Everybody Loves Will Johnson

Will Johnson

Will Johnson

I first came across Will Johnson’s work when I was reading fiction for Island Writer magazine in the fall of 2010. I read story after poorly written story about aging parents with Alzheimer’s and then—finally—someone with a voice: “Nolan drove half way to the pool before he realized he was missing a contact lens. He didn’t have time to turn around. It was 5:17 a.m. and swimmers were probably already lined up outside the front doors. If he were even a few minutes late the patrons would complain to management.” Will’s story, “Split,” ends with Nolan’s failed attempt to save a drowning old woman, Glenda (Glenda! Perfect!)—failed in that Glenda ends up kicking Nolan and knocking out his tooth while Nolan’s female coworker, Lisa (whom he’s trying to get with), saves the day. “Nolan rubbed his eyelid, dragging his contact lens stiffly across his cornea. He blinked at the pool, at the people, at Lisa crouched in the corner with Glenda. He squinted  his eyes until both his realities merged together. He saw himself with his arm around Glenda, while Lisa looked on admiringly.”

Will and I met at the launch for that issue of Island Writer and became good friends. Now, he reads every draft of every story I write, he wrote about me on his blog, Literary Goon, when I had my first publication, when I had my first REAL publication, he put me on a top 10 list (which made me cry, which, apparently, he loves), and he even convinced Little Fiction to publish a story of mine this past January. And he’s done stuff like this for many, many others. In fact, one of Will’s favourite writers, Kris Bertin, prior to meeting Will for the first time, wrote to me “everyone seems to like Will. Don’t you think it would be more interesting if he and I were enemies?” That never happened, of course, because everybody loves Will Johnson. And I thought it was about time somebody featured him on their blog. Here goes:  

Your short story “Sea to Sky,”—about a man dying of cancer named Rick Solomon, living with his teenaged daughter, Darby—won The Fiddlehead’s 2011 Short Fiction Prize and you are now expanding it into a novel. How did you go about expanding a short story into a novel? What sorts of things are you adding?

Well, I already have the characters and I already know the trajectory of the narrative. So now I’m just filling in the middle.

There are a few superficial additions (like a second love interest for Darby, and a family dog named Niko) and there are some more fundamental changes.

The biggest addition is a sense of context. I’ve set the novel version of “Sea to Sky” during the summer of 2008, when construction crews were clashing with protesters over a $600-million highway expansion project on the Sea to Sky highway. Rick owns the construction company that won the contract.

I’ve also delved further into Rick’s back-story. Originally his portion of the story was about how he met (and later divorced) Darby’s mother. I’ve now populated the narrative with a whole cast of characters, including his parents, two brothers, and a best friend named Eddie who started the company with him.

In your short fiction, you tend toward a loveable slacker voice, but Rick is a departure. What inspired you to write a story about a dying  man with a teenaged daughter?

Will Johnson

Will Johnson

My friend Lindsay’s father died of lung cancer around the time I graduated from high school. Her Dad was estranged from his family at the time, and she had to travel to visit him. Most of the stories I heard about him were secondhand, and I never met him. But his relationship with Lindsay inspired me.

After the original story was published, Lindsay agreed to help me develop it into a novel. We met a couple times for coffee, and she answered my questions about cancer treatments and told me what the experience was like for her. A lot of the stuff she told me ended up in the manuscript.

How did you channel Darby’s voice at the time you wrote the short story and how are you channelling it now?

There’s a scene halfway through my novel where Darby gets into a shouting match with her father at a restaurant and storms out into the parking lot. In one of my early drafts, which I handed in to my fiction workshop at UBC, my teacher Steven Galloway pointed out a particular line. It was something along the lines of “I knew I was being unreasonable, but…”

“Trust me,” Steve said. “No 17-year-old girl knows she’s being unreasonable when she’s being unreasonable.”

This was met with enthusiastic head-nodding around the table.

Honestly, getting a handle on Darby’s voice has been my biggest struggle throughout this process. Friends have complained that Darby sometimes sounds like a 28-year-old guy (I wonder how that happened) and others think she’s too mature for her age.

In the original story her voice is quite poetic, and that’s something I’ve continued to develop in the novel version. But there’s a tough line to straddle between developing a believable teenage voice and not descending into a cliché. I want her to have a decent vocabulary, but I also want the readers to get a sense of her naivete and innocence.

One of my primary sources for inspiration for my character Darby is my real-life partner Darby. (For the record: I named my character a year before I met her.)

Darby recently told me about an episode of Sex and the City where a male writer uses the word “scrunchie,” much to Carrie Bradshaw’s horror. I guess scrunchies don’t really exist anymore? [I remember that episode – it’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they shouldn’t]

I’m hopeless at describing clothes, hair and make up. (I usually go for descriptors like “eye goop” and “black stuff.”) So lately I’ve been picking Darby’s brain for details about her younger years, and whenever I need to describe some aspect of female life that I’m unfamiliar with, I type ASK DARBY ABOUT THIS and move on.

And how are you channelling Rick’s voice?

Will's Sketchbook

Rick’s world in Will’s sketchbook

Rick lives inside my brain. He basically just sits in a recliner drinking Scotch and watching TV, and every now and then I let him rant.

Ideally, what will happen with your novel, and when?

I want to publish it when I feel like it’s done.

Do you plan to look for an agent? Do you think all Canadian fiction writers who hope to be successful should have an agent?

There are basically two things a writer needs to do. First you have to write a book, then you need to sell it. Two steps. I’m trying not to think too far ahead, because then it stresses me out. I need to finish this book first.

I think agents do important work. If you’re willing (and capable) to do their work, then knock yourself out. But I have no idea how to do what they do.

What’s going on with your short fiction? You have a manuscript of 21 short stories entitled “Whatever you’re on, I want some.” Seven of those stories have been published on Little Fiction, in Island Writer, and in Prairie Fire. Can you describe the collection and what you’d like to do with it?

I started writing the stories before I knew what I wanted to do with them. I had written about five when I read Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was halfway through her book before I looked at the cover and realized she was calling it a novel.

At first I didn’t get why she would call a collection of stories a novel, but as you read Goon Squad you realize that all the characters are tangentially related to each other, and compiled together the stories create a single coherent narrative.

So I copied her.

Egan’s book centers around a record label executive named Benny Salazar. Mine centers around a heroin addict on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver named Neil Solomon. (He’s Darby’s cousin.)

The stories follow him right from childhood until he’s a grown man. I tried to experiment with voice and form throughout. I switch between first, second, and third person narration. Neil appears in most of the stories, but there are many where the connection is less obvious.

Ultimately, I’m hoping “Whatever you’re on, I want some” will become the second book in a trilogy (after “Sea to Sky”) about Solomon Development Ltd., a fictional construction firm that worked on the expansion of the Sea to Sky highway and that is gentrifying the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Will and Darby

Will and real-life Darby

Are you thinking at all beyond “Sea to Sky” and “Whatever you’re on …”?

I recently wrote a short piece of historical fiction called “The Grisly Demise of the Salt River Trapper.” It’s narrated by the Yukon poet Robert Service, and is based on accounts of a real murder in northern Alberta in 1911. I submitted it to a literary journal a few weeks ago, so cross your fingers for me.

Other than that, I’m trying to pour all my time and attention into “Sea to Sky.

What are your thoughts on whether or not writers should take the MFA route?

Oh, man. Pass?

Who has been your most influential writing instructor?

I only took one class with her, but Madeline Sonik was easily the most influential writing instructor I’ve ever had.

I took a class from her called “Forms and Techniques of Short Fiction,” and what I enjoyed about it was the in-depth analysis of various literary techniques. A lot of writing education is horrendously subjective, but Madeline had a very meticulous, detailed approach to figuring out how and why some stories are better than others. She had PowerPoint presentations, examples, and a whole arsenal of exercises.

She was very encouraging and enthusiastic about my work, and she introduced me to some of my favourite authors, including Edwidge Danticat, Nancy Lee, and George Saunders.

I wrote “Sea to Sky” in her class.

Here’s where I should mention Madeline’s memoir Afflictions & Departures, which was published a couple of years ago by Anvil Press. It’s amazing.

What compelled you to start your blog (currently called Literary Goon, but formerly known as Melodramatic Musings) in 2010? What did you hope to achieve with it then and how has it changed through the years up until now?

I originally started my blog while I was working at UVic’s student newspaper The Martlet. It was supposed to be a place for me to post some of my journalistic writing, and maybe some personal stuff.

Since then, it’s gone through a few different incarnations. While I was in Thailand, it was a travel blog. Every now and then it veers dangerously closely to being an online journal. For a while I was doing photo shoots with various couples (and pretty young women), to try to expand my photography portfolio. I’ve written about movies, television, and even music. Sometimes I write columns, Top 10 lists, and announcements about other people’s work. Lately I’ve been taking it in a much more literary direction, and I think I’m going to try to limit the amount of personal stuff I post on there.

Sometimes I feel conflicted about my blog (Darby is convinced it’s mostly an elaborate procrastination tool) but I get a kick out of it.

What’s your Twitter modus operandi? (Random witty observations about humanity? Confessional? Literary info?) How do you rate its importance for a writer?

I feel like I’m still figuring it out. Sometimes I resent the amount of time social media sucks out of my life, but Twitter has been really useful with networking and getting my blog some exposure. There are a bunch of writers I’ve met through Twitter that I would have never interacted with otherwise, like Amanda Leduc, Naben Ruthnum, and Kevin Hardcastle. Twitter also helped me connect with new journals like Little Fiction and Echolocation.

It was actually through Twitter that I found my apartment in Halifax last year. So there’s a practical use too.

You’ve recently created a facebook fan page for Literary Goon. Why did you decide to do that and what will you use it for?

My friend Glen O’Neill, who illustrated my columns for years and founded the T-shirt art company The Yetee, told me that I should. When Glen tells me to do something, I do it. He’s better at life than I am.

What is your current favourite short story and why?

My favourite short story is called “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus. It’s about a lonely, divorced old rancher named Luke Ripley whose daughter comes to visit him.

Dubus was Catholic, and this story has some pretty heavy spiritual themes that would normally turn me off. He even has a dialogue between Luke and God, which took balls to pull off. But I think this story is sad and human and beautiful and yeah, you should read it.

Will With Tree

Will channelling Rick?

What writer are you losing your shit over right now?

I’ve been on a Vonnegut kick for a while.

Right now I’m reading his biography. It’s called And So It Goes, which is a quote from Slaughterhouse Five. I’m only on the second chapter, but I was interested to learn that his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day. I feel like that explains a lot.

Vonnegut’s work is full of schadenfreude (a German word I just learned which refers to the pleasure derived from laughing at the misfortune of others). You laugh, but then you feel guilty for laughing.

His work is a little inconsistent, but when it works, it works.

I’m going to cheat and mention a second writer: Stephen Marche. He writes a monthly column for Esquire and he recently profiled Megan Fox. I just picked up his book Love and the Mess We’re In, published by Gaspereau, and it’s the weirdest, most innovative book I’ve ever read. Seriously. I feel like I can’t overhype it enough. [For the record, I’m currently losing my shit over that book too.]

His story “Flesh and Numbers,” published in The Walrus last year, is totally worth a read too.

When I dream about my ideal, pipe-dream, pie-in-the-sky career, it looks an awful lot like his.

Here is where I asked Will to write a boy-meets-girl passage in the voice of Kurt Vonnegut and/or Stephen Marche. He respectfully declined (and I quote: “Is it bitchy to say I don’t really want to do it?”). I think Will should be mercilessly teased for this.

In any case, here are some of my favourite quotes from his short story, “Sea to Sky”:

“I came over to her after all that was over and I offered her a cigarette and she said no thanks I dont smoke which I thought was peculiar as all hell. And then I said Im Rick and I think it would be a shame if you shot yourself in that pretty face and she started crying again and then I was in love.”

“When we were in Manitoba and it seemed like we were just driving forever and nothing was changing Dylan threw up on Darby and then Darby threw up on Mike and I dont think Ive ever seen so much puke everywhere and they were all crying on the side of this road with this thick dust storm. Our air-conditioning was on the fritz and it was a blazing afternoon but I was a man with a family and a car and three kids and a beautiful wife on the side of the road. Maybe that was the happiest Ive ever been.”

“The Vancouver skyline seems to appear magically every time I round the last corner down the highway. The city juts straight out of the water, like it emerged fully formed from the ocean. Like it could just as easily exist underwater.”

“One day Darby saw that mermaid statue and she asked me and I told her that yes there was such a thing as mermaids because parents always tell stupid lies like that and she started crying and I didnt know why. She was about four and I loved her more than Ive ever loved anything and I put my thumbs in her eyes to get away the tears and I know its weird but I put my thumb in my mouth and I tasted the salt and that made me cry. So then we both cried for a bit but then I made a face and she made a face and we both laughed at each other and then we walked a little ways down and bought some ice cream from an asian guy with no front teeth.”

“Darbys doing fine and shell make new memories and I guess chances are Im going to miss lots of things in her life but we had a few summers and that was nice.”

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