Making Headlines

Stars and Scoops

An Interview with Jeffrey N. Johnson   printer  

 “Lost Among the Hedgerows,” Jeffrey N. Johnson’s first contribution to the Sewanee Review, appeared in the fall issue of 2011 and quickly made headlines, winning the Andrew Nelson Lytle Prize in Fiction.  Currently working as an appraiser in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Johnson has managed to establish a successful business career while continuing to pursue his various creative passions, including photography, architectural sketches (which he's particularly adept at), and, of course, fiction writing.  The SR recently asked Mr. Johnson a few questions to get to know our new contributor a little better.   

You neither come from academia nor any mfa program, which is somewhat unconventional for a writer today.  Can you tell us first how you started writing fiction in the first place?


I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-thirties, and I don’t believe I could have started any earlier. The path there was hardly a straight line. I had wanted to be an architect since the fourth grade, or at least that was the idea that somehow took hold and grew. Writing as a career was never given a thought, even when I kept a journal in my teens. Journaling was therapy, a way to navigate the horrors of adolescence, but at the time words didn’t add up to anything tangible. Architecture was bricks and mortar, something I could hold and understand. My grandfathers were both contractors and my uncle was a finish carpenter, so perhaps building, on some level, was in my blood. I remember thinking architecture was the natural progression of that bloodline.
        My ultimate retreat from architecture came from a kind of multifaceted disillusionment. I sat for the architectural registration exam in Richmond during the 1990 recession. About the time I passed the exam (on the second try), the office where I worked laid off nine of its twelve staffers. I was given a pay freeze, had my hours cut to 32 per week, and was ironically promoted to Associate. There was simply no work, which is a depressing thing for an architect. Imagine if suddenly there were no words with which to build sentences and paragraphs. At least I was a good enough architect to have kept my job, but it was unrewarding work: whatever scraps we could bring in—office-space planning, shopping-center facelifts, low-budget home additions that never got built. I was broke and artistically famished. The low point was when I hauled my belongings to a 3x5 storage unit and moved into my brother’s spare bedroom. I was devouring novels to maintain my sanity, but taking a hand at writing still hadn’t occurred to me.

        I was almost thirty and felt like I hadn’t accomplished a thing (though in hindsight, I had actually accomplished quite a bit). So, having lost patience with being a starving artist, something I never planned on being, I went to night-school and relaunched into appraising. Within a few years I bought my first house—a dump—and set myself to renovating the place room-by-room, which is another kind of therapy. Appraising kept my mind busy, but the creative drive was still neglected. Several things happened around this time that finally nudged me toward writing. My mother assembled our family history in pictures and written remembrances, and she wanted her children (I am the last of five) to write down their own stories to pass down the tree. I remember being enamored by the thought. Then a yellow copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden came into my hands from a favorite used bookshop down the street from my blessed wreck of a house. It was less Steinbeck’s writing than the ideas he wrote about that excited me (though he was a fine writer). I was completely gripped by the Cain and Abel thread and in love with Lee and his old Chinese scholars, who were so interested in the Old Testament and researching the word Timshel that they were too busy to die. I would read until four in the morning, my mind buzzing, spinning, giddy as an idiot. Literature could do this! Steinbeck had grabbed me by the arm and said, “Listen to this story. Let me show you something.” I’ve gone back and reread chapter 34 more times than I can remember. So that’s when my writing began.


To continue this line of thought, there are occasionally those who have become writers almost as if by accident, and still many more successful writers who carry on other serious professions.  What are your thoughts on writing as a profession, if that's the right word?  Is writing to you something that is vocational, a calling that a person hears and answers?


You could say I stumbled into my vocation. Writing started as an interest and an exploration of that interest, but it gradually evolved into a need. When I’m engaged in a story I’m a much happier person, though sometimes a bit aloof as my head is always working on some aspect of the piece. But when I’m between stories or idle for no damn good reason, I’m reminded of my typical brooding self before I ever dreamed of writing. The difference is palpable. Spending a lot of hours alone at a keyboard in a dark room seems to have accelerated my personal growth. Anything that can do that I consider a calling, even if you’re not very successful at it.
        At the same time I also have a healthy respect for luck. Publishing in literary journals is a numbers game. If only five percent of submissions are worthy of publication, that’s still a lot of manuscripts to fill only a few slots per year. And writers rarely know what kind of issue an editor is building. I had no idea the Sewanee Review was working on another theme issue on war. Had I sent the story six months later the window might have closed. So there—luck.
        Writing as a profession has never been considered, and I’m not sure the word profession is even valid here. I had already been impoverished in one profession, so I wasn’t about to leap into further debt with an mfa just so I could live on the poverty line in another. Anyone who can make a decent living at writing, fiction or not, especially in the Internet age, has my admiration.  But I do believe there are advantages to a writer engaged in another profession—mainly exposure to the real world. If I’m ever able to drop my day job for a writing career, I’d be losing a lot of potential material. Being an appraiser, I work with brokers, bankers, builders, investors, real-estate agents, etc.; and, while a majority of them are decent hardworking people, such a wide net also exposes me to an assortment of liars, crooks, and scoundrels—always a good thing for a writer.


Any major influences or just a smattering of several?


Steinbeck was more inspiration than influence. He made me want to write, and not every author can do that. This is a strange divide I don’t quite understand. For instance Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren make me want to quit writing, perhaps because they’re so far beyond my own abilities. But then Styron and Fitzgerald will send me straight to the keyboard. Not that my own abilities are any closer to theirs—hardly so—but something in their sensibility and poetic perception of the world seems to be in sync with my own. If I were forced to choose major influences, I’d have to cite the three short gems that get reread every few years: William Styron’s A Tidewater Morning, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. If Styron, as Dorothy Parker said, “writes like God,” then Maclean writes like a messenger from God, and Connolly writes like God doesn’t exist.


So what do you think it is that makes those writers great?  Knowing that this is a horribly hackneyed and subjective expression, what makes a story really work?

For me a great story will have texture and depth and undercurrents the reader will only sense—all indefinable things. I’ll go back to Norman Maclean. Beyond writing about what to do with our confounded loved ones, Maclean wrote about geology and the perfect fly-cast and God and trees and whores and how bears run up mountains, and, nearing the end of the story, he somehow creates this crescendo where it all comes together like a thousand-voice chorus and full orchestra embodied in only the voice of an aged man alone, trying to catch a fish.


You’ve named several big-name writers of the twentieth century, Roth being the most recent.  Are there any notable authors besides Roth writing now that you especially enjoy?

Alice Munro, Kent Haruf, Wendell Berry, Richard Russo. If there’s one common thread binding them together, at least in my mind’s eye, it’s that their hearts are left so subtly on the page, yet there’s no sentimentality. They’re just great storytellers who give the right details to evoke the desired emotions in the reader. Even when things end badly, there’s an element of hope in their work. Sometimes hope is the only thing that gets me through the day.
        Across the pond it would have to be Ian McEwan and Milan Kundera. After reading Atonement, I’ve slowly consumed most of McEwan’s work. It’s nice to find a writer who’s so consistent. I can pick up any of his books and have full confidence that he won’t let me down, no matter the sometimes morbid subject matter in the early work. He always has me engaged, and there’s never a flawed sentence. I feel strangely drawn to Kundera, perhaps because of my Czech ancestry, but his work is a mystery to me.


Your short story "Lost Among the Hedgerows" is clearly a tale concerning contemporary issues, most notably the housing crisis.  What was your inspiration for that story?


“Lost Among the Hedgerows” took a long time to come together. About a dozen years ago I had the honor of meeting a retired colonel from the 82nd Airborne Division. He had just had a stroke and met me at the door when I came to appraise his house. I was a complete stranger, and all he wanted to do was talk to me about the war. My father served under Patton in the 35th Infantry, fighting from St. Lo through the Battle of the Bulge. So many of those vets didn’t talk about the war, and he was no different. He died when I was only sixteen and one of the most painful things about his loss was the loss of his stories. I never once sat down with him to talk about the war. So there I was, twenty years after my father’s death, confronted with this old warrior near the end of his own life, anxious to tell me the worst of the war he had encountered. I was completely entranced. The only vignette in “Lost Among the Hedgerows” that was taken almost verbatim from him was the one about the German boy soldier who was shot to pieces. There was a confessional aspect to its telling, but there was more to it. When the old colonel came up close, stared me in the eyes, and told that story, it was a kind of transference, as if the passing on of this horrible experience might serve to prevent such an act in the future. And it had happened over a half century ago, but, as in the story, the colonel was still haunted by that boy’s eyes.
        That evening I went straight to work on some character sketches, but I didn’t have a good conflict. I worked on a couple storylines that didn’t go anywhere, so I tabled them. I always knew I’d do something with those notes, but I didn’t think it would take ten years. Then, in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown and having to appraise my share of foreclosed properties, I knew I wanted to write something about the economy and what I was seeing firsthand. It’s not happy work; in fact it’s damn depressing. When I’m inspecting some of these properties I can sometimes piece together stories of what the prior occupants must have gone through by what they left behind. Mail scattered on the floor under the front door with letters stamped “past due,” boxes of personal belongings left under the stair, or children’s toys, worn toys that had been well used and loved and left as trash. Some of these people had nowhere to go. I’m haunted by these places, and I sometimes feel like I’m being watched as I do my work.  Merging the stories of an old veteran and a foreclosure came together by osmosis. Once the idea took hold, the entwined storyline fell in place without much difficulty. I had a wonderful time writing it.


Is there one general subject or theme you find yourself consistently drawn to in your writing or are there several?  Is the impetus to write on that theme(s) conscious?   


Though I never sought a common theme in my work, there’s certainly a common thread running through a number of my stories, and that’s loss. I’ve always let each story evolve and go its own way, so I was surprised when I noticed the pattern. I’ve written about the loss of a house, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a child, the loss of a parent, the loss of dignity, the loss of youth, the loss of one’s mind, the loss of trust, the loss of innocence, the loss of time. These stories boil down to how the protagonists cope with loss and how it changes them. Humans are durable creatures, and I usually close a story with some element of hope, or at least a sense of man’s enduring nature. Perhaps they’re subliminal explorations of my inner fears, a cleansing of common-day worries. Write it out and fear no more.


Shelby Foote said that Walker Percy wouldn't have bothered writing if he knew where the story was headed. On the other hand Faulkner claimed to have set out writing As I Lay Dying with the final line of the novel already in his head. How does the actual process of writing fiction work for you?


It’s an organic process that usually starts with some singular thing that interests me. This can be a place, a character, or an opening line. My early stories sprouted from characters inspired by some of the local farmers I was lucky to have met in my childhood. They’ve all died off and I’ve watched their farms get subdivided and consumed by DC suburban sprawl. I have a weak spot for nostalgia and enjoy exploring their imagined lives.  It takes some meandering and a few thousand words before the idea of the story begins to show itself, then I can focus and build the story around the idea. At this point my head is struggling with connections and metaphors, and I sometimes bounce between scenes, writing whatever part of the story I had been obsessing over in the car that afternoon. Often the last paragraph gets written in a fit of inspiration before I’ve finished the first draft. A few times I’ve found myself on my knees, cutting the manuscript into pieces and rearranging it on the floor. It doesn’t feel like I’m writing a story; I’m composing one. It’s also part construction. And for me it’s mostly intuitive: I know how to assemble a building, but I have no idea how to diagram a sentence. I go through about twenty drafts before I’m satisfied. I’m fortunate to love the revision process. First drafts are hell.