Visions of Johanna received a 4+ star review, making it an IndieReader Approved title.
Following find an interview with author Peter Sarno.
What is the name of the book and when was it published?
Visions of Johanna. November 2022
What’s the book’s first line?
“Johanna named her only child Faith, just about the time she started to lose hers and the life she’d always dreamt of had begun to slip away.”
What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch”.
The novel explores and navigates the complexities of a relationship between two people pursuing different fields of art—a music critic and a visual artist. Matt and Johanna meet, love, and try to stay connected but are driven apart by darkness within. Those demons drive the book—how does anyone reconcile tragedy with joy? Can we ever rid ourselves of the hovering presence of trauma and loss?
What inspired you to write the book? A particular person? An event?
The book was inspired by a confluence of four main impetuses I guess. I read a novel about a younger man and an older female artist and it hadn’t rung true somehow. And— with a certain level of arrogance—me, a person who never published a full length book thought, I knew a talented and brave artist, I should be able to share the experience of what that artistic life was like more effectively. And, while I was ruminating on the idea, I later thought, Well Peter, why didn’t that relationship work out?
Independent of this, over the years, I had tried several times to write a story about a dear friend who tragically lost her life while only sixteen-years-old. And I eventually finished two short stories based on her. She had been hit by a drunk driver, abandoned on the side of the road, and found dead by her older sister who went out looking for her after she hadn’t returned home from a trip to the neighborhood convenience store. I was absolutely numb for weeks and longer. Years later, only two main images of Mary Ann remained: one of her dressed in a stylish suede leather fringe jacket of the era with her sparkling brown eyes and luminous smile on the Friday she left for that weekend trip to Maine—the one I saw. And the other: her lying by the side of the road, alone, waiting for her sister to find her—the one I could only imagine, yet could never rid myself of.
I didn’t know how to deal with that pain. There were really no such things as a grief counselors in those days and a man (even though I was only sixteen myself)—especially in my neighborhood was expected to suck it up. It wasn’t until I started writing the novel that I understood that these events might be interconnected. That perhaps one of the reasons my relationship with the artist (and another significant one that occurred prior to that) didn’t work out had something to do with this traumatic event.
Finally I wondered, Why is music so damn important to you?
What’s the main reason someone should really read this book?
My sincere hope is that there will be several reasons. But, it’s a book for those who’ve loved and lost through youthful misdirection and also for those who have faith in the power of time to guide us to a place we’re meant to be. It also shines some light on the challenges women (and children) faced—and, unfortunately, those they continue to confront to this day.
What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character? Who-real or fictional-would you say the character reminds you of?
Some people would argue that Matt, and not the title character, ends up being the main character. But I still believe that you could make a case for Johanna being the protagonist. The most remarkable thing about her is her courage and steadfast belief in her artistic visions. But, if readers feel Matt is the main character, then the most striking thing about him is his struggle to reconcile the then and now concept of being a man and his attempts to emerge from the traditional notion of masculinity and to accept emotional sensibilities and actions.
If they made your book into a movie, who would you like to see play the main character(s)?
Like me, they’re all probably too old now, but this is a fun exercise. Mary-Louise Parker and Tobey Maguire as Johanna and Matt. Tim Potter as Orlando, Rachel McAdams as Aubrey, and a young Mary Stuart Masterson as Heather.
When did you first decide to become an author?
Perhaps earlier, but in the 6th grade Sister Mary Ellen (who played touch football with us in the schoolyard during recess) encouraged us to write a story in Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger” vein and I remember her liking mine and encouraging me.
Is this the first book you’ve written?
I’ve written several short stories, a linked collection of stories, and a few other novels, but this is the first full-length book of mine that has actually been published.
What do you do for work when you’re not writing?
I have a small Indie publishing house that has released close to fifty other titles—none of which are mine—during the past ten plus years. Another labor of love was teaching literature and memoir courses at University of Massachusetts. But, the bills mostly get paid these days by me sometimes running data and telecom cables in office ceilings or trekking to client sites and providing computer network support.
How much time do you generally spend on your writing?
Not enough unfortunately. On average, maybe 6 to 10 hours a week if I’m lucky. If I have an existing project that made it through that first horrible draft stage, usually much more time than that per week is devoted to it.
What’s the best and the hardest part of being an indie?
Not being taken seriously. A lack of affirmation. I’ve known—and know—artists of all genres who don’t need that. But I do think it helps.
What’s a great piece of advice that you can share with fellow indie authors?
I’m not sure I can distill these recommendations down to one thing. I’ve read dozens of books and magazine articles on craft and I’m sure at least some aspect of each and every one of them has proven helpful. Still, I don’t think they top what novelist and short story writer Ivan Gold told a handful of us green BU students when I went back to grad school (the first of a couple of times) in the early ’80s, “Stay away from negative people.”
(I have an encouraging letter that Professor Gold wrote me after I’d dropped out the following semester; it’s stashed between the pages of a copy of his first novel somewhere in my cellar.)
If I were able to heed his advice, I think I might have moved that much further along, much more quickly. After all, I’m 68 years old and Visions of Johanna is the first full-length book that I’ve published. It’s important for authors to carve out their own territory, to create their own protective bunkers, and part of the armor necessary is keeping the negative folks away—well-meaning friends and foes alike. I don’t want to imply that an aspiring author should become Pollyannaish about it. Honest, sincere criticism as well as competent professional editors are mandatory. But there are too many people willing to advise creative types to simply give up.
The other thing I discovered is that pain is important. Not “woe is me doesn’t my life (or my character’s life) suck” pain; but there remains a need to pursue it in your art—no matter how vulnerable that ultimately might make you feel.
Would you go traditional if a publisher came calling? If so, why?
To say I wouldn’t be flattered would be an outright lie. But I don’t fit the current publishing demographic (no matter what the book’s subject matter) and the chances of that happening seem slim and none. Early on, there was some minor interest in Visions of Johanna from a couple of small Indie houses, but in the end, I thought I might be able to do a better job and have more control. I realize that decision involved a certain amount of hubris.
Is there something in particular that motivates you (fame? fortune?)
In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to garner empathetic readers one at a time. Those who might say, Gee I know how that character feels, or why a person acted a certain way. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to entertain that person, allow them to feel something during our shared journey. Asking someone to invest several hours of his or her time in your book, is not an insignificant request. I understand this commitment and remain grateful and honored when a person is willing to take that leap of faith.
Which writer, living or dead, do you most admire?
This is a tough—if not an impossible—question to answer, which I’m sure many authors have already said to you in the past. So I’ll cheat and name two—one living and one dead—and then come to regret I hadn’t mentioned dozens of others.
Ann Beattie because she accurately tapped into the isolation, the disconnect I—and many others—felt in the ’70s. And Andre Dubus Jr because of the pathos he was able to express in his short stories and novellas—long before the tragedies that eventually encompassed his own life.
Which book do you wish you could have written?
Another very difficult choice. This pick changes at least several times per week. So for today I’ll say Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. There are no car chases, no murders. It’s simply a slice of life tale of working class people who sometimes act heroically, mostly accept each other’s frailties, and usually try to face each new day with courage, resolve, and humor.