interview: Michael R. Johnston, author of THE WIDENING GYRE

by Dan Stout in

As part of the ongoing celebration of upcoming debut novels, I’ll be running highlights of interviews from a number of my fellow debuts through the end of 2019. The full interviews are available on

Today, we’re continuing the series with a conversation with Michael R. Johnston, author of THE WIDENING GYRE, a work of science fiction releasing from Flame Tree Press on March 14th, 2019.

About the Book:


Once a war hero of the Zhen Empire, Tajen Hunt has become a freelance starship pilot, scrabbling for a living on the fringes of the Empire.  When his estranged brother is murdered, Tajen discovers that he was killed by Imperial agents.  Betrayed by the Empire he used to serve, Tajen gathers a crew and sets out to finish his brother’s quest—to find the long-lost human homeworld, Earth.  What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.

Interview Excerpt:

What’s the story behind the title?
When I was first drafting the story, I called it Things Fall Apart, because the story is inspired by Irish history, and that’s one of my favorite lines from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, in his poem “The Second Coming.”

Then I remembered Chinua Achebe’s book of that name, and I decided to change it to The Widening Gyre.  Some friends didn’t like it, and I let myself be talked into changing it yet again.  But then my editor, Don D’Auria, said he preferred The Widening Gyre, and since I did, too, I happily changed it back. 

How long did you take to write this book?
I began writing it in July 2012, began really taking it seriously after I attended the Viable Paradise SFF writing workshop in October of 2013, and finished the first draft in July 2015.  I did some rewriting, and started submitting it to various agents & publishers in January 2016.  I got the acceptance from my publisher in May 2018.


What kind of research did you do for this book?
I did a lot of reading on Irish history, as well as researching the dismantling of the British Empire. 


What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
There was an extended “dream” sequence in which Tajen had a conversation with an AI, unaware of what it truly was.  But it wasn’t working, and as written it blurred too many lines, so I took the AI out and replaced it with a simpler scene. 

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m much more of a plotter.  Maybe it’s my English teacher training, but I can’t get traction on the story until I first work out the characters, and then outline the basic plot.  I still get a lot of ideas to add in as I’m writing, and some things change in the process, but I definitely plan the shape of the story before I begin drafting. 

What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
I like the point where I’ve nailed down the plot, I know what’s going to happen, and I can just write.


What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
Getting the outline done.  Making sure that the plotlines not only make sense, but are interesting.

Can you share your writing routine?
I still have a day job as a high school teacher, and a child in grade school, so I have to write when it fits.  During the school year, I try to write every night for at least an hour after my daughter goes to bed.  During breaks from school, I write throughout the day--most of the work on The Widening Gyre was done during the summers.  That said, I am working on ways to increase writing time, such as giving up some of the television I used to watch, among other things. 

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a couple of things.  First up is the sequel to The Widening Gyre, titled The Blood-Dimmed Tide.  I’m also working on the plot outline for a new IP, another space opera set in a place I’m calling the Boundless Empire.  And finally, I’ve got an epic fantasy that I’d outlined, but which I took back to the drawing board to replot, because I love the characters and the basic idea, but a lot of my original outline doesn’t work.

About the Author:


Michael R. Johnston is a high school English teacher and writer living in Sacramento, California with his wife, daughter, and more cats than strictly necessary. His debut Science Fiction novel, The Widening Gyre, will be released 14 March 2019 by Flame Tree Press. He can be found at and Twitter @MREJohnston

by Dan Stout