Partnership Still Thriving 10 Books Later
For years, New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen and her son Roy Johansen talked about writing a book together, but it wasn’t until Roy saw a captured WWII German submarine at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry that the mother and son were finally inspired to launch their collaboration. It began with Silent Thunder, a thriller about a marine architect who uncovers a deadly secret. Ten books later, the partnership is still thriving.
Asked what it was like to be the son of a rock star in the crime fiction world, Roy says, “Fantastic! It was fun to have teachers and friends’ parents tell me that their favorite author shared my last name. They’d always get thrilled when I told them that she was my mom… From a purely inspirational point of view, I watched my mom go from being an airline reservations agent to a #1 bestselling author in just a few years. It made me believe anything was possible.”
Iris is equally effusive about her son’s achievements. “What can I say? I’ve always known how terrific he is… His professional writing career began when he won a national student screenwriting contest sponsored by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. Almost immediately, he had multiple offers for that script, and he found himself in Hollywood with a screenwriting deal and an office at MGM. The award-winning script, Murder 101, was produced as a cable film starring Pierce Brosnan.”
The pair’s latest collaboration, HINDSIGHT, is #7 in the popular Kendra Michaels series. Kendra is a formerly blind music therapist who serves as an FBI consultant due to her exceptional powers of observation. Roy explains, “When we created Kendra, we started out by wanting a character in the classic mode of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who could walk into a room and observe and deduce things no one else could. We wanted to give her an interesting reason for this ability, and that’s when we hit on the idea of her being formerly blind.”
Iris adds, “We wanted a character who had to face great challenges and overcome them. We didn’t want her to be a paranormal superwoman. (Though those are great fun.) We decided Kendra should be very human and yet show that if you reach out past and present you can become whatever you want to be.”
The writers take great pains to show that Kendra’s senses are no better than anyone else’s. Roy says, “She just trained herself to use all of her senses to make her way in the world, as all sightless people do. Now that she has her vision, she also takes nothing she sees for granted. For research we just read a lot and watched YouTube videos. When the first Kendra book came out, we received a very nice email from a young blind woman who listened to the audiobook and thanked us for not making Kendra an unobtainable superwoman.” He considers that one of his all-time favorite fan letters.
In HINDSIGHT, Kendra is asked to consult on a case that hits close to home. Two teachers at her alma mater, the Woodward Academy for the Physically Disabled, have been brutally murdered, and only Kendra’s unique skills can unmask the killer. Iris says, “We wanted to delve deeper into Kendra’s life as a blind child when she’d attended the school. We thought it would be fascinating to have a thriller that was cast in that same atmosphere.”
While Kendra’s personal connection to the case gives this book a poignant undercurrent, the most endearing character may be Harley, a service dog who suffers from PTSD and damaged vocal cords after failing to save “his boy” from a deadly house fire. Kendra’s attempts to help Harley overcome his trauma and find him a loving home make for a heart-warming subplot. Asked about the inspiration for the damaged yet lovable canine, Iris says, “We both love dogs. Harley is part hero, part mutt, all love.”
Each book begins when one partner gets the kernel of an idea. Then they dive in and start working. Iris says, “Either Roy or I write 40 or 50 pages and then turn it over to the other to pick up the story and move the pace along. It continues like that throughout the book and it’s always fun to present a new character or a plot twist for your partner to have to handle.”
Roy adds, “We’re constantly writing each other into corners, but I think it’s one way we keep each other on our toes. It forces us to be inventive, which keeps the story interesting for the reader.”
With both authors so busy with other projects, carving out time is one of their greatest challenges, but there are other concerns as well. “It’s important to make sure we’re on the same page, so to speak,” Roy says. “Not only in terms of story, but of character. If one of us introduces an element, the other must be careful to carry that forward in a way that’s consistent. If a character has a dry sense of humor on page 25, he needs to be the same way on page 250, no matter who’s writing.”
But the rewards outweigh any pitfalls. For example, the two challenge each other to be better. As Iris says, “We strike sparks.”
Roy says, “It’s incredibly satisfying to see a story taking on a life that’s different than what either of us could have made happen on our own. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to get a bunch of pages where I get to see characters doing and saying things I never would have envisioned when I created them.”
Sometimes, one partner will call dibs on a particular scene. Sometimes one will hand a scene off to the other if they think the other can do it better. “For instance,” Iris says, “Roy is terrific on action scenes. If you’ve read one of those hold-your-breath scenes, it’s probably Roy’s.”
“And if romantic sparks are flying between characters, it’s probably Mom’s work you’re reading,” Roy says. “We had Eve Duncan in one of our books, and she’s such an iconic character of Mom’s that of course I didn’t want to write those scenes.”
The two are sure there will be more Kendra Michaels books, but they’re also excited about featuring other characters from her world in future books. Roy plans to spend most of 2020 writing a new solo book featuring one of those characters.
In the meantime, they hope you love HINDSIGHT as much as they do and that you’ll subscribe to their newsletters and Facebook pages.
“Social media is becoming more and more important. We connect with readers almost daily instead of just when a new book happens to be coming out,” Roy says. “It’s… nice to be reminded that there are people out there who are looking forward to our work. We’re interested in what readers think about our books, and we like the dialogue that these venues open up for us.”