Growing up as one of six siblings, Julia Johnston learned to be a keen observer early on. This clearly shows in her multi-award winning debut novel "If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree" in which she portrays the life of an oddball teenager, Oliver Campbell with a remarkable amount of insight, empathy and humor. As our author of the day, Johnston chats with us about how her book became a bestseller, her mastery of British Sign Language and why Oliver Campbel is so different from other teenagers.
Please give us a short introduction to If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree
If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree was my first novel, so I was thrilled and amazed by the interest from top literary agents and even more delighted by the positive feedback from readers. It was ostensibly young adult fiction, but it became clear it appealed across the board and was labelled a ‘crossover novel’.
It chronicles a year in the life of Oliver Campbell. He longs to be praised by his mother, adored by Poppy Teasdale, noticed by his teachers… or just noticed at all. Younger, shyer and sharper than Sam and Nathan, his two elder brothers, enigmatic Oliver, who’d rather learn the Latin names of plants than play computer games, struggles to unravel the knots of emotion when his little sister, Lily, falls seriously ill with a mysterious disease. An irritant to no-nonsense Sam, puzzling to ingenuous Nathan, and invisible to his self-absorbed mum and dad, he seeks solace in Poppy and Kamal.
At times intense and stubborn, Ollie lightens and loosens with his best friend, the eccentric, intellectual Kamal. Kamal doesn’t think it is weird that Ollie is fascinated by words and plants; he knows what it is like to be different and to be bullied; he coaches him on love, and how to get his dream-girl, Poppy Teasdale; he tickles him with his high-falutin language and aspirations; he impresses him with his fortitude despite a tragic past; he is there when his life takes a terrible turn; he is loyal to the end.
This was your debut novel. What was the experience like and what surprised you the most about the reader reactions?
I loved the process of novel-writing, though I can see why so few people finish; the editing process is lengthy and painful… I sought as much feedback as possible to make the work the best it could be which entailed laborious rewrites following the advice of a literary consultant, literary agents and beta readers. The ups and downs can be tough to ride—one day you think you’ve written something tremendous that will reach everybody, the next day you think, ‘Who am I trying to kid? What I’ve written is rubbish’
Working on If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree, I revelled in hours and hours of research, tangenting through branching and interconnecting tubes of enlightenment and I fell in love with the high of being in the flow, when the words seem to ooze out of every pore and trickle and stream onto the page.
My greatest surprise reaction to my book was the opening line of a literary consultant’s report: ‘This book is remarkable in every way.’ I’m embarrassed to say, I cried when I read that, so deep was my lack of self-confidence.
Once the book was published (through winning a competition), it surprised me how much readers seemed to identify with Oliver and how much they loved Kamal; I had been worried people might find them annoying. One top literary agent thought Kamal was ‘perfect’! I was blown away by that comment. I wasn’t expecting the grandparents’ characters to draw as much attention either, or for readers to be keen for Oliver’s story to continue…
At my first book club ‘author Q&A evening’, it was a revelation to me, especially since the novel pivots strongly around the first person voice of Ollie, how many of the readers said, ‘As a parent, so much of the book rang true and compelled me to reflect on how I was as a mother.’ You feel a bit of a fraud when asked, ‘Did you intend for the book to appeal particularly to mothers?’ ‘Uh, well, yes, in a way. I mean I’m so pleased it does, but I…, yes that’s great.’
What inspired the character of Oliver Campbell? How was he "born"?
Being a natural observer and mimic (I have been involved in acting most of my life), I noticed, particularly in my roles as teacher of the deaf and also as Aunt, how sympathy and attention was often directed towards the parents during family crises; through these trying times, I saw teenagers at best marginalized and at worst, neglected. I had the urge to write a story from a child’s/sibling’s perspective and since I taught teenagers, I had a lot to go on in terms of creating a character. Like most authors though, you write what you know, and I gleaned character traits not only from teenagers I have known, but of family members, especially one of my nephews.
Why did you not portray Oliver as your typical teenager. Why is he so different?
We all want to be loved, so we strive for approval, from our family, our peers, strangers. We mostly endeavor to conform, so we’re understood, accepted, admired, ‘approved of’, but we’re also fascinated by people who risk exposing themselves by going against the grain, being different. Though we need to ‘fit in’, we secretly yearn to stand out. In truth, none of us fit in, but pretend to, in the belief that it is the only way to be loved. I wanted Oliver and his best friend Kamal to tempt us all to risk not fitting in, to risk exposing our vulnerabilities, to risk being ourselves and see what happens… And to provide comfort and compassion for those who have already dared and have found the road bumpy.
Most of us are gifted with skills of empathy; I believe that to feel pity is the most deeply important and deeply human characteristic. I also know that trying to elicit pity or feeling sorry for yourself to the point of being defined by pity is undesirable and alienating. So, it was a delicate dance to face the reader with Ollie’s soul in this way. So I would say that one of my other aims in painting Ollie and Kamal as not typical teenagers was to subtly evoke feelings of understanding and empathy.
You grew up in a large family of six children. What was that like?
I feel lucky to have grown up in a large family. There was little room for attention so it was natural and necessary to give other people time. You learn a lot when you have to look and listen. I learnt such important life skills such as patience, compromising, negotiating, diplomacy, communication, sharing and gratitude. Oh and how to stand your ground and worm your way out of trouble! I also, along with my middle brother, developed a heightened sense of humour (I see now that it was partly a way to get noticed!).
Mostly, though, I have an amazing set of life-long friends; though we had our ‘fights’ as children, we have never fallen out with each other. My most precious memories are family-centred, like wonderful holidays with my parents and siblings, camping around Europe. My adventurous parents were both teachers, so they had little money, a lot of holiday and heaps of initiative and verve!
Your book includes a lot of information about art, literature and plants. Why did you pick this approach?
I’m aware that it is a no-no to be overtly didactic; I tried to open reader’s minds to possibilities and awaken interest in e.g. language, art, literature and music, but not in an advisory or academic way. I hoped that Ollie’s naivety as a learner would help take the hand of the reader. He almost asks for the reader’s help in a strange way…
Which character did you find the most challenging to create?
I found the character of Lily, Ollie’s sister, the most challenging to create. During a rewrite, I decided to change her age and make her older. She was initially a toddler, but I wanted the reader to warm to her and I considered that an easier task if I gave her a more advanced use of language. I like to think that my forte is in writing dialogue, so it was a gleeful endeavour to contrive the voice of a five-year old. Whether it works or not, I’m not entirely sure! Yet, Lily being at an age so far removed from my own memory, it was tricky making her into a ‘real person’.
Despite the serious theme of your book, you also peppered it with humor. Why?
When a novel is devoid of humour, I miss it. And yet, when it is an ingredient, I seem to be quite hard to please, as I don’t always appreciate it fully! I really wanted to ‘get it right’ and hoped very much that it would ‘read’ in America as well as in the UK. I would be interested to know…
Having developed a keen sense of humour from a young age, it was quite natural for the book to be punctuated with it. There are some sorrowful moments in the book, but I seemed to have an innate sense of when to inject some light relief. I think you need light relief. We have all seen films that are relentless in their melancholy and pessimism, and we resent being manipulated and our emotions being played with to that extent. I wanted to avoid that, so I hope I have succeeded…
Extremes often exist together and comedy is close to tragedy, I believe, and thus, a natural companion. Balance is everything.
Your characters and their stories are so relatable. Were any of them inspired by real people?
Us writers are a product of our experience, so it is inevitable that all our characters and stories will be pieced together from aspects of real people and real life, whether they be based on fleeting experiences or decades of detailed observation. I would say that some of my characters, like Lily, Poppy and Celia are completely invented, but in essence, they reflect real experience of real people. I would say that the two brothers who are minor characters are the most closely related to real people I have known.
If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree keeps readers hooked throughout the story. How did you pull that off?
I went against my natural instinct to make things all right and comfortable by constantly testing my characters’ strength; I’d throw another obstacle in their way, just when you thought things were going well…
To keep readers hooked, I also tried to end each chapter on a cliff hanger, no matter how small!
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Some may say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, as I have a fair few strings to my bow, but I’m not brilliant at anything (except writing?? Ha!).
I have a French degree, so speak fluent French plus some Spanish, Italian and German. I’m a qualified secondary school teacher and trained further to teach children with hearing impairments. I come from a very musical family and play piano, guitar, recorder and sing.
Other skills I have are British Sign Language and acting.
Acting was my first love and I ventured into writing by putting a play on at Edinburgh Festival, which gained 5* reviews. It was then that it occurred to me, ‘Aha, this writing game is not as fraught with nerves and constant rejection as the acting one!’ My brother, Tim, a drummer and all round musician, wrote and performed the beautiful music for my play, ‘Touched’, though it is my other brother, Pete, who is better known for his amazingly brilliant music (cf 'Sophie and Peter Johnston' and ‘Francis Campbell’).
Many readers report that they were laughing and sobbing through the book. Did you intend for it to be a tear-jerker?
As a writer, I yearn to entertain and educate; if I can do that through evoking both tears and laughter, that is my ultimate goal attained.
How does your love for music influence your writing?
Apart from not being able to stop myself injecting musical themes in my work because it has always been such an important and forming part of me and my life, I feel there is music in language and poetry.
And like music, written words can evoke powerful emotions when carefully placed.
What are you working on right now? Will we see more of Oliver?
There will be three books in the Ollie Campbell series. The second one, Blue Rain, is nearly finished, and the third, as yet untitled, will be out next year. I always thought trilogies were only for fantasy fiction, but I had so many requests to continue Ollie’s story, I decided it could work well to put out a contemporary fiction trilogy! Though I’ve heard readers might be getting bored with trilogies now…oops! My three books will work as stand alones anyway, I hope. If anyone would like a free sample of my second novel, I’m happy to send out the first four chapters to any readers who fancy a look and I’d love feedback if anyone can be bothered in their busy lives…!
Where can our readers discover more of your work and interact with you?
I’d love any readers of If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree and Blue Rain to let me know what they think; readers are by far the most important aspect of this whole operation of putting words out there!
Here is the link to my website. Please sign up if you fancy reading an extract from Blue Rain: http://juliajohnston.co.uk
Here’s my Goodreads author page link: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7396508.Julia_C_Johnston
You can buy and read reviews of If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree on the UK, US, and other Amazon websites:
I’d also be happy to hear from readers personally [email protected]