Tim Johnston, author of the new novel ‘Descent,’ visits the Bookworm of Edwards

Caramie Schnell
Author Tim Johnston at his hometown book store, Prairie Lights Bookstore, in Iowa City, Iowa. Johnston visits The Bookworm of Edwards today.
Tyler Johnston | Special to the Daily |

If you go …

Who: Tim Johnston, author of “Descent.”

When: 6 p.m. today.

Where: Bookworm of Edwards.

Cost: $10, includes appetizers.

More information: Visit

For parents, author Tim Johnston’s debut novel “Descent” is the ultimate nightmare, which is, in part, why it makes for such a gripping read. Johnston started writing the book in 2007, when he was doing carpentry on his father’s vacation home in Frasier, near Winter Park. When he loaded up his tools in Iowa City and drove to Colorado, he had no plans to start writing a novel, he said. But then “day by day, the story started to take hold.”

Johnston was in the middle of painting a bathroom when he finally put down the paintbrush and started writing.

The premise is this: a Wisconsin family travels to Colorado for a vacation. While there, in a seemingly safe place, their teenage daughter, a high school senior, is abducted by a psychopath; her family is left to agonize about her fate.

“Of course, something terrible has to happen to them, otherwise why write a novel?” Johnston said during a phone interview this week from Memphis, Tennessee, where he’s teaching master’s level creative writing at the University of Memphis and is in the early stages of working on his next novel.

“Descent” chronicles a familiar, headline-esque story, but it’s not based on any particular real-life abduction, Johnston said.

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“There’s this comment you hear over and over made by those who come in close contact with bad events, with unfortunate acts of random violence. The neighbor says you never think it will happen in your town, or to your family.”


Terrible, sad things do happen to good people all the time, however. And Johnston was interested in exploring “what happens when the cameras and news crews go away and you’re still left with a family and a community that has to deal with this loss and hardship.”

“It’d been on my mind and in my psyche for awhile to write about,” he said.

For years, in fact. In 2009 Johnston published a collection of stories titled “Irish Girl.” The award-winning stories within “Irish Girl” have been called “dark” by plenty of folks, Johnston said.

“A lot of the stories have to do with missing people and unfortunate and undeserved bad luck,” he said. “In a way those stories were sketches for this larger work that I’ve now written.”

People often ask Johnston if something happened during his childhood that he’s trying to process by focusing on this topic, but unless he’s completely repressed it, there’s nothing in his own history that relates.

“But for some reason it took hold of me, at least it had,” he said. “I think I worked it out of my system.”


Bookworm owner Nicole Magistro first met Johnston at bookseller’s meeting last fall. She was drawn to the back story of writing the book while building a house near Winter Park, she said.

“He seemed like my kind of author,” Magistro said.

While the story might seem like one that’s already been written about plenty, don’t worry, the plot moves at a steady pace and there’s an unexpected twist.

“What I most admired about Johnston’s latest work is the original spin on the trope of the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl,” Magistro said. “The way Johnston chronicles the family members’ individual downward spirals makes for heartbreaking reading. And, of course, the mystery of what happens to the vanished girl herself is mesmerizing in its own right.”

While psychological suspense isn’t Magistro’s favorite genre, she “was really turned on by the writing,” she said, calling his style a blend of Richard Price, Kent Haruf, and bit of Stephen King, yet still very much his own.

“Johnston crafts a more literary book than most thriller writers, but he is also masterful at plot. That makes you really want to turn the pages,” she said.

And there’s something that Johnson finds himself repeating to parents about the novel.

“A lot of people have sort of said they’re terrified of it and couldn’t take their eyes away from it,” Johnston said. “I have to tell parents that it doesn’t end as bad as it could. It’s not the happiest of endings, but it could have been worse.”

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