Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Johnny Armstrong about his work in conservation, how it inspired him to write, and the creative process that went into his new book Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
My wife, Karen, and I live in north Louisiana on a Nature Conservancy protected conservation easement consisting of an old-growth woodland and forest. It’s beautiful. We don’t take lightly our good fortune in having nature all around us. In this regard, I should also say that I am an advocate for biodiversity and live in constant fear of what we as a species are doing to our biosphere and our grandchildren’s future. Karen and I have two children and three grandchildren, so you can see we have a real stake in this matter.
In this vein, Shadowshine is basically an allegorical environmental fantasy, and its animal characters, the forest-folk, have an important message for their readers. To learn more about what they have to say, see the book’s website at the end of this interview.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Strange as it might seem, I’ve never really wanted to write a book. But it was about 25 years ago when I suppose I must have wanted to write “something.” As I began to compose the “whatever it was,” I started coming up with some animal characters—a possum, raccoons, mastodons, bobcats, a skunk and others.
Here, something unexpected happened: the animals started talking and showing me their own unique personalities. I started to like these animal characters and they soon became something on the order of imaginary friends, and indeed they still are today. Karen and I will often think of a quote from one of these forest-folk characters such as Elbon, the skunk, or Moksoos or Swrogah, etc., that might apply to some everyday situation in our lives. This is why I often think of imagination as having a power somewhat akin to a sixth sense. It allows one to drift into a world that doesn’t seem to be offered to us through our normal five senses.
Thinking the way I did about those animal characters, I felt obligated to take care of them along their journey in the story and to give them each a satisfactory conclusion. So, I thought, well, I must be writing a short story. But those forest-folks’ intentions and goals couldn’t be tidied up in a short story. Even a novella wouldn’t do the trick. And, lo and behold, their story wound up to be the novel, Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure.
I wonder if my experience would sound familiar to Richard Adams when he wrote Watership Down. Did his rabbits lead him around by the nose like my forest-folk did for me?
When did you take a step to start writing?
My first try at writing was in the medium of simple rhymes geared for humor—a bit like nonsense rhyme. That must have been close to—dare I say it?—30 years ago. How did this time warp happen? As spoken by one of Shadowshine’s mastodon characters, Sir Sark, “the price we pay for precious time is to become its victim.”
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Over 20 years. It probably took about three or more years to put the story together into a rough, and very messy, form. As a first-time novelist I had no idea what I was getting into in trying to find a publisher or an agent. For this reason I spent an incredible amount of time (years) in submitting book proposals and letters to the so-called “top agents,” and publishers who would advertise that they would look at un-agented proposals for fiction.
The responses ranged from reasonable to downright rude. I remember one publisher, a Penguin subsidiary I think, who asked for a proposal and chapters with one year exclusivity. That was now close to 20 years ago and I never heard back. That’s outrageous and inexcusable behavior, but it’s a good example of how difficult it is for a first-timer trying to get published.
But as it turned out, the time really wasn’t wasted. It gave me the ability to leave the story for months at a time so that when I’d go back to it with a fresh and open-minded approach, I could do some serious editing. Actually editing is my favorite part about writing. The long time-lapse and all my editing really helped my story in profound ways.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure?
It is said by some writers that the characters themselves write the story. I think that was in large part true in my case, as I was always trying to keep my guys out of harm and give them meaning in their adventure. Nevertheless, there was always that cold and wicked blank computer screen waiting for me to create—I staring at it. It staring back at me. It’s intimidating.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
That’s a very good question, JJ, and I suppose it’s a probing one in my case. In Shadowshine, my protagonist is a possum. In fact, the story could just as well be called Shadowshine: An Odyssey of a Lost Possum. The story’s possum-protagonist is a rather unorthodox character whose name is Zak, a gentle, good natured self-proclaimed poet who’s interested in philosophy, but doesn’t really have a lot of knowledge of the subject.
For reasons described in the book, he lives in a mild state of confusion and wanders and bumbles about, generally needing to be looked after. But he’s lucky in that he’s actually quite popular and has many excellent friends. Zak happened to be my age at the time I came up with his character, he’s fascinated with all the scenes of nature around him and he tries to come up with rather silly little rhymes. When my wife read the manuscript she said that she saw me in Zak. I can’t deny the similarity, although it was not my intent to be autobiographical.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There are actually two antagonists in Shadowshine, but to me, Zak’s main antagonist is a human named Mungo. When I think of antagonists (or villains in this case) I think of those really excellent examples given to us in Cormac McCarthy’s “the judge” (Blood Meridian) and Larry McMurtry’s “Blue Duck” (Lonesome Dove.)
Those were some really serious bad guys—pure devil-made. So, I tried to make Mungo be as big and powerful and vicious as I could, which led to a certain amount of violent and gory writing in Shadowshine. (Spoiler alert: my job was to take good care of my animal characters. So don’t worry, I did. I don’t like to spend hours watching a movie or reading a book just to be depressed at the end.)
What is the inciting incident of Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure?
In Shadowshine, a villainous clan led by Mungo was roaming the countryside setting fires at a time when the forest was experiencing a severe, prolonged and curiously perplexing drought. As one of the characters put it, “the sky has become unfriendly.” When the news reached the members of the forest-folk, a council meeting was called, thus setting the stage for Zak, the main character of the story, to go on a journey alone into the wilderness to seek help for his community, and become lost. That’s when Zak’s odyssey began.
What is the main conflict of Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure?
It’s the old cliché, good vs evil, but with an important message attached. That’s the message from the forest-folk found on the story’s website.
Did you plot Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
It could be that the forest-folk were plotting a strategy while I was sleeping because all I could do was to try to keep up with those guys so I could keep them from harm and get them to make their contribution to the story. Maybe they were dragging me by the back of my pants.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure need?
If I march to a drumbeat, it goes like this: edit! edit! edit! Not only is it absolutely required for my writing, I enjoy it. I really don’t know what it means to over edit or to have too many editors look at my work. It’s also good to take the time to put the work aside and go back to it days or weeks later.
I almost never write anything and send it the same day. I certainly wouldn’t do that for this written interview. In my opinion, nice writing is ever so important. When people read our texts pertaining to almost anything, they are rightfully making judgements about how we think, how careful we communicate, and in the end, how much to take us seriously.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
First, ditto the answer to the previous question.
I wish I could give intelligent advice on creative art. Even though I wrote a novel, I don’t think I know how to create—as crazy as that seems. I don’t know how I wrote Shadowshine. I was just lucky enough to have come up with some animal characters that I became emotionally attached to, I enjoyed hanging out with, and I felt like I owed them their story. Do I need a therapist?
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Presently, I’m in the finishing stages of a non-fiction tentatively called, Rescuing Biodiversity: A Student’s Journal of the Protection and Restoration of an Ecosystem. For now, it’s a draft manuscript, “a hypothetical book.”
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m definitely happy and proud of the way Shadowshine turned out and that it was published by Guernica World Editions (a Toronto publisher). It has received some excellent reviews that are found on the website, which, of course, is the icing on the cake. I think the forest-folk are happy. Their caretaker certainly is.
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Shadowshine: An Animal Adventure
On a quest of rescue his community from a fiery demise, possum and poet Zak, seeks assistance from rodents in the North and sets out on a journey into an ancient forest. But separated from his own surroundings and his bobcat companion, Sena, he loses his sense of direction and becomes hopelessly lost in the wilderness.
Here, Zak enters a world of self-discovery as he struggles to survive starvation, predation, drowning, illness and ice. Meanwhile, his forest-folk comrades he left behind suffer the menace of drought, wildfire and the malicious deeds of Mungo, an indomitable villain actively ravaging precious ecosystems. As Zak’s feathered and furry friends await such an uncertain future, they formulate the theory that Mungo and the others of his species have lost cognizance of what they are, causing them to become “familiar” and bring havoc upon the forest—all, because they were never taught to use their noses as a reference.
But unbeknownst to everyone, the havoc originates inside a dark world whose terrifying resident has, itself, become familiar; and Zak will play a key role in events that ultimately end in a savage showdown.
Facebook – Shadowshine page:
Facebook – Johnny’s personal feed
LinkedIn – Johnny’s profile:
Twitter – Johnny’s feed
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