Please welcome our guest, J. Ivanel Johnson, who will share her wonderful story of a mystery that took 75 years and crossed generations to bring to readers>
‘…75 years in the Making.’
By J. Ivanel Johnson
“Warm up the apple crisp and cozy up to a detective mystery that has been 75 years in the making.” – BestThrillers.com, 2022
Many fellow mystery writers have told me how their manuscripts have taken a decade, or even two, to climb out of that dark storage trunk and find a home with a publisher. I always smile to myself (or occasionally share the joke, praying it’s not to the same group of authors as the last time I shared it!)
The manuscript of the first novel in my JUST (e)STATE whodunnit series, Just A STILL LIFE (Black Rose Writing, Sept. 2022) took 75 years. To put things in a different perspective, two of the characters in it, Phil and Beth, were so named because Prince Philip became engaged to, and married, the then Princess Elizabeth the year it was begun. So it’s mightily ironic that in the year Prince Philip died, I was (finally) offered a contract for the book, and in the very month that Queen Elizabeth II died, the novel was finally released to the world.
My paternal grandmother was my best friend. I was lucky enough to know not only all four of my grandparents well, but even to have memories of my two great-grandmothers. As in the traditions of old, my sister and I grew up in the same large, remote country house that my grandparents had built decades prior. (This is now the setting for the second book in the series, out June 8, 2023 and entitled Just A STALE MATE ).
While they lived separately on a lower floor, I spent more time with my Grandma Johnson than any other person on earth. Being a nerdy, plump tomboy, I had few close friends in elementary school; it was Grandma who listened patiently every day while I outlined details of all the joys and sorrows I’d experienced in the hours since I’d seen her last. She played games and set treasure hunts and puzzles for my sister and me, or we would do the same for her— and she’d pretend to be mystified by our ‘clues’. Together, we would sit on weekend nights watching Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, Columbo, McMillan and Wife, as well as any Agatha Christie or Ruth Rendell we could find from BBC/PBS offerings. In commercial breaks, we would analyze the clues. What were red herrings intentionally set out to trap us? Who was the real culprit? Or who might the victim be?
Perhaps most important of all, though, was that Grandma J. was my chief inspiration all through my pre-teen and teen years. On many mornings I would wake to the sound of her typing enthusiastically below. For my grandmother, Victoria Ivanel Johnson, was a prolific novelist who never published. After WWII, she began banging out many a mystery or romantic suspense plot, 80,000 words in each of her manuscripts. But early on, before I was born, she sent one of her manuscripts to a publisher and was advised to write more ‘boudoir’ scenes (even then: ‘sex sells’!).
She did not wish to do this, nor did she like the feeling of that first rejection. So from that time on, all through to the mid 1970s when she stopped writing, she only ever wrote for herself. I always felt her disappointment, however, and was saddened by her unrewarded efforts. And I always promised her in the rather breezy, off-hand way of innocent youth, that one day I would ensure her work was published and her name would be on a front cover of a book.
When I was twelve, she gave me my first typewriter. I proceeded to write a family newsletter for several years, full of anecdotes, ‘interviews’, fun verses, and little illustrations. Grandma often helped with these. I was first published by a Toronto publisher (now Annick Press) when I was thirteen and Grandma was ecstatic. Then, for decades, into my early thirties, I had my own short stories, poetry and articles published under my given name, and Grandma was always quietly supportive of each and every one, never mentioning her own work—bundles of unread manuscripts stacked in a huge hump-backed trunk in her bedroom closet.
As our family spread out and Grandma was widowed, she came to live with my new husband and me in a granny suite in our farmhouse. There, as in days of old, we would again discuss mystery books we’d been reading and occasionally I’d find time to sit and watch Murder She Wrote or more Agatha Christies or Sherlock Holmes with her. By then I was also collecting quite a stack of my own typed, full-length manuscripts and stage plays in the suspense, adventure, or mystery genres. Grandma read a few and offered carefully-worded comments, or we would discuss plots.
But then, in the early 1990s, her health really started to fail. When it was time for her to go, I leaned over and whispered in her ear a final time that I would absolutely stick to my promise to see her name on a book cover one day, with some of her own ideas and phrases between those covers. She gave me a half-smile and a near wink and I could see that she knew I would do my utmost.
It’s taken thirty years. Thirty years exactly. But having worked very hard off and on for decades, on just one of her many manuscripts (rewriting it almost completely, but leaving just enough of the plot, some characters and yes, even a few of her own sentences here and there), then updating it to 1971 instead of being set in 1947, we achieved lift-off. As in all of my writing, be it poetry, short stories, plays or novels, I write many culturally-diverse characters as well, which Grandma J. did not do. She was raised by a well-to-do family in a small Canadian village, predominantly white. And while well-travelled, it never would have occurred to her to put anyone but able-bodied white folks in her books.
But having taught in 4 countries in inner cities, on Indigenous reservations and in low-income rural mountain areas, as well as being (dis)Abled myself, I was determined to add much more diversity to her original concept in her ‘Prison Is A Private Place’. She wouldn’t have minded. I know she’d have thought how much more balanced and provocative it made the varying perspectives.
So now, with two books in the JUST (e)STATE mystery series published, I examine how the literary quotes and wordplay, the latter in the second book especially, would have excited my father’s mother. She and my grandfather together enjoyed discussions of Plato and Dickens, as well as crosswords and anagrams. (The series title itself, from Plato’s theory, spells ‘ASTUTE JEST’, referring to the many clever deceptions planted within, as red herrings. ) Thus the second book, Just A STALE MATE, uses Dickens’ humorous names as a distracting theme, and literary references and word-scrambling abound in both novels.
Both paternal grandparents were fans of Scrabble, Chess and Bridge. These games, too, are featured, often factoring into clues. And now the third book is being developed, this time set in Yukon where I once lived for three months in the dead dark days of winter, and from which time and place I still have letters from my grandmother imploring me not to get depressed by the lack of sunshine, by writing more—“creating characters in a happy and warm environment”. Though “bumping off the odd neighbor could be pleasantly pertinent,” she had advised.
Like her grandmother before her (the ‘Ivanel’ of her pen name) she has written her entire life, first publishing two poems with Annick Press in Toronto when she was only 13. She has been a high school English and Drama teacher, working and living in the highlands of Scotland, the moors of Yorkshire, and the Rockies of Montana and the Yukon, before settling in the east of Canada.