Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |May 12, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Mary Johnson

author of An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of an Authentic Life

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born?

Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA – a college town with an international population. Raised? I lived in Ann Arbor until my family moved to Beaumont, Texas, when I was twelve. Life in Texas was hard to get used to. Schooled? At the University of Texas in Austin for a year, then I became a nun with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Eventually Mother Teresa sent me to study theology at Regina Mundi, a Pontifical Institute in Rome. After I left the sisters I studied English at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and creative writing at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve I wanted to be an archaeologist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra because I loved music and fossils and exploring. At eighteen I had already decided to become one of Mother Teresa’s nuns: I thought God had called me and I wanted to live a life of purpose. At thirty I wanted to be a good nun—by then I’d realized it was trickier than I’d thought! By forty all I wanted to be was myself. At fifty I might have started to figure out how to do that!

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

At eighteen I believed God called me; now I no longer believe in a Supreme Being—I guess you don’t get much more of a turn-around than that.

4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?

Reading about Mother Teresa in Time Magazine set my heart on fire to follow her. Falling in love while I was still a nun complicated things and helped me think about myself in a different way. Several years later I met a woman who offered to pay my graduate school tuition if I would help her start a foundation for women writers—and A Room of Her Own Foundation was born. I’m ready for the next twist—it’s sure to come.

5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?

Books: Long may they reign! Nothing can take a person more deeply into another’s experience and imagination the way a book can. Books foster deep thought and significant relationships. Books matter.

6. Please tell us about your latest book…

An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of my twenty years as a nun with Mother Teresa, but readers have told me that the book isn’t really about being a nun—they say it’s a book about being human, and I like that. It’s a book about struggling to become my own person in the midst of a rigid religious system; it’s a book about discovering who I am and what I’m worth; it’s a book about love. An Unquenchable Thirst took me ten years to write as I tried to dig deeper and write ever more honestly.

(BBGuru: Publisher synopsis…

A powerful, unforgettable spiritual autobiography about a search for meaning that begins when a young woman enters an austere order as a devoted follower of Mother Teresa, and ends when she returns to the secular world, disappointing Mother Teresa but rem.

An Unquenchable Thirst‘ is the story of Mary Johnson’s twenty years as a Missionary of Charity working alongside Mother Teresa in service to the world’s poor. At the same time it is a fascinating depiction of the daily struggles of a life of religious service.

At seventeen, Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine, and eighteen months later found herself in religious training in a South Bronx convent. Not without difficulty, this boisterous, independent-minded teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, but beneath the white-and-blue sari an ordinary young woman faced the simple and profound daily struggles we all share, with the same desires for love and connection, meaning and identity.

After twenty years during which she rose in the ranks, Johnson left the order and has since left the Church altogether. The story of this compellingly honest woman who also happens to be an exceptionally gifted writer will speak to atheists and true believers alike, to anyone who has ever grappled with the mysteries and wonders of life and faith. )

7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

I want a word where we share so well that everyone has enough to eat and a secure place to sleep. Once we’ve learned that, we’ll know how to keep making the world a better place.

8. Whom do you most admire and why?

I admire people who dare to see the world as it might be and who work to make that vision a reality. We can all do that in our own unique, inimitable ways.

9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To live each day mindfully and do as much good as I can. I lived with very lofty goals for so many years—we nuns were supposed to become Saints! Now it’s nice to scale my goals back.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read a lot, and write. Even when you don’t feel like it, write.

Mary, thank you for playing.

Believer or non-believer, how great a part does religion play in your life?  

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • November 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Good questions were posed- thanks. This is just for those who didn’t realise that there’s more to Missionaries of Charity than their spiritual life. When I started volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity in 1997 in Trivamdrum South India the state of the inmates was terrible. Babies were suffering anaclitic depression and marasumus because of ignorance and Mother Teresa’s insistance on a prayer life that meant the sisters spend much less time with the ‘poorest of the poor’ in their homes.than praying- allowing instead uneducated young girls to look after tiny and often premature babies. For years and it still was the case last year handicapped kids in her homes live in appalling conditions.

    • June 1, 2012 at 6:37 am

      Sally, I don’t believe you at all. I have been there myself in the same year!
      Some children came in with marasmus or kwachiorkor, but never got malnourished in the in the home itself. On the contrary, they were very well nourished and healed. I have been in more than 80 homes in 52 several countries, India, Africa, Russia, America, Europe. Not for one or two days, but for weeks and somitimes months.

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