Tyrell Johnson: ‘Write the story you would want to read’

Lots of writers can point to a specific event or person that sent them in the direction of a career in writing; Tyrell Johnson isn’t one of those people.

“I don’t think it was one specific thing,” he said. “I’ve always loved being creative. I love stories, both reading and writing them. It’s sort of cliché, but I suppose being a writer is just part of who I am; I couldn’t not be a writer – even if I wasn’t getting paid for it.”

That doesn’t mean that he’s entirely comfortable with the label. In interviews, he comments that he’s still adjusting to the relative success of his first published novel, The Wolves of Winter, which appeared in January of this year.

To the question “When did you know for sure that you were a writer?” he responded:

“I still don’t know for sure! I’m still waiting for someone to read a terrible first draft and say, ‘Wait a minute, this guy has no idea what he’s doing!’

“I suppose I knew I wanted to pursue writing as a career in college. I was trying to decide what I would major in when it clicked. English, Creative Writing. Of course.”

Johnson, who now lives in Kelowna, grew up in Bellingham, Washington, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside, where he focussed on fiction and poetry.

His thesis was title was “Speculative Fiction: The use of magic in modern day literature.”

The move to Canada came about as a result of marrying a Canadian, with whom he has two children. In addition to writing, he is a freelance editor.

The Wolves of Winter is set in the Yukon; it is here that the family has fled in order to escape the collapse of civilization caused by a nuclear war and a disease pandemic.

While the plot is obviously compelling and has been compared in reviews to a cross between The Hunger Games and Station Eleven, Johnson says that’s not the main thing about the book – or about writing, as far as he’s concerned.

“It’s the characters. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good story. But no one will care about your good story if it isn’t filled with and drawn from believable, interesting characters.”

Johnson says he doesn’t have any regular writing rituals, but somehow doing most of his work in the office of his mother-in-law’s horse barn (a nice office, he hastens to add – he’s not writing on bales of hay) seems like a routine. There’s a donkey named Jim who lives not too far from the office.

He does outline things sometimes, “just so I can see where I think I’m going, and then promptly ignore it.”

In a Globe and Mail Q&A interview he said that a lot of his best ideas come to him while he’s out on a hike with his dog, a Siberian Husky.

“It’s partly because being outdoors is relaxing for me, and partly because I think there’s something that happens when you focus on a simple activity like putting one foot in front of the other. It frees up the back of your brain to spin and work and come up with new ideas.”

He advises people interested in writing to, “Write the story you would want to read, write the scenes that excite you, and write the characters that interest you. Your passion will come across on the page.”

He’s looking forward to being a mentor at the Young Authors’ Conference during the first week of May.

“I hope to talk to some fellow, and aspiring, writers, and enjoy being around people who are passionate about the same thing I am. I also hope I’ll be able to, at some point, get out and go for a hike so that I can enjoy the Yukon outdoors!”

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