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Author Interview: Nathaniel S. Johnson

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Dianne Woodman is talking with Nathaniel S. Johnson, author of Phoebe and Fred.

FQ: So many debut authors tend to start their writing career with a novel closer to their professional career. With that in mind, what drew you to an imaginative world of dogs for your first novel instead of, say, a murder mystery in the world of broadcasting?

JOHNSON: As a writer, I tend to choose what’s foremost in my mind at the time and what emotions are currently most moving me to write a story. If I were to write about broadcasting, I might begin with listening to mysteries on the radio when I was a boy and what it was like, later in life, to engage in actual, personal telephone conversations at midnight with “The Shadow” himself, Orson Welles. Instead, I chose a fanciful tale about my favorite canine breed, Basset Hounds, very popular in our seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts, and a breed I have adopted from rescue shelters for over twenty years! Perhaps, one day, it will be revealed that Bassets have had me very well-trained.

FQ: Phoebe and Fred is a very unique story. Did it come, perhaps, from long walks (or discussions?) with your own bassets?

JOHNSON: Bassets are most personable and sociable; they bond beautifully with people—children, especially. Some male hounds can be quite flirtatious with women or young girls and often become quickly charmed by them. I had one hound who had four or five “steadies” in downtown Rockport! All in all, most folks seem to have a good time with Basset Hounds.

FQ: Would you tell our readers a little about your own bassets? What draws you to the breed?

JOHNSON: I’ve always enjoyed a natural rapport with my rescue Bassets. They appreciate my willingness to spoil them with praise, pats, walks to favorite spots, and making friends they enjoy. I’ve always talked to animals, never down to them. Bassets know I care and always will. Gus, my present Basset, has two favorite words: friend and treats. For orphan hounds who have lost a family and/or a home, kindness and constant concern are fundamental to their therapy, good health, and bonding. And we’re fortunate to have compassionate, competent vets close by.

FQ: You’ve collaborated with some very well-known people during your time at WGBH. I have to ask, what was it like working with Alistair Cooke? Any memories (with Cooke or others) that you’d like to share with our readers?

JOHNSON: I have an amusing story about Alistair Cooke, who had an industry reputation for being serious, and even stern or severe, during production. Before entering our PBS-TV studio, however, he would often first meet me downstairs at the FM radio station to record “A Letter from America” for later broadcast on the BBC. We appreciated one another’s company, and our sessions always went smoothly and proceeded without issues. Each reading or “Letter” would run for about ten minutes, and after turning the tape machine off and reading the stopwatch, I would then open the talkback mic and give Alistair the result. One day, however, feeling mischievous, I changed my mood. Following the reading, I opened the talkback mic and shook my head in despair. “Sorry, Alistair, we’re going to have to do this all over.”

His jaw dropped, and his face crumpled in disbelief. “Why?”

I continued shaking my head, feigning sadness. “You were ten seconds short.”

Alistair’s expression remained disturbed for a few seconds, but after seeing me grinning through the studio window, realized my mischief. His face clouded over for a second, then he threw his head back laughing, tossed the entire script up in the air, and cried, “All right, Nat. You got me this time!” The next day, Alistair’s TV producer for Masterpiece Theatre came to me and remarked, “I heard about your escapade yesterday. You were lucky to get away with that, Nat!”

P.S. For my birthday that year, I received an autographed* copy of Alistair Cooke’s America. *For Nat Johnson. Happy Birthday to you, Rabbie. Alistair Cooke. Jan 25. (Rabbie is a German boy’s name for famed, bright, shining).

FQ: Are you still active in radio/tv? Or, if retired, do you still “dabble” in music/sound recordings?

JOHNSON: First, more to write! However, my supportive publisher (Atmosphere) and I are discussing recording an audiobook following a companion paperback and digital editions of my forthcoming publication, One Before Bedtime, an anthology of short stories. So, yes, I’m pleased with the prospect of returning to “the audio business” in the near future.

FQ: The music of choice for Fred and Phoebe while on their adventure was a chorus from Beethoven's ninth symphony. As a radio broadcaster and record producer, you have listened to a repertoire of music. Why did you choose a symphony of Beethoven's for the bassets to use in their audible accompaniment to the music?

JOHNSON: Good question! The exultant nature of the lyrics in the choral music to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy seemed to me a perfect match to the nature of these happy hounds out on the town: “Happy, happy as his suns, his suns are flying...Through Heaven's magnificent plan...Run, brothers, your path...Happy as his suns fly.”

My adaptation:

Joyful, loyal, playful Bassets,
We all love the basset hound,
Best of friends with the kindest assets,
They will never let you down.

FQ: The family uses a variety of ways to teach the bassets how to reach a higher level of cognition — for instance, watching television shows and using a unique concoction for the bassets to drink, which enhances their ability to take on human characteristics. So many people today treat their dogs like children. I can imagine some would give almost anything for these intelligence-building “things.” Do you think some dog-lovers would go crazy to get their hands on these training devices?

JOHNSON: Well, Bassets are renowned for their stubbornness, especially if dragged to “obedience” school, possibly the vet, or other uncertain venues. They’re also fussy about food. My guess is that most will struggle for their preferred canine cuisine, although mine have never resisted kindness or the promise of a treat, even from the vet!

FQ: The Bible verses you picked for the story are perfect. Did you decide on the verses or the personality of the Reverend first?

JOHNSON: First, I chose a name to help establish the character's personality: Earnest Treadwell. Next, I imagined his stride, manner of speaking, and general behavior before others in a small town. Last, I chose his tone of voice and applicable choices of scripture to match his mood during his encounters with others in the story.

FQ: You accurately portray village life and the hullabaloo it causes when two adventurous basset hounds disrupt the villagers’ peaceful existence. Are the behavioral reactions of the villagers to the disruption based on familiar territory, or is it purely imagined?

JOHNSON: From my experience, growing up in a peaceful village (Concord, MA) and now living in a similar, small seaside town, I know that any significant change in activities or disruption in town events or peoples’ lives is fast food for foraging...and gossip! I hope some will see themselves, or others they know, with delight and amusement.

FQ: Will we be seeing Phoebe and Fred in another adventure or do you think your writing will take you in a different direction for your next book?

JOHNSON: I believe the Phoebe and Fred story came to a satisfying conclusion. My next venture will be a book of short stories (from Atmosphere Press) titled One Before Bedtime. This shall offer a bright opportunity to exercise and expand my thoughts into a vast variety of venues I hope will find favor with people of all ages everywhere.

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