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Author Q&A with Houstonian Catherine Devore Johnson

Cindy Burnett
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The Panacea Project

Novel The Panacea Project is about a woman whose immune system holds the key to curing cancer. Author Catherine Devore Johnson calls the novel a "love letter" to Houston and the ground-breaking research that happens every day in the Texas Medical Center. 

Houstonian Catherine Devore Johnson’s debut novel, The Panacea Project, published earlier this year. Calla Hammond has always been a loner – a product of the foster system and avoided by others because of a skin condition. When doctors discover that her immune system holds the key to curing cancer, she struggles to advance lifesaving research in a world that sees her only as a means to an end. Yet along the way, Calla gains the one thing she has always longed for: a chosen family. When a group of unscrupulous people join forces to sell Calla's blood to the highest bidder, she digs deep to find the strength to retake control of her life, her body, and her story.

Tabitha Forney, Houston author of Paper Airplanes says about the book: “Calla’s story captivated me until the end. This fast-paced novel brought up so many emotions and made me think about the ways that humankind sucks the marrow out of things that sustain us until those things are gone. This story will stay with me for a long time.” 

Catherine is a former attorney turned writer. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Texas School of Law, her work has won or placed in competitions held by the Houston Writers Guild and the Writers' League of Texas, and she has published an essay in The Houston Chronicle about caring for her mother after two strokes. She works as a writer and editor at a children's hospital and lives in Houston with her husband and two children. The Panacea Project is her first novel. Catherine answers some questions about The Panacea Project:

The Panacea Project

Novel The Panacea Project is about a woman whose immune system holds the key to curing cancer. Author Catherine Devore Johnson calls the novel a "love letter" to Houston and the ground-breaking research that happens every day in the Texas Medical Center. 

What inspired you to start writing The Panacea Project?

Ten years ago, my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had surgery to remove the tumor. The day I brought him home from the hospital, I learned that a dear friend from high school had been diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer and was in hospice. She died a few days later. The double whammy of her death and my husband’s diagnosis was devastating.

Moving through this experience – the doctor’s appointments, the hospital visits, the scans, the bloodwork, the waiting, the endless gnawing anxiety – brought to mind an idea for a story that I had actually come up with several years earlier. A story about a young woman whose immune system could cure cancer. Once my husband’s health was stable (after a recurrence and further treatment, I am happy to report that he is now cancer-free), I began writing what eventually became The Panacea Project – a tribute to my loved ones and so many others who have battled cancer.

Can you share something with me about your book that is not in the blurb?

The Panacea Project is a love letter to my adopted hometown, Houston (I was born in Chicago but got here as quickly as I could!). I sprinkled references to some of my favorite places throughout the book and was inspired by the ground-breaking research that happens every day in the Texas Medical Center.

What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

Two of the things I admire most about the main character in my book, Calla Hammond, are her selflessness and bravery. No matter what challenges she faces, she never wavers in her desire to use her unique gift to help other people. I hope that my readers are inspired by Calla’s example to be kind to others in need, even when doing so requires stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

Do you have any say in what your book cover looks like?

I did, though the credit goes to Cameron Stein, my incredible designer at Greenleaf Book Group! At the beginning of the design process, I shared some thoughts about what I envisioned for my cover and the style of book covers that I like in general, along with some inspiration photos I snapped while wandering the aisles of a bookstore. Cameron created four mock-ups for me to consider, which I shared with my family and close friends. They were all excellent and it was a hard choice, but in the end, the cover you see today was at or near the top of every person’s list!

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

The biggest challenge I face as a writer is finding the time and energy to write on a regular basis. When I first set out on this journey, my children were toddlers. There were often weeks or months at a time when writing simply wasn’t possible. And working on a novel was the last thing on my mind while I was supporting my husband through his cancer experience (and coping with my own emotions).

Then, a little over five years ago, my mother had two strokes in one week. Over the course of several months, she recovered enough function to live independently, but she no longer drives and still requires a lot of help. In addition to being a parent, a spouse, and a caretaker, I also work part-time, so it can be tricky to find time for creative writing.

I just do my best to write when I can (even if it’s only 10 minutes a day while I’m sitting in a carpool line writing with my laptop or making notes with my phone) and to not be too hard on myself when I can’t. I truly believe that if there is a story inside of you demanding to be told, you will find a way to get it out into the world (even if you have to do it in ten-minute chunks over the course of a decade)!

What are you reading now and what have you read recently that you loved?

At the moment, I’m reading The Return of the King, the last book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I love fantasy and epic sagas and am a little embarrassed to admit that this is my first time reading the books (though I loved The Hobbit as a child and am a huge fan of the movies). Earlier this summer, I re-read Justin Cronin’s fabulous trilogy, The Passage, which is another sprawling tale that is more post-apocalyptic horror than fantasy. Both series do an incredible job of creating worlds of great detail and imagination, with characters you care so deeply about that it’s easy to stay up until the wee hours immersed in their journeys.

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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