Marilyn Johnson Returns to Festival
By Anna Wempe
The difference between South Dakota and the many other travel destinations visited by an East Coast author who has appeared several times at the South Dakota Festival of Books is the feeling, not the property.
“It feels to me like coming home,” said Marilyn Johnson, who was featured at the 2013 Festival in Deadwood.
She will be returning to the historic western South Dakota town in 2015 as one of the Festival’s featured authors. Memories of rumbling through the Deadwood cemetery where South Dakota notables such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, breakfasting with bikers on their way to the Rally, and chatting for hours with former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser while seated next to him at a book signing flood out of her as she discusses her return to the Festival – and geographic area – she loves.
“I’m going to love catching up with the South Dakota archaeologists and librarians. All the South Dakota people who were in my books,” she said. Johnson will be featuring her latest book, Lives in Ruins, when she returns to the Festival next September.
In a literary world of fiction and fantasy, Johnson finds her inspiration in dead people. Not vampires or zombies, but in the little snapshots and summaries of a life — obituaries. She is not, however, obsessed with the morbid. Her rather dark-sounding hobby produces art in the form of non-fiction inspired by the synopses of life found in notices of death.
Her first two books, The Dead Beat and This Book is Overdue!, covered the lives of obituary writers and librarians in a clever and creative way. These, teamed with her latest book about archaeologists, delve into the lives and work of people who, in Johnson’s words, “all collect little bits of the cultural memory.” Connections intrigue her not only in culture, but also in her personal life and career. Her favorite part of writing is, “when you surprise yourself and put things together in a way that your conscious mind never realized.”
Lives in Ruins details Johnson’s interactions and adventures with archaeologists traveling across the globe. She describes how this book, like others she has written, was born out of death. “I was reading the obituary of an archaeologist. It mentioned all these places I’ve never heard of. It talked about all this really interesting work that spanned over their whole lives. That maybe doesn’t sound very compelling, but it was! These people are unusual and quirky. One was married six times. One woman dedicated her memoir to her dog. It’s fascinating.”
These lives, these stories, not only serve as inspiration for her writing, they also provide motivation, determination, and a constant jump-start to Johnson’s writing process.
‘Real People Keep it Real’
When writing fiction, Johnson says she experiences “huge writers’ block.” Her non-fiction writing comes more easily.
“When I write non-fiction, I feel an intense obligation to the person whose story I’m telling. It keeps me focused and responsible… I want to get their story out and get it written down. I don’t want to waste their time or effort. These people went to lots of trouble for me…They made a huge investment in the pursuit of story… Real people keep it real.”