FestivalYA; day 3 – Maureen Johnson

Redacted by Alexia Magiru


Truly Devious: a tightly plotted mystery trilogy, by the wonderful Maureen Johnson. She explains she’s always loved detective tales, having had Sherlock Holmes as an idol growing up. She had become very interested in classic crime stories when a peculiar case caught her eye: the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr.. She describes how the case had an immense impact on her life, better yet the whole of the United States. Thus, she stepped into the detective’s shoes for once and decided to investigate for herself by writing a trilogy inspired by it.

The 3 mystery books are set in the 1930s, in the awfully snowy state of Vermont. Maureen goes on to describe the very meticulous research process she’s gone through: from conducting hundreds of historical and political analyses, to studying deaths caused by CO2, to even visiting Vermont herself. She said she rather enjoyed getting a better feel of the location by noting down every single odd detail she would come across – we’re talking misplaced bricks, bulks of telephone wires and more.

She then showed a glimpse into the writing process: her walls were covered in sticky notes and plenty of folders were to be seen lounging around – she even flipped through the pages of her David Bowie journal. Though, what she believes best stimulates writing is questioning everything and even going a step further by “confusing yourself”. According to her, the goal of a writer is to create people and make their life a living hell so as to prompt the question “why?” to the reader.

Contrary to popular belief, the writing process itself can be a living hell too, or as she described it “a very organized disorganized hair-pulling race to the finish line”. Maureen went on to say she loves writing yet she is absolutely terrified of it. She recounted the days when all she would do is procrastinate as a result of her fear. Oddly enough, that’s when the best ideas came into existence – in the shower, on the train, while walking the dog – you name it. Maureen later talked about how she would always text her friend the word “brick” (code for “come hit me over on the head with a brick”) in order for her to not stray away from writing. What struck me most, though, was how open she was about her struggles with anemia, anxiety and panic attacks when writing the book. In spite of them posing significant setbacks, she is proud to say she has come out the other end of the tunnel.

As the final book of the trilogy, The Box in the Woods, hits the shelves, all of secrets are revealed. Yet Maureen insists the answers have been embedded in the pages all along. She insists only tedious readers have managed to solve the mystery prior to the third book and briefly hints towards the map on the cover, which I highly suggest you check out for yourself.

The esteemed writer concludes by comparing the past 17 years of her life with riding a shaky raft on a perturbed river – it’s been a wild ride yet she’s ecstatic about being able to fulfill her 7-year-old self’s dream of being a writer.

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