Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than 20 years before entering the MFA program at the University of New Orleans. While in the writing program, she won a grant from the Astraea Foundation, Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers, and Washington Square’s short story competition. She completed her MFA in 2008, and in 2009 she became the fifth recipient of A Room Of Her Own Foundation's $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award, a two-year writing grant.
More of This World or Maybe Another is her first book. Drawing praise from the likes of Donald Ray Pollock, Dorothy Allison, and Robert Olen Butler, the linked collection of stories focuses on a series of characters who, for a variety of reasons, don’t always fit in with the world around them, but the central character is Delia, who eventually comes to own the Laundromat around which many of the stories orbit. Johnson lives and writes in New Orleans, where she is at work on a novel.
In becoming an artist, many writers must travel a difficult path, but some writers’ origin stories are more compelling than others. Tell us yours.
I don’t know that I had a path so much as a long wandering. Like most writers I have always written to make sense of the world around me. However, it never occurred to me that I could be an author, so my progress in that direction went something like: nothing, nothing, nothing, WHAMMO!
Step one: I had a traditional education and introduction to the world of work, by which I mean, it took me seven years to put myself through undergrad, and I used my degree in English as a way to get my foot in the door of a career in carpentry. I worked as a carpenter for almost thirty years, until, in 2005, a big, fat flood washed that away. The year before I lost my business, I had entered the MFA program at the University of New Orleans.
Step two: Up until the time I was accepted into that writing program, I don’t think I’d ever gone in the front door of anything. The writers at UNO are such a cohesive and supportive and amazing group that we continued classes online the same semester that Katrina hit, and all but one of us returned to campus when it reopened the following semester. While everyone was away, I was living on my balcony. Writing saved my sanity then, and it became clear to me that I should just let my carpentry business go and focus my energies on writing. It was not a simple thing. It was a complete leap of faith that ignored the very real fact that I had no money, no cushion to float me through lean times. That had all gone under in the flood. But what’s the point of finding something you love to do and then denying yourself the opportunity to do it? It wasn’t a fiscally sound decision, but letting go of writing would’ve broken my heart.
Step three: The support and mentorship in UNO’s writing program changed not only my writing, but also how I thought about the world. When I was accepted into the program, I made a promise to myself to make use of every opportunity, to force myself to do even and especially the things that scared me most. The notion of submitting a short story for publication scared the crap out of me, but I began sending stuff out my first year.
Whammo! By my second year, I began to get published nationally. Suddenly all sorts of things were possible. I could put 20 pages of made up stuff in an envelope and send it to a stranger, who might or might not accept it for publication, but who, regardless, agreed that sending fat envelopes of lies to strangers was a perfectly normal thing to do. It was reasonable, I learned, to have expectations, to have goals. The week before I graduated from the MFA program, HarperPerennial bought my thesis.
And now I am a writer.
Writers often refer to writing as a craft and employ metaphors derived from the work of carpenters and general contractors, your profession for nearly three decades. I wonder what you make of that comparison.
I think carpentry—building—is an easy metaphor for writing, and that’s why people use it. My work habits as a carpenter were a great preparation for being a writer. Because I was a self-employed carpenter, I was faced with the equivalent of a blank page every time I started a new project. And every time, I was overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities that lay before me at the beginning. Writers and carpenters both know that form follows function. They also know that there needs to be a little style in there somewhere, a little thumbprint from the maker.
When facing the blank page, it’s easy to let the vastness of possibility shut you down. I still marvel that, after all these years, my initial reaction to the beginning of a project is one of being stymied. This is where faith comes in. Because I’ve done it before, it stands to reason I’ll be able to do it again. When I am stuck or frustrated by problems in a project, I never try to solve them with my conscious mind. I go to sleep, and, while I’m sleeping, my unconscious mind connects the dots, which is a lot of bang for the buck, considering I neither have to feed nor transport myself while asleep. It is the only multi-tasking at which I am even mildly competent. I don’t mean to imply that there is any “magic” to writing or to building, either. It’s just that our conscious minds try to impose order on a disorderly process. My unconscious mind is much more efficient (and fun!) when it comes to solving problems.
As a carpenter, I did all my own design work. So, whether I was building a library or doing a complete renovation of a home, I had to bid it, design it, and build it, so there was a lot more riding on the efficacy of my design, on the accuracy of my bid, and on my ability to build what I never had before. And this is where writing differs as a trade. I’m still self-employed, but there’s no clock ticking. I am not telling myself, Great, now I’m making $5 an hour. Now it’s $2.50. Now I’m paying the customer for the privilege of building things for his home. Because there’s little chance of making a decent hourly wage for the things we write, that concern is removed entirely. And that is why writing has its drawbacks, but the low pay barely merits consideration. I built things because I loved doing it, but living or dying by the clock is a miserable way to do something you love. So I write because I love to write. Whatever happens after that is gravy.
What kind of fiction do you most value?
Value? I value all the fiction—that which moves me and that which fails to speak to me at all. I am stunned and uplifted by the fact that a piece of literature that doesn’t touch me can be a source of inspiration for the person standing next to me. Because we are all in different places and because, as individuals, we are in different places at different times, I think there is no objective way to say what is valuable and what is not. Books that shaped my thinking when I was 13 now seem two-dimensional and facile even though the book didn’t change at all. Somewhere, some 13-year-old is quoting from it and sighing over it just as I did. And that is the definition of great literature.
What makes me sigh over a book now? I like character-driven fiction in which life has meaning and characters try to work out that meaning for themselves by doing something. I like it when they don’t get what they think they want. I like it when they don’t get anything at all, but they keep trying anyway. I like when characters fall because of what’s inside them—temptation, false assumptions, an inability to find the off switch—as opposed to some exterior obstacle. I like beautiful language, and, most of all, I like to have my perceptions of the world shaken up.
In writing about the New Orleans and coastal Louisiana you have known—in stories set in a time before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city—what role does place play in your approach?
It’s not that I consciously think about place, but that my stories grow out of the places I’ve known. Any well-known city is a challenge to use as a setting, but New Orleans is particularly challenging because it is well known for things that I don’t write about at all. My landscape never references the French Quarter or Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras, or anything that an outsider associates with New Orleans. Those things have little to do with my characters’ lives. I am not concerned with Uptown and St. Charles Avenue, or faded and fallen aristocrats. I write about the sweet, dark heart of this place and about the sorts of things and people who are living their lives well beyond the view of the tourist.
I am not so much interested in the New Orleans that has been destroyed and rebuilt and stands to be destroyed again. I am interested in how people live with that fact. The vibe in New Orleans is much more European and African than Southern. And though it happened long ago, the fact that the French and the Spanish played hot potato with this place until they finally pawned it off on the Americans still lives in us as an inflection. It is the reason that our culture remains firmly set on food and drink and dancing. We had an influx of German immigrants for a minute. What they found when they arrived is what largely still exists: a place with a fluid sense of law, little concern for education and a deep interest in a life of the senses. The Germans did the best they could to get the place organized, but it didn’t really take. New Orleans embodies exactly the new age dictum that we should live in the moment. That maxim, it turns out, is perfect if you’re a crackhead or if enjoying yourself is your sole aim. If you want to live an orderly life, or wish for city services in exchange for taxes or for anything at all to work the way it’s supposed to, then New Orleans will frustrate the hell out of you. The disorderly life of this place plays a huge role in my writing. Not the whee! joie-de-vivre, but its utter separateness from the work-hard-and-get-ahead culture of the rest of the United States. Which is not to say that we don’t work hard. We do. Harder than most, frankly, because all our economic eggs are in the tourism basket, and that setup requires a permanent underclass to make it work. And that permanent underclass is well acquainted with the lack of connection between working hard and getting ahead.
The laissez faire attitude of this place extends to other parts of New Orleans life—the cycle of poverty, for instance. There’s a sort of passionate resignation that permeates this city, a belief that nothing we can do will stop the elected officials from taking what they’re going to take. We’d like to change things. We would. And we might talk about it after the crawfish boil, if the game’s not on TV. It’s highly likely that we’ll attend your meeting if there is free beer. And if there’s music at the protest, we might go. Still, we know nothing will ever change, but it’s nice of you to try, and tell your mom-n-them hey for us, won’t you?
And all of this is to say that, for me, place—this place—is inextricable from character.
In your book’s back matter, you talk about your early attempts to write the kind of stories you kept seeing in books and magazines about “well-educated people crippled by ennui,” and how you had to move past that to write about the subjects you truly “know best: gay girls and oil refineries, fatherless boys stuck in the maze, alienated people living off the grid, and folks who sit in abandoned cars to do their serious thinking.” One of the book’s central characters, Delia, offers one approach: “There’s real trouble in the world. The kind that can’t be fixed. The kind we lie awake keeping vigil against. Love is not trouble. It is all we have to light our days, to bring music to the time we’ve been given.” Why aren’t there more books and stories about “real trouble”?
I think most books are about real trouble because everyone’s real trouble is different. Ennui has never been an issue for me, but it must feel horrible to be bored by life. Everyone has their own kind of trouble in this world. For Delia and the folks in my stories, (and the people of New Orleans) the murder of young men and innocent bystanders, to which the quote above refers, is real trouble. And real trouble is made bearable only by the squishy, old-fashioned things we don’t talk much about: love, hope. It’s as though sincerity has become an embarrassing, lower-order expression; the hallmark of limited intelligence. And more than depictions of real trouble, I wonder where all the sincerity has gone. When cool holds sway over sincerity, ennui is the natural result.
Your stories traffic in subtle humor, but readers who are emotionally pummeled by the high drama of “Killer Heart”—in which a tragic death occurs—might not immediately think of you as a funny writer, but re-reading the story reveals several funny moments and lines. How do you handle humor in your work, especially during revision?
I don’t actually “handle” humor at all. It just works its way into things, and often I don’t realize it’s there. In fact, I first discovered that some things were funny when I read them aloud to a group, and the group laughed at unexpected times. They were laughing in recognition, I guess. Couples arguing. A boy’s funny misinterpretation of religious tenets and his efforts to understand how they fit in his world. The wrong, wrong, wrong conclusions that we draw in this life. That kind of humor is part of being alive.
One aspect of humor that I think I’m conscious of, though, has to do with drawing a character. There’s a pretty fine line between giving a character some humorous traits and making him a clown that readers laugh at and dismiss. We’re all pretty ridiculous as human beings—I mean, what a tall order it is to move through life with grace and dignity. All along the way we trip over that same crack in the sidewalk, then look back at it with scorn as though it has tricked us somehow. While it’s frustrating to trip over the same crack repeatedly, I think it’s comforting to find humor in the fact that we are all this way, that we all know better far sooner than we are able to do better. Everyone stumbles. Everyone falls. And everyone is always surprised when it happens. We think because we know better, we won’t make that mistake again. In order to create a story in which the fall is humorous in a human way and not in a cartoon way, I have to edit toward that effect. It has to do with rhythm, with the reader anticipating the fall. With creating a character who is pretty sure he has tripped for the last time. And then showing the crack right there in the not-too-distant future and letting it stand for the inevitable.
Secrets play an important role in many of your stories. What is it about the power of secrets that interests you as a writer?
People find secrets compelling. Who knows why? And even as reality TV pretends to reveal those secrets, always something is held back. Secrets are our little refuge from the world. Having a secret feels like having the ability to keep some small part of yourself protected from the utter chaos of life. This is an illusion, of course. But there it is again, the crack in the sidewalk, sending you for a header.
It is an illusion as well that keeping secrets under wraps protects us from pain. We give our own secrets a great deal of power and invest tremendous energy in keeping them from others. I think it’s popular knowledge that the effort it takes to keep things hidden causes more pain than the revelation would. In fact, once revealed, the secret immediately begins to lose power and thus control over our lives. Still, we persist in our efforts to hide. This interests me. How we can know that sort of thing intellectually, how we can see it play out in others’ lives and not recognize it in our own.
How have your ideas about writing changed over the years? How do you respond to your earliest efforts now? What has become easier for you, and what has become more difficult?
Writing a novel was so much easier before I actually began to write a novel, before I realized that my early efforts didn’t amount to any more than rowing across the bayou of a novel. I was completely oblivious to the fact that once I crossed the bayou, I’d find myself at the mouth of a river, which ran for a thousand miles before emptying into an ocean on the other side of which I might, if I were lucky, find the words, The End. There I was in the beginning: Whee! Look! I’m writing a novel! But the real work is the endless rowing, the faith it takes to go on once you realize the scope of what you’re doing.
I don’t know that I’ve had time to have many ideas about writing, but I have had time to be disabused of some stupid notions, one of which is that writing novels is going to get easier. I spent the last year talking to people who had written two or more novels. I asked them if it got easier. No one, not one person, said it did. So what I have learned is that uncertainty is to be expected, which is sort of uplifting. And it keeps me honest. I can no longer read my own uncertainty as a sign that I don’t know what I’m doing or that I am doing the wrong thing. I am writing and I am writing, frequently filled with doubt, but still rowing.
Every life choice has its downside, but a writer’s list of writing-related struggles and annoyances can also shine a light on the better aspects of what we do. What do you like least about being a writer?
I’ll tell you what I don’t like the least: typing. I love to type. It’s relaxing.
However, there’s a certain freakishness about a vocation that keeps you at your desk typing when your friends are playing on the lawn in the sunshine. I hate how there’s never enough time to write. I hate how, even when I finally go outside to play on the lawn with my friends, I am thinking about how I will make up the writing time I spent on the lawn.
Before I began writing seriously, before I knew such a thing was possible, I used to feel sorry for people who felt compelled to climb Mt. Everest. I used to imagine their lives just before the moment they became obsessed with climbing that mountain and wondered if they had done something different in that moment, might they still have all their toes? Might they not have to spend their days feeding that obsessive focus? I believe now that the mountain was always in them just as writing was always in me, waiting for me to realize it, to move everything else aside and place it at the center of my life.
If you could talk to the younger version of your writer-self, the woman just embarking on the writer’s journey, what advice would you share with her?
I got a late start as a writer. I was nearly 50 when I began writing seriously. And though I was a mature human being, all writers start at the same place. Naturally, I was on the lookout for proof that I had waited too long, that there was no place for an old broad at the table. I don’t think I knew anything that was really true about the business or the craft of writing, so I was quite impressionable. At that time, I read an article panning one of Margaret Atwood’s novels. I worship Margaret Atwood. The writer of this (I now realize ignorant) article said the book was a failure because Margaret Atwood had outlived her voice. Age had, apparently, come in and stolen this old, old woman’s voice. Old, ya heard? There was my proof. I had no future as a writer. Pair that with the oft-repeated, though completely untrue, old saw that if a writer hasn’t published a novel by the time he or she is thirty, another career should be considered.
What I have learned is that lots of people like to make pronouncements that support their own personal fears. We can never know what another is capable of. We often don’t know what we ourselves are capable of. My own life has surprised me many times. So what I would say to that beginning writer is: Put your paddle in the water, sister. You’ve got work to do.