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Building a reputation, one nail at a time

February 05, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

Once again, the clock is bearing down on writer Tim Johnston's fun, the way it does for a sixth-grader in the waning days of summer, for a Little League player in the bottom of the ninth. In his apartment above Jerry's Garage in Hollywood, just when the writing is sweet, Johnston has to put away his book manuscript and head to work.

In the hills above Los Angeles, Johnston, 40, arrives on time at a house with an ocean view. He twirls a hammer as if he were a gunslinger and consults with his boss, a contractor, on the remodeling project. Johnston is a lanky carpenter with an organized tool belt, an easy grin -- and all the makings of a breakthrough writer.

Two weeks ago, Johnston got word that one of his short stories, "Irish Girl," was selected for a top literary award (winners have not been announced publicly yet). His first book, a young-adult novel called "Never So Green," was released late last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and got great reviews in publications including Publishers Weekly. Film rights have been optioned for the story of a sensitive 12-year-old baseball player who stumbles onto a wrenching family secret one summer.

But Johnston isn't quite leading the Writer's Life, the path on which he expected to land after getting a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1989. This is a tough town in which to be an unknown novelist, even a promising one, when the culture is so weighted toward Hollywood. Here, when he tells someone he's a writer, the question shoots back: TV or film? Johnston doesn't even know any other local fiction writers, except for his ex-girlfriend.

He has yet to get much public attention for "Never So Green." He has not given any readings, other than the one he did at the "Never So Green" release party he threw for himself in October, serving cheese cubes and wine in a friend's art gallery. (But just in case he is asked to read, Johnston practices in front of his 10-month-old dog, Sophie.)

And so far, no bookstore has asked Johnston to do a book signing, except for one in his hometown, Iowa City. (You could also count the time he walked into Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, and the staff said, sure, he could sign his own books.) No book club has invited him to drop by, except for one run by his brother's friends in Iowa. Back home, as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, Johnston was part of the vibrant literary scene propelled by the university's famous graduate program, the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Now, Johnston and Sophie, a shepherd-hound mix adopted from the local pound, live in a funky apartment in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, a two-bedroom place that features black-and-white-checkered linoleum and a wood-framed poster of a John Deere tractor. Within arm's reach of his computer, he keeps his favorite books, including a paperback copy of "A Moveable Feast," Ernest Hemingway's take on what it was like to be a young writer in Paris in the 1920s.

Johnston moved to L.A. eight years ago at the invitation of a friend who needed a roommate. At the time, after a long Iowa winter, Southern California seemed as good a place as any to try to make it as a writer after graduate school. These days, Johnston's Midwestern accent and sensibilities still occasionally kick in. "Golll-y," he says with chagrin, when Sophie tries to kiss his visitors.

In his stone-colored khakis, tucked-in T-shirt and baseball cap, Johnston is upbeat about his future Writer's Life. "I hope I don't come off as disappointed or bitter in any way because I've had nothing but a great experience," he says. "I just count my blessings" that the book was published. "It's a great thing, and it's a start."

For now, five days a week, Johnston straps on a tool belt that holds, among other essentials, a goblin-decorated pencil his mother sent him one Halloween. He doesn't mind the manual work, which, he says, frees his mind for the creative. And his boss, a guitarist and film score composer, cuts him slack on his hours.

On most weekday mornings, Johnston gets in about 1 1/2 hours of work on his next novel, which is aimed at adults ("Never So Green" was written as an adult novel but ended up, at the suggestion of his agent and others, being sold as a book for young readers). But he vows that this year will be his last as a carpenter, a trade he picked up in Iowa to pay the bills while writing "Never So Green." "It has worked up until the last two months, where I'm starting to just want to write," Johnston say. "With ['Never So Green'] coming out and another book almost done, I want to be just a writer and it's hard. There's no monetary correlation yet to whatever hubbub there's been in the press and everything, so I'm trying to figure out how to do that."

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