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Award-winning author reads at Prairie Lights

BY ERIC ANDERSEN | JANUARY 27, 2010 7:30 AM

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Tim Johnston’s bookshelf may be filled with such literary classics as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Halldór Laxness’ Independent People, but his original inspiration to write stems from his childhood days spent reading “Spider-Man” comic books.

“I remember when Spider-Man’s first girlfriend [Gwen Stacy] was killed, before Mary Jane came along,” Johnston said. “He was trying to save her with his own Spidey-web and snapped her neck after Green Goblin dropped her off a bridge. I remember just being devastated … it was the story and not just the drawings that had such a powerful effect.”

Although he said he is carrying around works by James Salter and Cormac McCarthy in a special bag, the writer credits “Spider-Man” as a possible source for his experimentation with dark themes in his latest collection of short stories.

Johnston will read from Irish Girl at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. today. The 47-year-old UI graduate’s collection received praise from author David Sedaris, and it won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His first novel, Never So Green, was also well-received.

Janet Peery, a professor of English and creative writing at Old Dominion University and the judge of the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, cited Johnston’s refusal to “show off” as one of the reasons for honoring Irish Girl.

“He has an ability to etch a memorable image in very few words,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Iowan. “[Johnston] is willing to allow his characters [to have] flaws and knows how to make those flaws matter to the story.”

The short stories found in Irish Girl discuss topics ranging from murder (“Dirt Men”) to the fear of losing a loved one (“Up There”).

Despite Irish Girl’s recent critical success, Johnston has yet to see major monetary gains from his writing. He still takes on carpentry work to pay the bills — a skill the author learned from his father and later honed while working for a contractor who made repairs to million-dollar houses in California.

Johnston, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., said it can be hard to divide his time between writing and the various construction projects he must take on a regular basis.

“When I’m the boss working on a project, it’s the only thing I can think about, he said. “It’s usually one or the other.”

He said he never planned to make a career out of carpentry — it happened out of necessity. In fact, the author said he never planned to be a full-time writer, either, until he pursued a M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts.

The Iowa City-born author has many fond memories of the town, but none stick out more than when he rode his Kawasaki 250 on-off dirt bike during his college days.

“When I was a freshman or junior here, a bunch of buddies and I all had motorcycles,” he said. “We looked like a crappy motorcycle gang. My fondest memory is riding around town with them.”

Johnston is working on a novel from which previously released short stories “Two Weeks” and “Up There” are borrowed. He has around 300 pages written, he said, but he is not sure when the book will be completed.

“It’s a ‘three character’ kind of novel,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got two characters under control, but the third’s story still needs some work. I want to make sure the reader has a reason to keep turning the page.”


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