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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Writing Together, Staying Together

Belle Isle Books

Between them, Deborah Ann Percy and Arnold Johnston have co-written, edited, or translated 20 books and numerous plays that have led to more than 200 productions.

Even when writing on their own, the married couple trade their work back and forth, seeking each other’s feedback.

Their newest collaboration is the children’s book, Mister Robert Monkey Returns to New York (Belle Isle Books, July 2021). Johnston has also written a new novel, Swept Away (Atmosphere Press, 2021).

A conversation with Deborah Ann Percy and Arnold Johnston

Percy earned a master’s degree in creative writing at Western Michigan University and was an administrator in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Johnston co-founded the creative writing program at WMU and founded its playwriting program.

Credit Atmosphere Press
Atmosphere Press

“Since we’ve known each other, we started writing together,” says Percy. “And it’s a gift. Being able to collaborate, it’s not something everyone can do. We recognize that and we value it.”

Johnston says, “It’s very nice to have someone who is able to surprise you in the act of collaboration. When we can surprise each other, we can surprise the reader.”

Swept Away is a murder mystery with a twist of humor. Dennis McCutcheon, the main character, is a university professor traveling to Detroit to participate in the production of one of his plays. He gives in to the seduction of a married woman that eventually leads to the murder of her husband.

Mister Robert Monkey Returns to New York is a children’s book the couple worked on together, with Percy writing the copy and Johnston adding the rhyme. The story is about a toy monkey that a little boy loses during a move from the country to the big city — and how the monkey finds his way back to his owner with the help of many new friends along the way.

One of the ways Percy and Johnston make their collaboration work is by keeping their criticism constructive.

“We don’t say that, 'This doesn’t work,'” Percy says. “We don’t say that to our students either. Our rule when we were both teaching writing, separately and together, was that a student couldn’t say, "That doesn’t work, I don’t know why.' You have to know why, you have to have a suggestion. So you don’t ever start out with it doesn’t work. You say, 'What do you think of? What if we did this?' That’s part of being a good collaborator.”

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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