Author MM Justus is fascinated by the possibilities of what if–the memories of a place that some people call ghosts or the möbius effect of time travel. She is interested in the potential effects of the fantastic on normal folks, and in inserting it into well-researched historical events, populated mostly by people who really lived.
My name is M.M. Justus, and I have a Thing about time. No, I’m not Alice’s White Rabbit, always late and never arriving — although the latter might be an interesting concept . . . never mind. I like to play with time. From your basic time travel to places where time doesn’t exist to Madeleine L’Engle’s notion of being able to fold time — that sort of thing.
I spent my childhood summers in the back seat of a car, exploring the North American west from Alaska to Texas with my parents. I’m a quilter and a gardener, and I used to be a professional dilettante/reference librarian. I’ve lived all over the U.S., but these days I make my home in the shadow of Mt. Rainier in Washington state.
I love to read and to write and to learn about the world around me.
When and why did you begin writing?
I wrote my first story in junior high school. That was about the time I started keeping a regular journal, too–something I’ve done for most of my life ever since. My second story was a riff on Elton John’s song Rocket Man, which dates me nicely. Perhaps I should have kept going with that one. I might have ended up with an Oscar-nominated movie based on it. Or not. As for why, I don’t remember ever not wanting to write.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
A writer as opposed to an author, I don’t think was a conscious act on my part. An author as opposed to a writer: definitely once I’d published my first book. I am working on my tenth book now, so I have no problem calling myself an author. Although I do have to say that, so far as I know, writing is the only art form where you’re not considered to be the “official” term unless you’ve sold something. I call myself a quilter, too, but while I’ve made dozens of quilts, I’ve never sold one. That’s a pet peeve, sorry.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
Reunion is the second volume in my Tales of the Unearthly Northwest, a loosely-linked chain of novels (and one short story) about time, ghosts, and other odd anomalies that shouldn’t exist, but do. Reunion in particular is about a schoolteacher at the end of her rope. When her life falls to pieces, Claudia Ogden follows a rumor of a job to the small, remote town of Conconully, where she finds that nothing is as it seems. Then she meets Conconully’s accidental magician, who wants her to save them. From what, she has no idea.
What inspired you to write this book?
A pig. Well, and a historical marker. The pig is plaster, and it lives in an abandoned storefront in the tiny half-ghost, half-living town of Molson, Washington. The historical marker is in the small, remote town of Conconully, Washington, and tells about a flood that wiped the town completely off the map in 1893. The real town was rebuilt and continues to exist today. The town in my book has a more complicated history, and to tell you more really would spoil the story for you.
Do you have a specific writing style?
My style consists of taking dictation from my characters. Not just the words and the story, but the way they tell it and what they want me to know and how they want me to know it, right down to word choices and grammar. I write both first and deep third person, although not in the same book, and that, too, is dependent on who is telling the story to me. When I wrote my first novel, Repeating History, I started writing it in third-person, and it was like pulling teeth. After struggling for a couple of chapters, I went back and started over in first-person, and it was like turning on a fire hose.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
Reunion has several reunions in it which are crucial to the plot, so it seemed like the logical title for the book. Also, I want each of the novel-length Tales to have one-word titles. It just seems to suit the series.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Not really. I write for entertainment, not really to teach, although as a former reference librarian I am a stickler for research and getting historical and other details right.
My overarching theme is second chances. Every single protagonist I’ve ever written (including me in my memoir Cross-Country) is looking for and/or finds a second chance at life, goals, love, or something. It’s not a theme I pursue consciously. It just happens.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
No, not really. I’ve never been a schoolteacher, certainly not in a one-room schoolhouse. I’ve lived in small towns, but nothing like Conconully. As for basing my characters on real people, I sometimes use real historical figures and events in my books, but that’s about it. Everyone else is a conglomeration.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
My two favorite authors are Lois McMaster Bujold and the late Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels (two pseudonyms for the same author, whose real name was Barbara Mertz). Both of them wrote series with characters who grew and changed and developed over the course of decades of internal book time as well as many books written over many years. We first meet both Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan and Peters’ Ramses Emerson in utero, and by the time we had to bid farewell to Ramses and see Miles in Bujold’s latest book, they’re both fathers themselves. Telling that sort of story over many volumes, with Real People like their characters, is an amazing feat. In her Michaels persona, Ms. Mertz wrote about the kind of supernatural I revel in — slips in time, ghosts, possession, but without gore, violence, or vampires, which makes her special indeed. Again, Real People , dealing with phenomena than shouldn’t even exist. But do, if only in those books.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
I don’t have a personal mentor relationship with another author, but I have learned a great deal about writing from Bujold’s commentary on her fan email list. I’ve also learned from Patricia Wrede’s blog, where she writes about all aspects of writing, from business to developing plots.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
I create my own covers. I have some graphics background from working as a museum exhibit designer, but it’s been a learning experience. The only cover I ever commissioned someone else to create for me was the one for my only contemporary romance, Much Ado in Montana, and it’s the one book that’s not sold anywhere near as much as the others. I enjoy doing my own covers and formatting. Don’t know what that says about me…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
This is a business. Whether you’re traditionally or independently published, readers are not simply going to fall into your lap. It’s not “build it and they will come.” You need to know that the business end of the writing gig is going to take at least as much of your time as the actual writing, and if you’re not prepared to do the work it takes to find your readers, it’s always going to be a hobby, not a career.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
If you like Barbara Michaels and possibly Susanna Kearsley, you just might enjoy my stories, too.