rooms, but waking up without kids in the strange rooms in the strange mountain light and the air that made the heart work, maybe they'd felt closer to each other. Maybe they'd laughed. Touched. Maybe their hearts were beating with a new old love over their coffees when the phone rang.
She was smiling, she was crying, already hearing his voice: Hello? Caitlin? Where are you, sweetheart?
And then she did hear his voice, deep and steady and familiar in her ear, and though it was only his voice mail she began to sob.

Daddy, she said, before the first blow landed.

Yes, the writing is superb, but the story line quickly overrode thoughts of how well it was written...and the characters quickly won me over. So you have much to look forward to with this book. The unique aspect of looking at the family's actions as opposed to the criminal or victim, create a drama with depth and details in their lives that allows readers to become vested in their loss--their need to regain the family structure that  had once existed. Soon, readers will also find themselves giving up, as months, years go by without any trace of either Caitlin's whereabouts or her death...

And then, WHAM, the author takes off in an entirely different direction, with little buildup to even guess what was happening, to produce an overwhelming and unbelievable ending that left me breathless with surprise, agitation... and...hope... Was it really, possibly, after all this time, going to have a happy ending? I was so shocked by the actions of a character that I kept stopping and rereading--is this really happening like this? All I can say is that, for me, the ending shot this book's rating from great to stupendous! Surrrrreeee wish I could give you a hint but not on this one! 

Disaster striking in a family that seems to be living the good life will always jerk us into the reality of the world we live in...So much is unplanned, spur of the moment--a chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can it ever work out? Descent will keep you in suspense related to Caitlin, while the family drama, broadly drawn to bring in history as well as present time in the parents lives, strengthens the drama of daily life that slowly moves day after day...month after month. It's slow paced with spurts of traumatic action keeps readers off-kilter--in a tantalizing, compelling manner. I was surprised and disappointed related to the almost continuous cigarette smoking by the men. It's the first I've seen of this dangerous habit in entertainment situations for many years...

I do want to highlight the character, Sean, who was, I believe, most affected by his sister's kidnapping while he was lying hurt. Thereafter, we see a boy that cannot settle down any longer, who is trying to find a place where he can find himself again...Well done! At the same time, Caitlin presents as a dedicated school athlete with strict discipline drive, and goal-oriented. Her knowledge surprises even those who work with athletes, at least for one reason.  Special tribute for this finely-crafted individual!

Whew! Do check this one out! Highly recommended. 


Tim Johnston is the author of the novel DESCENT (Jan 6, 2015 from Algonquin Books), the story collection IRISH GIRL, and the Young Adult novel NEVER SO GREEN. Published in 2009, the stories of IRISH GIRL won an O. Henry Prize, the New Letters Award for Writers, and the Gival Press Short Story Award, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. Tim's stories have also appeared in New England Review, New Letters, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Double Take, Best Life Magazine, and Narrative Magazine, among others. He holds degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 2011-12 he was the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellow at The George Washington University, and he currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.

For more, please go to
On Twitter: @TJohnstonWriter
On Facebook: TimJohnston.Writer

See Also Miami Herald 

Interview: Tim Johnston, author of ‘Descent’

Q&A  and Conversation Provided by Publisher...
The Rocky Mountains serve as the majestic setting for your novel; the setting is so important that it essentially serves as a primary character. While grand and breathtakingly beautiful, the Rockies also take on a sinister aspect. Why did you choose this part of the country for your setting?

I don’t believe I chose the Rockies as a setting any more than I chose my characters or their story: it all arrived together in a package deal. And it all arrived because of my circumstances at the time of working on that house up in those mountains. But, as is generally the case with fiction writing, the significance of the setting evolved along with the novel’s characters, themes, and structure. The Courtlands, I now understand, are the descendants of men and women who looked at the mountains beyond the plains and saw more territory to be seized as their own. Good old-fashioned Manifest Destiny. As modern recreational Americans, my characters were attracted to the grandeur and beauty and mythic wildness of the mountains; they came for what passes for adventure in our times, and could not have known that the vast majority of the Rockies are still as wild and dangerous as they’ve ever been. 

The ending of the book is really unexpected and heartbreaking. Did you know how the story would wrap up from the very start or was it also a surprise for you? 
Every semester I tell my students (parroting much more credible writers and teachers than myself ), “If you are never surprised by where your story is going, chances are your readers won’t be either.” Stories that reach their intended endings never quite soar. In the case of Descent, it was even worse: having the ending in mind all but killed off the novel itself—though I did not understand this at the time. At the time, I had reached the point in the story where I could not write another sentence without committing to the projected ending, and I just could not do that. And then, suddenly—almost a year later—it came to me that I could not live with that ending. And when I understood that, a new ending altogether took shape, and once I committed to that ending, the pages began piling up again. (Note: For the careful and curious reader, that original and projected ending is actually and secretly in the finished novel, disguised as just another scene along the way  toward the ending.)

David Sedaris selected your short story collection, Irish Girl, as one of his favorite books of 2009, and included your title story in the short story anthology he compiled and edited, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. You’re the only author in the collection who is relatively “unknown.” How did Sedaris find out about your work? And what was it like for your career when he recommended Irish Girl to audiences during his 2010 book tour? 

“Irish Girl” the short story was first published in the beautiful but now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine. The story went on to win a 2003 O. Henry Prize, and a year after that I was alerted by my agent that David Sedaris had chosen the story for his anthology of favorites—a decision that placed my name in the company of many of my storywriting heroes: Richard Yates, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro . . . a surreal development I still haven’t come to terms with. When my manuscript of stories won the 2008 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, a prize that included publication, I thought we might entice Mr. Sedaris’s interest—or at least jog his memory—by naming the collection after the story he’d chosen for his anthology. This incredibly generous man not only provided a wonderful endorsement for the jacket, but he went on to hold the book up before one packed auditorium after another on his 2010 book tour, and my little volume of stories got some of the most head-spinning publicity available short of an Oprah sticker or a glowing New York Times review. I can’t even guess how many people bought and read Irish Girl because of him—to say nothing of the several New York editors who became interested in seeing my novel when it was ready, one of them because Sedaris called him up directly and told him to seek out my agent. Neither do I underestimate the significance of The Sedaris Factor when it came to being taken seriously by the two universities that have hired me since. I wrote the stories, but Sedaris gave them a fighting chance in a culture that little notices slender collections by unknown writers. Understating it to an embarrassing degree, my debt and gratitude to the man is enormous.

DESCENT ON-SalE DaTE: DECEmbEr 1, 2015 ISBN 9781616204778 • Paperback $15.95 • 400 pages Contact: Michael McKenzie 212-614-5639 •

Descent is essentially a literary page-turner with a plot ripped from the headlines—a teenage girl mysteriously disappears while out on a run—but the telling of the story is so unlike any other thriller. You go into remarkable depth about how this sudden disappearance affects every family member, showing each character’s own secrets and tribulations. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for your novel?

This story, and these characters, snuck up on me as I was doing the finish work on a house way up in the Rocky Mountains. I was all alone up there for months, happy just being a carpenter for a while—that is to say, not actively trying to write—when this family of four, the Courtlands, became so prevalent, so insistent in my head that one day I had to drop what I was doing—painting a bathroom, as it happens—and begin writing.  The inspiration was a combination of the solitude, the carpentry, the astounding mountains themselves, and the books I was reading at the time, which were infused with an American West harshness, vastness, and lyricism that thrilled me. This was suddenly the kind of novel I wanted to write—although it would be a long time before I would admit to anyone, least of all myself, that I was writing a novel.  The ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter and the storytelling technique may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but in fact they were two sides of the same coin of creativity: as a literary writer, I wanted to write as well and gracefully as I could, sentence by sentence, about my characters. But I also wanted the novel to be more than literary; I wanted it to be the kind of story I loved to read before I knew the world made a distinction between a great story and great writing. I wanted it to be both. 

While Descent is a work of literary psychological realism,  it is also a heart-racing, suspenseful read. Did you set out  to write a thriller?
I did not. All my training as a writer is in literary fiction; likewise my ambitions. When I began to write Descent I had in mind to write the best sentences and paragraphs I was capable of writing, and to write, as Hemingway decrees, 
truly—even if the story seemed ripped from the day’s headlines. No: because it seemed ripped from the day’s headlines. For, in fact, it was the familiarity of such news that fascinated me and made me love these characters: the idea that no matter how many times we see such stories in the news, still none of us ever believes such things can happen to us, to our loved ones, until it does—and when it does, there is nothing familiar or sensationalistic about it; it  must be lived for the first time, day by day, hour by hour.  I wanted to write that story—familiar but also a one-of- a-kind story of loss and survival—as truly and artfully  as I could.  At the same time, I wanted to satisfy that young reader in me who used to tear through novels for the sheer plotful excitement of them. I wanted to write a book that would be at once lovely to read, sentence by sentence, and entertaining in the most primal sense—a book where the reader’s urge to slow down and savor is continually at odds with his or her desire to rush ahead and find out.

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