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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with KT Johnston

I feel my stories advocate for unheard voices

whose lives may not have been inherently spectacular,

but nevertheless made a mark on history. ~ KT Johnston

I'd like to introduce you to an exciting debut author. KT Johnston writes historical narrative nonfiction. KT's interest in the past developed from a sweeping curiosity about the way things were and how history has impacted the way things are. She enjoys feeding her interests by traveling, whether she's touring a historical site, experiencing a foreign land, or mind-wandering in a good book.

Born in Minnesota, KT earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife studies before settling into a corporate career as an analyst. KT hopes to inspire others to be curious about our world as well, one true story at a time.

Her debut picture book, Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon, releases this Saturday, February 1st.

Thank you KT for stopping by to discuss writing and your debut book.

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

KT: I write in my home office, and I’m also sometimes at a cozy (i.e., tiny) desk in a cozy (tiny) dormer in a cozy (tiny) cabin in some big woods. I’m accustomed to using two screens, so I don’t find it comfortable to write in coffee shops, on tree stumps, etc. I started writing six years ago when I was faced with my empty nest, searching for something to patch that void and be 100% me and mine.

As to when I write, never in my life was I a morning-person until I began business consulting about a decade ago and experienced the indulgence of setting my own schedule. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and once I found the “community” of #5amwritersclub, I realized how snug it is to write when it’s still dark outside. Now I’m up before the sun nearly every day, usually doing something related to my books.

My favorite type of book to write is a true story from the dusty past (~a half-century or more) about ordinary animals who made barely a smudge on history—but left ripples that can be felt on humanity today.

I love that description of your favorite book to write! And I have never heard of the #5amwritersclub. Probably because I am a night owl and only ever see 5 am on my alarm clock if I have to travel early. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe…. Very few people know I’ve held the heavy paw of a (sedated) Siberian tiger in my hand, felt her coarse coat, touched her impressive claw. She was part of an endangered species breeding program and the research scientist pioneering AI for Siberians was drawing her blood.

She did not holler to let her go, though her potential mate in another holding pen did when the reporter from the Minneapolis Tribune snapped a flash photo of him. A very memorable day!

Such a wonderful experience. You are so lucky! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Are You My Mother, by P. D. Eastman is the one that stands out.

Interesting, one could say you imprinted on animal picture books. Where did the idea for Railway Jack: The True Story of An Amazing Baboon come from?

I first saw Jack’s story on a history-related site, and it stuck with me. I told a couple writer friends about it over coffee. At the time, I was querying a manuscript (for adults) with no nibbles and said tongue-in-cheek that maybe Jack would be my next story; as in, time to back-burner the other and move on. One of them commented that Jack’s story would make a great children’s book. Hmmm! I went home and drafted my first picture book. And my friend was right.

I love those story nuggets that won't let go. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Railway Jack? What is your favorite spread in the book?

I can’t describe the feeling of going to bed the night my editor told me they’d found the illustrator for Jack. César lives in Barcelona, so he would have been starting his day. It was a weird sensation to think of a stranger “crawling around in my head” while I slept, getting to know my words, my mind, my heart; that he would be visually conceiving what I had created.

Seeing César’s sketches, then a colorized sample, and then the full bloom of Jack and Jim and the signal hut has been the most rewarding part of the process. César has a wonderful way with light and has done an excellent job incorporating my research notes and capturing historical details.

My favorite spread is the cart ride down the hill. I can hear the deep rumble of the bogie wheels on the tracks as it picks up speed and whizzes past. Hold on to your hat, Jim! [This spread is also the cover, so I didn't repeat it.]

That's a freaky way to think about it. *chuckling* What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from Railway Jack?

Jim was an everyday person like most of us are. Jack was an ordinary animal. This is a true story of disability and resourcefulness, perseverance and practicality. I hope my books seed a child’s conversations with their adults about human issues.

I think Jack's story and the extensive back matter will achieve this goal. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

History is my source of inspiration for writing, and sublime displays of nature often provide the mood.

What was the most challenging part of the research?

The most challenging part of the research for Jack (and other stories that occurred so long ago and/or in another country) was getting my hands on primary source material.

Sometimes an internet search will return a snippet of text, so you know something is there, but it requires subscription or onsite viewing to access. Some articles, especially that far back, are not digitized so you may never even know of them. Some media organizations may no longer be in operation so there’s no archive or anybody to contact. Older books don’t have bibliographies, so you can’t attempt to track down their authors’ sources. And sometimes a story’s local language is not English, so you might have a hard time researching it altogether.

Thank you for this great summary of the challenges faced in finding primary source material. How many drafts, or revisions, did Railway Jack take? Did you have to make any revisions after César Samaniego finished the illustrations?

My editor at Capstone was fantastic. She’s very skilled and knowledgeable about children’s literature, and she had a clear vision for Jack’s story as we collaborated on finalizing the text. Capstone’s design team did a good job coordinating the process, and César was proficient at interpreting the story and implementing comments, so the illustrations did not impact the text.

Sounds like a great experience. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m excited to have another picture book coming from Capstone in 2021! Another true story, this one is about an early therapy animal. Additionally, I’m midway through first draft on a third picture book and have rough research notes on several other stories I’d like to tell. Sometimes it feels like that episode of I Love Lucy where she’s wrapping chocolates on the assembly line and the conveyor belt keeps going faster and faster!

*Ha!* Except it's harder to shove the manuscripts down your shirt. Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?

I didn’t start researching “what’s next?” until I’d written "The End" on my first project and proven to myself I could do it. After learning my way through critiques and polishing to querying, I discovered that publishers (in the U.S.), and therefore agents, aren’t interested in novella-length literary fiction from debut authors (lol!), so I went on to a new project….

I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was to get published because I probably never would have even tried my hand at writing in the first place. Which means I never would have found out how gratifying it is. My message to other writers: if you believe in yourself, keep your eye on the horizon and ignore the deterrents you see ahead of you on the path. Write for yourself, not others, and keep going.

Excellent advice; I'm putting that above my computer. Assuming you have a critique group or partners, what have you learned from your critique buddies over the years?

I’m not in a critique group per se, but I do have a couple writer friends I’ve made along the way who I think of as study buddies/cheerleaders more than critique partners. We do trade comments on our work, even though we write in different genres. More than that, though, we lean on each other; bounce ideas off one another; share discoveries, accomplishments, disappointments—about the industry as a whole, the process of getting published, elements of good writing. Probably the most significant thing I’ve gained from them is the special camaraderie to be found among buddies who share, and therefore understand, your passion for writing.

It certainly takes a village to make a pictue book. And having others "in the trenches" can be an amazing help. What is your favorite animal? Why?

I think I have to say dogs, because they have been integral members of my family forever. But baboons are surely very fascinating, don’t you think? As with most things in life, the more you know about something, the more interesting it is….

Thank you KT, for stopping by to share about yourself and your debut picture book.

Thank you for the interview, Maria!

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon.

To find out more about KT Johnston, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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