Author Maureen Johnson doesn’t believe in ghosts, and other things we learned from talking to the alum
MANAGING MOSAIC EDITOR
Author Maureen Johnson describes herself as “a stumbler”, stumbling into new opportunities, like writing young adult (YA) fiction. While she may profess to stumbling into things, she seems to always end up just where she needs to be.
A graduate of the class of 1995, Johnson majored in English at the university before going on to work in theater and write novels like The Blue Envelope series (“Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes” and “The Last Little Blue Envelope”).
“Delaware really is where a lot of my really fond memories are from,” she says. “Every single day was exciting.”
A member of both the E-52 and Harrington Theater Arts Company (HTAC) theater groups, some of Johnson’s favorite places on campus included Bacchus Theater and Wolf Hall, where shows were once held.
She also remembers the beauty of the campus in springtime, and the way she and her friends would joke about the brick walkways, which seemed to be under constant construction.
“We used to say that every time the university got a dollar, they spent it on a brick,” she says.
The Scrounge was the best place to meet up with friends, Johnson says. Her friendship with her current literary agent, Kate Testerman of KT Literary, began there.
Although Johnson and Testerman knew one another through student theater, their friendship really formed toward the end of their time at the university.
When they realized they both wanted to participate in the BUNAC program, in which Americans could obtain permits to work in the United Kingdom temporarily, they decided to go together after graduation.
In England, they shared one room in a larger flat, with other boarders in other rooms. Not only did they need a key to get into the apartment, but also a key to get into the bedroom. Rather than using the clunky, ornate old keys, Testerman says she and Johnson often climbed into the apartment through the window— it is one of her favorite memories.
Testerman, who also graduated in 1995 with degrees in English and history, says her friendship with Johnson “adds a fun depth” to their work together.
“When a situation pops up that there’s some history to, we can say, ‘Hey, this is like XYZ something when we were working on a theater production doing E-52,’ or ‘This is like when we traveled together in England,’” she says. “It’s a shorthand. I mean, having 23 years of friendship to draw on gives us a better relationship as business partners.”
It was Testerman who encouraged Johnson to write YA fiction, while the pair was once again living together, this time in New York City.
“… I was like, ‘Well, that’s a dumb idea, I would be terrible at that, because I went to high school in a Catholic convent and I was never allowed to do anything, and most of my teenage years I spent trying to dig an escape tunnel in the backyard,’” Johnson says. “’What would I even write about?’”
She wrote a few chapters of a YA novel to prove to Testerman that she couldn’t write YA. Instead, she earned a book deal.
Inspiration comes to Johnson, in some cases, from real life: from her Catholic-convent high school, or from the mouths of British tour guides.
While researching a different project in England, Johnson took a historical tour of Parliament. As someone who does not believe in ghosts, she found herself annoyed when the tour guide kept proclaiming various historical sights “haunted.”
From this annoyance, the “Shades of London” series about a secret, anti-ghost police force was born.
“I just had this idea that I wanted to write something that was about an American—because it’s fun to write about Americans that comes over (to England)—and experiences a ghost that could do a lot more,” Johnson says. “So it was largely written in response to me being incredibly irritated by the fact that these ghosts were being included on a historical tour, and that they were so bad at being ghosts. If the most a ghost can do is knock your pen off the table, that is unfortunate.”
After being ill last year, Johnson says she is now writing multiple books. She will announce a new, forthcoming series of books in the New Year, and there will be new additions to both the “Shades of London” and “Scarlett” series.
Although Johnson has been writing throughout her life, her passion for theater led her to enroll in a theater MFA program at Columbia University, in order to network and gain the skills needed to work in theater. During this time, she also studied writing.
According to Johnson’s website, her later work as a dramaturge inspired the “Scarlett” series, about a young woman and her theatrical family.
Johnson’s advice to those who want to be authors? Never be discouraged by the word “no.”
“My advice is—it’s similar to advice that a lot of people give, but it’s true,” Johnson says, “Do not be in any way confused or dismayed by a lack of success.”
Your writing will not be great when you first start out, but like anything else, it improves with time, experience and study, she says. As a writer, she says she is always trying to learn and improve.
“Writing is all I do, it’s just what I am,” she says. “I think that a lot of us have a thing that, you might not find it right away, but that thing like ‘This is what I do.’ I’ve always done this, from the time I was small, so my answer is ‘I have no other skills, this is me.’ This is all I’ve ever done. I don’t know why it’s what I do, I just know it’s what I’ve always done.”