Since I have been dreaming of an expat lifestyle for the past few years, I am always on the look out for expat stories especially if the stories include writing.
Johanna Handley is living what I consider a dream life … writing books while exploring various parts of the world along with new cultures.
I caught up with Johanna to chat about her life and her new book.
Melanie Rockett: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. How did you get into writing?
Johanna Handley: I grew up in both England and France, a book-worm from an early age. I like to think that I’ve always been a writer, I have a lifetime of diaries, journals and letters piled up under my desk! Writing was always a dream of mine, something I knew I’d do eventually, when I had the time, or when I was feeling brave. When I did finally manage to find the time and the courage to go for it, I was quite shocked to discover it’s not easy! You can’t just sit down and write a book, it just doesn’t happen that way. My dreams of words flowing seamlessly onto the page and producing a wonderful, beautifully-written best-selling novel just… fell flat. I didn’t have any ideas, I didn’t know anything about plot, or structure, theme, voice, characters, goals, motivations, heroes, villains, conflict… and all of the other pieces that need to be put together when you’re writing a novel. And even then, you have to write it a billion times before it’s anywhere near good enough to attract anyone’s attention. So I did a couple of online courses to get myself started, but I always felt a little disconnected from what I was trying to learn. Then I stumbled across Stephen King’s book On Writing. It was without a doubt the most valuable book I’ve ever read and I would recommend it to anyone that wants to write. That was the book that opened the door in my mind, made everything clear and taught me to forget about all the rules. Just write. So I did.
Melanie Rockett: In your website you mention a husband, a daughter, Qatar, and lots of animals in one breath… how did you meet your husband and is Qatar now home?
Johanna Handley: I met my husband at university in England, almost twenty years ago. We moved to Dubai together in 2008, looking for a different life experience, finding jobs out there and living the wild and fabulous expat lifestyle that Dubai has to offer. Three years later, my husband was offered a job in Qatar and we decided to move again. It’s a smaller country in the Middle East, just across the Gulf from Dubai. I couldn’t find work there so I started doing some free-lance writing, and when I became pregnant I decided it was the ideal opportunity to finally realise that dream and write a novel. Then, my daughter was born, a load of stray animals started showing up at my house (we currently have a dog, two cats and three birds), and then my days just became about looking after strays and a baby, and writing whenever I could fit it in. I wrote Juniper in fits and starts at the beginning, and then when agents started to show interest in my work, I began to take it more seriously, writing late into the night, making the most of the precious quiet-time that a house full of baby and animals rarely allows. Qatar is home- for now, but certainly not forever.
Melanie Rockett: Your first book, The Burning of Juniper Slaide, is a YA mystery/thriller. What motivated you to tackle this genre and what was the inspiration for this book?
Johanna Handley: The novel is really about family, and about friendship. It’s about loyalty and secrets. Lies and love. Yes, it’s a mystery/thriller, because it’s fast-paced and because there are many elements of thrilling fiction- a mysterious disappearance, a shocking arson attack, a traumatised and therefore fairly unreliable protagonist, a man in prison for a crime he possibly didn’t commit… and much more! But it’s also about growing up. Changing the things you can change and taking responsibility for the things you can’t. And above all, learning to trust yourself. My inspiration came from my own relationships, certainly. And that’s not to say that my family and friends are anything like the ones in this novel (thankfully!) but there are aspects of them that I’ve taken and drawn on and used and developed and turned and essentially, bled dry to use in my writing. I’ve always been fascinated by characters (especially slightly twisted ones) and their motivations. I love stories about people who are a little bit wrong, a little bit dark. And that’s what I wanted to write.
Melanie Rockett: I’d love to find out a bit more about the two main characters. They were friends before Juniper’s family was murdered by James’ father. Inexplicably, they remained friends after. Now, nine years later, a secret is about to be revealed…
Johanna Handley: Nine years ago, Juniper Slaide survived an arson attack that destroyed her home and killed her family. She was left traumatised by the crime, and relied heavily on her best friend, James Creed, to help her through the aftermath. They remained best friends, despite the fact that it was his father who committed the crime. His father, Philip Creed, was the arsonist who destroyed her home and murdered her family. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced to a life sentence in prison.
Nine years on, Juniper still suffers from severe anxiety disorder, and still clings on to James for support. In fact, she pretty much lives in his shadow, he protects her, shields her from a world she’s been terrified of since the loss of her family. And despite the fact that they have very different personalities (she is quiet, studious, subdued; he is loud, bullish, arrogant,) they have an intense friendship that no one can fathom.
But one day, James disappears. Left without the protection of her best friend, Juniper is forced to confront her past, bringing up painful memories that are swamped in mystery. As she searches for her friend, she uncovers secrets all around her. Everything she thought she knew about her life is suddenly all wrong and it’s all linked to James somehow. She knows something terrible is about to happen but can she find James before it’s too late? And is he really the person she thought he was?
Melanie Rockett: Many writers who maintain journals over the period of years and decades write by habit vs. inspiration. Does this apply to your journal writing? Does it apply to how you went about writing your first novel?
Johanna Handley: No, for me, writing a novel is all about inspiration. There’s no habit to it whatsoever. I’m either feeling inspired or I’m not, there’s no routine. I can write for 8 hours straight without seeing the time go by, or I can go for 8 days without writing a thing.
The journal writing that I’ve been doing since I was a child is far more habitual. It’s really about creating my personal history, so that I always have a record of everything I’ve ever done and everything I’ve ever felt. As you get older, you forget so much. Sometimes it feels like my childhood didn’t even happen, I can barely remember it. And then I look at all the diaries, and I know it, I did exist!
But the novel-writing, that’s far more inspired. My novels are not about me, they’re nothing like a memoir. They’re a product of a vivid imagination that won’t stay quiet. I didn’t start writing novels until I was 35 years old, mainly because I was worried I didn’t have any ideas. Where do you get a whole story from anyway? But I was wrong. As soon as I had one idea, I had hundreds. Book number two is plotted in detail, but books three, four and five are all there in my mind, or half jotted down on scraps of paper.
Melanie Rockett: Books 2 – 5! Your fans will be thrilled to know that more great stories are in the works. What are you working on now? Another mystery novel or something entirely different?
Johanna Handley: I’m currently working on my second YA thriller, THE LANCASTER READERS. I’m also working on a children’s book series about sustainability, the first of which, entitled OSCAR DON’T WASTE THE WATER! Is being published in Qatar in October.
I for one, wish Johanna all the best with ALL her endeavors: kids, animals AND books.
Be sure to read:
UK link The Burning of Juniper Slaide
US link The Burning of Juniper Slaide