Reader Views Interviews Shelah A Johnson, Author of Perpetual Gloom

Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.


1. Hi Shelah, welcome to Reader Views. Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a published author. Have you always wanted to write?

I have always loved stories and books, but my desire to write began around age seven when I was left alone to care for a younger brother and sister while my mom took a waitressing job an hour out of town, and the public library was a great place to hang out. The library was in an old two-bedroom – which made it hard to avoid the librarian, who I thought would kick us out because we didn’t have a library card. But she was long-suffering and introduced me to Nancy Drew. It was a hardback, and I think the librarian could see that I was more than a little intimidated because she told me to just take it “one word at a time.” It was the first book I had read cover to cover, and I knew right then that I wanted to write a book just like that.

2. What is your new book, Perpetual Gloom about?

Perpetual Gloom is the first book in The Boloney Trail trilogy tells the remarkable true story of the Hornbeck family, who struggle to survive the Great Depression, only then to become key players in the birth of the feared Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel – kind of a Grapes of Wrath meets Breaking Bad story.

In this first book, we meet the Hornbeck family who is hit hard during the Great Depression; its patriarch, JC, a religious zealot, robs a bank in Missouri’s bootheel. Later, in Alabama, he is put on trial as a communist. Keen to escape his father’s religious hypocrisy, JC’s teenage son, Monroe, steals his father’s horse and makes his way to California; he experiences life-changing events that ultimately define him as a man. Some time on, Monroe, meets a young woman, Dora, and they wed after she falls pregnant.

3. What was the inspiration behind the story?

I think the late poet, Mary Oliver, said it best. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

4. It’s obvious a lot of work went into this project. What did your research look like and how long did it take to write Perpetual Gloom?

It took me the best part of six years. Initially, the project started with creating a single book, but as I kept researching, it became clear that it would need to be more than one book.

5. The time period is such a critical part of America’s history and yet other than WWII stories, it seems under-represented. What is it about this era that piqued your interest?

You’re right. We are not comfortable looking at one of the most challenging periods of our country, especially for people with deep roots in southern agriculture. They were hit with droughts, dust, and financial collapse. And when migrating internally, they were met with extreme bias and discrimination.

Initially, I was not going to go that far back with the Hornbecks, until I realized that it would be hard for readers to understand what drove them to make the decisions they eventually made. I have also been inquisitive about how extreme stress can imprint a genetic mark on our genes and pass it from one generation to another. And understanding this, I think, helped me empathize with their reality.

6. Your characters are amazing! How were you able to create such authenticity?

Thank you, that’s very kind.

I had this project in mind while in college; one of my English instructors told me to quit school and write. I thought he was blowing smoke up my skirt, so I didn’t. Looking back, I think we were both right. He recognized a strong story, and I realized I was not mature enough at 20 to write something so emotionally complex. When I was younger, everything was black and white.

When picking this story back up when I did, I met the characters on their own terms and without judgment. I often refer to them as people you hate to love and love to hate…none of them are 100% evil nor righteous.

7. Readers follow the Hornbeck family and their struggle for survival. Can you tell us about a couple of your favorite Hornbeck’s and what motivates them?

I think the two main characters, Monroe and Dora, are powerful characters, and they play very well off each other. They are both great examples of people you hate to love and love to hate. They are both seeking the same outcome, but their approaches are miles away from each other –

There are characters that I would like to spend more time with. Jane, Monroe’s grandmother, for example. She was the daughter of the American Revolution and was lethal with a gun. I traced her family all the way back to the elven hundreds in Scotland and arrived in the colonies in 1631 and quickly established themselves by being one of the original signers of the Freeman Agreement.

8. Are all of the characters and events based on real people and their lives or did you also use some creative license?

All the main and most of the secondary characters are authentic. While this family was not literary, they have a rich oral history that still functions today. I found that many of the decedents had their parents dictate accounts that have now been written down. For example, the account of the gunfight in the schoolhouse where the patriarch, JC, was on trial for being a communist was captured in writing by one family member, and another family kept an oral story of the events. Yet, neither of them had spoken to each other in decades. The schoolhouse incident was also captured in a historical book about Arkansas.

Even with such vivid history, there were parts of the story in which I had to create characters to help give the story depth by linking key events of that time period or to link events together. An example of this would be the man that worked a the feedstore in Boonville.

9. What are the ethics of writing historical fiction?

There is an obligation to the readers when writing anything historical. This is one place where you just can’t make shit up. My motto is to verify, verify, verify – even the small stuff. The last thing I want is an email from some old geezer calling me out because I got the name of a logging outfit wrong or a that was not straight but a slant in the ’39 International flatbed.

10. What were some hurdles you faced when writing your story, and how did you handle those challenges?

I became privy to two events that stopped me dead in my tracks, I mean, DEAD in my tracks. Making the decision to include the scenes or not was a struggle. I asked myself if excluding these details was a way of skirting difficult subjects? I compromised and said no to one, yes to the other.

11. Even though the story spans decades, the Hornbeck’s seemed stuck in place, riding horses instead of driving automobiles, lack of indoor plumbing in their homes, etc. It really paints a picture of economic disparity that hasn’t much improved today. Was it your intention to draw attention to these issues?

I would not say it was “intentional”; I just pointed a light on what was already there. We have this false believe in America that if we work hard, our families will prosper. The Hornbeck family had worked hard since they arrived on the continent 391 years ago. Members of their families have fought in every squeamish and war this country has ever been involved in. They answered the call to duty and accumulated a stack of widow pension requests. Yet, like thousands of other families, their loyalty was never reciprocated. Oil rights were grabbed out from under them, and when they were dusted out, their farms were repossessed. And when they tried to relocate, they were met with hostility and depressed wages. Yet, they hung onto life with their teeth, using every means possible, be it a sway back horse, broken mule, or a truck that was held together with baling wire.

12. In fact, there were many parallels that are less than complimentary regarding our nation as a whole and how we regard our own citizens: the treatment of oppressed, marginalized, and stigmatized groups, religious zealotry, white supremacy, misogyny, women’s rights – you hit them all! What surprised you most when doing your research on these issues?

I’m so happy you picked that up because it was one of the biggest surprises for me as well. When you see it laid out, it’s very hard to ignore the fact that we keep repeating the worst things about ourselves as a society.
After looking at hundreds of pictures of shanties built during The Great Depression, it’s hard not to invasion the homeless camps we see across the country today. The rhetoric we hear from today’s religious heretics is reminiscent of the religious leaders who instructed the Hornbecks in the late twenties and early thirties when we first saw fundamentalism appear in many southern states, a direct result of being left out of the country’s growing prosperity. The Hornbecks joined a budding sectarian organization because there is nothing more comforting to a frightened and poorly uneducated person than to believe that educated and financially secure are going to die a horrifying death at Armageddon, other than their small long-suffering congregates. Fear is like a magnet; fundamentalism and other hate groups targeted jazz because of its ethnic connection, cinema because they could not control the narrative, and restrict women’s dress and behavior because…well, religion has always targeted women.
For several decades Americans had seen a growth in the middle class, and the hate groups were pushed underground. However, today as we see the middle-class shrinking along with affordable housing and stagnant wages, we again see an increase in hate groups. Fundamentalists are again targeting women’s rights, banning books, and celebrating unwarranted racial superiority in the name of religion and nationalism. These were the very people benefiting from a constitutional right to freely practice religion, whose ancestors fled religious persecution in Europe.
In a way, you might say that looking backward is looking into our future.

13. As a reader, I was saddened and enraged to see that our society remains so rooted in the past. What was your mindset when writing about these issues and what do you hope readers take away from your parallel references?

The future will always be an ebb and flow, therefor there are no real societal norms. There is no single thing that we use today that has not had its origin somewhere in history; for the most part, we get that. We are slow to get that our values are also built on history, the good and the bad. History will have to be our guide, sextant, and building blocks, if we want to become better humans, providing we are willing to adjust when we are going off course.

And all though we may understand this intellectually, we are facing a backlash against history because it offends certain people – as if history schoolbooks can change it. It makes about as many scenes as denying the sun came out yesterday because you didn’t like how hot it got. If we don’t like history, then let’s not repeat it.

14. Perpetual Gloom is the first book in your The Boloney Trail trilogy. What can readers expect from books two and three?

In the second book, Imaginary Gravity, we see our main character, Monroe, under pressure to meet Dora’s financial and religious aims; Monroe accepts a business opportunity and moves his wife and three young children to Mexico. Here, he sets himself up as a heroin and gun runner for the budding Sinaloa Cartel. Still, not long after, Monroe’s lifestyle and numerous infidelities strain the marriage.

The third book, Shattering Light, finds Monroe dangerously over his head with an increasingly violent and ruthless business. Looking to save his own skin, he goes into hiding with a mistress. Without a care for his children, Monroe completely abandons his 9-year-old daughter, Shelda, and her two younger siblings, to fend for themselves on the streets of Mexico. Despite all the odds, the children use their innocent resourcefulness to survive and eventually find their way back home.

15. When are they scheduled for publication?

Imaginary Gravity and Shattering Light will drop in Q1 ’23 and Q3 ’23, respectively.

16. I was excited to learn that you have partnered with a screenplay writer to take your story to the next level. How did this come about?

This is a story in itself. By the time the book was published, I had already gone through 28 full-on edits. It was hard to find the right voice and approach. But once I settled on an approach, making each chapter a visual scene, everything fell into place. Where some people may see words, I first see moving pictures and hear stories (not to be confused with hearing voices :)), then I write about them.

Although I could not afford to pay $30 to $40 thousand for a pilot, I still reached out to three established screenplay writers. I could get valuable feedback, if nothing else, so I sent the manuscript. One scriptwriter did not have the bandwidth, and the second one did not get the storyline. But the third one, J R Santana, whom I was most impressed with, said he was extremely interested and would like to jump on a call. When we met on the phone, he knew every character by name, knew the scenes, and was genuinely interested and understood the storyline – despite being British. We spent over an hour kicking ideas back and forth until I finally asked if he would be interested in a partnership. He was, we drafted an agreement, and that was about a year ago.

Then earlier this year, just by coincidence, we discovered we were both related to Samuel Johnson, an English writer who made lasting contributions as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer and credited with creating the Oxford English Dictionary.

17. What’s it like working together to bring your story to life?

It has been incredibly smooth. JR brings a great deal of insights and talent to the project. We are both equally committed to the guiding principle on which our partnership is built; that is, the best idea wins. We work collaboratively, although we have our key areas of expertise, which provides each an opportunity to take the lead. And it’s all the more fun now that we found out we are acutely related – it’s now a “family” project.

18. Do you envision a movie or a series-type production?

JR can speak better to this, but we are looking at three series for each title.

19. In what stage in the process are you now, as it relates to bringing the screenplay to audiences?

As an award-winning screen playwriter and producer, JR has reached out to people he has worked with in the past who have expressed interest in attaching to the project, which is extremely exciting. We will be making public announcements as they sign on.

20. So, you’ve got some books to write! What’s next for you?

Although the next two books have already been started, I need to close the gap. But after that, JR and I discussed collaboration on another book and film project.

Host: Reader Views

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Perpetual Gloom, A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail

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Perpetual Gloom, A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail
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