March 17, 2022

The Barrens with Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson (Season 4 Episode 11)

Kurt and Ellie Johnson are co-authors of a new book called,  “The Barrens” based on a fictionalized account of Ellie’s real 40-day journey in the subarctic of Canada in a canoe.  A part adventure story with white water rapids and grizzly sightings and part coming out and coming of age story, The Barrens will transport you.

Join the authors on May 18 at Lush Lounge and Theater with Magers and Quinn Booksellers for a reading and launch party with a Q and A hosted by My Talk 107.1’s Lori and Julia. Tickets are Free but must be reserved:

The book is available for pre-order here:

Support the show (https://paypal.me/StephanieKHansen?locale.x=en_US)

The Barrens Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Hansen 0:12
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the makers of Minnesota podcast where we talk to cool people doing cool things. One of the cool things that’s happening this spring is my daughter, Ellie Johnson and my husband, Kurt Johnson, are co authoring a book that’s called the barons, and they’ve been working on it for some time. So I’m excited to have them here today to talk a little bit about the process of writing and how they came to the story. Welcome to the program, you guys. Hi.

Ellie Johnson 0:37
Thank you for having us. Yes, it’s

Stephanie Hansen 0:39
a blast to have you and just to hear a little bit more about your process. So, Kurt, do you want to start and give us sort of the synopsis of the book or the sure elevator speech as it were?

Kurt Johnson 0:49
Yeah, absolutely. So it’s about two college age women who decided to take a 450 mile canoe trip through the barren lands, which is up in sub Arctic, Canada, one had taken the trip before through a wilderness camp near the BW ca called woody wagon, but it’s called Camp Koshi. In the book two weeks in the experience, paddler Holly dies when falling in spoiler alert.

Stephanie Hansen 1:13
Spoiler alert. Do you like did you just give away the plot? Or is that some No, early on in the book? No.

Kurt Johnson 1:19
You learn part of it early on in the book, but it’s kind of it’s on the back.

Ellie Johnson 1:24
I was gonna say it’s on the back jackets.

Unknown Speaker 1:26
Not really a spoiler. Okay.

Kurt Johnson 1:28
Oh, yeah, it’s a little bit of a spoiler, but not much. But the inexperienced paddler Lee has to continue the downriver trip along the Ceylon river with the decomposing body. Whoo. Thanks. Exactly.

Stephanie Hansen 1:43
So Ellie, which character? Are you in the book?

Ellie Johnson 1:46
Well, I know if you were to ask my dad, he would say that I was Holly the one who dies, which Thank you very much arc. But pretty much if you ask me or anyone else, both characters take elements from my life and my own upbringing and in some ways your upbringing twos? No,

Kurt Johnson 2:04
yeah, it’s certainly a mix of characters in there, you’re probably more leash than you are Holly ish. But but that’s but it’s not linear. Like, no, it’s certainly not linear. So along the way, Lee tell stories about her upbringing coming of age off the grid in Nebraska, and stories about her life with Holly kind of both imagined in the future, and in the past, how they how they met. And then when she comes off the trail, she has to confront Holly’s parents who with the fact that her daughter now is deceased, and they didn’t know that she was gay. So there’s a little bit of a coming out story.

Stephanie Hansen 2:40
Oh, so Ellie, can you talk a little bit about was this based on your coming out story, or you’re telling your parents being that I’m your mom.

Ellie Johnson 2:50
Um, I wouldn’t say that the coming out scene is in any way based on my own coming out experience, in the sense that I didn’t even really properly come out. I was kind of outed three separate times, in three separate ways. But ultimately, I remember it just kind of became apparent to you. And you kept trying to ask me if I was gay, and I kept avoiding you and running away until eventually you texted me. And you said, I’m picking you up from school. If you don’t let me pick you up from school, I’m locking you out of the house.

Stephanie Hansen 3:28
Great parenting.

Kurt Johnson 3:30
Couple of things. One, this is fiction. By the way, this isn’t a fictional account. But there is a coming out story, both with Leann Holly in the book that were kind of based on being outed, at an early age, and that’s certainly based on some of the stories I heard from LA.

Stephanie Hansen 3:44
Were you in hindsight, glad that you were able to come out so early. How old were you?

Ellie Johnson 3:51
Um, well, again, this is kind of has like two phases, because I think like socially, everyone at like school knew before, like, my family knew. And that happened around like my freshman year of high school. And then I think by the end of that year, like by the beginning of sophomore years, when I came out to you guys, in being gay and Young is certainly interesting, because the microcosm of the high school community is already very bizarre and cultish and interesting, and then you add gay dating and how like, limited your pool is, but that also creates like this group of people that you kind of keep dating and everyone dates and it gets a little bit incestuous. For lack of a better word.

Kurt Johnson 4:36
I was gonna say, incestuous. Yeah.

Stephanie Hansen 4:38
I can hear that. Okay, so this is loosely based on your story. Ellie, talk about your canoe trip and how you ended up on the Phelan river.

Ellie Johnson 4:50
So I started going to camp would you log in when I was seventh grade going into eighth grade? I think so. Like 12 or 13. And I started with a week long trip in the Boundary Waters with a group of like six other girls. And progressively the trips kept getting longer and more remote, challenging areas, all canoeing, and then eventually, when I was 16, whitewater came into the mix, and we started doing trips on longer rivers that included whitewater canoeing. And that led me to doing the month and a half, like 50 days, and the barons of the Arctic, which is what the book is based on, and I did that with me two other girls my age who were 17 and 18, respectively, are ex both 18. At the time, I was only when I was 17. And my counselor who had just graduated college, she was 22. And I mean, that’s not a huge age gap between a 22 year old and an 18 year old. And when you’re there’s just four of you in the most remote challenging environment, it’s like still exists. You really you grow close, there’s a there’s a deep bond. And it really changes like your perspective on yourself and how you engage with the world when you’re just removed from society like that.

Kurt Johnson 6:10
And what intrigued me when I first heard it, about her going on the lawn is that they went for 30 days without ever seen another canoe or or person.

Ellie Johnson 6:21
Yeah, and I think it was it was even longer than that. But yeah, it wasn’t until we reached like one of the last three lakes before the end of the river that we saw a fisherman and his son, who were in a motorboat, who stopped by to just say like, Hey, what’s up everything good. You guys doing? Okay, there’s a bear on the other side. Cool. Have a good one.

Stephanie Hansen 6:46
In exactly those terms. So Kurt, this is your first published book, tell me about the process of why you picked this story and why this is the first one that you’re bringing to market.

Kurt Johnson 6:56
After she got off the river. She went to UVM, University of Vermont. And she was taking a course up there in literature and she had to write a short story. So I had an idea for a short story that I pitched her where two girls go in one dies, and the other one has to take her her body out. And you know, she didn’t want to write it. But she said You go ahead. So I did. And that little short story turned into a novella that turned into a novel because, you know, it’s it’s a simple story in itself. But you have to delve into each of the characters. And what they brought to the fail on what they learned on the fail on and what happened when they got off. So the little short story novella turned into a novel.

Stephanie Hansen 7:41
How did you know how to write the scenes about the Barons experience? Were you interviewing LA? Or were you doing research? Because when you read the book, I have never been to the fail on and I’m really not even a couture. And I really felt like I could put myself there. And I was impressed by that.

Kurt Johnson 8:03
Yeah, well, it’s a lot of late night conversations with Ellie who was at school and then and then eventually was home for the summer. And talking about the Elan River and what it looked like and what it felt like and I read a couple books and I had the journey mapped out but like when you got to grassy Island, like what did grassy island feel I can look like was it grass? Or what? And of course the answer is no, no. And, you know, they, they they come across a couple Trapper cabins. And what do they look like? Now? I saw some pictures too. But, you know, asking Allie what it felt like to be on the river what it felt like to come across his Trapper cabins. You know, we had those those in depth conversations, and it led to conversations, because I have to come up with backstory and what what’s the relationship between these two women? And and how did they discover their sexuality? So now I had to delve into more personal questions. And these are things that parents really just don’t like to ask their kids. They don’t want to talk to their kids about sexuality. I certainly didn’t. But the novel forced me to do that because I had to be honest about it. And I had to learn those stories. So yeah,

Stephanie Hansen 9:17
cuz in and one respect, you’re 60 ish year old white guy writing about a lesbian story and there’s a sex scene, which as your mom, I was like, so I’m assuming you guys talked through that.

Kurt Johnson 9:34
Yeah, we talked through that. And there were some. Some times when we just went to a bar had had a couple beers and relaxed and

Ellie Johnson 9:44
little lubrication. The beer certainly helped. But I mean, I think that at a certain point, you were just asking honest questions. And I was trying to, you know, remove myself from you know, a daughter sia and just kind of answer honestly. and authentically. And you really took that and ran with it. And I think you brought that authenticity into the writing. So I really do feel like, you know, we did a good job of like sitting down and working through that voice and trying to figure out what was authentic to the experience of like my gay.

Kurt Johnson 10:16
Yeah, I remember one long conversation where your significant other Kate was there at liquor Lyles on Hennepin that unfortunately, is closed down

Stephanie Hansen 10:27
best bar ever.

Ellie Johnson 10:28
I know, that still one of the most tragic closures ever happened.

Kurt Johnson 10:31
And and you know, we got in depth about the sexuality, lesbian sexuality, and I didn’t know any of this stuff. So it was a huge eye opener. And, and it was, it was a good honest conversation.

Ellie Johnson 10:50
And I think at a certain point, it just becomes like, yeah, beyond, you know, I’m not speaking for anyone’s personal, like experience with their own sexuality, with their development, their upbringing, their relationships. But I think that, like, if I can just like sit down and be honest, like, and have that replicated, it becomes more about a story of development, like on a personal level, and, you know, like coming of age story, let’s say, and less of like, you know, a sex scene, right? And so many words,

Stephanie Hansen 11:24
did you guys pass the manuscript back and forth? Or how did the logistics of writing together work?

Kurt Johnson 11:29
Well, I wrote, I mostly wrote everything by myself in somewhat of a vacuum. And I have to, just because, you know, there’s a narrative, I got to follow their scenes, I got to write and, and I pushed myself to, you know, write 1000 to 2000 words every day. So the thing kind of certainly initial drafts moved along, you sent

Ellie Johnson 11:48
on scenes to me to kind of evaluate for accuracy and authenticity.

Kurt Johnson 11:53
Yeah, exactly. And that’s like, a second and third time through the book. And then there was some really delicate scenes in there that I don’t want to talk about right now. But, you know, I really needed to get Ellie’s okay to even publish some of those stories.

Ellie Johnson 12:11
Right. Yeah, he got it.

Stephanie Hansen 12:13
He did. And as the mom, I was like, Oh, wow, this stuff, people are gonna ask you, and they’ve asked me, like, my sister asked, like, did this stuff really happen?

Ellie Johnson 12:24
Yeah, you know, a lot of it is not, it’s not like photorealistic. But in that same way, it was kind of therapy, you know, to some degree to have to, like work through that and reflect on my experience in order to like, have it replicated as part of a story as part of like, a character story, you know, makes me think back and think like, how do these experiences create my story and my character?

Stephanie Hansen 12:47
Can you talk about the publishing process? Because I think there’s a lot of people listening that like, Oh, I’d love to, like, write a book and tell us about that journey. Because that’s really, I think, a testament to your person. Yeah,

Kurt Johnson 13:01
it’s, it’s not a new story. And it’s incredibly hard to get published. You know, there’s particularly fiction, particularly fiction in particular. Yeah. And, and so, you know, a lot of people will write their first book, they put their heart and soul into it and try to get it published, and it just never happens. And I kind of took a longer view, you know, I, I think I understood that the first novel is not going to get published. So I hopefully will, and maybe not the second one, but maybe the third one and, and at some point, it becomes a job and become a professional at, you start looking for stories and narratives that you think will sell, and I thought this one could sell. But then you have to write, you know, 50, to 100 to 150, query letters out to these 250 or so agents that are mostly in New York that get about three to 6000 of these things every year. And you got to break through the clutter and get them to read the first 10 pages than the first couple chapters. And hopefully, they’ll call you back and say, Can I see the rest of your manuscript? And it’s a tough process. And I was extremely lucky.

Ellie Johnson 14:12
You read Stephen King’s on writing, and I think that really drove a lot of like, you being able to take writing and turn it into your business, your work. He’s really good at illustrating how you just need to sit down and write consistently in order to be marketable. He is the captain of writing out.

Stephanie Hansen 14:33
He’s very disciplined, yeah, he wakes up at the same time every day. And he sits down and he writes, he goes for a walk, and then he comes back in the afternoon and kind of does emails and other things. It’s kind of what I do, too. He guards that writing time, and he’s very disciplined about it. Every day sits there and does

Ellie Johnson 14:50
it. It’s hard to be a creative to some degree, you kind of have to be a writer. You have to sit down and keep writing even if you don’t feel inspired or interested.

Stephanie Hansen 14:59
Exactly. And there’s so much of it. That’s craft, right just like learning to craft a sentence learning to craft a story. We talk about character development in doing podcasts. And in doing broadcast stories and crafting, you know, we have 1012 minute cooking segments. And what’s the story? And what’s your beginning? What’s your middle? And what’s your end? It’s hard to imagine doing that day after day alone, kind of in a vacuum.

Kurt Johnson 15:26
Yeah, yeah. It’s, it’s fun, actually. Because, you know, if you’re going back to Stephen King, I do that I write in the morning and try to get 1000 or 2000 words out. And sometimes it’s garbage. But I at least get it out. And I got that discipline. But then a lot of the fun part is the afternoon when I take that walk. And or I sit in the bathtub late at night, and I come up with the scene for the next day, what’s the story for the next day, and I really have it in my mind, and I jot down some outlines. But that’s the fun stuff, the fun stuff is, is creating stories, and you’re right, they all have to have a beginning, middle and an end each, each scene is a story in itself. And something’s got to happen. So to me, it’s a fun part. But But I can see where that’s also the difficult part. For a lot of people.

Stephanie Hansen 16:14
It’s kind of funny, because it’s sort of like, like in your business life, you have like your to do list, right? And you like when you’re unwinding, you think about what you want your next day to look like and you set up your day. So you’re kind of doing that in the writing space. Exactly. Yeah. So from the aspects of writing being a business, do you get paid money to publish this book?

Kurt Johnson 16:36
Yeah, you don’t really go into it as a real bit of business venture to to make money. It’s just a mindset, I have to be disciplined about it. You know, if you do get published, they’ll give you I mean, I got $5,000, that, that, that was and that’s, that’s against future sales, so that, you know, your commissions, or your royalties out of the first book sales, just go into paying back that four or $5,000. So and then you have to do a lot of your own marketing. And that costs money, too. So I’ve yet to actually make a dime. But I’m hoping to make a few.

Stephanie Hansen 17:13
I hope so too. It’s just fun to think about. But I know, you know, I people on the podcast know that I’ve been working on this cookbook. And our experience has been pretty similar, but also really different. Because you’re doing fiction, I’m doing nonfiction. You’re working with a New York agent, I’m working with a local Minnesota Historical press. But at the end of the day, it’s like you put all this energy into this thing. And then I don’t know about you, but do you like have imposter syndrome at all? Because I share Do

Kurt Johnson 17:44
you know I’m a fake it till you make it kind of guy so. So my whole life, my whole life has been that

Ellie Johnson 17:51
I certainly have imposter syndrome. Because I mean, I’m, I’m now a debut co author, because my daddy wrote my life story down.

Stephanie Hansen 18:01
My daddy.

Ellie Johnson 18:02
I mean, that that’s, you know, demeaning to the actual writing process. And like what we went through to produce the book that is hopefully going to be before you may 3.

Stephanie Hansen 18:12
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting. You know, I just I look back on for when I’m proofing something, and I think, oh, my gosh, should I write this? Like, when did I write this? It just seems so odd. Now you’ve written a number of books. So now you’re trying to like, are you in the machine of trying to publish more books besides just the barons?

Kurt Johnson 18:31
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I wrote about three books before I wrote the bear. And so I’m going back into that catalog, if you want to call it that, you know, the first book is a fantastic thriller about Las Vegas, based on my time running nightclubs there in the late 80s. So that’s in front of my editor right now, trying to get a decision on it. And then I’ve got a book based on your and I travel through through the West, during COVID times in the RV. So there’s a book that I’ve just finished based on that kind of a thriller, funny, humorous thriller. So I’m hoping hopefully that will get out there on one of these days. Also,

Stephanie Hansen 19:15
it’s weird too, because I have all the books you’ve written and you talk about, like the Las Vegas book and the RV book or kind of dark humor. And yet the Barons is super thoughtful and very fiction driven with these characters of these two women. The books are really different. Is that weird to think about, like pitching? And because like, I don’t know, a lot of women are popular writers right now. And it’s like so and so writes, thrillers and then so and so writes romantic comedies like you’re kind of jumping genres. Is that a good idea?

Kurt Johnson 19:49
No. I mean, everybody would tell you, it’s not a good idea, but I have the luxury of, of not having to write to make a living and that’s a huge luxury. So I can write what I want to write. Well, if I

Ellie Johnson 20:01
just find if I could speak for you for a sec, I mean, I think that like, the three books we just talked about, really, it, it really shows your theme is kind of like taking a space that interests you, or an experience that interests you and kind of working backwards. So like taking Las Vegas, and thinking about what kind of stories would take place in Las Vegas. And, you know, taking an RV through the West, like the back roads of the American West, and turning that into a story with the barons, you kind of took a space that very much intrigued you and went backwards. It’s a very contemplative space. So you ended up with a really contemplative story that makes sense, something that’s a little bit, you know, softer and really deals with, like your interior character, like because you said one of the biggest challenges was creating dialogue in a book where characters alone for most of the time, right, I mean, you could speak to that about like, you know, how do you create thrills out of? Yeah, the more thoughtful

Kurt Johnson 20:58
well, and that, that that comes down to the, you know, the backstories of of these two women and then imagine future stories of these women. And I kind of do it through a verbal dialogue. It’s kind of around the campfire stories?

Ellie Johnson 21:15
Well, not since I think your stories might not be like that different from one another when I think it’s just more about you trying to let a story reflect the space that you wanted it to take place in?

Kurt Johnson 21:24
Yeah, you just haven’t read my novel The toes about a hockey goalie in the 1950s.

Ellie Johnson 21:32
No, I haven’t. But we’ve talked about it plenty. And I I’d say that your your space, then is an ice rink in the 1950s. The amount you talk about, it’s certainly like a, let’s say, not a place but a headspace that intrigues you. Yes.

Stephanie Hansen 21:46
Ellie? Is this something that you? I mean, do you see yourself as a writer? Are you interested in this space down the road?

Ellie Johnson 21:53
I mean, I went to I went to school for English. So I have my bachelor’s in English. I love writing. It’s a big part of my life. I am trying right now to like write my, you know, debut novel under my own name. By that I mean, you know, just keep writing. As that said, I hope to keep doing that. I’m actually more interested in like movies. I think that’s my big pipe dream is to one day write scripts. This

Stephanie Hansen 22:19
book does scream kind of movies.

Kurt Johnson 22:22
Well, I just so happens. I do have an agent in Hollywood that’s pushing the book. And I’m hoping that Bill Pohlad was, will pick it up, but we’ll say

Stephanie Hansen 22:32
so if anyone knows, Bill, Hey,

Ellie Johnson 22:33
Bill, we’ve been told it seems very cinematic. So please,

Stephanie Hansen 22:37
yeah, and there’s few characters. So it seems like it’d be easy to make. And there’s a lot of movies right now in the pipeline, because nothing happened during COVID. And now there’s like this flood coming through. I don’t

Ellie Johnson 22:50
know how replicating the environment of the Barons would like, I don’t know where you would film that where it would be affordable and easy to get to. But I mean, there are the spaces, it’s mostly just about trying to find areas that like really replicate that like moss, permafrost and lack of trace, like the amount of space is just incredible.

Stephanie Hansen 23:11
When does the book come out? Kurt?

Kurt Johnson 23:14
May 3 is when it comes out. And can people pre order it now? Yeah, absolutely. Any online bookseller should have it available,

Ellie Johnson 23:23
literally just Google the Barron’s book, and it will pop up to the publishers website, tons of places to preorder

Stephanie Hansen 23:29
Kurt Johnson le Johnson and you’re having a book signing event. Do you want to invite people to come?

Kurt Johnson 23:34
Yeah, we’re having kind of a pre launch event up in Ely were where the parts of the novel took place at a progress. And that’s on, I believe, Saturday, the seventh at 130. And then we’re having a larger event at lush bar and theatre on May 18, at 7pm. And Stephanie will be reading from the book. And I’ll have Lori and Julia from the my talk, interviewing Ellie and I, and I’m going to get a little introduction by my mentor, Peter guy,

Stephanie Hansen 24:12
and who is Peter guy,

Kurt Johnson 24:14
he won. He’s a novelist. He won the Minnesota Book Award a couple of years ago.

Stephanie Hansen 24:19
How do you know him?

Kurt Johnson 24:21
I took a course at the loft a year long writing course at the loft. And and that he that he taught

Stephanie Hansen 24:27
would you recommend that for people interested in writing?

Kurt Johnson 24:30
Yeah, absolutely. You know, if you want to be a novelist, and you want to take a year it’s a it’s a good group of people. And he’s a he’s a great teacher. And I certainly got to the next level in novel writing by taking that course.

Stephanie Hansen 24:44
Okay. All right. Well, it’s been fun to sit and talk with you guys. Good luck on the book. I hope it’s a smashing success. We did read it from my book club. We had 10 women read it. And everybody it’s so funny because people are like, Oh my gosh, it was so good. Like they’re almost the prize kind of because it’s just very personally revealing about I mostly

Ellie Johnson 25:04
just got questions about animals there why? Why anyone would even go to a place that has that many mosquitoes because the bugs

Stephanie Hansen 25:11
Yeah, you had to wear like bug gear the whole time. Yeah,

Ellie Johnson 25:15
well, everyone who seems freaked out by it I say like there’s honestly so many bugs that your body adjusts to the toxins within like a week. So that first week, I was a mess. But after that, I know I wouldn’t even get bumps.

Stephanie Hansen 25:28
Yeah, cuz you get so much histamine reaction for pretty much yuck. No, thank you. All right, you guys. It’s been fun to talk with you on the makers of Minnesota podcast and good luck with the book. Thank you. Thanks.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai