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Local Lit: a novelist finds his niche


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RM Johnson wanted to be a filmmaker--until he actually tried it at Columbia College a dozen years ago. "It was much more of a collaborative effort than I expected," says the 35-year-old Beverly native and self-described loner. What Johnson did enjoy was writing a short coming-of-age story for an anthropology assignment. "My professor was the first person who said 'You're going to be a successful writer one day.' That made all the difference in the world."

But it was years before Johnson, who served five years as an X-ray technician in the army, found his niche. From Columbia he transferred to Chicago State's English program on a military scholarship. "But English was a bit different from creative writing," he says. "After a year there I decided I wanted to rig a safety net for when I decided to actually pursue writing. I really wasn't planning on waiting tables."

He enrolled at Howard University, where he got certified in radiation therapy, and in 1995 he earned a BS in radiological science from Louisiana State University. "All the while I was taking writing courses," says Johnson. He returned to Chicago later that year and worked as a radiation therapist for a few months before quitting his job, moving into his mother's basement, and starting his first novel. In just five months he knocked out The Harris Men--based on a play he'd written at Chicago State about an absentee father with terminal cancer who reunites with his sons.

It took another six months to find an agent, who got him a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, and the novel was published in tandem with Father Found, about a man who tracks down deadbeat dads, in 2000. That same year Johnson and independent filmmaker Darryl Roberts decided to adapt The Harris Men into a screenplay. "We came so close," he says. "It got as far as DreamWorks, where they helped us develop it. Spike Lee also looked at it. So did Sony, HBO, Showtime." But his characters were black and, he says, those producers "basically determined that black folks weren't ready for dramatic films just yet. It was sad, but I wasn't shocked when they said they didn't have a market." After writing a sequel to The Harris Men, Johnson decided to move in a different direction--"more entertaining, commercial stuff."

Last year's Love Frustration was described by Publishers Weekly as a "randy sexual soap opera, in which half a dozen young Chicago professionals try to bed-hop their way to the perfect partner." His latest novel, Dating Games, focuses on a 33-year-old nurse's assistant who lives in the projects with her twin teenage daughters--one bad (the sexy Alize, who steals from her would-be lovers) and one good (the brainy Hennesey).

Johnson's currently working on a sequel to Dating Games and, after three previous attempts at master's programs, he recently started pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Chicago State. "I want to teach," he says. "I want to do something to get me outside of the little writing room. Just sitting in that room all the time, you really lose contact with people."

Johnson has a slew of events lined up this week, starting with a book signing on Saturday, September 6, at 1:30 at the Beverly branch of the Chicago Public Library, 2121 W. 95th (312-747-9673). On Tuesday, September 9, he'll appear at 4 at Books-A-Million, 8331 Golf in Niles (847-470-7810), and at 7:30 at Borders, 2210 W. 95th (773-445-5471). On Wednesday, September 10, he'll read at Books-A-Million, 144 S. Clark (312-857-0613), at noon and at Mothaland, 1635 E. 55th (773-955-6969), at 6:30. There will also be a release party that night from 7:30 to 10 at the Crocodile Lounge, 221 W. Van Buren (312-427-9290). All events are free. For more see www.rmnovels.com.

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