About Ruth Johnston:
I’m an independent researcher and writer. My three sons are grown, and I have a disabling chronic illness, so reading and writing are among the few things I can do with my time. I like to take on private study projects; for example, in the last six years I’ve studied both Hebrew and Turkish.
I taught Advanced Placement English Literature online for six years, around the time when internet-based learning was just evolving. The internet was still so simple in 1996 that I chose to use only email, and it turned out this made some international student contacts possible. Though most students were homeschooled in the United States, some students were as far away as Russia or Thailand.
My experience with teaching gifted high school students led to my first book, A Companion to Beowulf. To my surprise, my book was the first such in the market: a book about this famous work that didn’t assume that the reader already knew a lot of background. The book was designed for teachers and students aged about 17-20, but it’s easily enjoyed by anyone. The last chapter talks about J. R. R. Tolkien’s connections to Beowulf and how it influenced his writing.
I wrote a textbook/workbook about the history of the English language for middle and high school students. It’s co-authored by my sister, Ellen J. McHenry (author of a number of textbooks for gifted kids) who designed most of the puzzles and games that substitute for “homework.” It’s a fun book for casual grown-up readers too. Unlike most books on language history, it starts with simple principles of language change and prehistory, so it lightly covers material normally covered only in college.
The most expensive book on my author’s shelf is All Things Medieval, a two-volume library-bound encyclopedia of the “things” of medieval Europe: shoes, dishes, tools, clocks, food, and so on. If you can get your hands on it without breaking the bank, it’s filled with cool information that you can’t find on the internet. For a few years, I entertained Facebook friends with little essays on many of the same topics in my published book. I’ve collected them at a simple blog on my personal website. Readers are welcome to browse there to learn about medieval food or clothing, castles, the growth of the Muslim empire, the First Crusade, and more.
Re-Modeling the Mind is my current release. It proposes a different model for thinking about human personality. I’ve been working on it since 2010, so it’s exciting to see it finally out there in the world for people to consider. It’s my most personal book, by far.
In 2013, while I was writing a second draft of Re-Modeling the Mind, my family suffered a terrible tragedy when my son’s schizophrenia could not be treated before delusional thinking led him to harm someone. The tragedy hasn’t shaped my choice of writing projects at this time, but it has certainly deepened my awareness of human suffering. In the new book, I write about people with humility, generosity and forgiveness. I would like to write a second book about personality that focuses on how personality is put under stress by things like mental illness.
What inspires you to write?
I love everyone I meet, but I struggle to understand and accept the behavior of “humanity” in general. My life put me in some really difficult dilemmas, and it was very hard to predict who would stand by me, and who would let me down. It was hard to know what was best for me to do in these dilemmas, let alone best for others. So I was driven to try to understand people beyond what we usually need in day to day life. That’s why I wrote my newest book, Re-Modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance.
Additionally, I love to analyze complex situations and come up with unexpected analogies to help explain what I’ve seen. I also love to listen to people’s stories, even when the stories are long and complex. I put these resources to work on the problem of understanding why human beings behave the way they do.
I also love to write about history. My three books prior to Re-Modeling the Mind were about various aspects of medieval history: literature, language, and how things were made. Every time I look deeper into some part of history, I learn something unexpected about human behavior in the past. Why do we do the things we do? Well, why did they do the things they did? Sometimes it’s easier to understand the past because it’s over, while other times we have contradictory explanations and it takes some sleuthing and even psychological deftness to work out what happened.
Tell us about your writing process.
I do a great deal of research. Every project starts with reading a towering stack of everything I can find that’s already been written about my question. This stage is complete (at least for the moment) when I start finding references back to things I’ve already read and I can tell that I’ve got the landscape mapped. It’s very important to me that I use what I’ve learned in the most cautious, intelligent way possible. It may be impossible to capture either factual or philosophical truth perfectly, but I can at least aim to avoid errors.
The first draft of a book puts all of my ideas and arguments in logical order. This draft feels complete, and I can’t believe I’ll have to rewrite it. But when I ask some friends to read parts, and even more when I read some sections out loud to family members, I start to learn which ideas make sense to other people. The second draft is organized around the analogies and approaches that gave my family and friends their “aha!” moments. There’s usually another round of research reading, too.
The final draft has to be cheerful and welcoming, accurate and properly referenced/cited, logical and complete, elegant and as simple as possible. It the book feels hard to read, it’s not ready to publish.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
My new book, Re-Modeling the Mind, takes risks that I assumed a publisher would prefer not to take. I had already set up my own imprint to create an affordable paperback edition of my first book, A Companion to Beowulf, so it was an easy decision to self-publish.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
Publishing houses always provided capital to get an initial print run set up with movable type, to store the first run books until they could be sold, and to advertise those books. Print on Demand technology means that authors and tiny companies can now get very short runs, of 100 or less, done at any time without a need to warehouse thousands of books. There’s a lot less risk involved with setting up a title and putting it out there. If you’re willing to do the work, you just don’t need an established publishing house.
On the other hand, the market is now flooded almost beyond anyone’s capacity to read all the books. Publishers used to take on the work of sorting quality books, since they were taking on the risk of financing. “Getting published” was the big step. Now, it’s easy to get published, but getting your book read can be a monumental task. We’re seeing a system evolve in which a different layer of middlemen, like Book Goodies, helps sort the books and funnel them toward readers. It’s a new market; we’ll see a lot more bad books and a lot more books that take big risks. It’s worth it when the risks pay off and something new and cool emerges, something nobody would have bet on before.
What do you use?: Professional Cover Designer
What genres do you write?: Non-fiction, psychology, history
What formats are your books in?: Both eBook and Print
All information in this post is presented “as is” supplied by the author. We don’t edit, to allow you, the reader, to hear the author in their own voice.