Tim Johnston is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a professor at the University of Memphis. Tonight, he will return to Iowa City to talk about his newest book, Descent, a novel about a family vacation that goes awry with the disappearance of the family’s 18-year-old daughter, Caitlin.
The Daily Iowan: Prior to writing Descent, you published a short-story collection and a young-adult novel. What spurred you to write Descent?
Tim Johnston: I think I was heading for a book like Descent for a long time without really knowing it. When I got up to the Rocky Mountains to work on a house that my father and stepmother had built, I was there for several months working by myself, and this idea slowly came to me. I put it off as long as I could before I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I put down my paint brush and started to write.
DI: There’s a passage in the book in which you compare the mountains to deserts and other settings. What about the Rockies made you think this place need to be captured?
Johnston: I was daily amazed by the vastness and what remains wild about the Rocky Mountains despite all the highways going through and the resorts, and maps, and trails. If you live up there for a while, you understand that the vast majority of that territory is as wild as it ever was. It’s really easy to get lost, it’s unmapped, unpaved, and you don’t have to go very far off the path before you’re very far off the path. Whenever I was up there hiking or mountain biking, I was always conscious of the fact that nobody knows I’m up here — if I were to fall of this cliff, it would be a long time before anyone A) realized where I’d gone off to, and B) found me where I’d fallen. This helped me form the idea of this family going there on a vacation and not really understanding the territory they’re going into, their taking [it] for granted. It’s a national park; what could go wrong?
DI: A lot of the reviews for the book have described it as a thriller, but it also has quite a few literary elements and is surprisingly introspective for most of the characters. Did you intentionally do that?
Johnston: Because of the marketing and the way [the book] has been reviewed, most people come to it the exact opposite of the way I did. What I set out to do was write a novel about characters; that said, I wanted it to be exciting, I wanted it to have an interesting plot that people could get carried away by. It took me six years to write the book; all that time was not spent figuring out plot or how to write a thriller — the word "thriller’"never entered my mind — the time was spent developing characters and trying to write the best novel I could.
DI: A good portion of the book describes how each family member copes with this loss, goes into flashbacks, and fills in a lot of the story both prior to and just after Caitlin’s disappearance. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?
Johnston: In a traditional [thriller], I think there would have been a lot of attention paid to the direct aftermath of the disappearance and the introduction of the various characters trying to find her and all the frantic energy that goes in to those initial hours, days, and weeks. I wanted to jump ahead to the time two years later, when nothing has come of all that effort and searching and the family is left with the same uncertainty they had the day it happened and must go on with that uncertainty. They’re not allowed to go on with their lives, they grow older, but their daughter does not grow older in their minds. I tried to consolidate the things that had to be known plot-wise by putting them in dream-like flashbacks.
Tim Johnston Reading
The phone in his hand was ringing. For how long? He read the screen with illogical dread.
“It’s Sean,” he said, and his wife said nothing.
They’d left the aspens and stepped into a high, intense sunlight, their shadows thrown back on the blacktop. The morning had burned away. The air was sere and smelled of weeping sap and of the brown, desiccated needles.
They’d unfolded the map and tried to get their bearings. In a moment, and for the first time that day, they heard an engine, and then a gaining thumpbeat of music, and above them at the curve there banked into view a truck, or a jeep, or something in between, some mountain breed they didn’t know, and it was coming and Caitlin said, “Get over here,” and Sean crabwalked himself and the bike into the scrub growth and wildflowers while the strange vehicle, all sunlight and bass, veered wide of them. In the window was a face, a man’s jaw, yellow lenses fixing on them for a long moment before the jeep-thing passed on and, reaching the crest of the road, dropped away, body and engine and music and all.
They’d set off again then, and when they came around the bend there was another road, unpaved, intersecting the blacktop at an oblique angle like an X, and without hesitating and without consulting him, Caitlin simply took it. And although the road was unmarked, and although it appeared as though it would take them higher up rather than down, he said nothing. Later, he would think about that. He would remember the shrine of the woods. The graves.
He would see the Virgin’s face and her mutilated blessing and he would remember thinking they should pray before her just the same, like the right reverend said, just in case. Forty days was forty days. But Caitlin had already been on the path, moving toward the road. She was wearing a white sleeveless top, white shorts with the word badgers bannered in cherry red across her bottom, pink and white Adidas, and for a moment, in that place, she had looked not like herself but like some blanched and passing spirit. A cold wanderer around whom the air chilled and the birds shuddered and the leaves of the aspens yellowed and fell.
He raised the phone and said, “Hello, Sean,” and a man’s voice said, “Is this Mr. Courtland?” and Grant’s head jerked as if struck.
“Yes. Who is this?”
At these words, the change in his body, Angela came around to see his face. He met her eyes and looked away, out the window. The man on the phone identified himself in some detail, but all Grant heard was the word sheriff.
“What’s happened?” he asked. “Where’s Sean?” There was a pain in his forearm and he looked to see the white claw fastened there. He pried at it gently.
“He’s here at the medical center in Granby, Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “He’s a tad banged up, but the doctor says he’ll be fine. I found his wallet and this phone in his—”
“What do you mean a tad—” He glanced at Angela and stopped himself. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean it looks like he got himself in some kind of accident up there on the mountain, Mr. Courtland. I ain’t had a chance to talk to him yet, they doped him up pretty good for the . . . Well, you can talk to the doctor in a second here. But first—”
“But he’s all right,” Grant said.
“Oh, his leg’s banged up pretty good. But he was wearing that helmet. He’ll be all right. He had some good luck up there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he could of laid there a lot longer, but it happened some folks come by on their bikes.”
Grant’s heart was hammering in his skull. He couldn’t think—his son lying there, up there, on the mountain, hurt—
“Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Where are you all at?”
There was something in the man’s tone. Grant shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“Well, sir. We found your boy way up there on the mountain, on a rental bike. So I’m just wondering, sir, where you’re at.”
“Caitlin,” Angela said suddenly, and Grant’s heart leapt and he said, “Yes. Let me speak to my daughter. Let me speak to Caitlin.”
“Your daughter . . . ?” said the other man, then was silent. In the silence was the sound of his breathing. The sound of him making an adjustment to his sheriff’s belt. The sound of a woman’s voice paging unintelligibly down the empty hospital corridor.
When he spoke again he sounded like some other man altogether.
“Mr. Courtland,” he said, and Grant stepped toward the window as though he would walk through it. He’d taken the representations of the mountains on the resort maps, with their colorful tracery of runs and trails and lifts, as the mountains themselves—less mountains than playgrounds fashioned into the shapes of mountains by men and money. Now he saw the things themselves, so green and massive, humped one upon the other like a heaving sea. Angela stopped him physically, her thumbs in his biceps. She raised on her toes that she might hear every word. “Mr. Courtland,” said the sheriff. “Your son came in alone.”