Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview -- D.E. (Dan) Johnson

D.E. (Dan) Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood. The early Twentieth Century, a time of big ambitions, huge achievements, and crushing poverty, holds a special fascination for him.  His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme has garnered excellent reviews (including a starred review in Booklist) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.  Dan is married, has three daughters, and lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan. He’s currently working on the first sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, titled Motor City Shakedown, to be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books in fall 2011.

Tell us about your new novel

The Detroit Electric Scheme is a mystery set in 1910 in the early electric car industry. The protagonist is Will Anderson, (fictional) son of the (real-life) owner of Detroit Electric, the most successful electric car company in U.S. history. The book opens with Will finding the body of his romantic rival crushed in a hydraulic press. The police arrive and Will runs, setting off a series of events that drive him into the gutters of Detroit to find the killer before the police catch up with him.

But Will has done a terrible thing that nearly destroyed both him and the woman he loves, Elizabeth Hume. Now Elizabeth has a mysterious problem, and Will needs to help her before he can save himself. With threats coming from all sides, can Will pull himself together long enough to save them? 

How is this novel different than your previous novels?

The Detroit Electric Scheme is my first published novel (actually the first mystery I’ve written). My only other book was a religious satire—not a strong market for that genre. (Don’t know what I was thinking.)

My next novel, however, Motor City Shakedown, will be published in September by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. It’s a sequel, and whereas The Detroit Electric Scheme is set against the backdrop of the early electric car industry, Motor City Shakedown has Will unwittingly walking into the middle of Detroit’s first mob war when he seeks revenge against Vito Adamo, the city’s first crime boss.

Do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing "genre fiction"?

Gosh, no. There are a lot of great writers in the mystery world. Anyone who doubts that should read Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, a mystery with all the nuance and character exploration you’d find in a piece of first-rate literary fiction. I think the challenge of writing mysteries these days is to write something different. I try to bring a literary style to my work, which is probably easier to pull off writing from a hundred years ago.

Why do you write mysteries?

They make me feel smart. ;>)  I create a jigsaw puzzle, and the reader puts it together piece by piece. The challenge is to have a few of those pieces look so much alike that the reader mistakes one for the other, or to have one stand out so brightly that the reader doesn’t think about some of the other pieces that they passed over. It’s a battle of wits. 

A good mystery writer gives you all the clues you need to solve the crime. In order to do it though, the reader has to take a step back and examine what’s been presented to them. And all those pieces better be there, or the reader’s not coming back. There’s nothing more frustrating in reading than a mystery that’s resolved by a miracle or a brand new clue on the last page.

When did you know you were a writer?

There were a few times. High school creative writing class was the first time I really believed it, and I tried writing at times through my adult life. But it took until I was forty-seven years-old to finally pry my head out of my ass long enough to really learn the craft. I spent a long time miserable in my professional life. But you do what you have to, right? I had a family, and I had bills. My wife and kids encouraged me to do what I had always told them—follow your dreams. I finally did it myself, and now no one will ever be able to convince me I’m not a writer.

I’ve heard people say writers aren’t people who like to write, they’re people who need to write. That sums me up.

What’s a work day like for you?

Unfortunately, it’s a work day, so I get up at five and get a couple of hours in before I go to my job. When I get home at night, I usually get a little more writing in, though that’s also when I try to take care of my book “business”—marketing, returning readers’ emails, working on editing, etc. The weekends are reserved for writing. One thing I’m clear on is that if you write with a full-time job and want to get out a book a year, you’d better not have any other plans.

What’s a day off like for you?

Pardon? I’m not familiar with that phrase.

If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?

A successful writer

How do you define success?

Being able to write whenever I want to. Maybe taking a day off every month or two.

What’s next for you?

I’m just starting to shop synopses for a few different projects – I think I have at least five Will Anderson-series books in me, and I have a few ideas for other things that I’m noodling around with. I’d like to get another Anderson book out next year, and we’ll see from there. The response I’ve gotten from readers has been so enthusiastic I think they’d hunt me down if I don’t keep writing Will.

Thanks for having me, Larry, and best of luck to you!

For more information about Dan's novels, visit 

1 comment:

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Darn good interview, gents. A mystery set in 1910? I'm there--I'll be tucking into Mr. Johnson's work soon.

Keep up the great interviews!