36 Finalists Blog: Kurt and Ellie Johnson

Kurt and Ellie Johnson, authors of The Barrens 

Novel & Short Story Category, sponsored by Jeff Janisch

Each week leading up to the 35th annual Minnesota Book Awards, we are featuring exclusive interviews with our finalists. You can also watch the authors in conversation with their fellow category finalists here.

Would you tell us one or two things about your finalist book that you are particularly proud of, and why? 

We’re very proud that this book was traditionally published (do you know how hard that is?). Then we are very proud of the collaboration. The novel is based on the stories of Ellie paddling the length of the Thelon River in Sub-Arctic Canada and stories of her growing up as a gay woman. Kurt did the tricky dad thing to uncover those sometimes intimate stories and apply them to fiction.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer with an interest in your category? 

Read Story by Robert McKee. It is written for script writing, but so much about scene and story development is in there.

Tell us about a favorite book. Why did you find it moving, influential, or otherwise memorable? 

Kurt: Just re-read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Innovative narrative style, fast-paced, tight scenes, funny, and so moving. Something to aspire to.

Ellie: On a canoe trip my friends and I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. We read the story out loud to each other each night while sitting around a campfire. How many people read as a collective, collaborative activity? Like a nightly book club, and it brought us closer.

Tell us something about yourself that is not widely known. 

Kurt: I was an elevator operator in NYC in the early 1980’s in a building where, among other noteworthy people, Truman Capote and Gordon Parks lived.

Ellie: I actually paddled the 450 miles down the Thelon River, the journey that Lee took in the book, though no one died.

The Minnesota Book Awards is a celebration of writers, readers – and libraries. We’d love if you would share thoughts about the role and value of libraries.

Kurt: Met a woman in the stacks of my college library. We struck up a conversation and over the next year she turned me on to writers and books that pushed me in the direction of writing: John Updike’s Rabbit Run series, Fredrick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and The Tenants, and many others.

Ellie: When I was a child, my parents regularly took me to the local library to browse the kid’s section. As a result I became a voracious reader, leaving each week with a stack of books.

Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson began working on The Barrens after Ellie, at the age of seventeen, completed a forty-five-day canoe trip paddling four hundred-fifty miles along the Thelon River in subarctic Canada.