Sarah Anne Johnson

The connection between narrative and music February 18, 2012



By Sarah Anne Johnson


You grew up playing in bands and writing lyrics for metal bands. How did this influence your desire to write? Do you listen to music when you write?

For me, there’s always been a connection between narrative and music. The first things I ever wrote were really terrible lyrics to bad metal songs, then those lyrics became bad poems, and then poems became stories. What I most often taken from music is mood or tone—it’s rare that a specific image or character comes out of a song I love. The other important thing is the performance aspect of music. As a musician, you write a song and then go out and perform it. I think of a lot of my work that way as well, especially short stories, which I don’t feel are actually complete until I can read them to an audience.

How does your reading life inform your writing and what are you reading now? 

I don’t think you can write without being a voracious reader. Besides reading my students’ work, I seek material that’s somehow connected to the kind of writing I’m working on. For The Great Perhaps, I kept going back to Vonnegut and Thomas Pychon. There was something about their work that seemed so inventive in how they were dealing with questions of war and complexity. I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, as that’s what I’m writing, and revisiting Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

You’re writing plays as well as stories and novels. Do you prefer any one form? How does writing in one form influence your writing in another? 

I guess everything starts out as a short story for me. If the characters or question of the short story seem interesting enough, or maybe lead me to another set of questions, then I usually try it out as a play. For me, playwriting is a great way to understand narrative structure and its relationship to character. It forces you to get to the dramatic scenes and events of the material. If a play seems interesting, then I usually try it out as a novel next. A number of my novels, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails, were written like that. It’s like constructing a large building room by room instead of trying to build it without any blueprint.

You’ve written two short story collections, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir and Demons in the Spring. What are some of your considerations in arranging stories into a book? 

For both books, I looked at the tones and lengths and the points of view; I wanted to make sure the stories contrasted each other and were dynamic in how they were arranged. I didn’t want to put two stories with sad endings next to each other. For Demons, I also had the structural device that the book is broken up into four parts, with five stories, each taking place during a specific season. The first five stories take place in spring, the next five in summer, and so on. The short story collections I really love have the sense of being written by a number of different writers, where you really get to experience the range of the writer’s work. I think Barry Hannah’s Airships is probably the best collection I’ve read—it goes from these really lurid modern moments, to stories set in the future, to stories set in the Civil War. It’s a very different experience reading a collection, because you don’t tend to have that great a difference in tone and point of view in a novel.


How does a story or novel come to you, in an image, a voice, a character?

It always starts with an image. I’m working a story now about this brother and sister in their late thirties, and it started with the image of the two of them on a bicycle, the sister pedaling, the brother on the handlebars. So I had to write to figure out what that meant. My favorite writers, like Faulkner, claimed to do the same thing. I like the sense of discovery that always occurs when you follow your curiosity instead of trying to understand it all before you start writing. To me, when the material is working, it’s infinitely wiser and more intelligent than I actually am. It’s the best parts of myself, because it’s exaggerated, idealized, and so I have to remind myself over and over again to let the story tell itself.


Do you work on more than one project at a time?

I do. But I usually move from working on a novel to working on a play, all the while writing shorter material and non-fiction freelance work as well, though I don’t write bigger projects at the same.


Some writers craft a story sentence by sentence and don’t need to do a lot of revision on the final piece, while others write a draft, then they go back and revise, revise, revise. How do you draft and revise your work?

Jesus. Who are these writers who don’t need to go back and revise? I would love to be able to do that. I tend to write a draft and then go back over something again and again, first focusing on the character and scenes and interactions, then the details and physical descriptions, and then the specific language. Last, I start to look how the scenes work together structurally.


What makes for a good opening to a short story? A novel?

If you can introduce the character and conflict together in the first sentence, that’s a good start, for either a short story or a novel. To me, those are the things that most interest me, and are the components that drive the whole thing forward.


Your most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, begins “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.” You’ve called this a response to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Can you say more about that?

It’s a blatant rip-off and a great example of how Vonnegut starts his book. His opening line to Chapter Two, which sort of actually starts the book, is “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” What does that mean? I don’t know, but I want to keep reading. I wanted the first line of my book to work like that, introduce the character, the conflict, in this very flat, direct tone that always has a kind of absurd quality to it. Besides the subject matter, I felt like the way he wrote the book, the sense of humor and purpose, are incredible.


The main characters are a University of Chicago paleontologist in search of a giant deep-sea squid and his wife, an animal behaviorist. How did you decide upon these careers, and how does a character’s work inform who they become on the page?

I don’t have any idea how I decided what they would do for a living. I knew their jobs would have something to do with clouds, which is a recurring image in the book, and also that Jonathan, because of his epilepsy, would have some sort of job that forced him to be indoors. So much of the internal struggles each of these characters have come through in their jobs. Jonathan is seeking simple answers to why the world is the way it is, and his search for the giant squid is informed by his cowardice and preference for isolation in his day to day life. His wife, Madeline, is having a hard time dealing with her family falling apart, and she is looking at the social structures of birds to try and figure out whether or not we still need families.


What drew you to explore cowardice through the members of the Casper family? 

If I think about the last seven or eight years in this country, the prevailing mood is one of absolute fear. The books was a way for me to explore questions about what happened during the time period, and why it seemed our country was immured by a fear of complexity.


The novel contains a lot of specific information about clouds, squids, and other particulars that must have required significant research. How did you go about your research?

I wrote the characters and the scenes and then did a lot of research to inform their lives.  There is a lot of material in there about squids and the mating habits of pigeons but ultimately it’s about a family and I had to keep in mind that no amount of research I did was going to change that.


How do you render elements of magical realism, such as the cloud that takes on human form and eludes Madeline, and keep them believable?

I don’t know if its magical realism or surrealism or absurdity, but it was very important for me to capture these moments that were surreal or absurd, because I felt that in order to be truthful to the mood of the country at the time, the book had to contain those moments. The other thing is that in more traditional novels where we don’t get to observe those kinds of moments, we miss out on how much a character’s imagination might inform their world.


Typically, you have to introduce the possibility of absurdity right at the beginning, so the reader knows the rules of the world, which the explanation of Jonathan’s medical condition does.


I guess, to be totally honest, I really don’t have much interest in whether a scene or a book is believable. In fact, I think most of the books and writing I really love is actually pretty unbelievable. I think this reliance on the idea of believability is actually a pretty huge disservice to the potential of fiction. If people want something believable, they should read a newspaper. For me, reading fiction is an opportunity to use my imagination in a way I don’t get to in any other quarter of my life. Unlike film, unlike TV, or video games, or any other cultural product, you have to actively use your imagination to read a book. When I think of the last seven or eight years in America, what I see is a complete and total lack of imagination, pretty much across the board.


You play with form in this novel, including drawings, transcripts of old radio shows, and government documents. What interests you in these modernist structural elements and what do you hope the narrative gains from these?

The Great Perhaps is about complexity and our fear of it. I wanted the book’s structure and the way it was written to reflect that possibilities of complexity. I used the various forms throughout to define the five different main characters.


Koren Zelek created the drawings for the book. How did you decide to work with Koren? Did you have input into the drawings?

Miss Zelek is my wife. I knew I would not have to pay her. I gave her the general idea for each drawing and then she ignored my instructions. She also did the cover for The Boy Detective Fails, which is one of my favorite covers.


In Thisbe and Amelia, the teenage Casper daughters, you capture so well the teenage struggle to engage in life and have a point-of-view in the midst of emotional uncertainty and vulnerability. Was it challenging to write from their point-of-view?

No.  I don’t think teenagers are any different than people in mid-life or senior citizens. I think the same struggles I had as a younger person, with family, with notions of purpose and country, are the same struggles I have. I think it makes us feel better to believe we’re these totally different people once we graduate high school and turn eighteen. But I just don’t believe it. Have you ever walked into a high school cafeteria? There’s the tables all arranged by different social groups, by gender, by race. I see the same trends when I look at the neighborhoods in Chicago. The conflicts we have, starting in our teen years, continue through the rest of our lives. Everybody wants to be seen as worthwhile. Everyone wants to be liked.


You write about teenagers in earlier books, such as Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails. What draws you to exploring characters in their adolescence?

Hairstyles is definitely about adolescence; The Boy Detective is about someone in his thirties. Both of them are about characters who are struggling to make sense of the world, which is what most of my stories end up being about. I don’t why I’ve write about younger characters sometimes, other than my favorite writers, like Salinger and Daniel Clowes, seem to as well. It could have something to do with my age and the fact that I’m closer to that material than someone in their seventies.


Reviewers have called both The Great Perhaps and The Boy Detective Failstragicomedies. What interests you in rendering the humorous alongside the tragic?

I think again, it’s what I like to read. There’s something about the use of dynamics, of experiencing the full scale of emotions that makes those kinds of books more interesting to me. I guess it also reflects how I experience life—that among all these heartbreaks and tragedies—there’s almost always something entirely ridiculous happening.


The Great Perhaps has an open ending, one that leaves the events open to interpretation. What did you want your readers to take away from this?

All my favorite books resolve the questions they set out to ask but then end with a whole new set of questions. That way, you feel reading it, that the lives of the characters continue after the last page is read. The family in the book temporarily resolves their major conflicts, but only temporarily.


With The Great Perhaps you switched publishers from Akashic to Norton. How different is it working with a small, independent publisher and now a large one?

Norton and Akashic are very similar in their approach to publishing books. The fact that Norton is the oldest independent publisher in the country has definitely helped in introducing my work to more traditional outlets. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with both of them and hope to continue to work with Akashic and Norton again.


You currently teach creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago. What are some of the challenges you see your students struggling with?

I think the thing a lot of students struggle with is finding material they’re interesting in and then devising a structure for that material. We read and write a lot—Columbia’s Story Workshop method really gives students the opportunity to write in class, then read what they’ve written, then take it home to complete a draft. I think that’s the most important thing a beginning writer can do: to write all the time. That’s how I learned and continue to figure things out.


What would you say to new writers working on their first stories or novel?

Write because you love it, divorced from notions of money, acclaim, or fame. All those things are distractions that ultimately disappoint you. And be prepared to write a lot of bad material. In fact, in some perverse way, you have to really enjoy spending hours on something that you will probably discard. Writing is a process that takes practice, which means you really have to get in your head that it’s okay to fail.


The Joe Meno File

·      Joe Meno lives in Chicago where he married and lives with his childhood sweetheart

·      Focus Features, the film company behind “Lost in Translation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” has optioned the rights to Meno’s novel, “Hairstyles of the Damned,” beating out several other studios for Meno’s approval

·      Meno has been awarded the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Society of Midland Author’s Fiction Prize


The connection between narrative and music

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Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah is the author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Sourcebooks), The Very Telling, The Art of the Author Interview, and Conversations with American Women Writers, all published by the University Press of New England. Her interviews appear in The Writer’s Chronicle, Glimmertrain Stories, Provincetown Arts, and The Writer where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices, and she is the recipient of residencies in fiction from Jentel Artists’ Residency Program and Vermont Studio Center. She has taught the Art of the Author Interview Workshop at Bennington College Writing Seminars MFA Program, Leseley University MFA Program, and at literary conferences.

The connection between narrative and music February 18, 2012