Interview with Michael Johnson

What motivated you to become an author?
I did not intend on writing a book, it just happened out of necessity. I used to teach a class called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), and over four years worked with a wonderful bunch of teenagers. The purpose of the class is to provide support in academics and behavior, as well as research for careers and colleges. In addition we helped them complete applications for colleges Naturally we grew very close, and I still maintain connections with many from that class. The problem was that as their senior year was closing, I felt a strong urge to cram into them everything I felt they needed to succeed in the first year of college and beyond. They were getting frustrated, I was getting frustrated, and a good thing was quickly fading away. One sleepless night as I mulled what was going wrong and it hit me to just relax and enjoy the last few weeks with this great bunch of emerging young adults. The next day I told them I was going to write them a book and give them all a free copy. This book allowed me to say everything I really wanted to say as a friend and a mentor and not as a teacher. Being a Christian public school teacher presents issues in that I am not allowed to directly share my faith. After they had graduated, the limitations no longer applied, so I sent each graduate a link for a free copy of the book. Being an Independent author allowed me the speed and flexibility to quickly and efficiently get this book to these amazing group of young adults. The book was originally formatted and directed to this group only, but my wife encouraged me to continue to improve this work for wider distribution. This work later became my first book, The College Field Manual: A Young Person's Guide to Faith, Finances and Education.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I love the free-writing process because it allows for randomness. I have a writing journal that I try to have with me so that when ideas strike I can get the idea down. In addition; I am an auditory learner, so I often discuss writing ideas with my wife Saundra. She thinks very differently, and much of what I write has her undeniable influence. I like to interview my friends and acquaintances to get their take on the issues that I am writing about to get their expertise. These talks are a lot of fun in that i am getting to know a person better and i am conducting research at the same time.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
I'm that guy that if I don't get up immediately I will sleep in, but I also have a neurotic drive to always arrive early for everything. The fear of lateness has always caused me to bolt me upright immediately and move towards getting ready for the day. This may sound crazy, but for the last year or so I have had a praise song run through my mind immediately upon hearing my alarm. I still bolt upright and immediately engage the day, but now this memory of a song engages me with a purpose that is greater than I. I'm less driven by anxiety now than in past years. Most nights I sing and play guitar for my daughters as they lay in to bed. It's a spiritually deep time for us and often one of the songs on that night's playlist is what hits me right away when that alarm goes off.
What do your fans mean to you?
My fans drive my work. I love the ideas people bring to me. I have a huge line of books waiting to be created through the input of my readers. I wish I could get the books out quicker, but I teach and during the school year, there is little time for serious writing and research.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
We have four kids ages 7-15 so life is hectic with all the routines of sports, appointments, and the like. The most noble uses of my time are spending time with my wife, kids and parents. I read quite a bit. I do a lot of day dreaming and scheming. I enjoy my guitar occasionally and have written a couple of songs of my own that I think are pretty darn good. Like a lot of people I sometimes veg out in front of the TV, but I limit my exposure to stay sharp. I'm currently dealing with a serious Candy Crush addiction, but they limit my exposure for me. I lead a men's Bible study group and attend another with my wife. School is a constant draw on my time and thoughts during the school year. In the summers I transition to full-time author, but I keep piddling with lesson plans even then.
What are your ten favorite books, and why?
1. Foundation and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov : This book opened up a whole world of imaginary possibilities
2. Wild at Heart by John Elderidge: This book opened my eyes to authentic manhood
3. Freakonmics by Steven Levitt: This book turned me on to economics
4.Eternal Security by Charles Stanley: I was searching for a definitive defense of the power of grace, and this book delivered.
5. Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: This book has changed how I go about trying to get buy-in for a change to the system.
6. Left Behind by Tim LeHaye: This book and series gave me nightmares, but I had to keep reading
7. A Frog Thing by Eric Drachman: This book should be required reading for all children because we can't all do whatever we dream.
8. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle: 10,000 hours of hard work + luck = awesome.
9 Greetings from the Salton Sea by Kim Stringfellow. Eerie photo essay of a dream gone bad.
10. Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Economics and Baseball are a great pair.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
My dad used to read to me a number of books, but one book I made him read over and over was Roundabout Train. That book captured my imagination like few others. A new diesel train comes to town fully expecting to show up the old steam engines. He is outsmarted by the wise old locomotive and is faced with the futility of his pride. My dad read it to me so much that I memorized it. One day I volunteered to "read" it to him and I have been reading ever since.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read from the Bible every day, but I also have a ton of free e-books by new authors that I am working through. Most are pretty bad, but there have been some good ones. Here are the best free e-books I've read:
Memoirs of a Gas Station by Sam Neuman
Exiles in Eden by Paul Reyes
The Myth of the Garage by Chip Heath
How Not to Run a B&B by Bobby Hutchinson
Dear Coca-Cola by Terry Ravenscroft
Iron City by Davis Scott Milton
Endeavor In Time by Chris Hambleton
When did you first start writing?
I wrote some stories in high school that I was very proud of. I had a creative writing teacher who would pull out random stuff and we needed to create something that incorporated that object into a story. It taught me the power of harnessing imagination with my writing. I was dealing with the usual self-doubt of those years, so I began to journal my emotions. In a fit of embarrassment I threw it away. It would have been a best seller because the angst was so genuine and powerful. I couldn't recreate that magic if I tried.
What's the story behind your latest book?
The "No Freaking Guide" to College Admissions: Your 4-Year Plan grew out of the same AVID Class that created the College Field Manual. At the beginning I was wondering if the world needed "yet another college admissions book," but as I thought about it, there was more that needed to be addressed. Day after day I deal with teenagers as they deal with trauma of the college admissions process. I am noticing that a growing number of high school students struggle with the overwhelming array of variables involved in college admissions. I see a need to help kids focus on the most important issues and not get sidetracked with things of little value. I'm proud of the guide and I believe it is dealing with issues that other guides are ignoring.
What is your writing process?
I keep a nearby notebook to jot ideas. Occasionally I will sit and try to work out details of plot ideas, but I usually do not do details until I begin drafting. For my upcoming fiction work, I wanted to capture the reality of the outdoors, so I began to go to places and script everything I see, feel and hear. I need to do more of this in urban areas. For my non-fiction work I will begin researching once I am almost ready to begin drafting. I will try to cobble a draft in a few weeks of intense writing. I set the work down in a fit of exhaustion and disgust and let it marinate in my brain for months. I will then go back and begin filling in holes and doing additional research. Once I have gone through my work and feel somewhat happy, I will farm out the draft to writers and my wife who will review and give suggestions. I will then incorporate these suggestions. At that point the painful process of revision and editing go on and on like an endless rock tumbler getting it better and better with each iteration. At this point I am usually emotionally exhausted, but happy that the work is complete. It is not until later that I feel much happier with the work.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a what Wikipedia calls a "4th generation Kindle" It is black on grey, but it can handle full sun. My wife has a first generation Kindle Fire. Sometimes I envy her ability to read in the dark, but I like the lightness of my Kindle. I can read websites but they look awful on it. It does format Wikipedia, and a few news sites fairly well.
Once it dies I'm going to get a Kindle Paperwhite.
Published 2014-07-12.
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