Varian Johnson wrote his fast-paced and funny story The Great Greene Heist while maintaining his day job as a civil engineer. “A lot of folks have dual passions. I’ve always believed you can do one thing and another thing well, if they complement each other. For me, the engineering world and the writing world complement each other very well. I’m exercising one part of my brain during the day and one part at night.”
The Great Greene Heist (in which a diverse group of middle school students plot to win back a school election another student’s trying to buy) will also give readers’ brains a pleasant workout. Mapping out the cleverly conceived details of the heist, led by the savvy, charismatic and somewhat reformed middle school con Jackson Greene, took the author considerable time and planning. “Most of my novels are extremely character driven—character and situation comes in first, plot comes in after. Here, the plot drove everything. I spent a lot of time—I would say years—tweaking and perfecting it. Making sure this cause fit with that effect.” The author wanted his heist to be technical and to have an “Ocean’s Eleven, James Bond feeling; I wanted it to be fun and to have these quirky characters…where the technology was part of it, but not driving it.”
This plot-driven approach may be new for him, but his interest in working with a diverse cast of characters isn’t. Johnson feels that stories rich with characters from a variety of backgrounds “need to become second nature to readers, writers and the publishing industry.” With that goal in mind, Johnson and some friends founded The Brown Bookshelf back in 2007. “We wanted to create an awareness, highlight the many books by African American authors writing for young readers” to help showcase a diverse literary landscape.
These days, the goal of celebrating diversity in literature is also important to Johnson as a parent reading to his own young daughter. “We love to read to her, lots of different books; we want her to be surrounded by those who look like her and those who don’t. We want her to see herself in books.” Johnson’s also interested in ensuring that his daughter has a chance to read about girls exhibiting traits (like having an affinity for math and science) traditionally associated with boys. One of his characters, Greene team member Megan, is a case in point: She’s an attractive cheerleader who’s also very good at science. “She’s a good example of a stock character who just transformed through the revision process. She’s become this great character who did all these great things!”
Johnson enjoys playing with stereotypes as a way of examining them. Stereotypes even play an interesting role in the heist—part of the plot relies on office workers who tend to have trouble telling students (some Asian, some Hispanic) apart. “I wanted to play with adults stereotyping kids in a humorous way,” Johnson says. “Stereotypes are something I’ve explored in all my novels. I wanted that to lie underneath, that Jackson and his crew can use stereotypes in a way that benefited them. I wanted to use a light touch but make sure to note that we adults stereotype and it’s not always a good thing.”
Readers will be struck by just how developed Johnson’s cast of characters are—it’s as though they’ve all shared adventures, histories, and extensive back stories. “I wanted it to feel like there’s a history with some of the characters, a history and a life beyond the pages. I wanted to say, ‘Let’s drop reader right in, let them find the pieces of the story as they go along.’ I wanted to put all that within the 225 pages of The Great Greene Heist.”
So will he be returning to this carefully constructed, detailed world any time soon? Johnson is happy to report that he’s currently at work on another Jackson Greene caper, a sequel, tentatively titled, To Catch a Cheat. “It happens about four months after this book takes place. Hopefully it will be out in the fall of next year…we’ll see the whole crew together with some new people in the mix!”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.