I’m excited to be doing something today I’ve never done before … interviewing another author! Recently, I had the privilege of reading two of Grace A. Johnson’s books, Held Captive and Prisoner at Heart. Grace is an amazing author, and I’m looking forward to reading more by her in the near future! Without any more delay, let’s get into the actual interview…
Kristina: What inspired you to first start writing?
Grace: Ooh, that’s a hard one! It was a mix of things, really. I’ve always loved reading and making up stories—but not only did I hate writing for quite some time, the idea of actually being a writer never once crossed my mind until I was about eleven or twelve. The beginning of it all isn’t as glorious as one would expect—when I was nine years old, I wanted to write a mystery for me and my sister. I pulled out an old notebook and started scribbling away. That lasted about two pages before I gave up. About a year later, I decided to try again, this time with a story about four thirteen-year-old girls who become spies. (So original, I know.) That one made it to four pages before I moved on entirely.
It wasn’t until I was about eleven, and I started reading Christian YA historical romances (surprise, surprise). That was what really got me started, because then I started coming up with more and more story ideas and really felt the urge to write them. I didn’t, though, since I had this strange notion that I should wait until I was sixteen.
I’m not entirely certain what changed my mind…I think it was that some ideas just really interested me, and so after turning my new sketchbook into a notebook and jotting down opening sentences in the Kroger parking lot, I started actually writing them. Of course, they were all absolutely terrible (and I still have the original drafts to prove it), and it wasn’t until my fourth or fifth story that I began seriously thinking about finishing a novel. I finished that one, nearly finished the sequel too, but I’m such a perfectionist that I decided on rewriting the whole thing and starting up seventy-five other projects.
One of those seventy-five (which is a rough estimate, mind you), was Held Captive. I’d never felt so…alive? full of purpose? I’m not sure, but writing that novel was something different. It was the story that I completely gave myself over to, worked hard at, and never gave up on. It was the one I knew I could publish (somehow) and truly become a writer with.
Believe it or not, that’s the short version of my super-writer origin story!
Kristina: How did you decide to publish?
Grace: Good question. I honestly have no answer. (Well, I mean, I have another long story I could share, if you’re interested.) When I finished Held Captive in December of 2018, all I knew was that (1) I wanted it published and (2) there was only one way to do that: traditionally. I was only thirteen at the time, and not only did I know next to nothing about querying, getting an agent, writing proposals, and signing contracts, I had no idea that there was a much less confusing and restricting way to publish. So suffice it to say that self-publishing wasn’t an option.
It took me forever to find a publisher that accepted unsolicited queries (granted, I was looking into the big houses like Baker instead of trying to find a smaller press, and I didn’t know that I was supposed to have an agent…), but once I did I sent in my query and waited. Believe it or not, the editor emailed me back and asked for my proposal! I was ecstatic! But, uh, y’all should’ve seen my proposal. That thing…I tried, I really did, but it didn’t make the cut and I literally never heard a peep from the publisher.
So I did a little more research and decided that maybe traditional publishing wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I didn’t know where to go from there until my aunt suggested Kindle Direct Publishing.
My mom and I spent maybe a day researching and praying before it just clicked. Self-publishing—KDP in particular—was the route I needed to go. Since then, I’ve published seven books through Amazon and haven’t regretted choosing self-publishing once!
Kristina: What author has been most influential to your writing style?
Grace: Wait—I can only pick one? Darn.
To be honest, so many different authors have influenced me in a myriad of ways over the last five years—Melanie Dickerson was the one who first inspired me to write historical romance; Jody Hedlund’s novels inspired my first completed story; authors like Roseanna M. White, Karen Witemeyer, and Kristi Ann Hunter showed me new and different ways of storytelling; and authors like Laura Frantz and Jane Austen are continually pushing me to become a better writer!
At this time, however, I think Julie Lessman has really been one of the biggest influences in my writing—not only has her writing style affected mine, but just what she writes about and how she writes it has been one of the biggest inspirations to me, especially now that I’m getting more readers, negative reviews, and really breaking into the authorly world. Seeing her write books that are full of passion, well-written, and on top of that are so powerfully and boldly Christ-centered encourages me to continue writing what I’ve been called to write!
Kristina: I love Rina and Crimson from your Daughters of the Seven Seas series! What does your process for coming up with characters look like?
Grace: Thank you! Gosh, I think this is the toughest question of them all—probably because I’ve actually been thinking a lot about how I’ve come up with characters in the past and how my more recent characters have come about. I don’t have a process—for anything, really—and what works for one character or story doesn’t work for the next, so it differs between characters.
Sometimes characters just…appear, like Rina did. For the strangest reason ever, my younger, western-writing self decided she should write a book about pirates…a female pirate captain, to be specific. Mind you, I knew absolutely nothing about pirates (except for those of the vegetable variety), so the idea was pretty stagnant for months. Then Rina showed her face again and stole my heart. Everything about her just fell into place—from her appearance to her name to her personality to her backstory. I don’t think I ever took a moment to develop her or outline every aspect of her character.
But I did with Crimson. Crimson began as a very minor character in Held Captive who was probably never going to show up again…but when I needed a heroine for Prisoner at Heart and couldn’t get any of the characters I made up to just feel right, Crimson appeared. She wormed her way into the story and honestly, PAH was made for her. But it wasn’t easy. I outlined her twice, went through all her attributes, and spent weeks trying to figure out her voice, what made her tick, how she operated. (Man, she sounds like a robot.) Most of my characters are like that—a struggle. I either outline the daylights out of them or just wing them entirely and have to go back to fix them.
And then there are a few characters—mostly the original ones that have been floating around in my imagination for years (like Rina, Elliot, Keaton, Julius, and several others no one has met yet)—who don’t need all the time and effort. I’ve just gotten to know them so well over the years, and they’ve become more real to me than anything else.
And looking back, you asked me about coming up with characters, not developing them. Basically, characters either start from a simply prompt and blossom to more on their own, or I take the time to carefully create them when I can’t find the inspiration from an external source. (Wow, that summed that up well.)
Kristina: What has been the most exciting moment of your writing career?
Grace: The most exciting moment? Sheesh. There have been so many! I mean, there’s nothing as exciting as publishing that first book. And every time I get a good review or hear from a reader, I experience a rush of that same amazement and joy.
I think one of the most—if not the most—exciting moment was when Held Captive made it to #6 on Kindle’s bestselling historical romance list. It’s certainly not the NYT’s bestseller list, but the surge in popularity back in March was pretty darn awesome. It was actually due to a free five-day promo I ran, during which I “sold” (the technical term is “gave away”) almost three hundred Kindle copies. (Definitely recommend doing that, by the way.)
That was by far one of the most amazing moments for me in my careers, but every time I hear that someone enjoyed my books or, better yet, was inspired or touched by my writing in some way reminds me that I’m not writing for an algorithm or a spike in sales—I’m writing for God, for people, and for Him to speak to their hearts in some way through the words He wrote with me.
Kristina: I’ve read two of your books, Held Captive and Prisoner at Heart, and they both had great themes. How do you come up with morals/themes for your books?
Grace: That is a very timely question, because I just wrote a post on my blog about determining your themes and how your characters play into it. The method I use there is one I came up with in the shower came up with while thinking about how I don’t come up with my themes before writing.
So to answer your question in one sentence: I don’t.
But that’s a terrible answer, so let me give you seven more sentences, eh?
To be honest, I pants basically everything, so the themes develop themselves as I write. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious. The whole purpose of Held Captive was Rina’s redemption, so that was kind of a no-brainer. With the plot (which I won’t spoil for those who have yet to read it, the themes of family and love just fell into place.
Prisoner at Heart wasn’t at all like HC, which practically wrote itself. PAH took tons of thought and effort on pretty much every aspect of the story. As for the theme, I think I’d always known that part of it would be about God’s will and His mercy and grace—especially when it came to Elliot’s redemption arc. But for Crimson? I had to get to know her and immerse myself in her character, and as I did, the main themes of unconditional love and new beginnings began to grow within the story.
And that’s how the myriad of themes for Bound and Determined and most of my other stories came into being. I get so close to my characters that every day I learn something new about them, think like they do, and see what they need to see. You see, I took time to think about what theme I wanted for Bound and Determined—hope—and tried to work with it, entwining it into the story. But I couldn’t. The more I got to know Keaton and Rina and the new heroine of this story, the more new themes like faith, grace, true salvation, our worth and identity in Christ, and the presence of God began to permeate the story. Now, it’s entirely different from how I’d originally imagined it—and it’s so much better!
So to summarize, I let my characters lead me. I get to know them and understand how they think and what they need. I pray about it—a lot—and ask God to help me write the words He wants written. In the end, I know He’s written a story through me that will touch, inspire, and uplift all those who read it!
Kristina: Now for the hard question … What is your favorite book out of the ones you’ve published? And your favorite character?
Grace: This is surprisingly the easy question for me! I know, authors shouldn’t pick favorites…but it’s too late. So, Held Captive will always be my baby, but I’m such a perfectionist that every time I look at it, I can’t help but wrinkle my nose at my three-years-younger self’s idea of decent storytelling.
And of course Prisoner at Heart was leagues better, in my opinion, and I adore almost everything about that book.
I mean, I love all of them…but at the moment my absolute favorite is The Gift of Her Heart. It’s a companion novella to Held Captive and Prisoner at Heart, and I wrote it just for fun, originally. The story was just for me, and I wrote it in two weeks, but once I finished I was like “Dang. This is the funniest, most romantic, best written story I’ve ever written.” So I published it, and sometimes I sneak away to read my parents’ copy of it.
Of course, once Bound and Determined comes out, it’ll uproot TGoHH…
As for my favorite character? Okay, now that one’s hard. It fluctuates, really, depending on which character I’m writing. And what kind of favorite we’re talking about. My favorite character to write from the perspective of is probably a tie between Crimson and Rina. Crimson’s voice (once I found it) flowed so smoothly, and writing from her POV is like coming home in some ways. As for Rina, she’s a tough one to write, but no matter how hard it is, I love her POV! She’s so sarcastic and wise and British. Like I literally write her with a British accent in mind.
My favorite character to write from the perspective’s of other characters is without a doubt Scarlette! I mean, she’s a selfish, spoiled, heartless, manipulative brat…how could I not adore her? Seriously, though, writing her character in Bound and Determined has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had. She’s something else, she is.
But my favorite overall? Keaton. I mean, he drives me bananas, but if I could bring any of my characters to life, it’d be Keaton. Shoot, if I could marry any of my characters, it’d be Keaton! He’s just so…well, I won’t spoil it for y’all!
Kristina: What is your current project? When will it be available?
Grace: My current project is Bound and Determined, my third novel in the Daughters of the Seven Seas series. I’m currently 47 chapters into it, so I hope to have it finished soon and published next summer! Here’s my tentative synopsis:
They had all thought it past. Yet now the storm has returned.
A wicked twist of fate—or perhaps the hand of God—has landed Captain Rina Bennet in the most precarious situation yet. When her husband and the father of her twin boys leaves at the behest of a family friend, she is left to take charge of the ship she has not sailed on in two years, accepting the responsibility of a dwindling crew, half of which don’t even know her as captain. Saddled with two toddlers, she struggles in vain to erect some form of normalcy and order upon her ship…
Then the past suddenly appears to haunt both her and her quartermaster Keaton, in the forms of an old friend and an old life.
Rina has to make a judgment call when the ghosts come knocking, a call that could mean either life or death—for both an innocent girl and herself. The storm has returned.
Kristina: What idea do you want readers to take away from your current project?
Grace: Oy, that’s a tough one! There is SO MUCH to be said! With HC and PAH, it was simple. For the former, I wanted readers to walk away with a greater understanding of God’s mercy and a renewed appreciation for Christ’s death and resurrection. For the latter, I wanted readers to think more about God’s will for them and the amazing power of the Holy Spirit.
But for BAD? There are so many things: the definition of faith; true salvation; trusting in God; hearing His voice; and a whole host of other little things I hope they learn. But the main thing that has resonated within me for so long while writing this book is grace.
What is grace? How does it operate? Why do I need it? Do I rely on grace too much? Questions like those are ones I endeavor to answer in Bound and Determined, and I hope readers will come away with a deeper understanding of what grace is and why we need it every single day.
Kristina: What is your best writing tip?
Grace: Break the rules. Bend them, snap them, grind them into powder. Whatever violent action you can think of.
In all seriousness, my best writing tip (or at least the one I like the most) is to follow your heart, your characters, your story, and the prodding of the Holy Spirit—not what writing guides or other authors or your English teacher tell you to. Writing may be a craft, but it’s also an art—and the artistic, creative side of it demands release.
So whatever they told you to do, do the opposite. Be brave, be bold, take chances.
On a spiritual note, listen to God. More than that, talk to Him about your desire to write, about your stories, about your characters. Ask Him to show you how to write the best story you can—the story that He wants to be told. Ask Him to write for you, not just through you. That’s when you’ll notice words pouring forth unbidden, messages unfolding flawlessly, readers telling you that your story inspired them to grow closer to God and His purpose for them. Trust me, there is nothing more important than trusting God and working with Him in everything you do!
Grace A. Johnson is a teenage Christian fiction authoress, book reviewer, and avid reader. She lives in beautiful (but humid) South Georgia, surrounded by farmland and forestry, with her parents and six younger siblings. She has written four novels, three of which are published, and a smattering of short stories and novellas, which you can find on Amazon. She’s also a homeschooler who loves learning about history, linguistics, art, and the world around her. You can find her on Goodreads, Pinterest, BookBub, or blogging on her website at www.graceajohnson.com. Join her for a virtual cup of tea and a free short story when you sign up for her e-newsletter!