FLINT, Michigan — Writer and filmmaker Breona Johnson recently released her debut novel Shadows, a science fiction drama set right on the northside of Flint, Michigan. Johnson herself is a Flint native who now lives in Los Angeles, but makes it a point to include her hometown in most of her creative work.
The book follows the life of Ansel Love, a young woman who has the ability to see shadows that are attached to people. After a private tech company pops up where Northern High School used to be, Ansel embarks on a journey to uncover the true intentions of the company as well as the meaning of her ability.
Johnson has worked on and off in the entertainment industry since she was 19 years-old, and has written several screenplays. The decision to write Shadows came when she imagined a world where the mysticism of sci-fi meets the reality of inner city life.
The new author spoke to Flintside about her writing and directing experience, the creative process of bringing Shadows to life, what keeps her focused and what she wants people to take away from her book.
Flintside: How long have you been writing?
Breona Johnson: “I started writing professionally in 2017. I had written a screenplay before that, and a lot of stories that I never shared, but in the beginning of 2017 was when I decided to actually take it seriously. My mom and I used to write together all of the time before she passed away. Remember the Wide Awake Club that used to run in the Flint Journal? I used to submit to them all of the time. The nine year-old me loved storytelling and the reactions that good stories gave people. That's why I always wanted to be a filmmaker and bring other people’s stories to life.”
Flintside: What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
Breona Johnson: “A notebook and my laptop, away from all distractions. I can’t even write to music anymore because I’ll end up analyzing the lyrics and not really focusing on what I’m supposed to be writing.”
Flintside: What compelled you to write a sci-fi book, and do you think you would ever write another one within this genre?
Breona Johnson: “I was introduced to Harry Potter before I was introduced to Sistah Souljah. I always wondered what would happen if those two worlds combined? Could a sci-fi story take place in the hood with people who looked like us? I wanted to tell a story that combined two things that I loved: us and sci-fi. I’d definitely write another one, too. I like how you can make up your own rules within that genre, so the stories can really go anywhere.”
Flintside: What was it like writing Shadows?
Breona Johnson: “Writing Shadows was stressful, honestly. I started writing it at the end of 2017. I sat with the first four chapters for over a year without ever adding to it, then I sent it to one of my close friends, Riz, who at the time was getting ready to publish her first book, A Knight’s Tale. She texted me the same day like, “You have to finish this.” Once I found my groove, it became fun. I got to talk about some of my favorite things like energy, vibes, auras and crystals. I entertained myself by finding ways to weave discussions I’ve had with friends into this work of fiction. It felt like putting a puzzle together.”
Flintside: What was the most difficult part of your writing process?
Breona Johnson: “Finding time to actually write it. At one point I was working two jobs and it was hard to focus on it. I also doubted myself a lot and asked if people would even be interested in what I was writing. That gave me major writer’s block as well, but now, we’re here.”
Flintside: If your book was made into a movie, which actors would play your characters?
Breona Johnson: “I definitely wrote Ciar’s character with Michael B. Jordan in mind; I even mention his dimple. [For] Ansel, the main character, I wrote a couple of scenes in mind picturing Luvie Simone, then another picturing Kiki Layne from The Old Guard. Angel’s mother is Alfred Woodard for sure and her dad would be Harry Lenix. Ciar’s dad would be Dennis Haybert. Look, I could give you an entire cast list down to the characters who only have one scene. Film is my soulmate. I even wrote some chapters of the book, thinking in my head how it would be captured on film.”
Flintside: What do you want people to take away from Shadows?
Breona Johnson: “Don’t work a job that you hate. Seriously. That was the inspiration of the book. Ansel works at this entry-level job that doesn’t really care about their employees; they drain their energy, literally. Ansel is all of us. We hide our real gifts from the world and most of us run from what makes us different. I want people to read the book and enjoy reading about familiar places with a sci-fi backdrop, then go and fix up their lighthouse.”