I loved interviewing Lynn-Steven Johanson about his Joe Erickson mystery series and his writing journey. Lynn is also the first author I’ve interviewed who has built his own street rod! Below are his responses to my interview questions, followed by his bio and buy/contact links.
First off, congratulations on your release this year of ONE OF OURS, your fourth mystery in your award-winning series featuring Chicago detective Joe Erickson. Can you tell our readers a bit about ONE OF OURS and what inspired your story?
Death hits close to home when Joe is called to the scene of a fatal shooting. The victim is a police captain who is Joe’s former lieutenant. Joe knew he had been working on his own time to solve a cold case before he retired. Believing he was silenced for getting too close to the truth, Joe picks up the trail and finds it teeming with corruption, executions, and a conspiracy involving a powerful city official. The idea of killing a recurring character came to me from watching British mysteries. They do that more so than we do. Lieutenant Vincenzo appeared in each of my three previous novels, and deciding to kill him was a bold choice. I felt Joe would take Vincenzo’s death personally and compel him to solve his former lieutenant’s murder.
Tell us about your protagonist, Joe Erickson. What is he like, and what have been his challenges? During the course of your series, how has he changed and developed?
In Rose’s Thorn, the first in the series, we learn that Joe is on leave from Chicago PD after suffering a nervous breakdown. He’s functioning fine now, but we only know that it occurred after he drove himself into the ground trying to apprehend a serial killer. In my second book, Havana Brown, which is a prequel to Rose’s Thorn, we get to see how he drives himself night and day in an attempt to catch him. We find Joe getting back in shape and learning to cook healthy meals rather than eating out. We also meet Destiny, who becomes his significant other. In Corrupted Souls, Joe has learned to moderate his behavior and has become a very good cook. Destiny plays a more important part in his life. And in One of Ours, we find Joe and Destiny buying a house, and Joe becoming more comfortable sharing a domestic life with Destiny. His nightmares have become less frequent, and his psychiatrist has tapered off his scheduled meetings. In a sense, over the four books, he is becoming psychologically strong again.
What kinds of research do you do in order to write about police investigations?
Rose’s Thorn was based on a screenplay I’d written about ten years before. It’s set in Iowa, and to write the screenplay, I interviewed the county sheriff in the county where I set the action. He was most accommodating and provided me with a lot of valuable information, which wound up in both the screenplay and the novel. The rest of the series takes place in Chicago, and I decided to have my detectives work out of Area 3, one of five detective bureaus in the city. I had to research everything I could about the Chicago Police Department– how it’s organized, how the police districts are split up, the procedures detectives use, terminology, etc. Fortunately, I located a retired Chicago PD officer who lived in my town. He answered a lot of my questions. Later on, I found a former Chicago homicide detective on LinkedIn who agreed to be my adviser. Anytime I have a question, I can email him, and he gives me an explanation. He’s been an invaluable resource. I like to be as accurate as possible.
What drew you to writing crime fiction?
From the time I was a teenager, I was drawn to watching detective fiction on television. Peter Gunn, Mannix, The FBI. I didn’t read a lot of books, but I sure watched a lot of television back then. Even now, I gravitate toward watching mysteries, especially the dark Scandinavian series on Netflix. When I decided to write a screenplay, the mystery genre was a logical choice. And later, that naturally evolved into mystery writing novels. My choice of books for reading pleasure also involves crime fiction, and I feel reading novels by top-notch authors like David Baldacci, Jonathan Kellerman, Anne Perry, and others is not only enjoyable but will hopefully make me a better writer.
Prior to writing mystery novels, you were also an award-winning playwright. What led you to make the transition to writing novels, and have you found the process very different?
One day, my wife, Joyce, suggested adapting one of my screenplays into a novel. I blew off the idea, saying, “I can’t write anything that long.” A couple of years later, I dried up on ideas for a new play, and I remembered what she said. So, I looked at the better of the two screenplays and adapted the opening scene into the first chapter of a novel. Now, Joyce is a former English teacher and an avid reader, so I handed the chapter to her and said, “Tell me what you think.” She read it and said, “I’ve read worse. Keep going.” Thirty-six chapters later, I had the first draft of Rose’s Thorn. Writing a play is very different than writing a novel. When I begin writing a play, I have thought about the basic idea of the story, who the characters are, and the situation they find themselves in. When I think I’m ready, I sit down at my laptop, and when the characters start talking to each other, I write down what they say. It’s all dialogue with an occasional stage direction. The only exception was when I wrote a period play, and I had to do a lot of research beforehand. You write dialogue in a novel, too. But you also have to write the narrative. And I had to learn how to do that. Joyce mentored me in the beginning, and I began studying the books I was reading, looking at the way novelists wrote their narratives. Eventually, I got a grasp on it and developed my own style.
What is your writing process like?
When I have an idea for a novel, it starts with the crime that initiates the story. From there, I begin brainstorming the story on paper, jotting down a lot of what-ifs, what might happen next, who the characters might be, possible twists, and red herrings. By the time I’m done brainstorming, I have five or more pages of notes and the story fleshed out. From there, I let it sit for a couple of weeks and think about it. Then I come back to it and make changes and additions. Once I’m satisfied with the story, I meticulously plan the novel’s outline using Syd Field’s screenwriting paradigm. It works as well for a novel as it does for a screenplay. I have to have a detailed outline to write from, and the paradigm establishes a three-act structure with major plot points, the mid-point, and all the events in between. Once I have all that filled in sufficiently, I begin writing Chapter One. It’s important to remember the paradigm is flexible so details can change as you are writing. You can’t think of everything ahead of time.
You earned your MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Did you find your MFA program helpful in developing your craft as a writer?
My MFA was in stage directing, but the program had a lot of focus on research and analysis, and my directing professor believed it was important for us to write and write well. I spent a lot of time in the library doing research and many late nights typing (yes, typing) papers. It made me a better writer, even though it was academic in nature.
What’s next for you writing-wise?
The fifth novel in my Joe Erickson Mystery series, Sins Revealed, is scheduled for release next March. And I’m presently in the brainstorming phase for novel number six. Like I tell people, as long as my brain and fingers work, I’ll be writing something.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I have a street rod, a 1932 Ford Three-Window Coupe, that I built and work on, and I drive it to area car shows and events. I’ve been a gearhead practically all my life. I also sing with our local choral society and research family genealogy. If that’s not enough, I’m a pretty good carpenter and enjoy building things.
Anything else you’d like to add, or wish I’d asked, but I didn’t?
My wife and I have been married for 51 years and have three great kids. Joyce acts as my editor and is the first one to see a finished chapter and the first to give me feedback on it. And she’s kind enough not to make corrections with a red pen! I trust her eye and value her partnership in my writing endeavors.
Lynn-Steven Johanson is an award-winning playwright and novelist. His Joe Erickson Mystery novels, Rose’s Thorn, Havana Brown, Corrupted Souls, and One of Ours have been critically acclaimed by both reviewers and readers. Johanson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is retired from Western Illinois University. He and his wife live in downstate Illinois and have three adult children.