New Voices: Sarah Johnson on Crossings

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Sarah Johnson is the first-time YA author of Crossings (Cedar Fort, 2017). From the promotional copy:
Eliinka has been able to hide her deepest secret…until now. Her only choice is to make a perilous crossing to a foreign land where she’ll discover the truth about a powerful legend and the hope for peace after centuries of conflict.

Immerse yourself in this enchanting fantasy world and take heart in Eliinka’s journey of sacrifice, romance and intrigue.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The two main characters woke me up one dark Finnish morning, around 4 a.m. They propelled me out of bed to the computer, and I wrote so I could find out what would happen.

How does your expat life influence your writing?

The most obvious influence is settings. For example, the setting in my book, Crossings, is influenced by my years living in Brazil and Finland. Another completed novel is set in Brazil. Some countries I’ve lived in, such as China, Nigeria, and Egypt, haven’t yet shown up in a story.

Real-life adventures and experiences don’t appear in my stories, as I write fiction. But my experiences as an expat emerge in the themes, deep questions, and struggles that my characters experience.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I came to writing in a surprising way, at least it surprised me. I always have loved reading and story, but never wrote much and becoming a writer was never something I had considered.

Then one day characters arrived in my mind, and a story emerged as I quickly wrote an exploratory draft. I expanded the skeleton scenes into my novel, Crossings. I had never planned to write a novel, yet the characters demanded that their story be written.

Sarah and Rose

As I looked at this first draft, I knew the story needed revision and the writing needed improvement. I read books on my shelves, looking at how sentences were crafted, how chapters were formed, and how stories were structured.

I met other writers on LiveJournal and traded manuscripts with a few of them, and from their feedback, I revised, and my writing continued to improve.

Rose Green is a writing friend who I’ve traded my stories with from that time. We’ve met a few times in person and when we meet we typically go hiking and, of course, we talk about writing and books.

After a couple years of writing, I stumbled across information about a conference that was scheduled when I would be in the States. At that conference I met Martine Leavitt and found out about Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where she began teaching the following year.

Next, I attended VCFA and worked toward my MFA as I worked closely under the guidance of many amazing writers. Those couple years were huge in my growth as a writer. After graduation, I continued to work on my writing craft.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

When I think of my experience at VCFA, I think of creative energy. It was intense and exciting and fun to be with others who love writing stories, and the energy spilled over into my own writing.

The opportunity to interact with and learn from the community of writers in such a supportive atmosphere made my growth as a writer much more rapid than I could have imagined. During the program I took advantage of learning all that I could, and I wrote everything from picture books to short stories to nonfiction; a novel was my creative thesis.

VCFA has continued in my writing life after graduation, and I contribute to an official VCFA blog, the Launchpad. I stay in contact with friends I made while attending residencies.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Find a writing community where you can connect with other writers and nurture your craft. This could be a writing partner or a critique group. You can meet either in person or online.

There are many places to meet other writers such as classes, a conference, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) or other writing organizations.