Author Interview: Sybil Johnson, Paint the Town Dead

The Ocean Painting Society invites you to join the painting wave…

It’s June in the quiet Los Angeles County city of Vista Beach, the place computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson calls home. Decorative painters are flocking to the newly built Akaw hotel to attend the Ocean Painting Society’s inaugural convention.

During the week-long event, Rory plans on shopping the trade show floor, working in her mother’s booth, taking classes and connecting with other decorative painting fans. She doesn’t expect to witness her childhood friend collapse in class and die. When the police find no evidence of foul play, Rory embarks on her own investigation. Can she brush aside the lies to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice?


Q: Can you tell us what the book is about?

I’d love to! In PAINT THE TOWN DEAD, computer programmer and tole painting enthusiast Rory Anderson attends a painting convention at a newly built hotel in downtown Vista Beach, the California beach city where she lives. The hotel is embroiled in controversy. Protesters picket outside the main entrance and generally make life miserable for its owners and guests. Rory herself is targeted because she wrote software for the hotel. Even with all that’s going on in the city, she’s looking forward to shopping the trade show floor, taking classes, working at her mother’s booth and connecting with other decorative painting fans. She’s not expecting to witness a childhood friend collapse in class and die. When the police find no evidence of foul play, Rory launches her own investigation into her friend’s death.

Q: What is tole painting?

The term tole painting is traditionally applied to the art of painting on tin but, when I started taking classes in the 90s, it was used in a broader sense to mean the decoration of objects using various painting strokes and techniques. These days the term decorative painting is more commonly used, though I tend to use the two terms interchangeably. Folk art such as Norwegian Rosemaling, German Bauernmalerei and Russian Zhostovo fall under this umbrella. Today there’s a broad range of pattern books and packets available for the painter to choose from or you can come up with your own designs. Don’t tell my husband, but I’ve got a whole closet full of wood and other surfaces to paint. So many projects, so little time!

Q: How does your own painting experience inform your writing?

From all of the painting projects I’ve done over the years, I’ve learned a lot that I apply to my writing.
• Be patient with yourself, you can only paint/write based on your ability at the time. With regular practice comes improvement.
• Don’t constantly compare yourself to others, thinking everyone writes or paints better. Just do the best you can.
• You won’t know what a project will look like until it’s finished. The intermediate stages often seem ugly both in painting and writing. Don’t fret over it. Don’t give up. A painting project looks better after it’s varnished. A writing project looks better after it’s polished.
• Nothing is written in stone. You can always start over. Wood can be sanded. Paint can be removed from most surfaces. Characters can be changed, plots restructured, sentences reworded. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, just because you’ve written something down, it can’t be modified.
• You don’t have to do everything the way the instructions say. Paint colors can be changed. Parts of a design can be omitted. Writing rules can be broken as long as you understand what those rules are and why you’re ignoring them.

Q: Your covers are so cute, who designed them? Who came up with the idea?

They are great, aren’t they? I really love them! Both of them were designed by the same artist, the talented Stephanie Chontos, in collaboration with my publisher, Henery Press.

Q: Being a writer seems like a big shift from working in computer science. How did you make the decision to leave tech?

I moved from the software development world into writing mysteries because I was looking for a new challenge. At that time, I was working freelance and my contract had ended. One morning I woke up with this vision of a young woman finding the body of her painting teacher in her garden so I decided to try writing. From that germ of an idea my first book, FATAL BRUSHSTROKE, was born and published many years later. I was lucky enough to be able to quit my day job and devote myself full-time to writing.

There are more similarities between programming and writing mysteries than you might think. The approach to writing a mystery and writing a program is fairly similar. In both, you start with an idea and a set of requirements. For a mystery it’s what a reader expects to see in the story; in programming it’s a list of features. They also both involve a period of design. At least that’s true for me since I’m an outliner not a pantser. In writing, I’m plotting the storyline and “designing” characters; in programming, I’m designing algorithms and deciding how to structure the code. There are also artistic aspects to writing code. An elegant piece of code can take my breath away just like a well-written/well-plotted book.

Q: Writing can be very solitary. How do you balance the need for solitude with the need to get out and be with people?

Even though I do enjoy being around people, I’m pretty content with staying at home for long periods of time so I try to schedule regular outings. I study Ancient Egyptian and Coptic with a group I’ve been a member of since the 90s, so that gets me out of the house on a regular basis. And I plan lunches with friends and attend Sisters in Crime/LA’s monthly meetings.

Q: Give your fellow writers one great tip–productivity, craft, marketing, anything!

Take time to celebrate your accomplishments. This is something I know I don’t do enough. With all the deadlines and writing one book while finishing up another, I think writers sometimes forget to take time to acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. Taking a germ of an idea and fashioning it into a finished novel is a huge achievement.

Q: What’s next for Aurora?

A heat wave, a little romance, a trompe l’oeil painting class and, of course, a murder to solve.


Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Visits to the library introduced her to Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and a host of other characters. Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After a rewarding career in the computer industry, Sybil decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine, among others.

She’s the author of the Aurora Anderson Mystery series, set in the world of decorative painting. The first in the series, Fatal Brushstroke, will be released by Henery Press November 18, 2014.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Southern California where she enjoys tole painting, studying ancient languages and spending time with friends and family. Visit Sybil at


Website | Facebook | Henery Press | Twitter | Goodreads 





Blog  | Facebook  | GoodReads | LinkedIn | Twitter | Mailing List

One thought on “Author Interview: Sybil Johnson, Paint the Town Dead

  1. Interesting excerpt and interview with Rory. Story sounds amazing. Can’t wait to read “A Palette for Murder”.

Leave a Reply to diannekc Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.