Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is excited to shine their Friday Spotlight on author and NASA engineer Les Johnson, who will be visitng our 65 James Steet store with his latest book, Mission to Methone on Tuesday, February 6, from 6:00 – 8:00 PM.
Les Johnson is a husband, father, writer and scientist. He revels in creativity – both technical (he holds three patents) and artistic (he has published four novels). In his day job, he works for NASA at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL where he is the Principal Investigator of the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission that will launch in 2019. This is a big week for Les, with the simultaneous publication of his latest novel, Mission to Methone, from Baen Books and Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World, from Prometheus Books.
Thank you so much for joining us on our blog, Les. Can you please tell us briefly a little about yourself and your writing?
My post-childhood life has been circular, beginning with voracious reading of science fiction and popular science books as an adolescent and young adult, leading me to a career in physics and space science at NASA, and now into writing science fiction and popular science books to (hopefully) inspire the next generation. I was born in Ashland, KY where my family instilled in me a love of learning and the belief that I could do anything in life that I was willing to work hard to achieve. At age twelve, I decided to become a scientist and work for NASA. I earned a BA at Transylvania University, a small liberal arts college in Lexington, KY and an MS in physics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. From there, I moved to Huntsville, AL where I met my wife, Carol, and raised our two children, Carl and Leslie. Soon after moving there, I was hired by NASA. I’ve had the good fortune to work on multiple space flight projects, including my current one, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, which will launch in 2019 to study an asteroid as it passes 80 million miles from Earth. I began writing in 2007 and have published roughly a book a year since then – some fiction, some non-fiction.
What was the inspiration for [newest release/series release is part of/spotlighted release]? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspiration to the finished book?
The idea for Mission to Methone came to me at work (NASA) during a rather arduous Risk Management Meeting for the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout project. Basically, these are the meetings where we brainstorm all the possible things that could go wrong during the space flight mission. One of the serious items discussed was the possibility that our target asteroid was not an asteroid at all, but rather an old rocket booster orbiting the Sun after being discarded during one the Apollo missions to the Moon. Of course, that made me wonder what it would be like if we arrived at the asteroid and found that it was instead an alien spaceship!
This, combined with my fascination of Saturn’s exotic, newly-discovered egg-shaped moon, Methone, quickly jelled in my mind as a classic first contact story. But I wanted to do more than just tell a story of first contact. I wanted to make the reader think about one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time – why do we not see any signs of intelligent life around other stars? In such a vast universe filled with stars and planets, surely, we are not alone. But where are they???
Lastly, I wanted to write a story featuring a primary character who is on the Autism Spectrum. Chris Holt, the protagonist, is that person. I never use the word, “autism.” I’m counting on my readers to figure it out!
What draws you to the particular genre or style that you write? What do you think draws readers to these kinds of books?
The beauty of science fiction as a genre is its scope. Any story that takes place in a futuristic or technology-enabled setting can be considered science fiction – detective stories, love stories, military adventure, and horror can all be written within the scope of science fiction. The ones I like are those that ask the reader, “what if?” I love books that make me think about what it means to be human, alive today, and what our world might be like tomorrow.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
My frequent co-author, Travis Taylor, and I recently signed a 3-book contract with Baen Books about our first journey to a planet circling another star. It will be a First Contact story and a tear-jerker rolled into one. You can expect lots of action, a challenge to your assumptions about the origins of life on Earth and our place in the universe, and hopefully, an entertaining read. I’ve also signed a contract for a popular-science, non-fiction book about Alien Megastructures. (Both those we might someday soon build in space and those that aliens, if they exist, might be building somewhere ‘out there.’)
What does your writing space look like? What do you need to have around you while writing or editing?
I write in our den, converted into what I call a library and my wife calls, “The Man Cave.” I use a laptop computer perched on a cubby-covered antique desk. (I love desks with cubbies!) In front of me is an 18” model of the USS Enterprise from the original Star Trek series, photos of my family, and a small cardboard cutout of Carl Sagan. Behind me on the fireplace mantle are model spaceships from the original Star Wars movie and a metal toy airplane that belonged to my father when he was a boy in the 1930’s. Our dog, Panda, is usually at my feet. It is a cozy place to write.
I don’t edit on my computer. I am a bit old school, so I print out the manuscript and make notes on the paper that I then go back to the computer to change or update. I also don’t like to edit at my desk. I have a lot of energy, so I usually find someplace where I can pace as I read the printouts and make notes.
What do you consider the most challenging part of the writing process? And how do you overcome that?
The most challenging part of writing is…writing. Since I am employed full time, I must carve writing time out of the rest of my day. Like many writers, procrastination is my enemy! So, to overcome the tendency to not write, I set aside dedicated writing time each week, almost never the same from week to week, and take advantage of long work-related airplane flights to break out the laptop and create.
Where can people find your work? (Besides ABSW ;)–though they should totally check here first!)
My books are available in print and as eBooks at the usual online sources. You can easily find my technical work using Google Scholar (scholar.google.com).
How can we follow your work, share your awesomeness, or otherwise stalk you in a totally non-creepy way?
To keep up with the cool projects I work on in my day job at NASA, I recommend people register and follow me on ResearchGate.net. Given that what I work on during the day often spins off into my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, it is a great place to start. I’m not much of a blogger, but I do use Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LesJohnsonAuthor/).
Thank you, again, for the great interview, Les! We look forward to seeing you THIS TUESDAY, February 6, from 6:00 – 8:00 PM, at our 65 James Street “bigger on the inside” bookstore!