Port Washington residents, authors Nora and Stan Johnson, are standing behind the covers of their two books. They were featured speakers at the recent Cabin Fever series presented by the Friends of the Port Washington Library. Committee members Selma Wilner and Susan Kass are with the authors.
Port residents Stan and Nora Johnson, husband-and-wife writing team, captivated the audience at a recent presentation. In a charming and lighthearted style, they talked about the rewards and frustrations they have experienced in writing and having published two books. The event, part of the Friends of the Library Cabin Fever series, was held at the Knickerbocker Yacht Club and included a continental breakfast.
Stan set the tone by asking, "How many people here want to write a book or are in the process of writing one?" A half dozen or so of the attendees raised their hands. Stan continued, "Let me give you a couple of statistics. According to polls, 81 percent of adults believe that they want to or can write a book, but only about 49,000 books are published each year. So there's a lot of competition." His bottom-line advice: "Have fun, but keep your day job." Which is what the Johnsons have done. He is an attorney, and she is a full-time homemaker and primary caregiver for their three children, as well as being very active in community activities.
Stan declared that he was not part of the 81 percent until 1996. The way he tells the story, he was having drinks with a friend who was a Special Forces colonel. Both were big fans of a popular writer of action/thriller novels and both agreed that they were disappointed in the writer's latest book. Stan declared (perhaps after a couple of drinks), "I can do better." His friend (who is also now a published author) said, "I dare you," and asked if he had a story in mind. It turned out that Stan, who never had any serious aspirations to be a writer, did have a story idea. He had been a JAG officer in the army infantry right after Vietnam. He said, "I served with the Rangers and was very impressed with them as a group. I had always thought that if I did write anything, it would be about the Rangers." And so, with Nora's collaboration, he embarked on the project of writing a book. The result, a number of years later, was Once a Ranger, the story of former Army Ranger David Craig who, when his son is abducted by a serial kidnapper and the police come up empty-handed, organizes a "search and destroy" mission with his Ranger buddies and the other parents. Although it is categorized as an "action thriller," Nora commented, "The Ranger story is really a rescue story. It is the story of Justin being kidnapped and the relationship between father and son and the ranger and his colleagues." She added, "The protagonists do not murder." Stan pointed out that the book appeals to both men and women. "Both my books feature strong, brilliant women." He added, "I like smart women."
Although both books bear only Stan's name, Nora was a full collaborator on both of them. Nora, an English major in college who also practiced law before she had children, said that it started with her reviewing and revising what Stan had written, then quickly evolved into a full partnership. At the publisher's insistence, only one author - the man's - was listed on the book cover. The publisher (Penguin) said that people didn't want to buy books with two listed authors. Nora commented, "I checked it out, and four of the 20 best sellers are co-authored." She said, "I was admittedly very disappointed that we could not be listed as co-authors, but now I'm a lot more relaxed about it."
Once the book was completed, the Johnsons set about finding an agent and learning what each one expects from you. Somewhat amazingly for first-time writers, they did find an agent, Michael Carlyle, who called to say, "I love your book. I want to meet you. Can you come right away?" The only problem: When Stan took the call, he was downstairs in the hospital where Nora was having their baby. Stan put him off until the next day, and together he and the agent shopped publishers. "We got rejected by the best of them," Stan said. Ultimately, they found Penguin, who liked the book but demanded that it be a lot shorter. (Stan said that the book's first draft was over 1,000 typed pages.)
Penguin was not interested in signing a one-book deal and wanted to know if the Johnsons had any ideas for a second book. Indeed, they did. About 60 pages into writing the second book, which was about a terrorist attack that brought down the electric grid in downtown Manhattan, the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 happened. Nora said, "Neither we nor the publisher were interested in proceeding with this." (Editor's note: We have heard a similar tale from at least two other different writers. Perhaps the government should hire writers of suspense novels to predict the next likely terrorist scenario.)
The Johnsons then proceeded with what became their next published novel: Lethal Weapon. The story line has to do with a terrorist plan to attack our pharmaceutical supplies. The premise is that if the terrorists can poison certain medications, not only can they kill the people taking them, but if one doesn't know which medications have been poisoned, one would have to shut down the entire pharmaceutical industry. Stan commented, "Interestingly enough, I have not heard anyone in the government talk about this."
Will there be a third book? The publisher would like one, but Stan and Nora are not so sure. "We have a lot of ideas," said Stan. "Ideas come easily to us, but it's a major time commitment." Stan, an attorney specializing in private equities, is a partner at Loeb and Loeb. Nora is president of the Sousa Home School Association (HSA), which she described as "like a full-time job." She is also a member of the district's Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee. Stan and Nora are also the parents of three children: Adam is a junior at Schreiber, Rachel is a fourth-grader at Sousa and Isabel is at the Happy Montessori School.
Apart from the time commitment (which, when one is under contract, includes tight deadlines), the Johnson's reluctance to go into contract with another book has a great deal to do with their disappointment at the publisher's failure to pay adequate attention to marketing and distribution. Said Stan, "If you're an unknown author, it's a daunting task to sell your own book." "As an example of the publisher's failure to do even the basic things," he said, "The Once a Ranger was not even on sale at the military PXs. I called the bookstores at Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell and got them to put it on the shelves." Nora said, "As much as we enjoyed working together and as much as it enhanced our relationship, it is very frustrating that the publishers won't spend more time on it." Stan commented that a movie deal could enter into a decision to do future books. The Johnsons are in conversation with a couple of producers, but, said Stan, "That's a long shot."
Stan and Nora Johnson and their children moved to Port Washington from Manhattan about four years ago. About living in Port, each said individually, "I love it." Nora said that they have made many friends and have a very active social life.