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Joshua Phillip Johnson Interview – Odyssey Writing Workshop

Joshua Phillip JohnsonToday I get the rare chance to interview a fellow fantasy author Joshua Phillip Johnson concerning is debut novel The Forever Sea (DAW, 2021) and how his time at the Odyssey Writing Workshop program helped him pursue his writing dreams.


To start, Josh, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hello! I live in a small green house in Minnesota on the traditional homelands of the Dakota people, also home to the Anishinaabe. I teach at a small liberal arts university and I’m learning to play the piano!

When did you start writing?

I remember being 9 or 10 and writing comic books and Pokémon fanfiction. I haven’t really stopped since then!

Your debut novel is fantasy, what made you start writing in that genre?

Fantasy has always been my favorite genre to read, and so it felt really natural to write in it. I love the escapism of fantasy, but I also love the way it creates such powerful discussions around real and important issues in the world. I’ve never seen escapism as particularly opposed to serious issues in fiction, and I think fantasy is a perfect example of how escape can be used to reorient our perspectives in order to better see our own world.

Tell us about your latest release, The Forever Sea. Where did you get the idea? How long did it take you to write it?

The Forever Sea (cover) The Forever Sea is inspired by the tallgrass prairie landscape that once existed where I live. I remember hearing a story about the prairie that talked about it being tall enough to obscure a person on horseback, and I was so taken by the idea of a huge, deep, endless sea of grass. The book sprung from that idea.

It took me a year and a half to write and revise before it was ready to send out to agents. All in all, though, it was about four years of work from initial idea to publication.

Tell us a little bit about the Odyssey Writing Workshops experience. How did you find out about the workshops? How did it evolve during the pandemic? How did the Odyssey Writing Workshops shape your experience with writing in general and with writing your novel?

Odyssey absolutely changed my life and my writing. I can’t remember how I first heard about it, but I applied for the first time in 2015 (unsuccessfully) before applying and receiving acceptance in 2016. I wasn’t part of this last summer’s workshop at all, but I saw pictures from their online coursework, and I’m so glad they were able to still meet. Odyssey was such a formative experience for me—I learned so much about writing, but I also made some incredible friends there, wonderful writers who inspired me and taught me so much.

I also started The Forever Sea while at Odyssey, and I don’t think I would have been able to write that book without talking about the initial idea with my fellow Odyssey classmates and Jeanne, the director (who is just about the smartest reader and teacher of writing I’ve ever met!).

Talk about your path to getting your debut novel published. Did your time at Odyssey Writing Workshops help you in your journey to publication?

Odyssey not only gave me the tools to write this novel, but I also found the community and support I needed to write it. Before Odyssey, the idea of being a published author seemed infinitely far away and impossible to me. I didn’t really know any authors, which meant I had no idea how a person actually got published. Odyssey gave me that knowledge, but it also introduced me to authors—both classmates and visiting writers. It was the first time I thought with any seriousness that maybe I could be a published novelist.

Odyssey Writing Workshops (logo banner)

How does your book go against the grain of the fantasy genre?

The setting, I think, is a little different than other books in the fantasy genre. Although there are plenty of seafaring fantasies, I don’t know of any other ones that feature prairie seas!

My book is also a lot about environmental issues, which certainly aren’t absent from fantasy, but they’re maybe not as popular as they could or should be.

What was it like, writing a novel during a pandemic?

Terrible in lots of ways! I started and finished this current draft of the sequel to The Forever Sea during the pandemic, and it was really difficult. Hard to find the time to write, hard to focus on it, hard to see it as important in any way when so much other terrible stuff was going on.

At the same time, writing can be a safe haven against the anxieties and horrors of the world if you need it. Those things still find their way through, of course, but writing can be a way to confront and understand the world when you can’t deal with those anxieties or horrors head on. And writing this second book was like that for me.

Some authors really struggle with one aspect of writing (editing, setting, dialogue, etc.), what part of the process do you struggle with?

Is it cheating to say all of it? Writing is really hard for me, and depending on the day, any of the various aspects can be a huge challenge. Most regularly, though, I would say dialogue. So much of my dialogue sounds wooden or flat or unbelievable in my ears, and it takes a lot of work for me to get it to an even passable level. (Maybe why I spend so much time on narration and description!)

What’s your writing space like? Cozy and filled with cats, maybe, or open and outside?

It depends on the season! When it’s warm enough outside, I like to write in a spare little corner of my garage, which is tucked behind a bunch of random stuff. It’s kind of dirty and covered in spiderwebs, but it’s weirdly cozy and nice. When it’s cold, I have a desk in my house next to some windows. I’ve covered it in books I like and fun knickknacks from my daughter. She likes to give me “writing charms” to help me write—little Lego creations or drawings or whatever, so I have those all over.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like to hang out with my family—reading books together or playing outside or watching movies. On my own, I like to read or go for runs.

What are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and re-reading Half-Earth by E. O. Wilson.

What’s your next work-in-progress?

I’m working on an adult fantasy novel featuring weird death rites and some math-based magic. It’s a really personal book for me in lots of ways, and it’s early on in the process, so I can’t say too much.

What’s the best advice you could give to new writers?

Read everything and be a great reviser.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to say a huge thank you for having me and a huge thank you to my Odyssey class (2016, best year!) and Jeanne.

The Forever Sea (lg banner)

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We would like to thank Josh again for taking the time to speak to us with us today!

Odyssey Writing Workshop started in 1996 and is focused on workshops for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. According to their website, “fifty-nine percent of graduates have gone on to be professionally published. Among Odyssey’s graduates are New York Times bestsellers, Amazon bestsellers, and award winners.” The workshops are for unpublished and published writers who are trying to make improvements to their writing. We know Josh, for one, found the workshops invaluable. You can find out more about Odyssey Writing Workshops on their website!

The Forever Sea is out now! You can learn more about it and Josh’s upcoming works on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram!


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