"Thank you for coming tonight," Maureen Johnson told the crowd of teenage girls who crowded the back of Manhattan's Books of Wonder to celebrate the publication of her latest YA novel, The Name of the Star (Putnam). "I'm a little bit shocked, and frightened, and cornered." During her brief, freeform remarks, Johnson explained how she came up with the story, about a American teenage girl studying in London's Whitechapel district while a ghostly killer re-creates the murders committed by Jack the Ripper, during a boring ghost tour of the city where the spirits described seemed capable of little more than making rooms chilly. The ghost of Jack the Ripper, she figured, would be much more awful, and she immediately plunged into six weeks of research into his history--"which, honestly, makes you creepy."
Johnson quickly opened up the floor: "Are you only doing four questions?" asked the first audience member, referencing the author's daily ritual with her Twitter followers. Another fan wanted to know if there would be a third book in Johnson's Suite Scarlett series; she'd just started writing it, though it was on hold during the current book tour. "I know what happens," Johnson confided. "That makes one of us!" She also brought along several "YA SAVES" T-shirts, referencing the passionate online fight she helped lead earlier this year against a Wall Street Journal column attacking the supposed degenerate tone of contemporary young adult fiction. The shirts are being sold online to raise money for Reading Is Fundamental, but Johnson tossed this evening's batch to fans who correctly answered trivia questions. And some not-so-trivial: "Can anybody tell me if Robin Wasserman is here?" Johnson asked, setting up a question about a fellow YA author in the audience; the fan who pointed her out received a shirt as a reward.
Finally, asked for "the tip to end all tips," Johnson offered this bit of writing advice: "If you want to write, read a lot, then write a lot. Write all the time... and never, ever worry if you're bad. I'm bad every day. My first drafts are some rough road. You just have to not be afraid of sucking."--Ron Hogan