Patricia: Hi, I’m Patricia Durgin. Today I’m chatting with LB Johnson, an amazing author whose first two books, The Book of Barkley, and Saving Grace -A Story of Adoption, have been #1 on the Amazon Best Sellers List—a rare feat. Then came Small Town Roads - Reader's Favorite 2017 Gold Medal Winner for Fiction - Religious Theme.
Good morning, LB. You’ve enjoyed quite a broad spectrum of life experiences [laughter]!
LB: Life has not been dull. It started in 8th grade when the school called my father to inform him that I skipped class like 14 times that quarter. My dad was not upset, and they didn’t know why he wasn’t upset. They asked, “Well, where's your daughter?" My dad said, "She's at the library. You folks are boring.”
I wasn't being challenged in school, so they worked out a plan where I could actually go to the community college for most of my key courses in junior high and high school, so I actually ended up having about two years’ worth of college credits when I graduated high school, and then from there, I was ready to conquer the world.
I wasn't sure how, because my family was of very modest means financially, so I was going to have to put myself through school, but I wanted to tackle life as a big adventure.
Patricia: Well, it sounds like you’ve pretty much done that!
LB: Yes, I was a commercial pilot for many years and then I finished my Doctorate in Criminal Justice and took an investigative position for what they would call one of the "alphabet groups,” which I can't discuss freely in my book.
But I basically am a field investigator, nothing near as exciting as on TV, and I don’t get to wear $1,000 suits and solve a crime in an hour, but it is intellectually very fascinating. And it also gives me the ability to donate the proceeds of all my writings to animal rescue.
Patricia: I’m fascinated by that aspect. It’s such a generous thing to do, and it's not something that is a marketing gimmick for you as an author. That's your heart’s core, isn't it?
LB: Yes, some years back which I outlined in my first memoir, The Book of Barkley, I had you know, I had everything, I had the big house, I had the career, and I was very lonely. I had walked away from my faith in God, not rejecting it, just kind of becoming sort of a, you know, an occasional pen-pal of God, and that was it.
I wasn't walking the faith every day and I had all of these trappings of material worth, and I was miserable.
I sold everything and gave most of it to charity and started to go back to my roots of being raised in the church and starting to, you know, associate with my old Christian friends that I had kind of lost touch with, and it changed my whole way of looking at the world.
Patricia: What was the trigger for that?
LB: I'd been married to someone who had mental health issues and that did not end well and then I'd been single for a long time, and I found that I was very lonely.
I had lost a parent and later, a step-parent and I just found myself feeling alone. When I found my way back to God with the help of, of friends and, believe it or not, a black Labrador retriever that taught me how to look at the world a little differently, which was the premise of my first book.
I found with my faith—the joy came back. I felt, even if I was lonely, even if I was in an empty house, with Jesus' presence, I never felt alone.
Patricia: Yes. So true. So true! I'm hearing a theme in what I saw online when reviewing your background. I understand that you are very private—for obvious reasons—but there's still a little information on your background online, though most of it is in relation to your books.
So what you're telling me now about being widowed young and losing people that were very important to you—close family members at a young age—as well as adoption (the topic of your second book) and Barkley (your first book)…you like writing and describing rescue stories, don't you?
LB: So, with the adoption reference, I got pregnant in college after my Mom had passed, and I gave the baby up for adoption.
I met her again with her parents’ blessing when she turned 18. And then not being able to carry another child to term after that, I took in the underprivileged and those that didn't have family or homes, be it people or animals.
Patricia: Are you still doing that, do you have the time and wherewithal to still do that?
LB: I don't have a lot of time for volunteering, which is why I’m able to donate financially to various animal rescue groups.
I also sponsor dogs through the Search Dog Foundation in California. They train dogs to find survivors after a national disaster such as an earthquake, or a tornado, or a hurricane. They actually get rescue dogs and train them to sniff out survivors. They send pictures to the people who support the group. One of the dogs that I helped sponsor was actually over in Nepal after the big earthquake, trying to find survivors.
It's amazing to watch how they train. It's very costly to train them with the detailed training levels involved to keep the people and their animal handlers safe. So it's something I'm very, very happy to be able to support each year by sponsoring a dog.
And in my work—although I don't address this in my books—I’ve worked with both search dogs and cadaver dogs, and I'm just amazed at the training and knowledge of the handlers, as well as their interactions with their canine partners. It's helped save a life, and it's helped families find closure when we could not find the remains easily.
So I do what I can with the gifts that I have but unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to wait until I retire to do more, because I am married and have a home and an elderly fatherly to tend to, so that kind of cuts back on my free time.
Patricia: Yes, and you mentioned to me that your home is 100 years old and that you and your husband are refurbishing it. Or has it already been completed?
LB: It was what you would call a fixer-upper—which is a very kind word.
My husband actually bought it prior to my meeting him. And he had just graduated college and wanted to make an investment in a home. Being an engineer, he knew he could do the fixing up. But it needed a lot of work. I mean electrical, plumbing, complete refurbishment, just a lot of structural repairs. He had started on it, but his job had him traveling a lot.
So it wasn't until we got married, and I moved here, that we both started tackling the upkeep. But we kept it in its original mode. It looks like a turn-of-the-century home. It’s filled with antiques and antique lace curtains. There are a few modern touches but overall, when you walk in, you get a sense of a period of many, many years ago, which is actually what we were going for.
Patricia: Refurbishing a house is difficult. It strains a marriage, usually. Did you find a new closeness or a new gift that you had not yet had an occasion to discover in each other?
LB: We found that humor would defuse any amount of tension in anything that we were doing. We honestly never had an argument during any of the processes. We were friends for many years before we actually went on a date, so we knew each other pretty well. But, yeah, it's been a five-year project. So it’s not something we've done over the course of a month or several weeks.
Patricia: How close are you to being finished? Or are you finished now?
LB: We have one bathroom left to do but that's going to require it to be literally gutted. There’s cement behind the walls and it's a major structural issue. We’ll probably have professionals come and do it. We’re going to wait until I retire to do that, because we’ll be without water for a few days.
Patricia: Are you close to retiring?
LB: I am, I'm very close. I am five years out. My husband, however, is 25 years younger than me (and yes, I know all the cougar jokes). He won't be retiring, well, probably until I'm dead, so, I tell everyone when I retire from work, I'm just going to invest more time in writing and volunteer work, either through the animal rescues or local Christian charities.
Patricia: Well, that's good news for the world at large, I can tell you that. Speaking for the general public, we look forward to more of your writing! Everything that I see and everything that I hear about your writing is how outstanding it is. And not just because of the technical aspects, but because of the heart of what you bring to the page. It touches your readers so! In each of your books. It’s a true gift.
LB: Thank you, and it's a God-given gift. I am a scientist by nature and was a dual major in Criminal Justice and one of the Forensic Sciences. And as a former pilot, I'm more of a technical geek, but I loved to read as a child so I always had a love of words, I just had no technical training [in writing], so I really look at my ability to sit down and describe the scene or an event or a person as literally a gift from God.
I just sit down and it comes out. I'm not quite sure how. Lots of coffee, usually.
Patricia: Yes, when it’s just natural, and you don't even think about it, that's a good sign that it’s a gift from God.
So you loved learning, even as a child. You’ve had new careers—several careers—and each of them required learning an entirely different language, and body of information. And you're still learning, aren't you?
LB: You know, I think we all are. I think when we stop learning, is when we do start to die. There's so much in both our world and in God's world to discover. We just need to keep searching for it.
Patricia: Are you like a lot of authors that you can't really name which of your books is your favorite, because they’re sort of like children, and you don't want to identify one that you like more than the others?
LB: Actually, my last book is not the biggest seller of the three. The first two books were number one on Amazon for quite a length of time.
But my third one was my first fully Christian fiction book as opposed to a memoir, which wasn’t Christian in nature, though it had elements of faith in it.
I think I was most proud of this one because writing fiction was a lot more difficult than just chronicling my life's adventures and my own thoughts. I actually had to work much more to develop a book that was believable and had a good flow of characters and events. So I think I'm the proudest of it, but I think I like all of the books equally.
Patricia: And you're talking right now about Small Town Roads, but your very first one was The Book of Barkley, and then Saving Grace -A Story of Adoption, and then Small Town Roads is the latest one—that was this year?
LB: Yes, they were all written a year apart. The Book of Barkley was in 2014 and I have a fourth novella coming out in an anthology with a group of other writers that will be coming out this Fall.
Patricia: Oh, cool. So now for other authors in the audience, how did you choose between a traditional publisher and Kindle publishing? How was that decision made?
LB: Well, for someone who is extremely, I guess I could use the word adept at the skills using my job, I'm a computer idiot. The thought of trying to do a self-published Kindle through Create Space (which my author friends absolutely love), was so intimidating to me.
I just want to write it in Word, and give it to someone—after obviously professional editing—and just let them handle all the details because I just am not great with computer programs outside of those that I use professionally.
Yes, it costs a little bit more, but it made it so much less stressful for me to have a professional handling the details of formatting and numbering and making it a Kindle and a Barnes & Noble e-book, and just handling all the elements.
Patricia: They’re all so well received, you must be quite pleased with their reception, both online and in the bookstores, as well. Readers of the very first book became advocates for the second and then the third, and I'm sure they will be for the fourth. That's an unusual train of events for…
LB: Yes, I was very lucky in that, when I published my first book, I was told by everyone not to submit it to some of the larger literary review sites because, “They hate indie authors,” and the one I wanted to submit it to was Kirkus Reviews Magazine, which has a wonderful reputation amongst authors and everyone was like, “No, no, they hate indie authors so they won't give you a good review.” And I ended as a featured indie author in their online magazine.
And they actually included—they loved The Book of Barkley so much—they actually included it in their printed magazine, which not all their reviews end up in there, so at that point, it was picked up by a couple of newspapers, and it just took off.
So, I couldn't have been more pleased. My marketing was limited due to monetary reasons. I couldn't justify to my husband spending thousands of dollars to market a book. I said, “I'm just going to put it out there on social media and see what happens.
Patricia: And apparently, it went okay [laughing]. That's such a great story, that's what everyone hopes for and so few get. So it's wonderful to hear that process is still working, the Holy Spirit is still doing what He wants to do with the books that he wants to have out there, isn't He?
LB: Yes, I think what was really great for me was that I set up a P. O. Box (other than where I live) so that people could send me payments to purchase an autographed copy. I didn't make any extra money off of them. I just said “Look, if you cover the postage and my author's cost of the book, I will autograph it for you,” and I had several dozen requests for autographed books.
But with the requests came notes from people that had read the book in their Kindle and then wanted a paper copy. They told me how much it had affected them. It just really touched me that my words impacted people in a good way and that it wasn't just something written for my own ego. I actually helped improve somebody's day.
Patricia: Yes. We all love stories of fact or fiction that bring us down to our core and then build us back up again. Stories about bringing us into a home that loves us and allows us to flourish. Homes that encourage that, and welcome that. Both people and animals.
Was Barkley a rescue dog, also? Was he the first of many?
LB: No, he was actually a purebred. I would have gotten a rescue but one of his parents was actually the dog of a very close friend. I had met a previous pup from this pairing and they were great so I asked to get one if they had another litter.
As a child and growing up, we always had rescue dogs, but I just loved Barkley’s sister Maggie that my friends had so much, and I wanted a pup from the next litter.
Patricia How long was he with you?
LB: Barkley lived to be almost 12. Then he got a very sudden, aggressive bone cancer at the same time that my only brother was diagnosed with a sudden, aggressive cancer. I watched them both, literally, within a couple of weeks of each other, die, which was actually what prompted me to set forth their stories in my first book.
Patricia: Heavens above! And now your current puppy dog is named Abby?
LB: Yes, she was a rescue, she was a senior rescue that was dropped heartworm positive at a high kill shelter, and a local lab rescue organization got her and gave her medical treatment, and fostered her until she was ready for a new home. She has been quite a joy to have around here. She has a very, very gentle personality, unlike Barkley, who was mischievous, to put it mildly.
Patricia: [Laughing] Do you surround yourself with people who are looking for a home as well?
LB: I tend to be somewhat of a loner, my husband would call me a gregarious loner. I don't like crowds, I don't like going out publicly in crowds, but I quietly find people that need help and do what I can to alleviate that.
Sometimes it's just someone on Facebook that, you know, lost their lease and doesn't have enough money to rent another place, or has a child with a medical emergency. If I know them and know their address I just make sure they get a "Secret Santa Check" in the mail to help them out. And sometimes it's just taking a meal over to a neighbor or someone that's had a new baby on the block. It's the little acts of kindness that matter, not the big things.
Patricia: Yes. So of all the careers that you’ve had, do you think that writing is your favorite?
LB: Actually, I enjoy writing, I don't enjoy the whole editing process, reading the document again and again, and then sitting there going, “How did I miss that typo? I read that five times.” So yeah, I enjoy the writing process. But honestly, I think I was just as happy when I was blogging and didn't have to worry about editing. But it's so satisfying to actually hold the book in my hands and say this is something I did that I always wanted to do, but never thought I could.
Patricia: Do you feel God's pleasure when you get these books? I know you're pleased, but do you feel His pleasure, that He's confirming again, “Yes, you're doing the right thing,” when you get such wonderful feedback and letters, and the way that your audience interacts with you, and tells you how wonderful your work is, do you feel that is also from Christ, as well?
LB: I think so, and you also take a measure of humility because there was that one-star review where the fellow was upset that the book wasn't about a talking dog…
Patricia: Even though it wasn't advertised as a talking dog book…
LB: No, you know, it’s sold as a memoir. And there was one other poor review where a person said, “The author just talked about herself,” [laughing]. It’s a memoir. You know there are some people that you know just are not going to like what you write, no matter how good or bad it is. There are people that just like to throw stones. So I take it all in stride and learn from the constructive criticism to better my craft and take quiet pride in the good words.
Patricia: Yes! And as I understand it, both The Book of Barkley and Saving Grace: A Story of Adoption, they're not clearly Christian-based. Even though that thread undeniably runs through them, it's a very quiet thread.
LB: Yes. Yes, because my brother was a big part of my book and had a little bit of a ribald sense of humor. There were a couple of adult moments in the book that I wouldn’t necessarily put in a Christian themed book.
They’re not necessarily anything that I would be embarrassed for my Dad to read, but they weren't really in line with Christ's message, and I wanted to keep the first two books full of a growing sense of faith, but not specifically a religious-themed book.
Patricia: I believe that there is a prevailing lie that if you're going to be a Christian and write, then you have to have that aggressive tone that's the equivalent of the street preacher who beats people over the head with the Bible and demands that they become saved…even if they're already saved. But that's not necessary, is it?
LB: No, and I had friends who read Small Town Roads, and they were not necessarily excited about reading a Christian book. They wanted something with a little more action and adventure and you know, they read it and said it wasn’t preachy at all. It just talks about love and goodwill, growing as a community and a person. Because you don't have to whack someone over the head with the Bible to instill in them the meaning of God's love within them.
Patricia: Yes, it sounds like Small Town Roads was the best of all of them with that theme, that made the reader welcome into your world and have that underlying foundation, no matter how much it was spoken or unspoken, the source is Christian—that’s you—so how can we not have some level of those elements in our message, whatever it may be, spoken or written.
LB: Right. And like I said, it's been a long journey. I kind of wandered away from my faith for a number of years just after a couple of family tragedies and just overall disappointments—just a normal part of growing up for any of us—but now that I’ve found my way back to it and have a strongly renewed faith in God and a place in my church community, I want to pass on those lessons so that other young people don't make the same mistakes, which is why I had my main character in Small Town Roads be a young woman, not someone my age. Because I wanted to pass on the message that I remember from going through difficult times as a young adult.
Patricia: I'm very interested in all three of the books. I'm not sure which one I'm going to get first because I love dogs so, and I want the story of adoption (one of our children is adopting), and Small Town Roads intrigues me for all of its elements, so I might just have to get all of them [both laughing]. I’ll have to do a clean sweep.
Patricia: And of course, the question we all want answered…where can we buy your books?
LB: The books are all available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
E-books are available on Amazon for the first two books (The Book of Barkley and Saving Grace: A Story of Adoption) and both Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the third book (Small Town Roads).
Patricia: Thanks so much for chatting with me, LB.
LB: Thank you, Patricia. I enjoyed it.