"I write about ordinary people who must make extraordinary decisions. That’s you and me. That’s life. How the characters navigate that ultimate decision is explored in every novel."
Lone Star Lit: We first got acquainted a few years ago when Lone Star featured your first book, A Good Girl, as an editorial review and took it on a book blog tour. It has done well, and I was excited to see it on the shelf as part of the Texas State Library and Archives Commision and Texas Center for the Book’s permanent collection. I took a picture when I was there! You’ve since published How We Came to Be (2018), and on February 14th, we’re welcoming your third novel, Sisters of the Undertow (Texas Review Press). There are only a few years between the first and third novel, but you’ve been writing much longer, right?
Johnnie Bernhard: Yes, that’s true. I began with a degree in journalism from the University of Houston, which led to working as a journalist in the Houston area for several years. I loved hearing people’s stories, moving around the city, covering city hall news, and writing features. I concentrated on nonfiction, freelance writing for magazines and newspapers, nationally and internationally. It wasn’t until a few years ago, I felt I could step back financially and pursue a dream. That dream was writing A Good Girl, a historical fiction novel with a plot founded on the immigrant story of the Irish and Germans in Texas.
Why has Texas so heavily influenced your books?
A s an author, sense of place is very important to me. It is what gives a novel authenticity. I was born in Houston and raised along the Gulf Coast. I have spent many happy hours in Central and West Texas, as well. Texas is the perfect setting because it is rich in diversity and history. I currently live along the MS Gulf Coast, so much of my inspiration for the imagery within Sisters of the Undertow comes from the viewing the Gulf in the different seasons.
How is Sisters of the Undertow different from your first two novels?
As a traditionally published author, it is important to me to have a universal audience. Although my novels are set in various locations in Texas (and also Mississippi and Copenhagen in Sisters of the Undertow), they have universal themes such as family, sense of place in an ever-changing world, sibling rivalry. Meaning, someone can read my work in Budapest and understand its overall meaning – family and loss, particularly how the characters deal with what life delivers–war, illness, divorce… I write about ordinary people who must make extraordinary decisions. That’s you and me. That’s life. How the characters navigate that ultimate decision is explored in every novel.
Can you share with readers a little more about Sisters of the Undertow?
Sisters of the Undertow is the story of two sisters, one who is beautiful and talented, and the other who is born at twenty-nine weeks, ensuring a difficult life. Will the learning-disabled sister beat the odds? Does beauty and talent necessarily mean life is a cake walk? Will the family unit survive the stress of a child with major medical needs? The issues of sibling rivalry play very much a part in this novel. The last two chapters of the novel end in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. There are many plays-on-words in the novel relating to water and the undertows of life.
I just finished reading the book, and the biggest physical and mental differences between the two sisters in the novel are brought on by the younger sister’s premature birth and associated issues. The characters all cope differently.
Yes, I did quite a bit of research on the emotional impact of multiple miscarriages, including several interviews with women who have suffered through this. In the novel, Sandy, the mother, is obsessed with giving her premature daughter every chance in the world for a healthy life. It eventually takes it tow on the entire family. The other family members find ways to cope with this stress.
Kim, the book’s protagonist, finds her escapes in books, which of course was a connection for me. I think many readers escape via books, but you’ve also done something more by showing the realities of Kim’s job.
Kim later becomes a librarian for a downtown branch in Houston, located near Buffalo Bayou. Most of the patrons are the homeless. Not only does this change Kim emotionally, it also sets the stage for poignant discussions on the new role of the librarian in urban environments. Once of my favorite characters in the novel is a homeless Vet who visits this library every day.
It is an accurate representation of big city libraries, and I am glad you went there. One of the other things I appreciate in Sisters of the Undertow is how you managed to work in lots of period-specific items and events as we follow the sisters from childhood to adulthood: the Etch-A-Sketch, the Nancy Drew novels, those ‘80s outfits, the Volkswagen Beetle, and then Hurricane Harvey. Why were you so particular in including those?
The touchpoints I used through the decades are ways to engage the reader. As an author, it is very important for me to keep the reader emotionally engaged throughout the read. I want the reader to be a part of the story.
You also refer to many bestselling novels in the book. Including these books certainly engages your readers, but was there something more intentional about including these titles?
Every novel mentioned in Sisters of the Undertow is a small tribute to those books' authors. Remember, Kim becomes a librarian at a public library. She is a life-long reader, first as a coping mechanism as a child, later as a means of pleasure and escape as an adult. Books are powerful!
Yes, they are! Speaking of books, what's next for you? Any works-in-progreess you can share with our readers?
I'm working on a novel set in West Texas. The protagonist is a woman in her seventies, who has recently buried her beloved husband. She remains on her small working ranch despite warnings from her son and other family members. Her moment of truth is when she must decide to follow the current law or her conscience.
Since this interview is on Lone Star Literary Life, would you share with us your favorite Texas authors or favorite Texas books?
I love Larry McMurtry. I have read everything he has written, sometimes twice. He truly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for his work. A masterful storyteller! Other authors who capture the vastness of Texas and its people are Sandra Cisneros and Cormac McCarthy.
Do you have any advice for not-yet-published authors?
Believe it what you are doing - nothing happens in a hurry in this business. Read great books; reading and writing are inseparable for authors and not-yet-published authors. Also, learn everything you can about the industry.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I've been asked to read and write book blurbs for several authors with new books being published in 2020. This is always an honor for me! I'm currently reading The Flying Cutterbucks by Texas author, Kathleen M. Rodgers.
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A former English teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard is passionate about reading and writing. A traditionally published author, her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines, both nationally and internationally. She has written articles and columns for: the Suburban Reporter of Houston, World Oil Magazine, Houston Style Magazine, and other publications.
A Good Girl was shortlisted in the 2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition, was a finalist in the 2017 national Kindle Book Awards, a nominee for the Bingham Prize, a 2018 nominee for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Fiction, and shortlisted for the 2017 Texas Literary Review, Bloggers' Choice Award for Literary Fiction.
Johnnie's second novel, How We Came to Be was named a "Must Read" by Southern Writers Magazine, was a 2019 Pulpwood Queen Book Club selection, and was the recipient of the Summerlee Book Prize, HM by the Center for History and Culture at Lamar University.
Sisters of the Undertow, Johnnie's third novel, was selected for panel discussion for the 2020 AWP National Conference and is an official selection for the international Pulpwood Queens Book Club.
Johnnie is the owner of Bernhard Editorial Services, LLC, where she assists writers in honing their craft.