Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Harold R. Johnson is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books, and according to his Twitter account, he is also: a trapper, fisherman, writer, father, grandfather, husband, lawyer, dog musher, farrier, lumberjack, prospector, Uncle, friend, heavy equipment operator, paddler. Here he talks to us about his writing life.
Where writers write.
Describe your writing space. What do you love about it?
My writing space has lots of light and it’s private. It has glass patio doors that allow me to look out into the garden to contemplate. Until we moved here six months ago, we lived in a small log cabin on my trapline. I wrote ten books there. I had a window that I could look out of across the lake. It seems that being physically able to look into the distance helps form ideas. Whenever I was searching for the next thought, I looked out across the lake as far as I could and I would find the thought.
Any rules for when you’re in this ‘space’?
No rules, I love writing, I don’t need rules to keep me focused. I know if I get distracted, I will come back, I always do.
Why do you write?
I started writing when I was four years old. One of my earliest memories is being on the floor, in a kitchen lit by kerosene lamps. I had a copy of the Winnipeg Free Press, a piece of a brown paper bag, a little stubby pencil and I was teaching myself how to read and write. I’ve known I was a writer since then. When I was in my early teens, I wrote poetry, when I was in the navy and later worked in heavy industry, I wrote short stories. All along, I told myself that I was practicing, developing my skills, developing my craft. I didn’t publish until I was forty. I write because that is who I am, I don’t know how to be anyone else.
What is your writing process like?
My best writing time is early in the morning when I am still close to the dream world. I find that if I get up, have a coffee and start writing without looking at any media, my writing flows much easier and I am not distracted by things going on around me.
What is the easiest and most difficult part of the process for you?
Writing is easy because I love it. Editing takes effort because I do not love it as much.
How many hours a day or words-per-day do you write?
My limit is at least one complete thought regardless of time or word count.
What is your most unusual writing quirk?
I don’t know what usual writing looks like, so maybe all of my writing style is a quirk.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Not only do I want each book to stand on its own; I want to write in a new voice. I want to explore new structures. I love to blend genre. I love breaking the rules.
How do you manage writing with other demands on your time?
Most of my books were written while I was working full time. I only had Saturday and Sunday mornings to write. I fell in love with Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was then that I got to do that which I enjoyed the most.
What does success look like to you?
Success is not something I give much thought to. I don’t look forward to the end of a manuscript because it means the writing is done. It’s the writing, the doing, the creating that’s important.
Yes, editing and publishing and writers’ festivals and speaking and interviews have become part of my writer’s world, but they are not as important as those hours I spend writing.
"I do not distinguish between my personal and my public self. What you see in public is the same as you would see in my private life. The same is true of my writing. I often put a great deal of myself into my work. The hurt I express in my writing is the same hurt that I feel, but then so is the joy."
What has influenced you the most as a writer?
I have been influenced by different things over different periods of time. My early writing was influenced by John Steinbeck. Stephen King, William Faulkner and Leo Tolstoy were also influences at various times. I am influenced by the pain I see in our communities. I am influenced by injustice.
What writing advice have you been given?
Robert Sawyer once told that he doesn’t start writing a novel unless he knows the ending. Great advice.
What can books teach us?
I have a forthcoming book on the subject of the power of story. You will have to buy that book for the answer to this question.
What were your favorite childhood books?
We didn’t have access to many books, no bookstores, no library. I read anything that I could find whether or not it was age or gender appropriate. There were enough Louis L’Amour books, and my older sisters and sisters-in-law sometimes left women’s magazines around.
Who are your favourite writers?
John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Max Tegmark, MichIo Kaku, Eden Robinson, Richard Van Camp, Tracey Lindberg, Kate Sutherland, Louise Halfe, Maria Campbell, Tanya Talaga.
What books have you read this past year that has helped you through the pandemic?
I was a lawyer for twenty years. I read very badly written police reports all day. I stopped reading for pleasure. The last thing I wanted to do at the end of a day was more reading. I wanted to get outside and do something physical. Retirement and withdrawal from the law society allowed me to rediscover reading. This coincided with the pandemic. I read the entire Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan 14 novels each about 820 pages long, then I read everything I could get by Brandon Sanderson, I stayed in the Fiction Fantasy genre because I wanted to find the magic again.
If you were a bookseller what 5 books would you hand-sell to readers and why?
Firewater: how alcohol is killing my people (and yours) because you should know.
Peace and Good Order, the case for indigenous justice, because it’s important. Two Families
Treaties and Government, because it explains how Indigenous and non-indigenous people can live together.
Charlie Muskrat, because Charlie was so damn much fun to write.
The Bjorkan Sagas because it’s the best writing I have done so far.
Harold R. Johnson was born and raised in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and Cree mother. He was a member of the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging before graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming a Crown prosecutor. Johnson is the author of five works of fiction and five works of nonfiction, including Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and yours) which was a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award in nonfiction. Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and lives on his family trapline outside La Ronge, Saskatchewan with his wife, Joan. His forthcoming book, The Bjorkan Sagas, draws upon his Cree and Scandinavian roots and merges myth, fantasy, and history in an epic sage of exploration and adventure. It releases Fall 2021.