Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Q&A with Janet Sumner Johnson


Photo by Anchor + Spire Photography



Janet Sumner Johnson is the author of the new middle grade novel The Winterton Deception: Final Word. Her other books include the picture book Braver Than Brave. She lives in Utah.


Q: What inspired you to write The Winterton Deception: Final Word, and how did you create your character Hope?


A: The Winterton Deception: Final Word started with The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. I stumbled on my childhood copy and decided to reread it. Quite frankly, the book is brilliant. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read, and I marveled at Ms. Raskin’s skills. 


I loved the puzzle mystery aspect. I loved the unique voice and point of view. I wished there were more books like it. So what’s an author to do, but take a stab at writing my own?


Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into and spent about four years learning how to write a mystery as I created characters and backstory and the mystery and clues. 


Hope was actually one of the very last characters I created. Originally, the book was going to be told from multiple points of view, including both adults and kids. Hope didn’t even exist!


But when my agent read those first few pages, she wisely advised me to find a solidly middle grade character to be the voice of my story.


I already had my mystery and basic plot. So when I created Hope, I gave her characteristics that would clash with the Wintertons’ world of wealth.


I relied heavily on Story Genius by Lisa Cron to make sure Hope’s backstory and flawed belief system would drive the tension and force Hope to change and grow. Obviously, I did things a bit backwards, but I love Hope’s spunk and fierce loyalty for her family.


Q: What do you think the novel says about wealth?


A: Wealth is such a complicated issue, and I really wanted this book to convey that. So often, we think that money is the answer—that it can fix everything. And while it can do a lot of things, money doesn’t automatically lead to happiness, and it doesn’t automatically mean you have no problems.


On the flip side, being poor doesn’t automatically mean you’re unhappy. Or lazy. Or talentless. 


Society makes so many assumptions about people purely based on their fiscal value, and it’s wrong. Worth of a person is intrinsic.


In short, I hope that what readers take from my book is that a person’s value has nothing to do with how much money they have, and that their chance for happiness is not dependent on wealth.

Q: Why did you decide to include a Jane Austen theme in the novel?


A: The short answer is because I love Jane Austen. I’d read all her books before I even graduated high school, and I’ve re-read them many (MANY) times since. And as the author, why not include all the things I love? 


The slightly longer answer is that it’s easier to create a detailed and interesting world when your character is passionate (dare I say obsessive?) about something.


Jane Winterton had the drive and the means to be hyper-focused on a hobby, and that focus truly shapes her world. So I knew, that whatever I chose for her, I would need to have that same hyper-focused understanding of it, and I’d need to do a deep dive in research.


It just made sense that I would choose something that I already had a passion for, because it made the research a joy. Besides, I loved the idea of creating a character who was even more infatuated with Jane Austen than I am.


Q: You've written picture books as well as middle grade novels--do you have a preference, and how does your writing process differ between the two?


A: I love writing both middle grade and picture books. The process is so different for each, that it’s hard to choose a favorite. (Though, if I’m in the middle of a hard revision on a project, my favorite is the OTHER. Lol!)


I love the economy of words in a picture book, and that the brevity gives me so much room to experiment. If I go in a wrong direction (which happens A LOT), I can easily write a new version—something I take full advantage of.


Also, I really enjoy playing with words, and rhythm, and how things sound out loud. Picture books are just FUN (if not maddening at times). 


With middle grade, I love that I have the space to write all the words and tell all the story. You can add nuance and details and complexity that just isn’t possible in a picture book (not to imply that picture books can’t be complex, because they can and are).


I love that I’m able to really immerse myself in a world that I created. It’s the ultimate escape from reality.


The great thing about writing both is that when I’m feeling overwhelmed with one, I can simply switch to the other!


Q: This is the first in a series--can you say more about what's next?


A: Yes! It was so fun to get to revisit all my characters and see what happened after “The End.” I can’t say too much about Book 2 without spoiling Book 1, but I can say that the treasure gets bigger, the clues get harder, and the stakes get higher. 


Book 2 delves further into Jane Winterton’s past and uncovers more of her secrets as well as other Winterton family deceptions. Characters who played a smaller role in Book 1 will have more page time in Book 2.


It’s a struggle not to just blurt out all the fun things in store, so I’d better stop here! Needless to say, Book 2 is full of adventure, mystery, and puzzles the reader can solve along with Hope. Oh yeah, and it’s full of heart!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I’d love to share one little behind the scenes peek. 


One of my favorite parts of plotting this book was creating the Winterton Family Spelling Bee. When I was just beginning to plot Final Word, I was on my local library board, helping to run an adult spelling bee as a fundraiser. My job was to collect words for each round, along with their meanings, origins, and sentences.


It was a lot of work, but it really helped when it came to writing those spelling bee scenes. Before I ever wrote a word, I created a chart showing each contestant, the word they received in each round, and which word they missed (plus how they misspelled it). It was essential for keeping track through all the revisions, and making sure I didn’t use the same word twice. 


I also did A LOT of research on hard-to-spell “easy” words. That was fascinating. For any other spelling bee lovers or word nerds out there, I hope you have as much fun in those scenes as I did writing them!


Thanks again for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Sumner Johnson.