The ALCS Interview: Jill Johnson

Debut novelist Jill Johnson is the latest writer to release her book through publisher OWN IT! She talks to Jade Zienkiewicz on how writing her novel helped her to reconnect with her culture, what finding an agent did for her, and why, when the deal is fair, writers can love their publishers.

“When I write, I don’t have a plan, which actually causes problems when it comes to editing. But that’s how I write, through emotion rather than a logical plan.”

Jill Johnson is talking about her debut novel, The Time Before the Time to Come. It explores six generations of a family through a series of stories, and the historical sections are based on Jill’s family stories, the oral heritage passed down through her Māori family. The book is interwoven with a contemporary story about a mixed heritage woman who is half English, half Māori and who has lost the knowledge of her language and culture. “Through the book she learns about the lost half of her identity, and is thereby given the strength to try to fix her life which is falling apart around her.”

“I was shocked to get rejections saying ‘this story is too niche, there’s no market for this’. Even though it’s so universal…”

The ‘rope’ of genealogy (Te Here Tāngata) runs through the story: “Which is kind of Buddhist. The rope starts at the beginning of time and it’s up to each generation to keep it in good condition. It’s a very universal theme about how the way we behave in our lives affects the next generation.” How much of the contemporary story is her own? “I don’t have a messed-up life and I don’t have a problem with drinking, but I do identify with that lost heritage and lost language aspect of the main character. When I was researching, I interviewed about 20 people and learnt so much from them. Mainly the sense of humility that exists in Māori culture.”

“I learnt how to allow my work to do its thing. If it resonates with people, fantastic, and if not, it doesn’t matter. Working in the creative industries in London you have to be pretty tough. I learned to take a step back.”

Jill’s day job was centred on the graphic novel world for more than 30 years but she sold her shares in all her comic-related businesses six years ago. “There’s absolutely no way on earth I’d have been able to become a full-time writer otherwise. I’ve got three kids, I was running the businesses – writing seemed like an indulgence. It was only after I separated from my husband and sold my share of the businesses that I was able to do something I had always wanted to do.”

With her creative background, it makes sense that Jill found a publisher as cutting edge as OWN IT!. But it wasn’t the path she had imagined: “I thought I’d be picked up by a traditional publisher so I was shocked to get rejections saying ‘this story is too niche, there’s no market for this’. Even though it’s so universal: it’s about love, strong women overcoming adversity, stories of trauma – themes that run through every piece of fiction ever written in the English language. Someone suggested that they really mean the story isn’t white enough, and I thought that’s exactly what it is. I didn’t seek out OWN IT! but it was like serendipity when I found them; they loved the Māori element, and I feel blessed.”

“You hit the realisation that if you’re going to make this a career, you have to keep writing the next book…”

Hearing Jill speak so positively about her publisher and its more generous than average royalty rate – 50% net – is a breath of fresh air in the light of the results of ALCS’s most recently commissioned research into author earnings. “I am totally and utterly an OWN IT! writer in every way. Knowing that in January I am going to get a decent royalty cheque is such a relief. I’ll be able to continue writing.”

Still, the pressure is on to keep delivering if Jill wants to sustain a career as a full-time writer. “I’ve done that first compulsive book now, the one you write because you have to get it out. I loved every minute of writing it. But then you hit the realisation that if you’re going to make this a career, you have to keep writing the next book, and have a body of work ready for those readers who get through a book a week.”

As a result of attending a Faber writing course, by the end of which she’d written 20,000 words of The Time Before the Time to Come, Jill was approached by four different agents. “If you are a writer, you just write all the time anyway because you need to do it. But the decision to make a career out of it is huge, and being approached by those agents validated that choice. It made me think, ‘ok yes, I can do this’.” One of the agents was from Pontas, the Barcelona-based agency Jill later signed to. What happened next testifies to the value of an agent in the publishing process, and in making links in the wider writing community, because it was through her agent that Jill met fellow writer JJ Bola, and subsequently the publisher of his book (No Place to Call Home), OWN IT!

She had to go through a gruelling process beforehand however. “I got around 80 rejections from publishers before I found OWN IT! But my agent, Maria Cardona, was so lovely about it. She didn’t send me a single negative comment. When friends of mine who are also writers get crap rejection letters, they are plunged into depression for a couple of weeks. And then they can’t write because they get the whole imposter syndrome. But Maria just sent me positive comments, even if it was a single line from a letter,” she laughs, “and it helped me carry on.”

“I got 80 rejections from publishers before I found OWN IT! But my agent was so lovely… she didn’t send me a single negative comment.”

Why is she with an agency based in Barcelona? “They have the contacts, and are strong on foreign rights. They represent at all the major book fairs, and are a multilingual agency – so they also attend the more obscure rights shows.” Jill aims to publish her book in as many territories as possible, so it’s vital that she has knowledgeable people in her corner. And should her book ever be optioned for screen, she felt that here too, Pontas were the right agency for the job. “They’re a film agency too, and go to Cannes every year.”

Jill and OWN IT! are also in talks to get her book released in New Zealand next year, and are drumming up interest within the Māori community, by getting it widely read and discussed over there. Jill has also talked to Creative New Zealand, the equivalent of our Arts Council, and says her family in New Zealand are also key in the process of promoting the book.

In fact, she is humbled by her family’s reaction to the book, having worried about it being received negatively by them. “There are some undesirable bits in the story that I was worried about receiving some backlash from, but there hasn’t been any at all, it’s been 100% supportive. I’m sure they didn’t really expect me to not be authentic.”

Before we finish the interview, Jill talks about what she wants her readers to take away from her book. “A sense of hope. In every story there’s a disaster or crisis that a female character has to overcome, and they do it, and they do it admirably. And to know that whatever shit situation you find yourself in, that you can use your own resources to overcome it. When everything seems really bleak, you can rely on yourself – all is not lost.”

Jill Johnson’s The Time Before the Time to Come is available on  OWN IT!