Historian Lia Carrer has finally decided to return to southwestern France to rebuild her life after her husband’s death. But instead of finding solace in the rural hills and medieval ruins, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder and falls for a man whose very existence challenges all she knows.
Told in dual past and present narration – early 13th-century and today – In Another Life is a literary page turner that explores love, loss, and the ghosts that never let us go. The debut novel, released in February from Sourcebooks Landmark, has received much praise, including a starred review from Library Journal.
I am so excited to welcome Julie Christine Johnson, author of In Another Life, to the blog – and to offer a free giveaway of her book! It’s always a thrill to get caught up in a good novel. Even more so when it’s written by a cherished friend.
Julie and I “met” in an online writer’s group; we’ve never met face to face. Yet her warmth and wisdom were immediately evident in her thoughtful messages, in her lyrical ruminations on her blog Chalk the Sun. We formed a rapport that has only grown deeper. And I confess to finding myself choked up when I finished her book – for the feat that she had accomplished creating such a rich story. And to find my name in the acknowledgments! I am truly in awe and so grateful to have such intelligent, generous people in my life – and to be thought of as a writing peer.
Julie’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal, Mud Season Review, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim, Cobalt, River Poets Journal, in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai, Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss, as well as being featured on the flash fiction podcast No Extra Words. She leads writing workshops and seminars and offers story/developmental editing and writer coaching services. A hiker, yogi, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Julie. Details on the giveaway at the end of the post!
In Another Life is set in France’s Languedoc region (with a foray into Paris, too!). Your lyrical prose delights in lush descriptions and details – we see the landscape clearly through your word paintings, can almost taste the food and wine (your previous job as a wine buyer must have aided in the latter, I assume!) I know you have a long history with France – your undergraduate degree is in French and you have had extended stays in l’Hexagone for over a quarter century. What draws you so deeply to this country? Did it feel natural to have your first book bloom from your connection? Why here, in other words?
Why France, indeed? I had to sit with this question a bit. Yes, I’ve been enthralled with France for nearly thirty years, since deciding to become a French major—even before I spent a year at the University of Chambèry as a college senior. But why? What began this love affair with a place, a culture, a people?
It started with the language. I enrolled in French as a college freshman to fulfill general requirements and by the end of the first quarter, something had opened up inside me. For me, learning a language went beyond syntax and grammar; it transformed the formation of my thoughts. Articulating in French changed my relationship to the learning process by tapping into an active creativity I didn’t realize I possessed.
I was also a psychology major and this whole notion of how we acquire language, how language shapes our mental processes, fascinated me. I considered pursuing psycholinguistics and enrolled in a Master’s degree in Linguistics the week I completed a first Master’s in International Affairs. But a job offer arrived and took me in an entirely different direction.
There’s a point here, somewhere; an answer to your question! I fell in love with France because of the language. The language led me to the literature, the arts, film, music, and eventually to France as a university student in 1990, where my heart was forever lost.
When I spent several weeks in Languedoc in spring of 2011, the Cathar faith and history, combined with the beauty of the region, cast a spell over me that stayed and finally became manifest in this novel, which I began writing in July of 2012.
I wonder, would it have been different if I’d picked Spanish or German, Japanese or Russian? I’ve studied several other languages since and loved them all, but nothing has felt as right in my mouth or brain as French.
In addition to the intimate knowledge of place, the depth of historical research is also so evident in the book’s pages. How did you balance the needs of invention (fiction!) and historical grounding (fact!)?
I feared that if I started with the research, I would never stop, or I would lose focus, and the magic of the story would become mired in the details. I had a solid foundation of Cathar history from time spent in Languedoc and the research I’d done out of sheer interest in the region and its past, without a clue I was setting the stage for a novel.
So, I dove in and began writing the story. In the two years it took to write In Another Life, I learned to layer my narrative with research. My library of materials on the Cathars, medieval France, art and architecture of the era grew and the scenes set in the past deepened. Writing a work of fantasy allowed me poetic license with the plot, but I wanted to honor the historical details of daily life. It was a continuous stream of sifting through and layering in details, then combing out the tangles until only those elements that created a sense of place and time and moved the plot forward remained.
My goal was to create as seamless a transition as possible between past and present, while retaining a sense of almost dream-like wonder between the two worlds. It’s a feeling I carry with me when I’m in France, where the past lives and breathes in concert with the present. The towns, streets, hills, vineyards, and many of the edifices within In Another Life are ones I’ve explored, wandered through, dreamed of.
I admit I knew little about the Cathars or the bloody crusade in southern France and northern Spain that the Catholic Church waged against them, claiming they were a heretical faith. I was so intrigued by what I learned thanks to your novel. The Cathar’s belief in reincarnation is particularly compelling; I can see why it stoked your imagination! It’s such a powerful idea that serves in so many ways a story exploring themes of love, loss, atonement, and redemption. Can you talk a bit about reincarnation in relation to your novel?
Very simplistically, the Judeo-Christian concept of resurrection is the transformation of the body to an immortal form. Although they considered themselves Christians, the Cathars did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. He was, to them, a spirit in human form and essentially one that transcended death. He would have had no need of resurrection.
Yet the Cathars believed in reincarnation, which is the rebirth of a soul—either in the same form, or into another human, or through a transmigration of souls from human to non-human animal. The rebirth is perpetual until atonement for past transgressions is made, a good life is lived, and final entry is granted into the realm of the God of grace. There is no immortality in reincarnation, only a temporary exclusion from heaven until you get it figured out. Of course, temporary could mean centuries!
These beliefs in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls into animal form gave me a launching point into In Another Life. Although the focus is on reincarnation, I offer glimpses into transmigration with the interplay of the Peregrine falcon, and the Bonelli’s eagle, and of course the dove, which has become a symbol of the Cathar faith.
Rather than pursue a science fiction approach to the characters’ transition from past to present, where the mechanics of time travel are examined and perhaps explained, I kept to the theme of faith and used Biblical and other religious mythologies as my guide: what must Adam and Eve have felt, awakening to a world they did not know, but somehow understood? They were fully able to use the technology of their time. For me, the interest wasn’t in the how, but in the why, the who, the “what now?”
What I hint at in the narrative, however, is the role memory plays. That there is an understanding of modern life because there have been other passages through time when things were learned and retained by the body and brain, but those passages are not remembered. And that each man has experienced his transition differently; hence, the fundamentals of reincarnation: that rebirth can occur in many different forms.
This is an intricately plotted novel and I’m a bit stunned you considered yourself a “pantster” (a writer who writes without an outline, “by the seat of her pants”). What was your process in writing this book? How did you corral so much material and the many twists and turns into a coherent, page-turning narrative? Can you talk about maybe getting a bit lost in it all – and how you found your way to the finished product?
I had no idea when I set out where the story was going or how it would end. I had an image of a woman standing on a cliff’s edge; below her stretches Corbières valley in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, laced with vineyards and studded with wind towers. Behind her, a man steps out from the ruins of a Cathar citadel. I was aching to find out who they were and to write their story, but I had no idea how to begin.
I could see the narrative unfolding as a time slip between medieval and contemporary Languedoc. Romance. Adventure. Mystery. Reincarnation. Castle ruins. Knights Templar. Wine. What fun! But what did I know of thirteenth century Languedoc? I had no plan. I had no outline. No beginning, middle, or end. I had only a vision as fleeting as snowflakes on glass.
I began by writing scenes to writing prompts, a process I picked up from Priscilla Long’s writing guide, The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Each morning before my day job, I would write 300-500 words in longhand and on the weekends, transcribe my work into Scrivener. After several months of this, I began to see a plot take shape. Bird by bird, word by word, I would write this story.
After a year, I had 140,000 words of scenes in no discernable order and no idea how I was going to get to an ending or what that ending might be. So I literally spread the novel out on the floor and over three days shifted scenes around until things began to click into place. Then I started from the beginning and rewrote my way to the end, around 170,000 words. I finished a full first draft in December 2013, eighteen months after I started. It took another ten months of revising to come up with a draft I felt ready to query, a word count that remained through publication: 89,000 words.
Although I’m still a pantser, I don’t write this way anymore. I start at what feels like a beginning and write my way through to an end of a first draft without editing, but I have a much more refined sense of pacing and structure. In later drafts I do impose a loose outline to focus on a natural narrative flow.
In Another Life is an ambitious novel (if it weren’t already clear from the questions above!) I’m so impressed by the skill displayed in this debut. I read you wanted to be a writer from the time you were a child – but that you didn’t actually start writing until you were 41. And then a flood of material! You have written this assured debut, already a second novel forthcoming (The Crows of Beara from Ashland Creek Press in 2017) and a third novel all in a short amount of time. I wonder if all those years of not writing meant your subconscious was storing up all these stories so they came bursting through once you opened the door. Can you talk about finally following your writing path?
Writing had always been a distant fantasy, one I stored high on a shelf. Fear kept me from taking it down and trying it out, because if I failed, what dreams would be left to me? It was safer to pretend I still had the option. Yet as I crested my 30s and slid into my 40s, I became less afraid of failure and more worried that my chances to begin were shrinking.
I took that dream off the shelf in the fall of 2010 and began attending writing workshops in Seattle, where I was living at the time. I wrote a handful of short stories that were picked up for publication and that gave me the confidence to keep going. I walked into my first writers’ conference in the summer of 2012 with three ideas for a novel, and no idea how to begin.
I was also at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy, my heart as full of hope as my body was with life. Just before the conference’s final session, I realized I was miscarrying.
This wasn’t the first loss, but I knew it would be the last. I was forty-three. After years of unexplained infertility, attempted adoptions, then the unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages, and surgeries, my body was battered and my soul couldn’t take any more. It was time to stop.
Those years of attempting to be a mother came to a definitive end at that writers’ conference. Yet something else sparked to life: a determination to find a way not only to cope with the despair, but to celebrate the life I did have, to create something beyond and greater than myself.
Two weeks after the conference, I typed the opening words to my first novel, the novel that became In Another Life. I didn’t set out to write about a woman recovering from grief, about the impermanence of death, the possibility of rebirth—of the body and the heart. In fact, I thought I had chosen the one story that would take me furthest from my own reality: a past-present adventure exploring a 13th century murder in southern France. Funny what the heart does when the head is distracted. It works to heal.
I’m delighted to see all the success In Another Life is enjoying (in a second printing only three days after its release!). I’ve been learning so much watching your dedication to promoting the book, too – including 50+ (!) blog posts. Is there any question you haven’t yet been asked that you would like to answer?
Oh, let’s do something fun! Q: Who would you cast in the film adaptation? A: Eric Bana: Raoul; Jean Dujardin: Lucas; James Corden: Young Jordí/Bob Hoskins: Older Jordí; Jean Reno: Philippe de Plessis. I’m a bit stumped on Lia, but someone suggested the American actress Amy Aker and although I’m not familiar with her work, she looks close enough to the Lia I have in my mind’s eye and she’s actually the right age!
Film rights. Sigh. A writer can dream…
Lastly, when is your next trip to France? (Come visit me!)
All fingers and toes crossed, I will be returning to Languedoc in late September. One of the unintended consequences of writing/talking about my book’s subject matter, its themes, the research, characters, setting and inspiration, is to be enthralled again by the Cathars, Languedoc, the tangle of history and geography, the wonder of an afterlife that weaves reincarnation with redemption with angels with good and evil and all the layers in-between.
And somewhere in those layers, my imagination, my writer’s soul, continues to work, digging in, excavating, uncovering ideas and holding them in her hand, like tiny embers just waiting for the breath of words to burst into the flame of a story.
Thank you, Julie!
To enter to win a copy of In Another Life, please leave a comment below by 3 pm EST on Wednesday, March 23. Good luck!