Q&A with Survivor Diaries: Overboard author Terry Lynn Johnson

Terry Lynn JohnsonTerry Lynn Johnson writes middle-grade adventures based on her experiences living in the wilds of northern Ontario, Canada. Her latest novel is Survivor Diaries: Overboard! The following is a complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.

Why do you write? Why specifically for young readers?

I’ve wanted to be an author since grade four. I loved to read — Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Island of the Blue Dolphins, among some of my favourites. Later, I began working as a park ranger in Quetico Provincial Park. After twelve years of canoe trips into the wilderness, I had a stack of journals filled with the experiences I’d encountered. I also owned eighteen sled dogs by that time. I wanted to write a memoir to share my adventures. When I took a writing course, my tutor suggested I should write for young readers. After my first two articles published — Frozen Turd Wars for Dogs in Canada magazine, and How to Pee Out of a Kayak for Adventure Kayak Magazine — I thought she might be right.

I guess my writing tends to naturally have the right tone for young readers, but the reason I love writing for this age group is because of my own early reading. At no other time in my life have books resonated with me as deeply as the stories I read in grades four to eight. They shaped my interests, expanded my mind, and taught me much about the world. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of that time in a reader’s life.

Where did the idea for the Survivor Diaries series come from? Where do the specific stories come from?

HMH’s wonder-editor Christine Krones approached me with the series idea. We worked together to come up with premises for each book, but ultimately she let me explore my own experiences and passions to write the actual stories. There is an animal element in each, that’s just because it interests me to consider and write about how we humans interact with our natural environment. But the main focus is always about the survival tips.

Survivor Diaries OverboardOverboard is short and fast-paced. How did you balance character development and action in a limited space?

That was the most challenging aspect of writing these books! The word-count limitations mostly suited me though because I do like to read fast-paced adventures. Honestly, I have a short attention span, so that helped. While researching the topic of each story, the characters came to me. I also took a lot of hikes – that’s where I do most of my thinking. Each book was slightly different to write, but for Overboard, I kept the whole story in my head and saw how each chapter would end. I knew how many chapters I would need, how long they should be, and what happened in each, and went from there.

You work as a conservation officer, how do you find time to write?

I had to take some time off my full-time job to write this series because all four books had to be written within several months. Thankfully, I was given a leave of absence for the time I needed. It worked out nicely.

What is it about your books that appeal to young readers?

I’m not sure about this one, I’m just glad my books seem to be doing well. One of the best things about being an author is the fan mail! I still get an awful lot of emails from readers who loved Ice Dogs. It’s so awesome to read about how my humble little books resonate with readers and their lives. Two readers asked me how to get into mushing because they’d decided they want to be mushers after reading Ice Dogs. I suggested they find a musher to learn from and help out with chores. One girl sent me back a video of her running a small team in a dogsled race thanks to her local musher. That was seriously, so cool! I hope that none of my readers ever fall out of a boat, but it’s great to imagine young readers enjoying Overboard for the vicarious thrill of surviving.

Is there a book from your own childhood that still resonates with you today?

As I mentioned, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’dell really impacted me when I was young. But other books I still think about, Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (I might have read that one a dozen times) and Hawkmistress by Marion Zimmer Bradley.