Interview with Online Author Johnny Dale

Johnny Dale is a YA author of The Darling Budds. The Darling Budds is a tale of seven high-school friends who struggle through summer vacation without the leaders of their group, the twins: Alexander and Lillian Budd. It’s a serialized novel with forty-nine chapters available to read now. That’s right. You can read it for free right now.

Johnny took a much different route to publishing his novel. He has chosen to put his book up online, free for anyone to read at his or her leisure.

This idea is not only unique to the publishing community, it reminds us that, for writers, nothing should stop you from writing or getting your manuscript out there for others to enjoy. Yes it’s nice to have a bonfied “book” published the traditional way but by no means does that make you a true author. If you have written a book, you are one already. You don’t need a publisher to tell you so. You don’t even have to go through the headache of self-publishing it. You can post it online and create a fan base just as Johnny did.

The Darlings Budds is a breath of fresh air for a young-adult novel. It encompasses the psyche and mindset of young adolescents perfectly and for the sake of YA, this is finally a story line that creates intrigue without the use of vampires, werewolves, demi-gods or wizards. As I said before, it’s breath of much needed fresh air…

The fact that this book is available for free online demonstrates that Johnny Dale is a writer true to the craft. This is obvious the moment you begin reading this striking novel with wonderfully developed, jaded characters. And did I mention the beautiful city of New Orleans is laid out right before the readers eyes?

1) You’ve chosen to publish the entire story online, a chapter a week, free for anyone to read. Why did you choose to take this path to publication?

It wasn’t really a choice so much as a natural progression. The past few years, I’ve struggled with stripping away everything unnecessary and distracting to get to the real heart of my writing, and after a while it just made sense to go the online route.

You see, during college and then throughout my twenties, like a lot of writers I was really hung up on my identity as an all-caps ASPIRING AUTHOR.  Something terrible happened to me in my youth: I was told that I was talented, that I showed tremendous promise. And I responded by becoming a phony, a wannabe…I went to readings, I haunted bookstores, I queried agents. What I didn’t do, though, was write…or at least, not consistently. I was completely obsessed with the idea of one day having a Real Book, a slab of paper with my name printed on the front, yet I never actually did that much to make it happen.

Finally, a few years ago, I just realized that I could fool everyone else, but I couldn’t fool myself. I know that’s a dreadful cliché, but it was true. I could convince everyone that I was a promising young writer, but that wasn’t going to make a manuscript appear magically on my desk. If I were going to make it happen, I’d have to sit down and consistently do it until it was done.

So I tried to strip away all my pretensions and get rid of all the things that made me feel like I was being a writer but which kept me away from writing. I stopped being a part of the “writer’s community,” both in New Orleans and on the internet, I stopped querying agents, I stopped talking to everyone I knew about being a writer and living the writer’s life and oh by the way did I mention that I write?

What I did instead was just: I wrote. Instead of knocking out 5000 words in a night then spending the next two weeks recovering, I set a realistic word count goal of 750 words a day, and tried to hit it every single day that I could. And if I missed a day, I didn’t beat myself up, I just got back to work the next day. I didn’t want to focus on being an author any more, I just wanted to be the best writer I could. Getting published wasn’t the goal; the goal was to become a strong, clear, powerful writer.

So I started putting what I was working on online. I just wanted to get something done and then get it out there before I outsmarted myself or, more likely, lost my enthusiasm yet again. I set up a website and began sending parts of my new project to my friends to read. They started sending the address to some of their friends, and before I knew it, I had a small readership waiting on new chapters. This was the beginning of The Darling Budds, though at that point it didn’t really take that form.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: I don’t believe that querying or being part of the writer’s community or trying to get published is bad…but for me and where I was, getting away from all that and just focusing on my writing was exactly what I needed. Maybe one day, once the story’s done, I’ll cautiously dip my toe back into the industry. But for now…I have writing to do.

2) What’s different about publishing over time, a chapter a week, as opposed to just putting the entire story up at once?

The Darling Budds began life as a traditional novel, but as I posted a chapter a week for my friends and eventually for my readers, the medium and the way I was distributing the book began to change the work. It stopped being a traditional novel and became more of an ongoing serial.

A serial is its own unique form…it might seem like it’s a novel, since it’s a long prose story with a definite beginning, middle, and end. But it’s not exactly like a novel: the weekly format allows me to introduce back stories, sideplots, and character developments that wouldn’t fit into a conventional novel.

I don’t really even think of The Darling Budds as a novel any more…you’ll notice that the words ‘novel,’ ‘book,’ and ‘chapters’ don’t really appear on the website. The Budds isn’t really a novel, just like how a season of a TV show isn’t a movie. There’s one big story, yes, but that story is composed of a bunch of individual episodes.

I really enjoy writing the story this way and being able to thoroughly explore the world of my characters. I think the readers appreciate getting so immersed in every angle of the story, too, though I’m sure sometimes they just wish I’d get on with it…!

3) Since you started publishing online, what has been the response to it?

The people who’ve had the URL sent to them and read it have been really supportive of the Budds. I have a small but dedicated readership, and they really go out of their way to introduce the series to new readers. Unfortunately, I haven’t been nearly as good at promoting the Budds as they have!

Writing the story takes up most of my time and there’s not a whole lot left over for spamming YA book blogs. And, as I mentioned in the second question, I’m trying so hard to be as dedicated as possible to the writing itself and not fall into my old lazy routines. But I know that it’s time to start expanding my audience and to make a better effort to reach out to people who might be interested. That’s one reason I’m doing this interview.

4) I have to ask. Your website looks very professional. How did you get it to that point?

That’s really nice of you to say. Part of it is just experience, I’ve been making websites since 1996, so a lot of the right decisions I’ve made here are standing on the shoulders of terrible mistakes I’ve made over the last 15 or so years.

But, truth be told, I can’t take that much credit for the site…The Darling Budds runs on WordPress, and the theme it uses is the really beautiful Complexity, by Jason Bobich. Complexity is so easy to run and use, and Bobich goes out of his way to keep it up to date and answer users’ questions. In fact, he just released Complexity 2, which is such a thorough revamp of the theme that I use that he could totally get away with charging for it again, but nope: all previous owners of the theme got it for free. Seriously, if anyone reading this interview runs WordPress, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s only $35, but honestly I’d pay $350 for it.

5) What has been your favorite author experience so far?

Without a doubt, it’s been meeting people who follow the story and are excited about finding out what happens next. Everyone’s been so nice and have made a real effort to get it touch with me. I’ve made some really good friends through the book, and I can’t thank them enough for sticking by me all this time. I hope that I can live up to their dedication and passion for the characters as we enter the second half of the story.

6) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I recommend keeping the ultimate goal in mind: it’s not about getting an agent, it’s not about having the most followers on Twitter, it’s not even about getting published. None of those things are bad, but it’s not what writing is about. It’s about being the best you can be, it’s about ceaselessly working on your craft, it’s about using only 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks to reach across the terrible impossible distance separating your inner life from that of your readers’.

7) As a writer, who has been your biggest influence?

That’s always a tough question! I feel like most artists—most people, reallyare jumbles of influences, only a few of which are even necessarily in their chosen fields, and none of which would really make a whole lot of sense to anyone else. If I listed mine out, I’d probably just look self-consciously kooky and I’d feel like I’d have to explain in detail why each one matters so much to me.

So instead I’ll cop out and just list books that The Darling Budds owes a debt to:  Feed, by M. T. Anderson; I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith; Endless Love, by Scott Spencer; Edwin Mullhouse, by Stephen Millhauser; Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray; and London Fields, by Martin Amis.

8 ) Tell me about your novel, The Darling Budds:

The Darling Budds is about two twins, Alexander and Lillian Budd, who are the most powerful and influential students at Beaumonde Academy in New Orleans. At the end of junior year, the twins are sent away for the summer, and maybe longer, due to a political scandal involving their father. Left behind is their circle of close friends, who have to decide if they’re willing to sacrifice everything to clear Mr. Budd’s name and ensure the twins will be back for senior year.

The Darling Budds isn’t really about the action though…it’s about the small moments in between the action: riding bikes in the middle of the night, looking through a shoebox of photos with someone you’ve known for years, and making out in secret after everyone else has gone to bed.

9) Where did you get the idea for the series?

The initial germ of the idea actually came from my best friend, who suggested that I write a book about a boy and girl who cheat on their respective others over the summer. She just mentioned it offhandedly on the phone, and I thought I’d spent a few weeks writing that story as a novella, as a way to stretch my legs and make a little present for her. Ha! Forty-seven installments later…I’m almost halfway done.

As I was coming up with the characters for the story, I was reading my way through the Norton Anthology Of English Literature, and I was up to Shakespeare’s famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer day?” sonnet. In it, there’s a line about how summer isn’t as nice as his beloved: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may.” I remember this so clearly: I was driving past the New Orleans train station and it occurred to me that, since the story was going to take place over a summer, I could name one of the characters “Buddy”, and call it “The Darling Buddy Of May.” Then, about two seconds later, I gave a jerk and literally yelled out “Budd! The Darling Budds of May! They’re brother and sister!” I was driving a cab at the time, and my passenger was like “What the hell?”

10) You drove a cab for eight years. What was that like?

When I first started driving the cab, it was just another attempt to have “life experiences” that I could write about. That precious little idea got beat out of me pretty quickly! Spend a couple nights in a cab and the last thing you want is another life experience…

But as I drove more and more, the job really began to have a profound effect on me. When some people hear that I drove a cab for that long, they usually have the same question: “What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you?” And don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of crazy things that happened, but that definitely wasn’t the appeal for me.

For me, what I liked most about driving a cab wasn’t seeing that a few people were really weird, but seeing that, deep down, most people are really similar. I could drive someone from the really wealthy part of town, then get my next passenger from deep in the projects, and though neither of my fares had much in common on the surface, they both needed and wanted the same things everyone does: to be respected and esteemed, to be seen for the unique person they are, to find someone to love, to be found worthy of love…

Also, driving my cab gave me a great way to meet people from every part of the city, and to feel like I could really see New Orleans from so many different angles than I’d otherwise not have been able to see. This is definitely one of the big reasons that The Darling Budds is so expansive…for better or worse, I’m trying to get all of New Orleans into it. Even though I’m in a much better place in my life these days, I still miss driving a cab a lot.

11) If you could meet any author, who would it be?

Johnny Dale. I know that sounds like a snarky answer, but it’s true: I hope I can meet that Johnny Dale of 2012 or so, the one who has a completed story called The Darling Budds. It doesn’t matter what form that story takes, if it’s a website, a PDF, a self-published book, or a trade paperback from Random House. All I want is the reassurance that, in a life of disappointment and regret, I was able to create something at last and see it through until the very end. It may not be perfect, it may not be flawless, but it’ll be mine…and it’ll be done.


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8 thoughts on “Interview with Online Author Johnny Dale

  1. Bobbi says:

    Wow, great interview!! I love that he posted his writing online. He really inspired me to work harder towards my career goals!!

  2. Jane says:

    Thanks for a great interview! I see a lot of wisdom in learning that the most important part of writing is… the writing. Do you feel, Johnny, that you were intentionally avoiding writing with your ‘aspiring author’ busy-work (out of fear of failure or sucess), or was it just a bit of laziness?

    My first thought when I saw your title, was ‘The Darling Buds of May’ (the British television show) so of course now I *must* read.

    • Johnny says:

      (Oops, sorry…I didn’t see this until just now.) I think it was probably just laziness, ha ha. Or rather a combination of things that, all added up, could be labeled “laziness”:
      • the vapid posing I mentioned in the interview
      • some initial success that went to my head
      • a bizarre and laughably deluded belief that I was so innately talented that I didn’t have to write regularly because once I started, whatever I did would just automatically be great
      • just being in my 20s, you know?

      There was also a indie pop band in the 80s and 90s called The Darling Buds, though they took their name from the same novel the TV show was based on. And, of course, all of us took the phrase from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

  3. Awesome interview! This is some really great insight into publishing and what it means to be a WRITER, not just a name on a book. Thanks for posting it 🙂

  4. Krista says:

    Did he write a book about cab driving experiences? I think that could make a great book!

      • Johnny says:

        Unfortunately, one could build a good size house out of books written by cab drivers about their experiences…

        Not to toot my own horn too much, but I feel like The Darling Budds is my cab driving book, it just doesn’t have a cab in it. It’s my attempt to cram everything I saw in the city while driving my cab into one story. For better or worse, I suppose!

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