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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barb Johnson: "I did what all English majors do: I became a carpenter."

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:06 PM

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In five years' time, Barb Johnson went from an oft-injured carpenter and sometime scribbler to an MFA holder whose thesis, More of This World or Maybe Another, drew a book deal from HarperCollins before graduation. How did she do it? As the colorful, ever-humble author might never say: chops, babe. Today at 5:30 p.m., at the Garden District Book Shop, Johnson reads from and signs her first work. Following is a conversation we had over Pimm's Cups at the Napoleon House for an article in the current Gambit. You know, research.

This has been quite a charmed year for you.

I’ve spent this whole year going, “What?” I found out they bought the book — it was probably a week before I graduated, May 2008. It’s my thesis, with two extra stories. Refined and reordered. I wasn’t working on the book; I was working on a number of short stories. I combined two characters. One summer I wrote the story about when Dooley was a kid. I really liked writing that story. Some of them are just very satisfying to write. I didn’t know how to enter that story. I’m still not crazy about the ending. Had I to do it over, I would change it.

So these stories are never really finished.

I’m always thinking about it. The other day I’m walking across the living room and all of a sudden, I’m like, “Ohh …” The right ending for “Keeping Her Difficult Balance.” I thought the ending on that was too heavy-handed in my mind. She falls, but it should’ve been more visual about the spray, and how the flames do this. That’s always really fun for me. I love writing really visual stuff. That’s kind of how I think, in pictures. Just have to translate it into words, and that takes a certain amount of time.

I love the first story of Delia — it really sets the tone for the book.

That came out of an actual assignment. I was so resistant to writing a story about southwest Louisiana, who knows why. Writing a story about the gay girls? Not going to do that. Amanda (Boyden) was really good about it: She would give everybody a really specific assignment based on whatever it was she could see you were resisting. That started out as a one-page. 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. I’m very long-winded, so that was five pages. Delia, the character, grew out of that assignment. I’m really grateful to Amanda, because I really would never have written that, ever. That led to “Keeping Her Difficult Balance.” Then I thought, that Dooley kid could be her brother. Then this family history started evolving from there. And I had Luis and Pudge. I thought, what if Pudge was Luis’ father? That would be hilarious.

When was the book deal first proposed?

I got an email from agent, who I’d gotten my second year. I was a finalist in a Tennessee Williams short story contest. It was for “St. Luis of Palmyra,” the only one I had that was really a story, in my mind. He contacted me through the university. 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 Amanda. I said, “Amanda, what does this mean?” She said, “You got a book deal.” I said, “How can you tell?”

So “St. Luis” really started it all.

That’s where it all started. That one’s really close to my heart.

And now it’s included in a Dostoyevsky compilation.

Bizarre! I was a bonus story to Dostoyevsky. The concept is, read the classics, and here’s a modern story that you might want to learn about. I find out a week before I graduate that I have a book deal, and that I have to say yay or nay. Are you kidding me, my thesis? I kept thinking they were going to go, “We like your thesis, we like these stories. What we need you to do is, change Delia to a boy, do this, do that. We need some product endorsement. … Just kidding. We thought we wanted it.” None of that happened. They were refined to make it linked.

How long have you lived in Mid-City?

Off and on, a long time. Except for maybe seven years out of 30. Broadmoor, briefly. Irish Channel, briefly. I remember Mid-City in the ’70s and ’80s. It was a different group of immigrants. Lots of old people. My favorite thing in the world is to get people to tell me the history of the neighborhood, what used to be where. I taught at Warren Easton for five years. ’84 to ’89. There was a horrible amount of crime. You would hear gunfire every night. 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. And instead of saying no, they got six of their friends and beat the crap out of him. But I loved the kids. I was very bad in high school, did not enjoy high school. I was very happy there. I don’t do well with systems that are very broken and very resistant to getting fixed.

Tell me about your previous life as a carpenter.

I was a carpenter right up until storm. I’m from Lake Charles, been living here for 30 years. The storm trashed my shop. It was somewhat fortuitous. It’s not like it was fun right away, don’t get me wrong. It forced me to choose. The choice was so enormous; there was water up to the ceiling. I live on Palmyra, right near Jeff Davis.

How quickly did you come back?

I snuck in with a friend couple of weeks after the storm to see. I initially evacuated to Lake Charles. But, Hurricane Rita. That weekend I had gone to Lafayette to visit some friends. My shop was still underwater. I live on the second floor. The house had storm damage, so I lived on my balcony. Lots of people were doing that. I had a tarp. Go Red Cross! You could use it for everything.

I drove back in a month after the storm. I wasn’t supposed to stay, but I didn’t want to leave either. The only reason I was staying on the balcony was because it was too hot to be in the house. Essentially spent most of the day trying to clean up the neighborhood. There were incredible piles of storm debris just to get up to my landing. Clearing a path from the street to the stairs. It was odd, because I was in school. I was like, Should I rebuild my business?

How long before you were back at UNO?

I didn’t take any (time off). It was the most miraculous, underreported, heroic thing I’ve ever witnessed or been a part of. Little UNO, as broke as they can be, was completely wiped out. We’re all everywhere. One person finds another person finds another person, and the entire university was reconstructed online. Sometime in September we started classes online. This was going to be my third semester, beginning of my second year. Because everybody was so crazy, including me, it was the biggest relief in the world to have something to focus on. I was just there writing, and in the day going to look for someplace to charge my computer and find some WiFi.

And that’s where the seeds of these stories were sewn?

Some of them, yeah. There was one story that I wrote almost in its entirety on that balcony. (“Killer Heart,” about a heatstroke.) Because it’s kind of hot, you know? So I was just pretending in my mind to be somewhere not in Mid-City. It’s the only story that is in New Orleans but not in Mid-City; it’s in the Irish Channel. I could visualize that. It was such a relief in mind to go somewhere. I’m sitting there in the pitch-freaking-black, and it stinks stinks stinks. As a carpenter I always had a miner’s lamp, because I always had to be inside cabinets. Just sitting out there, typing away or reading stories. I’d head out to the suburbs and download them, take them back home.

How did your experience in school change after the storm?

We essentially did the same thing we’d been doing. Two people submit their stories. You read them, you critique them. We went back and made a new schedule, started turning in stories. Just crazy to think about. People were sleeping under their mother’s dining room story with 18 other people. Nobody wrote about the storm. Nobody’s writing an evacuation story. It was great. It was fantastic. Because it was so the opposite of what was actually right downstairs.

What moved you to begin the masters program?

I think my niece motivated me most of all. I was getting too old to do what I was doing. Carpentry I got into to put myself through school. I got into my own business on a leap of faith. This guy told me once, “I just pick up whatever I want to do with my time, and I make that a business.” I don’t know, that doesn’t seem like it would work. … All of a sudden I had a business making furniture, then I was a general contractor as well. It’s so physical and so hard, and I was so injured it was making me miserable. My knees, back, neck. Tennis elbow in both elbows. Rotator cuff. There was a certain part of each year spent in pain.

Did you know it would be writing?

I did. What would I like? I’m not going to think about making a living at it. But I’ve always liked to write. 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. But I’d written. 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?

Decided that I would try to get into an MFA program. I went to UNO for undergrad, for English. I did what all English majors do: I became a carpenter. The first 10 schools I applied to the first year, all 10 turned me down. Every one. They would say, “Send two stories or 30 pages,” so I sent 30 pages. Stuff I was fooling around with. Everything I do is real character-driven. The first drafts of things are often hilarious. They’re funny, and it’s too superficial. That allows me to just get that out of my system. Big deal, you make people laugh. Easy.

Did any of the characters survive?

All the characters survived. The story, in Guernica, called “Issue Is.” That was originally set here (at Napoleon House), and the name of it was “No Stupid Shoes.” It was something that people do as a writing exercise. Friend having ad-hoc summer workshop. He wanted to learn how to just do dialogue back-and-forth, and communicate characterization with gesture and all the things. I have no idea what I’m doing. None. One woman was trying to convince the other one to take ballroom dancing lessons, and the other one doesn’t want to. I’m going to workshop later tonight with people I graduated with. Somebody’s turned in three chapters of a novel. Several people are working on novels, me included. Mostly I’m working on getting my book launched right now.

How did More of This World begin to take form as a book?

The stories didn’t start out to be connected. 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. Things that I think are adorable, guys are like, “He would never have survived the playground.”

In school, you only write short stories. I had no notion this was going to be a book. I spent a lot of time in school trying to write a novel that was not very good, because plot is very hard for me. In an attempt to make the plot work, I’m ignoring characterization, which is my strength. Eventually I had to go, “Oh! For the sake of finishing, I will have to write short stories for my thesis.” You write three a semester for six semesters, that’s 18 stories, if not 21. Non-fiction terrifies me. I feel like the sky is the limit. Fiction, it almost always occurs to me naturally, because it’ll be some made-up person doing some made-up thing. The facts won’t strain me at all.

Were you surprised to see recurring themes?

I was very surprised. People would point out the images. I don’t think like that: Here’s an image, or here’s a theme. I don’t even think of those as that. Now here’s the stuff I like to write. 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.

In what order did you write them?

“What Was Left” was probably the first story. And it was probably 40 pages long. That’s what I used to do: write 60 pages, cut back to 40. Get some feedback, then try to cut it back to a story, instead of a series of episodes. Adding subtlety to the character, adding grades of meaning. Refining the character. [Pudge] was sort of laughable, and that wasn’t what I was shooting for; I didn’t want people to laugh at him. That one started out with a line that’s not even in the story anymore. The thing that I thought about was a flashback in this guy’s life that I thought about when I was a kid. I was at a birthday party, and we’re all singing “Happy Birthday,” and this kid sneezes all over the cake. And I thought, what does that do to you? How do you grow up and remember that? I don’t know what she did; I don’t know how she managed that memory.

Tell me about the new book.

It kind of picks up where Luis’ story (leaves off), the very next day. There are going to be some new characters, but it will kind of revolve around all of them. St. Luis’ Palmyra. It’s just another question I had: How’s that kid going to grow up? As opposed to Pudge.

How did the $50,000 AROHO grant come about?

I started applying for fellowships and grants immediately after graduation. As an undergrad I had gotten a grant from the Astraea Foundation. I got a $1,500 grant. The Glimmer Train thing, I got when I was in (grad) school. That was my first national publication, for “Killer Heart.” Most bizarre was, I made myself apply for AROHO competition, which was the most elaborate application you’ve ever seen. There were six essays, maybe four or five lists: school, publications, awards. It was so intimidating. I would read other people’s writing and think, “Oh, well she’s brilliant.” I’m just a little schmo carpenter.

They announced it sometime in March. I’m working on the edits for the book, and I’m like, “How much more terrific can the world be?” And somebody just calls me and goes, “You won $50,000.” Are you screwing with me? Who is this? I think I’m just a good test case. We all do this: this sort of, not me, not me. There’s shiny people who went to the really great schools, who didn’t get turned down from 10 schools. Which was also good. UNO was perfect for me. I was so happy there every single day. It’s an excellent program. It’s not a cutthroat pissing contest; it’s extremely cooperative. Everybody supports everybody, always. So then this. That was really hard to digest. Because I’m not a young person, Noah. School is a certain momentum in the direction of writing. My goal was to have a national publication before I graduated. Amanda Boyden, we all go to Parkview every Monday after workshop. Another good thing about UNO: There’s this sort of apprenticeship. There’s always somebody who’s a few steps ahead of you, and somebody who’s a few steps behind you. We all just take each other along these steps. Right now, Bill Loehfelm, who just won’s breakthrough novel award, is a couple years ahead of me.

Does the deal with HarperCollins include the second book?

I got some other good advice: When you sign a two-book contract, the clock starts ticking right then. I didn’t think that would lead to my best work. So I signed a one-book contract. I don’t write in a straight line. And apparently nobody else does, either, but I always have the notion they do — sit down and go, “Page 1 …” I almost never start at the beginning of a story. It’s usually sort of auditory or visual. It’s some sense — not of what’s going to happen, but who’s in it, and what kinds of things would that person do.

The rule of thumb is, 10 years after you graduate, you publish a book. But most people who graduate are not 50. I was like, “I really don’t have 10 years.” The best I could do would be to get a grant. It would be another year aimed at the thing I like to do, and other things start conspiring, because that’s the context you have. I never would have met you or any of the other people who are thinking the same kinds of things. I didn’t have these conversations with the drywall guy. I had great conversations, but I didn’t have these conversations.

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