Maureen Johnson: “I want a ghost who messes things up”

PHOTO/ Heather Weston

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 23 April 2015. This was my first interview as editor of the Arts and Lit section, and I’m afraid that my rookie status shows through in places (I’ve edited the last paragraph to be slightly less cringe-worthy).  Maureen Johnson herself, though, was absolutely lovely, and I’m extremely grateful to her.

Maureen Johnson is an old hand of the Young Adult novel. Over a literary career of more than a decade, including such novels as 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Girl at Sea, and the Suite Scarlett series, as well as the popular Bane Chronicles series, co-authored with Cassandra Clare. Johnson has marked herself out through her lively and engaging voice, crisp prose and knack for creating memorable and well-developed characters. Her latest novel is The Shadow Cabinet, released earlier this year as part of the ongoing Shades of London series, and I was fortunate enough to talk to her about the novel, as well as the field of Young Adult literature more generally.

 
The conversation began with the novel itself. “It’s about an American girl named Rory, who comes to London to go to school, and while she’s there someone starts imitating the murders of Jack the Ripper. In the process of the first book she discovers she can see ghosts, there’s an underground system of ghosts monitoring the police in London. There are a lot of murders.”

 
I asked what attracted her to this slightly unusual premise. “I spend a lot of time there [in London]. My partner is English, so I’m there quite a lot, and I was working on a different book and I was taking a historical tour for background information on something else. I noticed that I was getting historical information, and then they would say ‘Oh, and that room is haunted.’ And I was like, ‘Why do they keep saying this on a historical tour? I don’t understand.’ I said ‘Well, why do you think this place is being haunted?’, and they would say things like ‘Oh, well, that room gets very cold,’ or ‘Oh, the door just…opens.’ Well yeah, it does that, otherwise it’s a wall. I hate crappy haunting stories, I don’t believe in ghosts. I wanted a better ghost story. If you’re going to have a ghost, I want a ghost that does some stuff. I want a ghost who messes things up. I said, ‘Who would be a problematic ghost to have?’ Jack the Ripper. And then the more research I did the more I found out how much of it was just a large media creation. It was basically one of the earliest sensationalist media stories, like how to sell newspapers– scare people!”

 
“I liked putting a Southern American in the story as well. I think you can spot us [Americans] coming a mile away, the same way that we can spot you when you do an American accent on Spooks or something. You can tell fake English and fake Americans. The outsider coming to town is a pretty classic story, so I thought, send her to England, let her see some ghosts! What could go wrong?”
The novels deal heavily with London’s history and architecture. “There’s quite a lot of research. Two years of looking into the Jack the Ripper case, and also researching things like the history of the Tube, the tunnels underneath the city of London, buried rivers, disused bunkers, tunnels. I know a lot of super-boring facts about sewers and holes in the ground. I’ve basically become some terrible trainspotter.”

 
The supernatural thriller is of course one genre of many Johnson has worked in over the course of her career. “I kind of do what feels right at the time. Every book, you kind of figure it out. There’s no formula to it. You kind of get an image in your head of what it is you want to do, then you figure out how to make it. I have a different system each time. With the mysteries I have to figure out all the solutions at the beginning and then work backwards, so that’s totally different.”

 
Johnson is already working on a fourth Shades of London book, as well as another entry in the Suite Scarlett series. What really shines through in talking to her is her sheer passion for her subject matter. This passion has hooked legions of fans, and only looks set to draw in more as her novels go on.

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