For Books’ Sake Talks To: Maureen Johnson

4th Nov 2013

Maureen Johnson
We set the world to rights with the UK's reigning Queen of Teen: on sexism, social media, and why kids these days are missing out on getting really bored...

Philadelphia-born Maureen Johnson is the bestselling author of ten young adult novels, including The Key to the Golden Firebird, Suite Scarlett and the Shades of London series. She is also the Lit Director for Leaky Con and was a scriptwriter on the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince video game.

The UK’s reigning Queen of Teen also has over 90,000 Twitter followers, so she’s obviously doing something right on the social media front. For a YA writer, that kind of platform on a network used by teenagers worldwide must be almost invaluable. So does Johnson sympathise with writers who complain about the pressure to maintain a social media presence?

“People should have every right and option not to do it,” she replies. “I only do what I enjoy, I only do what comes natural. You shouldn’t be forcing writers to do something that they don’t like and don’t want to, it’s a waste of time.”

She is very keen to stress that her online presence is not contrived or premeditated.“I certainly don’t have a plan,” she says. “I have one plan and it’s to have no plan.”

Communication amongst teenagers in the 21st century has changed undeniably, with much of their lives played over via computers and smartphones. But Johnson tries to limit the influence of new technologies in her novel:

“You can’t keep devices out but because devices are going to change ten years from now, you date something really quickly if you put stuff in it.”

Seemingly unphased by worries of what she ‘should’ be doing, Maureen Johnson has caused a few controversies amongst her fans with plot twists and cliffhangers at the end of her books – a process she refers to as “dropping bombs.”

I ask whether she feels it’s an important part of writing fiction for young people, to avoid neatly wrapped endings and happily-ever-afters?

“I just thought it was fun,” she replies bluntly. “I don’t think you have to eliminate the happily-ever-after at all, I just thought it was fun.”

She refers to the protagonist of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone, and how readers had some very fixed ideas about how they wanted Ginny’s story to end. Johnson made it clear that certain things – particularly love interests – were not tied up neatly when she brought Ginny back for The Last Little Blue Envelope.

“The second book is very much about when you realise that they’ve moved on in life as well but you can continue to know them and see them,” she says.

Johnson decided that she wanted to be a writer at the age of eight or nine, and has written about her active imagination as a child, partly due to being an only child and having to make her own fun.

“Kids these days don’t have time to sit around and get totally bored. I think it’s really good to get bored,” she says. “There’s a great advantage to getting bored, to settling down a little bit, letting your brain go a little straight and flat and paying attention to what is around you.”

She read extensively as a child, almost exclusively mysteries, and would often devour two Agatha Christie stories in a day. The first book she remembers reading was The Hound of the Baskervilles: “I can still remember sitting there thinking about the big glowing dog, and the cigar, and the reflection in the tea pot.”

As a teenager, Maureen Johnson moved on to American 20th Century classics, and was particularly enamored with Fitzgerald and Hemmingway.

She admits that she was brought up reading all men, with no women writers taught at her school at all, and it was only when she was older than she noticed the problem.

Johnson doesn’t believe that everyone who doesn’t read fiction by women is a calculated misogynist, but refuses to accept the notion that men cannot relate to books about women.

I love it when people say oh, how would I relate to that experience? Well I can tell you that as a 16-year-old girl there wasn’t a lot I could relate to in terms of reading about a 40-year old man who suffers impotence because of a WWI shrapnel injury. The bond is there, the bond is that you find empathy.“I love it when people say oh, how would I relate to that experience? Well I can tell you that as a 16-year-old girl there wasn’t a lot I could relate to in terms of reading about a 40-year old man who suffers impotence because of a World War I shrapnel injury. The bond is there, the bond is that you find empathy.”

Earlier this year, a conversation Johnson started on Twitter inadvertently became the Coverflip campaign. Within hours, dozens of people had taken their favourite books and designed what they thought they cover might look like if the author’s gender was flipped.

It tapped in to ongoing frustration amongst readers and writers about gendered covers which portray men’s work as “serious” and women’s work as “breezy” or – Johnson’s favourite – “beach reads.” One of her books was actually produced with a waterproof cover.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with beach reads, or romance or chick lit or any of those things, but there is a perception that, as Johnson puts it, “it’s girly, ergo it’s trash.”

Johnson has been surprised by the level of interest in Coverflip, and I’m keen to find out if she’s got as much enthusiasm from publishers as she has received from readers.

She sort of dodges the question, defending the work of publishers and insisting that they are generally nice people, not deliberately looking to screw people over and set back the course of feminism.

“They’re just trying to sell books. They’re doing the best they can in a market that’s very difficult,” she says.

On the whole, Maureen Johnson believes that publishers are open to feedback, although admits that there are some obstacles.

“[Publishing] is an old school business, it’s got a lot of old dudes in it,” she says, explaining how she has seen with her own eyes how men and women writers with the same level of success are treated very differently in the industry, often when they are literally standing in the same room.

The nice thing about Coverflip, says Johnson, is that it is a very easy fix. Publishers are already producing covers and arguably it wouldn’t cost any more time or money for them to stop reinforcing these messages. “We’re not trying to build an elevator to the moon here,” she says. “This is a pretty attainable dream.”

[Photograph by Heather Weston]