Los Altos High School alumnus Dan Johnson returned from a 2005 trip to Ecuador to find Bruce, his roommate of 18 months, missing. After turning to police and uncovering deeper mysteries the more he delved into Bruce’s life, Johnson dealt with the disappearance as a writer does – by using it as inspiration.
Studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University, Johnson wrote a short story that eventually blossomed into his self-published novel, “The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits” (Wonderful Terrific Publishing, 2011).
Bruce, a construction worker with a thick Scottish accent who had supposedly been visiting family in Scotland while Johnson was away, “disappeared off the face of the earth,” Johnson said.
In an attempt to track down his roommate, Johnson called the numbers on the abandoned cellphone in Bruce’s room, but no one knew where Bruce was – and only a few knew who Bruce was.
“The woman who answered to ‘Mom’ was actually English,” Johnson said. “She had never heard of him.”
The bizarre set of occurrences, unsolved to this day, started Johnson thinking, “How well do you really know somebody? You can live with someone and not actually know them that well.”
The 1993 Los Altos High grad set his tale in San Francisco, his favorite city, with the most “per capita crazy people,” he said. The plot follows protagonist Alex Baker, who must assume responsibility for his roommate Brent’s affairs after Brent is hit by a car.
Johnson drew inspiration from his own experiences in the city, as well as his days in Los Altos.
Johnson credited his Los Altos High journalism teacher, Galen Rosenberg, who continues to teach at the school, with giving him the tools to become an author.
“He was nice enough to give me … a monthly column my senior year,” Johnson said. “It taught me writing could be free-form and fun.”
Johnson finished his book in late 2008, amid the crash of the economy and the boom of the Twilight series. He chose to self-publish, he said, primarily because, “I’m impatient.”
“Every agent and publisher under the sun was overwhelmed with manuscripts from people who’d been laid off and were discovering their inner writer,” he said.
Johnson solicited publishers for approximately six months before taking matters into his own hands and hiring people to design the cover and copy edit the manuscript while he researched e-book publishing.
“Publishing houses no longer have a monopoly on means of distribution,” he said, though he warned that self-publishing is “not something you want to do entirely on your own.”
Johnson said he believes more authors will move toward self-publishing in a way “similar to music, with people releasing things on their own.” He envisions a publishing world with novellas and short stories being released for 25-50 cents apiece, a “natural evolution” with iPads and e-readers.
“There will still be gatekeepers (to the publishing industry),” he predicted, “but it will be more critics than publishers.”
His advice for aspiring authors?
“Read more than you write, and write a ton,” he said.