An interview with “Nine Liars” author Maureen Johnson

Making a book is hard work, hours are spent into brainstorming, writing, editing, and getting publishing. Maureen Johnson, a NYT and USA Today best seller, gives us a look into her creative process. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/Daily Campus.

Maureen Johnson is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen young adult novels, including the “Truly Devious” series, the “Shades of London” series, “Suite Scarlett” and “13 Little Blue Envelopes.” Her collaborative books include “Ghosts of the Shadow Market” (with Cassandra Clare), as well as “Let It Snow” (with John Green and Lauren Myracle), which was also a hit feature film on Netflix.

Her books have sold more than three million copies worldwide and have been published in more than thirty countries. 

Johnson kindly agreed to an interview with The Daily Campus via Zoom. Responses have been edited for clarity. 

JOANNE BIJU: You’ve co-authored multiple works including “Let it Snow” with John Green and Lauren Myracle and “The Bane Chronicles” with Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan. How did those two experiences differ? And would you do a co-authored project again?

MAUREEN JOHNSON: Well, they came about because we’re all friends — they are all friend-based things; Cassie Clare, Holly Black, Robin Wasserman, Leigh Bardugo. 

Cassie and Holly are very, very close friends of mine. Like for example, when COVID-19 hit New York originally, I ended up staying, but they literally devised a plan to bust me out. 

They were like ‘We will drive down, we will give you one of our cars. You can have it. You can live in Cassie’s barn, but we will get you out of there.’ They are very good friends of mine. 

So “The Bane Chronicles” came about while we were on a retreat once. We were always making jokes about plots of Cassie’s — things that could be going on with the characters. And she was like, ‘why don’t we make this a book? Like why don’t we do it?’ And it was just conversation-based. 

“Let it Snow” was a bit more formalized out of Penguin. It was John who called me up and was like, ‘Do this thing with me.’ And I was like, ‘Alright.’

 That’s basically how that happened. And we wrote those very separately. We had a few phone conversations and then we knew the structure. But we all did the work very separately. 

I was first, so I got to set up all the situations the others had to deal with. So I was making jokes for myself in a lot of ways, because I was like ‘Okay, here you go.’

JB: Oh, that’s fun! Just a follow-up question; since “The Bane Chronicles” came out of conversation, did it ever feel like you were almost writing fanfiction?

MJ: No, because we do so much work together on plotting. We do so many writing retreats together, we do so much talking about plot — it’s kind of all we do. When we go to these houses, people are usually like jet skiing or whatever, and they watch us and we’re just sitting there with computers. And they’re kind of baffled by us in a lot of ways.

RORY MONACO: What has the process been like for you while co-writing these books? 

MJ: I like working in somebody else’s sandbox; I like the fact that you have characters in a world to work with. Because when I get that, then I get very granular. The first thing I did with “The Bane Chronicles” was get a story bible together for Magnus with every single mention of him ever. Then I organized it by character interactions, known facts, appearance, locations, opinions of other characters, relationships, etc. I enjoy doing work like that.

RM: It sounds incredible to be able to interact with another author’s world in such a way. 

MJ:  I think that because we have to create so much, there is something freeing about ‘Take this and see what you can make with it. This is already made, here are the constraints.’ 

Constraints are great for creativity. Limits are great. Deadlines are great. A lot of things that people think box you in, actually keep you from just wandering the world in a decision fatigue. It’s helpful to have some walls up; here are the tools, let’s see what we can make.

RM: I find the same to be true. I’m in two creative writing classes, and deadlines are the most important thing. The idea around creative writing classes is interesting, too. Whether they are formative for a writer, or instead are a tool to further classism by suggesting you need a degree behind your name. I was wondering your thoughts on the whole debate?

MJ: I have an MFA in writing. I’ve always been a writer. My undergrad was in rhetoric and technical writing, and theater. And then I did two MFAs at the same time. I have an MFA in nonfiction writing and theatrical dramaturgy. So I actually have a lot of opinions on MFAs and writing classes. They are absolutely not necessary to be a writer.

That doesn’t mean that if you’re taking them it’s useless.  It just means that if you haven’t taken them, it doesn’t stop you from being a writer in any way. They can be good or they can be bad. However MFAs can be controversial if they’re exorbitantly expensive, because that can be a real barrier. If you can’t afford the time to write most days, you most likely can’t afford expensive MFA programs. 

I think nobody cares that I have an MFA. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important,

RM: Do you think it was formative for your writing skills?

MJ:  It’s hard to say because a lot of the stuff you learn is kind of sideways. The thing you learn a lot, maybe the most, is who to listen to. In a workshop, everybody’s got an opinion on your writing. You have to develop an ear for the whole world saying things. Even if it’s 10 people giving 10 different opinions, you have to learn how to listen. 

I also liked some of the really granular stuff that I learned. Some of the classes were crazy hard. Some were not. But the ones that really grounded me were the classes that taught me to really make the use of spaces on your page. 

Theater was the only place I really learned story. They didn’t teach it in any of my writing classes, but they taught it in theater. 

I also left my MFA program without ever having a class on how to live as a writer. Or here’s how agents or getting publishing works. So it was like, we’re going to teach you a selection of things, but not about story and not about how to actually be a writer. And if you’re going to have a writing program, you absolutely need to teach people this, because if you’re going to do this, you need to learn how the industry works. 

JB:  Yeah, it’s interesting that you got most of your storytelling education from theater, that really shines through with “theater kids” in the “Truly Devious” books. I was wondering about the setting of “Truly Devious.” Ellingham Academy is tucked away in Vermont and Stevie gets to visit Burlington often. What is your relationship with Vermont? Do you visit often?

MJ:  I’ve never lived there, but I was always kind of fascinated with it as a destination. My friends who lived there were very mad with the state. They’re like, ‘it used to be great. But then hippies took it over.’ I’m like, ‘Tell me more!’ And I’m very structural when I set things up. So I knew I needed a location that I could close off. I considered things like height, mountains, weather — those are all going to be things I’m probably going to want to use. Vermont seemed about right. 

So I went up there, which is something I almost always do if I’m going to write about a location I haven’t been to. I just go, look around and take notes of very common things that I see there. Vermont just felt like the right place.  

JB: Throughout the “Truly Devious” series there’s a running joke about Stevie never seeing any moose in Vermont. Have you ever seen one? 

MJ:  No, I’ve never seen one. I know they’re big. They seem like they’re as big as garbage trucks. There are signs for them everywhere.

JB: Yeah, they’re all over the place. I know your latest release, “Nine Liars” is set in England, but are there any other locations — whether you’ve been there or not — that are calling your name at the moment? 

MJ:  I set a lot of things in England because my husband is English — I spend a lot of time there. And I’m very familiar with English people and their ways. I’ve always been an anglophile, but really, we are a dual-culture household. We are a very English-leaning household in what we watch and things like that, so a lot of things have been set in England. 

One of the future books will possibly be set in Los Angeles. I’m kind of a scout; I know what I need and then I start sniffing around the map. 

I love a map. I use maps a lot. I have them made for my books a lot. All the “Stevie Bell” books have maps in them. They’re based on my drawings and then real artists take over based on the things that I’ve laid out, because I lay them out with great specificity. And there are always clues and usable information in the maps. 

I love a map. I love a document. I love a clue. I love a photo. I love anything like that. I love tactile things I can look at and examine.

RM: Speaking of the “Stevie Bell” books, where do you plan on going from there? Do you still think that you want to pursue the young adult avenue? What genres are you hoping to dive into? 

MJ:  Well, I’ve written in YA for a long time. And I have more YA coming; there’s more Stevie Bell coming, there are other books coming. 

I have plans on writing all sorts of things; I get around, I get around! I’m pretty lined up with projects, and I’ll probably be signing on some more. So yeah, I have all kinds of ideas. 

I love writing YA though, because YA readers are very passionate. They also will cross genres, in ways that adults won’t. Adults are very fixed in their reading habits — not always, but often. People like what they like, but because people are forced to read in school, they get around more, genre-wise and types of literature-wise. And YA is such a huge area of literature. So I love it. It’s a very fertile, exciting place where you can move around a lot, in terms of what you do. When you start writing Adult, you’re often really boxed-in. In YA if you just go and say ‘I want to write science fiction space opera,’ they’d let you. There’s a lot of movement that you can make, there’s so much space to work. 

I just like to write and I like to write different things. But I’m always so busy. I’m always like, ‘Well, I gotta write this book first, and then this, and then this.’

RM: What books do you like to read? Whether that be for enjoyment or to inspire your own writing?

MJ: I’m always reading something and my reading list is a little all over the place. I read a lot of nonfiction. Luckily, I have a lot of friends writing a lot of books. So I get to read a lot of beautiful things. 

You’re often reading somebody’s upcoming book or a draft of a book. I have a pretty wide appetite. It’s sort of like food — I like a lot of food. I read everything, I read everything I can get my hands on. 

Sometimes I have my hands on too many things. And then the bedside stand is just a giant mess, or the e-reader is full. And I’m like, ‘Alright, I need to get a handle on this.’ Because the lineup of stuff I need to read, want to read and am reading is getting out of hand. And so I just need to reorganize this situation, because then it’s, ‘Oh, I seem to be reading 25 books at once. What am I doing? What am I doing here?’

JB: Speaking of reading, is that your preferred method of digesting mystery/true crime? Or do you tend to watch shows like ‘Dateline’ or listen to podcasts? 

MJ: I do watch some documentaries, but I don’t watch ‘Dateline.’ The podcasts I listen to are just the funny ones, because I like the ways people are working with their own anxiety. 

I don’t listen to a lot of straight-up true crime. My appetite is really for the fictional or very historic — historic enough that there’s not many people around, if any, to to be affected; for example, events from the 1930s, or the 1700s or 1800s. You’re not dealing with anyone’s immediate emotions. So I like older things, but it’s usually a lot of fiction.

JB:  That’s interesting, because right now, there seems to be all this hype around true crime in podcasting.

MJ:  I have a couple favorites. In fact, “Nine Liars” is dedicated to “True Crime Obsessed” podcasters Gillian Pensavalle and Patrick Hinds, but specifically, because I find them personally very endearing and funny as humans.

RM: Your latest book, “Nine Liars,” was released during the HarperCollins union strike. How did you navigate being a HarperCollins author who is pro-union, while still promoting your upcoming release?

MJ: Thank you for asking. It was a huge mess. But unions work. They really work. And so much of publishing, certainly in the past, is predicated on exploitative behavior. So many times it was like, ‘Oh, it’s a privilege to be able to do this. We’re just not even going to pay you. It’s such a privilege. What a privilege.’ 

So if you wanted to work in publishing, you had to be wealthy. Or you would have many other jobs and you’d always be hustling because you couldn’t survive on publishing alone. 

The HarperCollins union was connected to the Auto Workers Union a long, long time ago. It was a strange situation, but their protest helps all of the publishing world. It helps everybody get a fair wage. 

I have editor friends who say, ‘We literally can’t afford to live in the city. But we also cannot afford the train fare to get into the city. We have three jobs each.’ And these are the people making my books. 

These are the people I was emailing every day that were like, ‘Yeah, I’m back living with my parents. I have enough savings to get me through for a month.’ And these are the people that made my books every single day.

 I had a book and it was done. It came out during the strike. So I was like, ‘this is weird,’ because I completely understood if any publications didn’t want to review it since it was under HarperCollins. While it sucks for the book, I do support it. You gotta do what you gotta do.

 I had to go out on tour, which meant I had to be in contact with people at HarperCollins. And when I got sick, I was in California when I got COVID-19 on tour. So I had to talk to them every single day; ‘Hey, I have COVID-19. I’m in a hotel and I don’t know how to get home.’ And it was people at HarperCollins helping me. And it just again reminds me that not paying people a living wage is messed up. 

Union’s work. It’s often the unions that are pointing towards a big crash that’s about to happen. I don’t think that the deal was perfect for the HarperCollins Union. But it was good enough; they’re back and they held the line. 

I never walked into the HarperCollins building. I did the interactions I needed to do because I was out on the road and I talked to them. They understood, they were great. 

If you’re getting a job in publishing, you need to be paid enough; you need livable wages. People would absolutely say things inside of companies like, ‘well, you have to do your time for 10 years and then you’ll get paid enough to live.’ 

A lot of the arts have exploitative policies. Every time I worked in theater, I saw a lot of exploitation, saw a lot of bad behavior. And every time you say we’re not taking this exploitative behavior, it has an impact. It impacts diversity in books, it impacts so many things. 

We need to push for better wages, and also for people to be able to live in a number of locations and work remotely. It helps promote a more diverse, more artistically fruitful publishing industry. You don’t have to be in Manhattan. It’s not important. It’s really not necessary. 

If you don’t make livable wages in the arts, you’re destroying the arts. So thank you to the good people who work in publishing, thank you to the people that held the line. 

JB: I actually first learned about the strike from an Instagram reel of you delivering donuts to the union. That’s what brought my attention to it, so it’s really great you’re so open to talking about it. 

MJ: I’ll talk about anything; we can’t be afraid to talk about the rise of turf-ism in the publishing industry, the unfair wages, the lack of diversity. The more you rise up in the industry, the more obligation you have to actually say something. 

JB: That’s so important, because authors are usually the ones with audiences large enough to make a difference. Our time is wrapping up, but thank you so much for chatting with The Daily Campus! 

MJ: Thank you for having me! Support your artists and support the people that make the arts possible. The more people say it, the less exploitation there is in it — and I love that. 

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