CANDID CONVERSATIONS: Mona Soorma talks to PMF Johnson and Sandra Rector

Hello and welcome back! Today, we are going to meet a very interesting couple, both excellent writers with their own style and fan following, as they talk about sharing one of their greatest passions in life.

For those of you who are just getting to know them, read more about PMF and Sandra right now, or wait to get to it at the end of the interview.

You can get in touch with PMF on Facebook and Twitter or on his blogs Fiction Commentary and Poetry Commentary and buy his books on Amazon. Find Sandra on Twitter or her website and buy her books on her Amazon page.

Hi Sandra and PMF. It is such a pleasure to talk to you both. 

(P M F Johnson and Sandra Rector) First, thank you for interviewing us, and hosting your blog on what other writers are doing. It’s a wonderful gift to the world, and we both appreciate it very much.

Thank you for being here, I am delighted that you both accepted the invitation. Let us dive right in and get the insider’s view into your lives. What is your typical day like?

(Sandra) Get up, have coffee, read the paper, go to work by 9:00, quit at noon, have lunch and go out. Though Minnesota gets very cold, we live on something called a skyway, a series of enclosed second-floor passages between buildings in our city. The skyway gives us year-round access to groceries, shopping, and pretty much everything we need. Rain or shine there is always somewhere to go, something to do, and people to meet.

(P MF) I write six days a week: the five mornings Monday through Friday, then some period of time on Sunday.

I also generally spend some time, one to three hours, marketing in the afternoon or evening. Sending out poetry, working social media, researching markets, writing my blogs on (other people’s) fiction and poetry, which often discuss techniques the authors are using.

Sandra and I have had a rule throughout our marriage to treat Saturdays as special — we never work on those days. Obviously, this is easier without kids! This rule has strengthened our marriage and kept our priorities straight. We have found it a good recipe for a happy, productive life. Oh, and fun, too.

That skyway seems like a wonderful thing! Tell me, do you ever write together or do you prefer to work separately on your projects?

(Sandra)We read and critique each other’s work, but mostly, we write in different genres.

(P M F) We have written stories together in the past, but since we both have strong visions, we mostly work on separate projects now. We edit each other’s work but have learned to set strong boundaries. We cannot be in the same room working on the same piece without some hurt feelings. So when we are ready to edit each other’s work, we print out a draft, hand it to the other person, then get out of the way until the editing is done.

But we always critique and edit each other’s work, considering everything from the high-level vision to the most mundane detail-oriented copy edits. We each feel it’s a tremendous asset to have such an expert helping us. Sandra is especially good at finding those places where my work gets unclear.

It is always good to have another set of eyes look for what we might miss in our own writing. As you say, you work on separate projects now but you have worked together in the past. What is similar or different about your writing?

(Sandra) What is similar about our writing is we read and critique each other’s work. As for differences, I write in the mainstream, P M F writes in fantasy. Also, I write in the morning and quit around noon. P M F will sometimes continue throughout the day.

(P M F) The big difference in our work might be that Sandra has a degree as a journalist, so her approach is straightforward: clarity is one of her great strengths. She finds the truth and shows it to the reader. She likes to say she writes to understand things. I am more elusive and complex in my language, searching for the resonant and symbolic. More the poet, I guess.

Yes, more the poet. I love your poetry! Were both of you already writing when you met?

(Sandra) P M F was in a writer’s group that I subsequently joined. At the time, I was working on my first novel. I was also freelancing articles for various publications. P M F had published some poetry and was also working on his first novel. We liked each other immediately and found we had a lot in common. The rest is history.

(P M F) We met in a writer’s group, a rather harsh one. We were sitting next to each other when Sandra read a chapter of her book, Crazy Little Liar. The other writers helpfully ripped the chapter apart. Then I read a chapter of the book I was working on, and they tore into me as well. So we huddled together in self-defence, and we’ve been huddling together ever since.

In fact, this incident forms the core of the last poem in my book of love poems, Against The Night. The book has a reverse timeline, starting with the most recent love poem, then spiralling back to the very beginning of our relationship, one poem at a time, a series of portraits, if you will — sweet, or wry, or simple little incidents in our life together.

Wow! That is a real fairytale! What do you enjoy doing together when you are not writing?

(Sandra) When we are not writing or reading we enjoy taking long walks, going to the library, movies, out to lunch with friends, or simply being together. Being married to a writer is the best thing in the world because you have your own built-in editor and someone as obsessed as you are about the whole process.

(P M F) What we enjoy doing together has changed over the years. Sandra has a great sense of adventure, so we have done quite a bit of travelling, but there’s a sense now that we’ve “seen the elephant,” as they used to say during the California Gold Rush. A simple walk, reading, a good meal, these are enough.

One goal we do have is to read as many classics as we can. So I read to Sandra every night at bedtime, reading her to sleep, if you will. We are currently reading Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her. Previously we’ve read Jane EyreBelovedCherie and The Last of CherieEmmaLord of the Rings, and many others. Turns out, most classics are really enjoyable. Who knew?

A couple of questions for you, PMF. You have published your poetry book “Against The Night” a few months ago. Did Sandra know you were writing it, or did you surprise her with it?

     Against The Night was an anniversary gift, in response to her wanting my love poems to her gathered into a book. Many of the poems were previously published, in The Atlanta ReviewMidwest QuarterlyThe North American Review, and elsewhere, so the poems themselves were no secret. Sandra edited them all at one time or another, and helped select and arrange them in their final format. Publishing the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, et al. is labour-intensive work, as you know, so that work alone would have given the secret away, I suspect.

That sure is one of the best gifts ever, and definitely labour-intensive. What aspect of writing and/or publishing frustrates you most?

When I get onto my high and holy jag, I would say it’s all a learning process to accept, learn from, and understand.

But in the real world, probably not knowing which markets are open for poetry submissions of my various styles. I don’t always have a good grasp of where any given poem will fit, maybe because I write in so many different styles: formal, free verse, mainstream, speculative, haiku, concrete, on and on. I’ve had success selling those various formats, but it makes marketing somewhat scattershot. Persistence helps.

Another other big issue is, of course, time. I constantly have between forty and fifty submissions out to various poetry markets, though I rarely simultaneously submit. So I try to be careful in considering which markets are worth pursuing. One filter is submission fees: any market that charges them I take off my list. I do, contrariwise, submit on occasion to contests that require a fee, since I am paying for a chance to win. And if the contest includes a magazine subscription, then I have material for my poetry blog.

A lot of authors have marketing at the bottom of their list and that includes me as well. But it has to be done…  On a different note, if you could be anyone else, who would that be?

No one. I have worked long and hard to become who I am. Imagine giving all those learning opportunities away, and having to go through every one of them again. Sigh. The parts of me that I don’t much like, I work to change. Sometimes with indifferent results, I admit. A great satisfaction for me comes from learning who I am and making a conscious choice whether that’s who I want to be. Am I of use to my wife, to my community, being this way? Are my boundaries too soft, or too rigorous, and how do I adjust them? These are central themes of my writing. We are what we write, after all.

Many works of art seem to center on how horrible life is, and end in quicksand, everybody going down. I am more engaged by the question: yes, this is a deep hole, so how do we climb out? Of course, for me the answers aren’t always easy to find; sometimes they may not be visible at all. Trust is a big part of it. If I don’t know what to do, that may be my Higher Power telling me to do nothing. Anyway, if I do see the road forward, and don’t take it, my experience is that another path will open up. We get multiple chances in life. Endless chances, even, if we’re stuck in a rut! So I can always do a little something to move forward today.

A very positive path! That’s a wonderful way to be. Do you recall any of those eureka moments when you thought, “Yes, this is the book I want to write!”

Wonderful question. Yes, on the novel I am just finishing. Years ago, I thought: I want to spend my life writing, so what is the one concern that most engages me? I realized it was, ‘How can we each move past our pain and imperfections, to improve our lives?’ I am in the midst of a twelve-book fantasy series that grapples with that question. After I published three of those novels, an idea for an entirely different style of book appeared. It tackles the theme of public corruption — how corruption works, how we can fight against and overcome it. The plot came to me in a day, and I thought, this disrupts my current project, and yet fits as well, in its own way. So I wrote the book, and plan to send it around to some agents soon to see if it has commercial appeal.

As far as poetry, I have two haiku books, a book of speculative poetry, and three mainstream books in various states of readiness. It took me a while to realize poetry publishers do not want every poem in a manuscript to be previously published. At least one-third of the poems should be unpublished, to give the reader a sense of discovery. With the poetry books I have more-or-less ready to go, the sense is more “Yes, I will get these books out on the market.” See above on the frustrations of needing more time. At this point, I think I will simply self-publish them. Life is short.

That would probably be the fastest way forward. A lot of people are now opting for self-publishing for various reasons. Sandra, what is your take on self-publishing?

The best thing about self-publishing is no interference. Nobody is telling you no. You can say what you want to say, it’s all up to you. The worst thing about it is not having a professional editor, that separate set of eyes looking over your manuscript, nor a marketing person helping you market.

Like everything else, self-publishing has its cons. However, I love the “no interference” part. You have been writing for many years now. Tell me, Sandra, when did you begin writing?

I began writing as a kid when I lived on a farm. Previously, I had lived in a large city, but when I was in the third grade my parents moved to a small town and bought a beer joint there. We lived upstairs. I am a big city girl. I found the small town way of life isolating. When my parents sold the place, we moved to a farm outside an even smaller town. In the back of the house was a shelter belt, a place filled with trees that protected and guarded the farm from the constant prairie wind. I would go there with my dolls. I could see out, but nobody could see me. I would make up stories about the life of a city girl. To do this, I would make a flannel board, something I learned how to do in Sunday School, cut out pictures of people in the catalog, paste a bit of flannel on the back to make them stick to the flannel board, and proceed to tell stories about them.

That’s very interesting! If you were to write a book very different from what you have already written, what would it be?

It would be like the fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea. My older sister used to read fairy tales to me at bedtime. I identified with the princess’s overly sensitive nature, especially when the princess was asked how she slept on twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds after someone had placed a pea under the bottom mattress. “Oh, very badly!”, the princess said. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard so that I am black-and-blue all over. It’s horrible.”

That would make a very sweet book indeed! Now into the fast-paced world of today… What electronic gadgets you simply can’t do without?

My computer and cell phone, to keep in touch with my family.

And what does your most essential makeup kit consist of?

My essential kit is simple: lipstick and an eyebrow pencil.

Over to PMF now. What is it that you love in your wardrobe the most?

Pretty much everything in my wardrobe, Sandra bought. I have no taste, so I rely on her utterly. I do love the color green, and the gear of my beloved Minnesota Twins baseball team.

What food do you always have in the house?

Chocolate, of course. But very low-sugar, these days. Changes, changes. It’s all about an attitude of gratitude, I guess.

Change being the only constant and all that…What app can you not live without?

The newspaper. But in hard copy, actually.

Some things do stay the same, like the pleasure of physically turning pages! Now let’s go into the “Role Reversal” mode. Is there a question that you would like to ask me?

How extensive are the literary markets in India? Are most literary journals associated with schools or some other social institution? If so, does that affect the diversity of what gets published? What are the classic Indian works of fiction and poetry that you think everyone should read? What are you most proud of in Indian literature?

I am delighted by your interest in Indian literature. That is, in fact, a very extensive set of questions but I will try to answer it as briefly as possible.

India has a vast literary tradition spanning millennia. From the ancient texts of the Vedas (1500BCE) and the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana (500BCE) to the immense variety of contemporary writings, there is something from every period in time, and for every taste. It might also be interesting to know that we have 22 official languages, apart from English that became widely spoken after India became a colony of the British, and they all have their own literature and folklore which adds up to a lot. The diversity in writing comes not just from genres or the time period, but from the different regions and cultures that it originates in and what gets published also varies with the large variety of patronage, be it social or educational institutions, individuals or for-profit publishing houses.

I don’t think it would be possible, or correct, to label a few works as classic or even representative or our country, but I will list some of those that I have enjoyed reading.

The first on my list are the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Apart from being some of the longest stories in verse, they are also the earliest form of science fiction, with mentions of flying chariots, arrows that search for and find their targets, gods and sages who can disappear and appear at places in microseconds… They are supposed to be true stories from hundreds of years ago!

Secondly, I would like to mention the stories from Panchatantra, Jataka Tales and the wise yet fun stories of Birbal and Tenali Rama which most children here grow up with. These fables and folk tales have withstood the test of time and are still enjoyed by everyone.

From the contemporary writers, the book that stands out most for me is “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth. One of the longest English novels published (the edition I have is 1349 pages apart from the front matter), it is a love story and a social commentary set in the early 1950s. For me, it was the book that drove me to begin writing seriously. There was something about it that spoke to me deeply- not the subject matter, but the invisible connection of one writer to another. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

What I am proud of… all the ancient texts that have not lost their relevance even after so many years, of the immense poetic tradition from verse stories to devotional poetry to poems written in every language, subject and structure possible, of the contemporary writers who have made English their own and made an impact on the world with their words, of the Nobel prize, the Man Booker prizes and lots more that have come our way… It is not an easy tradition to live up to!

“Pat Your Own Back Moment!” What is it that you are very proud of?

Our marriage. We’ve been married thirty years and were together for several years before that. We’ve lived all over the country, with many adventures along the way.

That, indeed, is something to be very proud of! Wishing you many more happy decades of togetherness and writing… Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. 

And now, a little about the work of PMF Johnson and Sandra Rector.

PMFJohnsonP M F Johnson has published a book of love poems, Against the Night, which takes a wry, but loving look at a long marriage. He has also published three high fantasy novels, Disk of DragonsTrollen Rose and Call of the Labyrinth, about a young thief learning what he cares about most. He has also published two fantasy westerns, Drifter Mage, and Desert Mage, set in the same world. All these books are available on Amazon. As well, he has published hundreds of poems, in mainstream markets such as The Threepenny ReviewEvansville ReviewMeasureThe Main Street Rag, and The Atlanta Review, in speculative poetry markets such as Asimov’sStrange Horizons, and Star*Line, and in such haiku markets as FrogpondThe Heron’s NestModern HaikuAcorn and Mayfly. His work has often been anthologized.

Sandra Rector received a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. Her SandraRectorgoal was simply to learn to write well. As a journalist, she has sold hundreds of articles to such outlets as The Washington PostCooking LightEast/West, and The Santa Fe New Mexican, to name a few. Her short stories have appeared in PedestalBlack Petals, and Southern Cross Review. She has also worked as a professional food taster for General Mills and a secret shopper, and has sold her painted furniture in multiple art galleries around the U.S. These days she is doing what she still loves most, writing stories about women who struggle against great odds to achieve sometimes worthwhile… and sometimes not-so-worthwhile goals. Her novels Evaleen From Rags To RichesCharlotte Parker Forty-NinerRunning Away To Santa FeCrazy Little Liar, and Chez Tulips (a collection of related short stories) are available on Amazon, while her short stories appear on Smashwords,, and elsewhere.

Sandra Rector and P M F Johnson writing together have published short stories in such magazines as Amazing Stories and Tales of the Unanticipated, and in various professional anthologies, including Xanadu IIWhatdunits, and Witch Fantastic (published by Tor and DAW). They live in Minnesota, which for some reason is proud of being among the coldest states in the U.S.

Go back to the interview 

I hope you enjoyed getting to know PMF and Sandra. Until next time with another guest…


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