restricted access An Interview with Charles Johnson (1993)
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AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES JOHNSON MARIAN BLUE Ch a r l e s J o h n s o n has written four books of fiction: Faith and the Good Thing (Viking, 1974; Plume, 1991); The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Atheneum , 1986); Oxherding Tale (Indiana University Press, 1982); and Middle Passage (Atheneum, 1990), which won the 1990 National Book Award in fiction. He has also published two collections of drawings, Black Humor (Johnson Publishing, 1970) and Half-Past Nation Time (Aware Press, 1972), and a critical book, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (Indiana University Press, 1988). BLUE: You’ve been teaching creative writing at the University of Washington for sixteen years. You’ve written three novels and a 123 Reprinted from the Writer’s Chronicle 25.4 (1993), by permission of Marian Blue. collection of short stories, but you started as a cartoonist and journalist, and your first book was a collection of political cartoons . A recent work is a critical book. Your doctorate degree is in philosophy. How and why did you change careers? JOHNSON: Well, I was a cartoonist in high school actually. That was my great passion. At the age of twelve, I declared that I was going to be a commercial artist—a visual artist, to my father’s great horror. BLUE: Why did he object? JOHNSON: He didn’t know any artists and he didn’t think I would be able to make a living. Sometimes I think he was right. But I took a two-year cartooning course through the mail. My dad paid for it because he saw I was really determined to do this. I started publishing in my own hometown around 1965 and doing illustrations for a magic catalog out of Chicago. For my high school paper, I started writing short fiction. I was geared up to go to art school in Illinois. My high school art teacher—a man I really admired—said, “An artist is going to have such a hard life—from hand to mouth is how you’re going to live. You should go to a four-year school.” This was in May. So I went to my advisor and she went through her book and said Southern Illinois University was still accepting students. I said okay—I’ll go there then. I decided to major in journalism , which would give me a chance to write and draw. As soon as I hit the campus, I took my samples of published work to the campus newspaper and spent my entire undergraduate life drawing. In the next seven years I published over a thousand individual drawings. I also published the two volumes of cartoons, one in ’70 and one in ’72. And I did an early PBS series, Charlie’s Pad, on which I taught people how to draw. We did fifty-two of those, fifteen minutes each. It ran about ten years around the country, even Canada. And at that time I would write for fun—short stories on my own. I wasn’t really that serious about writing fiction until 1969. When I had this idea for a novel, it kept bothering me at night. MARIAN BLUE 124 I’d think about the character and I couldn’t go to sleep. So I wrote the novel the next summer. BLUE: You weren’t taking writing courses at the time? JOHNSON: No. I had journalism and philosophy as a double major. Philosophy had been a seduction for me ever since I was eighteen. But still I wanted the journalism because— again—I wanted to give my parents a degree that was marketable . I got my degree in journalism and gave it to my dad. I said, “Here, this is yours. This proves I can make a living on newspapers if I have to, but I’m going back to graduate school in philosophy.” That’s really around the time I was shifting over to writing novels, which I did all through my senior year and the two years I was working on a master’s degree in philosophy at Southern Illinois University. I wrote about six books in two years, one every academic ten-week quarter. They were all good books in the sense that I learned from them. I don’t think they were really publishable. When I came to my seventh book, it was my last year in my master’s program. Across the street in English was John Gardner , the novelist. Friends had...