11 Questions for Stephanie Johnson
I sent 11 questions to Stephanie Johnson about her book, One of These Things Is Not Like the Others, just out from Keyhole, and she wrote back thanking me for my close reading. But such thanks are unnecessary; the book demands and rewards it. If you don’t read One of These Things with a keen eye, it’s possible to miss out on some of the best writing in a year of great writing. I rank Johnson’s book with two of my other favorites of 2009, AM/PM by Amelia Gray and Big World from Mary Miller. It’s not because they’re all women that I make the comparison, or because of the flash sensibilities, but because they all share a profoundly affecting emotional core that, geyserlike, does most of its work below the surface.
Speaking of below the surface, Stephanie Johnson’s answers to my eleven questions are below the fold.
HTMLGIANT: Where do you live? Do you have, like, a family and a job? What are the basic facts about Stephanie Johnson?
STEPHANIE JOHNSON: I live in Madison, WI with my husband and our son, and I work as an academic editor and a composition instructor. Basic facts about me? Hmm . . . I try to be a good citizen by voting whenever I have a chance (primaries, local elections, who likes chocolate milk . . . count me in). I watch too much bad TV. I like to surround myself with people who know more than I do. I think that most people will agree that I’m hard to offend and easy to make laugh. I consider both of those to be good things.
H: When and why’d you start writing?
SJ: Writing has been more of an evolutionary process for me and it’s probably fairer to say that I started as a writer (even though I wasn’t technically writing) by listening to story-tellers in my family. So, for me, writing really has its roots in the oral story-telling tradition. I learned from my grandfather, a good-natured Swede who married into a family of Italian sisters who all lived in the same neighborhood. You had to be a pretty good story-teller to get a word in edge-wise around that kitchen table and you had to be pretty compelling to keep the audience. I spent a lot of time listening to him. He was a natural, and I was crazy about both him and his stories. I began working in the personal narrative non-fiction form in high school where my father was my teacher (it was a small community and he was the only person who taught advanced composition). Much like my grandfather, my father is a natural story-teller but, at this time, writing formally entered the picture as well. Then, in college, I was introduced to a wealth of literature–so I was reading incredibly powerful stuff–and I studied creative writing (poetry) in the classroom. I completely transitioned to writing short fiction by the time I left school.
H. Can you talk about the title of your book?
SJ: I had a hard time settling on a title. So, I did what I usually do when I’m feeling indecisive: I put together a list of options (which included “none of the above”) and I polled people whose opinions I respect. One of These Things is Not Like the Others was the overwhelming choice.
H. You’ve been in Keyhole the journal. What was it like working with Keyhole for a book?
SJ: Peter Cole is, as I’ve said before, the hardest working man in showbiz. It’s been an amazing experience to work with someone who cares so much about readers, writers, people in general. He’s innovative and generous. His vision is strong–the journal, the website, the Digest, Keyhole Press, his work with isReads–I love the fact that he’s someone who says “let’s try it” and then does. Keyhole Press has a diverse and engaging catalogue: works by William Walsh, Thomas Cooper, Curtis Crisler, Shellie Zacharia, Aaron Burch, Matt Bell. . . . It’s thrilling and humbling to be among such great company.
H. You have a knack for hiding details and developing expectations slyly. For instance, in “Marriage,” I think the most important phrase is “our decidedly settled household.” By saying that, the narrator is revealing something provocative about her relationship in a story that is only peripherally about a marriage. In “Motherhood” the human-mother cries, extraneously, for what she herself lost when the dog-mother cries for the runt of her litter, but it’s apparently not important to you to identify the human-mother’s loss. And in “Fluxions,” a man leaving home in the middle of the night says to his wife, “‘Of course I’m not having an affair,’ I told Iris. During our conversations, Joanie advised me to keep answers short.” — but then he actually doesn’t go off to cheat. Your nuance is incredible, and I think what it does is it opens up the reading to a sense that there’s so much happening in subtext. When you’re writing and reading your work, is it important to you that you convey how the lives you’re writing are actually even more complicated than what you’ve written? I’m begging the question a little bit because I think relational complications comprise the main focus of your work here. So just let me know if I’m on the right track.
SJ: The human condition (if I can use such a broad term) is endlessly complicated and, as such, so are our relationships with each other. I think it’s completely accurate to say that relational complications comprise a primary focus and interest for me. But, of more importance, is the reader’s experience. I want readers to have room to move around in these stories so they can draw their own conclusions about what’s important, about what motivates us, about what it means to be a human and to struggle with all the things we struggle with.
H. The longest stories, at 23 pages, are “In Vino Veritas” and “Thesmophoria,” which are both about girls who grow into women while waiting for a man to return. Since these similar stories are twice as long as any of the others, I wonder what about them captured your attention?
SJ: I probably run the risk of sounding flaky here, but I think that stories have a natural life-span and, as such, an inherent “right” length. To that end, I think the writer’s obligation is to find the cleanest form for communicating the story at hand. I used to want to write stories that were, say, 30 pages long. And then, later, I wanted to write stories of fewer than 500 words. Mostly, these attempts were disasters because I was too focused on an artificial requirement (length) rather than on the organic end of story-telling.
H. The distanced love interest in “Thesmophoria” is named Lex. In “You Are Not Clark Kent” the reader is presented with a man who disappoints his wife because of his fallibility. Is this intentional? What’s up with you and Superman?
SJ: I feel as though I should say something smart here but I’ll admit the truth: I didn’t notice. (Now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s almost impossible to miss–and I feel sheepish, like I’m a poor reader.) Even though the direct references weren’t intentional choices, I think this does speak to a larger theme that interests me: a sense of the expectations we have of each other, how those expectations affect our public and private selves, and the discord that can grow from this conflict between who we are and who others want us to be.
In response to the last part of the question, while I admire Superman’s moral compass, I have to say I’m more of a Batman kind of girl. Or, maybe I’m just a sucker for secret-identities.
H. There is a unified focus in this collection that, I think, makes it succeed as something more than just a book of short stories. The sense of detachment that’s prevalent in every piece filters through the whole thing so, reading it straight through, I almost get the sense that I’m skipping around in a very long novel. How did this happen? How much of this is intentional because you ordered it that way when putting together the book? Did you say, “Okay, for pets I’m only going to put dogs in the book,” or do you think this happened because it’s the stuff you always write?
SJ: I tend to work hard at trying not to think about things too much. I try to order stories by “feel” rather than by “logic.” That, of course, isn’t to suggest that logic plays no role in creative process: it should and it does. But in my day-to-day life, I have a tendency to over-think things and sometimes you can knock the life out of something by churning it around too much. I think collections have rhythms and mostly it’s about shutting out all the other noise and letting that rhythm settle into itself.
H. I see in your work a keen similarity to Mary Miller’s Big World. What do you think? Who are some writers you love?
I think Miller’s work has strong vision and edge. There’s big power in her stories, and I take the comparison as a wonderful compliment.
In terms of writers I love, that’s a tough question. I like a lot of what I read, and I’ve certainly had a lot of literary infatuations with writers and different books . . . but you’re asking about love, and I think of that in terms of people I’ll continue reading even if I’m disappointed by some of their books, of writers I want to grow old with, so framed that way, here are the writers I love: Ray Carver, Larry Brown, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Milan Kundera, James Joyce, and Flannery O’Connor. In each of these cases, I think reading one or more works by these authors affected the way I looked at the world, probably made me a better—or at least more thoughtful—version of myself.
H. If you had to come up with a classification for your book, would you focus on the content of the stories or the style of your writing? What would you call your own personal genre?
SJ: Content. I think the writer’s job is often to get out of the story’s way. A good story is a good story regardless of the style of writing. In fact, you could probably make the argument that great stories are great because the story is told in a manner that weds story and style.
I don’t know that I could name the genre. . . . My personal genre would probably have a slight problem with authority and a need to thwart societal expectations. . . . it would probably resist a label. . . .
H. So this is a gratuitous question, but because your book is so exceptional and your writing is so specific that I can’t help but think you have a considered opinion, I want to ask you: What is the goal of literature in our time?
SJ: Thank you for your kind words about the collection. I think people read for a diverse variety of reasons–to be informed, to be entertained, to escape–but in regards to your question, I think the goal of literature in our time is to uncover some truth of our existence, (ignoring for the moment the philosophical debates we could have about how we ought to define truth). I think literature that transcends a specific time period and continues to engage readers seeks to communicate something about our existence, to record a way of looking at and thinking about the world. There are as many ways to accomplish this as there are writers themselves, but I think truth is a critical goal of literature.