In Conversation With Roger Johns 2018 Georgia Author of the Year For His Debut Mystery, Dark River Rising
Norm Goldman

Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of

He has been reviewing books for the past twenty years after retiring from the legal profession.

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By Norm Goldman
Published on July 18, 2018 welcomes as our guest, Roger Johns. Roger is a 2018 Georgia Author of Year for his debut mystery, Dark River Rising. He is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor  with law degrees from Louisiana State University and Boston University.

During his nearly two decades as a professor, he served on the editorial staffs of several academic publications and he won numerous awards and recognitions for his teaching and his scholarly writing. Roger is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising (August 2017) and River of Secrets (August 2018) from St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books. welcomesas our guest, Roger Johns. Roger is a 2018 Georgia Author of the Year for his debut mystery, Dark River Rising. He is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor  with law degrees from Louisiana State University and Boston University.

During his nearly two decades as a professor, he served on the editorial staffs of several academic publications and he won numerous awards and recognitions for his teaching and his scholarly writing. Roger is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising (August 2017) and River of Secrets (August 2018) from St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books.

His checkered past includes, in no particular order, med school dropout, bookseller, ranch hand, drapery hanger, party photographer, hospital orderly, shoe salesman, and tuxedo rental clerk. Roger and his wife live in Georgia, and he belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. Along with four other crime-fiction writers, he co-authors the MurderBooks blog

Norm:Good day Roger and thanks for participating in our interview.

Roger:Norm, thank you for having me on Bookpleasures, today. I’m happy to have the opportunity to be here with your readers.

Norm:How did you get started in writing?

Roger:My beginnings in writing crime fiction go back about ten years when I stumbled upon the idea that became the basis for my first book, Dark River Rising.

At the time, I was teaching at a small university in Georgia. One day, on my way to a class on international business transactions, just, out of the blue, I started wondering about why the South American cocaine cartels conduct a particular part of their business the way they do. It occurred to me that there was a better, faster, cheaper, safer way. But I also suspected there was a good reason they did things the way they did.

After a bit of research, I discovered the method I was thinking about was impossible. That’s when the ‘what if’ questions started popping into my head: What if someone figured out how to do what I was thinking about? How would that look when this innovation first swung into action? How would the police encounter it and how would it affect what they do?

The crime novel potential of this idea was immediately apparent so, over the next few years I tried to turn it into a book. I took classes, read books on novel writing, I made lots of outlines, filled up hundreds of index cards with scene ideas, and I covered endless pages with what turned out to be a series of failed attempts to write the book.

Norm:What keeps you going?

Roger:For the first book, it was sheer stubbornness on my part, and a strong belief that the idea was a good one. But, it was a long, sometimes very discouraging process. Throughout it all, my wife was instrumental in keeping my confidence up.

She often had more belief in the project than I did. Eventually, I completed the first draft and then realized it wasn’t very good, so I rewrote it . . . completely . . . six times. Except for the opening scene, the finished book bears little resemblance to that first draft. The publication of the first book was such an amazing and energizing process, that for the second book and beyond, I’m motivated by a desire to replicate that first experience.

Norm:How long did it take you to get your first major book contract?

Roger:From the time I began cold-querying agents until I signed the contract with the publisher, it took a little over three years.

Norm:Did you read any special books on how to write?

Roger:I’ve read dozens of books on how to write. The first, and the one that made me believe writing and publishing a novel was possible, was Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. I’ve read this book at least three times, cover to cover, and parts of it many times. Other influential books were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and On Writing by Stephen King.

For me, mastering the craft of mystery writing is going to be a life-long process, so I continue to read books on how to write. At the moment, I’m reading Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot by Jane K. Cleland, and rereading Plot Perfect by Paula Munier, who happens to be my agent and a published author herself.

These are all amazing books by people who know what they’re talking about, and they offer something to writers at every level. I can’t imagine having to discover all of this on my own.

Norm:What do you think most characterizes your writing and do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.

Roger:My overriding objective is to tell a good story with memorable characters––something that keeps readers involved, something they’ll remember and think about long after they’ve finished the book, something that will intrigue them enough that they’ll want to continue to get involved with the main character.

To make that happen, I work really hard to achieve authenticity in every respect––setting, characters, dialog, plot structure. My characters play out their drama in south Louisiana, so they have to have a very particular look and feel without coming across as cliché.

As to whether logic or intuition is the greater influence, that depends on what aspect of a book I’m working on. Because I write mysteries, when it comes to plot structure, logic is king. A mystery is like a mechanical timepiece. Every necessary part must be present, and all the parts must work together in perfect concert to deliver the experience readers have come to expect.

When I’m focused on character, setting, and dialog, I go more by intuition and instinct. The demands of the story must be met, but exactly how a character meets those demands is where intuition and instinct come into play. My overall process is pretty simple.

I start with the ending and reverse engineer a story that produces that ending in a surprising way. I’m a draft-and-redraft kind of writer. The first draft is always an approximation of the ideas in my head. In subsequent drafts, I spend an enormous amount of time nudging the words closer and closer to the ideas I’m trying to get across. I’m one of those people who love the rewriting process. If the demands of the publication process didn’t require me to eventually let go of a manuscript, I’d probably play around with it forever.

Norm:What are some ways in which you promote your work? Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

Roger:I have a WEBSITE,  I co-write a crime fiction-oriented BLOG with four other authors, I tour more or less continuously and I cover the country as I do so.

I do interviews and guest blog posts, I write how-to and writing-life articles, and I send out a periodic newsletter. This consumes a lot of time, which inevitably takes time away from writing, but these are the necessary ingredients of a writing career in this day and age and, to my surprise, I’m finding that I enjoy the promotion part of the business. I love getting out in public, talking about books with readers and other writers, and having a chance to get to meet so many interesting people.

Norm:Could you briefly tell us about River of Secrets?

Roger:The story revolves around the murder of Herbert Marioneaux, a Louisiana state legislator with a reputation for changing his mind on sensitive social and cultural issues.

DNA evidence points directly at Eddie Pitkin, a social justice activist who furthers his causes by using confrontation and social media to make powerful, wealthy people very uncomfortable with their past.

Based on a long, well-documented history of conflict between Marioneaux and Pitkin, many in the court of public opinion are quick to call for Pitkin’s conviction.

Wallace Hartman is the homicide detective assigned to the investigation. She’s also the childhood best friend of Pitkin’s half-brother so, in the eyes of some, her objectivity is in question from the beginning. Wallace discovers an iffy alibi witness along with evidence of a troubled relationship between Marioneaux and his son and this puts a cloud of suspicion over the son.

Questions about the source of the DNA evidence begin to surface, Pitkin’s supporters and enemies square off in the street, and what began as an open and shut case becomes murky and politicized, sparking waves of violence across Baton Rouge. And, at her time of greatest need, the prospect of sabotage from an unknown leaker within the police department forces Wallace to go it alone as she digs deep into the dark heart of the political establishment to untangle a web of old, disturbing secrets.

Norm:What process did you go through to get Dark River Rising published?

Roger:After I finished maybe the fourth draft, I started cold-querying agents and about six months after that I started pitching agents and editors at the Atlanta Writers Conference. The rejections came thick and fast, so the revisions and rewrites continued.

Eighteen months later, at the spring 2015 Atlanta Writers Conference, I signed up for a manuscript critique with April Osborn, an editor at St. Martin’s Press. She liked the pages I had submitted and asked to see the rest of the book. On the advice of a friend and fellow writer, I used April’s feedback as a guide to revise the rest of the book before I sent her the complete manuscript. A few months later, she called and said she wanted to buy the book.

Norm:If people can only buy one book this month, why should it be River of Secrets?

Roger:Readers looking for a main character they’ll be interested in following over the course of a series will find her here. It’s a plot-driven mystery, but Wallace Hartman, the female police detective at the heart of it all, is smart and funny and really good at what she does. The reader gets a very realistic immersion in her life, both personal and professional. And because the characters themselves are critical to the story, the humorous, light-hearted, and even tender moments are as important as the action scenes.

Norm:What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Roger:The most difficult part of both books was learning to write from a female perspective. This is also the part I enjoyed the most.

Norm:What served as the primary inspiration for River of Secrets?

Roger:I’m fascinated with certain themes, and two of those themes were the inspiration for this book. First is the question of whether we can ever really know a person.

There’s an old saying that we are who we pretend to be, but I’m not convinced this is correct. I do think it’s true that we appear to be who we convincingly pretend to be, but that leaves open the question of how and whether others can determine what is pretense and what is real.

A related question is whether we can ever know if people who appear to have changed actually have changed? The other theme that figures prominently in the book is the life altering horror of being charged with a serious crime. Many years ago I worked for a small law firm that represented criminal defendants and I was struck at how devastating just the charge itself could be. And, of course, that horror can be amplified when those empowered to enforce the law are under pressure to forgo a search for the truth in order to serve a political convenience instead.

With River of Secrets, I wanted to explore what it would look and feel like to have the layers of secrets and pretense peeled away while an accused man and his family are slowly ground up by the criminal justice system.

Norm:Did you know the end of your book at the beginning?

Roger:Yes. I always know the end before I begin. I’m one of those people who has to have a destination to aim for. The exact route I follow to get to the end is open to experimentation, but I always know where I’m headed.

Norm:Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?

Roger:The best places are my WEBSITE,  my Goodreads page,  and by subscribing to my newsletter. This can be accomplished just by sending me an email at

For those interested in getting a signed copy of one of my books, I tour extensively and my tour schedule can be found on the Appearances page of my website which stays updated.

Norm:What is next for Roger Johns?

Roger:I am writing the next Wallace Hartman mystery and I am writing a standalone novel about a dirty cop––a really dirty cop.

Norm:As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?

Roger:Why are my characters so important to me? The answer is that there are things about people I’m trying to understand and I’m finding that a good way to do that is to write about them, to carefully craft realistic characters and then allow them to negotiate the situations the story throws at them––everyday situations, emotionally charged situations, life-threatening situations. Just learning how to develop personalities different from my own has been a revelatory experience. For instance, Wallace Hartman, my main character, is female.

The challenge of learning to write from a female point of view has been and continues to be unbelievably instructive. By forcing me to understand events and relationships and personalities from a different perspective, the writing process has changed me. It has made me aware of so many of my own shortcomings, and it’s given me a way to recognize and work on the things about me that need to change.

Norm:Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.