Barb Johnson reads from More of This World or Maybe Another
5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wed., Oct. 21
Garden District Book Shop, The Rink, 2727 Prytania St., 895-2266; www.gardendistrictbookshop.com
It wasn't a calling that moved Barb Johnson to abandon her 20-year career as a carpenter and begin writing fiction. Not a romantic one, anyway.
"Tennis elbow," she says instead, ticking off a laundry list of joint injuries sustained on her former job sites. "Knees, back, neck. Rotator cuff. There was a certain part of each year spent in pain."
A Lake Charles native, Johnson, 52, has spent much of the past three decades living in Mid-City, the majority presiding over a block of Palmyra Street near Jefferson Davis Parkway, in a two-story structure that doubled as her workshop and home. Carpentry and general contracting were her bread-and-butter, but she also taught English at Warren Easton Senior High School in the 1980s. It was a period marked by crime and nightly gunfire in the neighborhood, Johnson says.
"The kids in homeroom would teach each other how to hold up people in the parking lot at the grocery store — because their arms were full, how easy that was. I was teaching people who had beaten a gay man to death because he asked them if they'd like to have sex. Instead of saying no, they got six of their friends and beat the crap out of him.
"But I loved the kids," she adds. "I was very bad in high school, did not enjoy high school. I was very happy there."
The stint would prove to be accidental research for her current endeavor. In fall 2004, worn out physically and mentally on carpentry, Johnson enrolled in the University of New Orleans' Creative Writing Workshop, a resident master of fine arts program. She had been turned down by 10 other schools and had yet to finish her first work.
"I've always liked to write," Johnson says. "I had no idea if I'm a good writer or a bad writer. I'd never written a short story, didn't know how any of that worked. I thought, as soon as you make one small shift in any direction, everything else shifts. Then you start coming across things you wouldn't have in the path of being a carpenter. It's the same thing, but different: Would you like to be injured in new and improved ways?"
Five years later, Johnson finds herself in a markedly different position. Her short stories began drawing accolades while she was still in school: an award and national publication from Glimmer Train Press for one piece, "Killer Heart"; first place in New York University's Washington Square competition for a second, "More of This World or Maybe Another." Before graduating in spring 2008, her thesis, an interwoven collection of those stories titled More of This World or Maybe Another, had been picked up for publication by HarperCollins.
Describing the news, Johnson assumes a typical self-deprecating tone: "I got an email from my agent, who I'd gotten my second year. ... He's forwarding an email from an editor, and I didn't understand it. Does this mean they want to look at the story? So I forwarded it to (UNO professor) Amanda (Boyden). I said, "Amanda, what does this mean?" She said, "You got a book deal." I said, "How can you tell?"
The nine-story collection is a distillation of her four-year output at UNO, which consisted of roughly three written works per semester. It begins with the titular story of tough, teenage Delia, confronting her sexuality on a tryst with another girl in an oil-tank farm nicknamed "Emerald City." The succeeding tales introduce three other characters as children — Dooley, Pudge, Luis — and develop complex familial relationships between the four based in large part on their damaged upbringings. Most are set in the streets surrounding her Mid-City workshop, many birthed on its balcony overlooking Palmyra Street, where Johnson sat in the dark with a lamp on her forehead, seeking literal and figurative refuge from her flooded home in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
"I was so resistant to writing a story about southwest Louisiana, who knows why," she says. "Writing a story about the gay girls? Not going to do that. Amanda would give everybody a really specific assignment based on whatever it was she could see you were resisting. She would give you a scene: an ugly girl on her first date. That's not how I think. I'm going to make her a kick-ass girl! The ugliness is going to be completely somebody else's assumption; that won't be her perception of herself."
Delia, the stiff spine and beating heart of the book, grew out of that assignment, Johnson says. "I'm really grateful to Amanda, because I really would never have written that, ever. That led to (second story) 'Keeping Her Difficult Balance.' Then I thought, that Dooley kid could be her brother. This family history started evolving from there. I had Luis and Pudge. I thought, what if Pudge was Luis' father? That would be hilarious."
"Hilarious" is a relative term in Johnson's world, where sharp, deadpan humor often leavens unbearably awful scenarios. Her style swings a similar pendulum, direct expositional prose interspersed with vivid passages of disorienting fantasy:
When Dooley gets to the garbage pit, he tosses some brush in and then shovels the carcasses. Un patate, deux patate, he goes out the secret door of the counting, away from duck heads and feet, flopping, empty. Steam rises from the still-warm parts. Dooley quickly looks away. He knows that the ducks are dead, that they can't feel anything now. Still, he'd rather not have to put them in a hole, would rather not cover their faces with brush and send their bodies out of this world on a flame. The baby his mother lost is in a hole in the cemetery down the road, a tiny little headstone marking the spot where his family shoveled dirt on top of her. Sometimes Dooley dreams that she opens her eyes down there in the dark. When he has that dream, there's no amount of counting that can get the picture out of his head.
"The stories didn't start out to be connected," Johnson says. "Dooley was this other guy who kind of merged into this other character. I had to change the name so I'd stop thinking of him as this other guy. I have three brothers, so I have a little bit of insight (into writing male characters). Things that I think are adorable, guys are like, 'He would never have survived the playground.'"
With the backing of a $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from the A Room of Her Own Foundation, which provides funding to female writers, Johnson is now beginning work on her first novel. It's a continuation of the story of Luis, beginning the day after her last short story ends, and it shares the same name: St. Luis of Palmyra. "It's just another question I had," she says. "How's that kid going to grow up?"
The reemergence of themes in what were originally unrelated works surprised even her, Johnson says. "People would point out the images. I don't think like that: here's an image, or here's a theme. The rest of the stuff is just story to hang on that kind of moment. The other thing everybody says is, 'It's so violent! Somebody's always getting mangled or dying, birds, pigs, dead babies.' That's not violent. That's just life."