Q&A: Bureaucrat-turned-author Matt Johnson

BY LILY ABROMEIT | MAY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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UI alumnus Matt Johnson is on a journey from D.C. bureaucrat to published author. Throughout his career in government and public policy, he began to become more and more interested in the stories of Americans he was hearing every day.

Now, Johnson is publishing his first book, American Hearts, a collection of of nonfiction essays on American life, supporting the whole process through an online Kickstarter campaign. As of May 13, 106 backers had helped Johnson exceed his goal of $5,000, contributing $5,630 and counting. There are eight days left in his campaign.

To learn more about Johnson’s program or to lend your support, go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2128250934/american-hearts-stories-from-a-bureaucrat

The Daily Iowan: Can you tell me a little bit about your career path?

Matt Johnson: I graduated undergrad in 2003 at Iowa, and then I went straight into a master’s program. Undergrad was philosophy, and then graduate school was mathematics. I realized math wasn’t for me, so I quit that semester and went on tour with a [punk rock] band.

So I went on tour and wrote and edited math books on the side and just lived that dream for a little bit. I really immersed myself into history and culture and decided I wanted to do a career change … so I went back to school in 2008 and got a master’s in public policy, and after that then I went and got a job at a consulting firm in D.C., and then from there I was a non-political detail to the federal government.

The bottom line was I worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense doing work on security-assistance programs. These would be programs that provide United States money, training, and equipment to foreign governments to help them build stronger governments and security resources. In September, I stopped working at the Pentagon and moved down to Richmond, Virginia.

DI: Can you tell me about your fist book, American Hearts? Where did you get the inspiration for the book?

Johnson: When I started working at the Pentagon, I was still very interested in all these weird, crazy stories I was learning about Americans that I was reading or from talking to people … and I was like, ‘Man, I really wish I had an outlet to share some of these stories,’ because I’ve always loved storytelling, and so that’s when the idea came to me to start a blog … It required me to boil everything down to the most essential points, but the trick was to make it interesting.

So it was sort of born two years ago, in February 2013, and I always had a vision that I was going to write a book. Basically, what I wanted to do was write these essays, and I wanted 50 of them because there are 50 states, and I wanted them to all be stories about America.

DI: How did you decide to use a Kickstarter campaign? Have you found the campaign to be successful?

Johnson: That was a very deliberate decision. I was a bureaucrat, and so my perspective was that I probably wasn’t going to get any sort of wonderful publication deal just based on having some tiny little blog … and I didn’t know that I totally wanted one because everything in my life was so governed by other authorities, whether it be working at the Pentagon or wherever, so I really wanted something to be 100 percent purely mine, and so that’s why I turned to the crowd-funding approach.

My idea was, ‘What if we could just take something that’s only in my head, this little dream I had, and make it in it’s purest form?’ so that’s kind of why I chose to do it that way. And it’s really worked out extremely well. Kickstarter is a way to bring people in, have them be a part of it, and then they’re share it with their friends.

DI: What are you planning next?

Johnson: So now we’re in the halfway point for the Kickstarter … so the next step for me is to let this Kickstarter run out … anything else that comes in will be focused on marketing and distribution. Once that Kickstarter is over, I have to do the mechanics of following through with all of it. But then after that, for me, that’s when this kind of fun adventure begins because, yes, I still have this career where I do government policy work, but then on the side, I can do this creative thing and see what happens.

That was the whole thing with this little dream: maybe it will be a side project and maybe it will be this one thing I ever do with my life, but at least I know that I get to do this thing that I love the most. And whether or not its a full-time gig or a part-time gig, I did it.

To learn more about Johnson’s program, read writing samples, or lend your support, go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2128250934/american-hearts-stories-from-a-bureaucrat.

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