restricted access Interviews with Northwest Writers:Charles Johnson (1993)
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INTERVIEWS WITH NORTHWEST WRITERS: CHARLES JOHNSON IRENE WANNER PART I Ch a r l e s J o h n s o n ’s most recent novel, Middle Passage, won the National Book Award in 1990. His earlier books are Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986), Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988), and two collections of drawings. He grew up in Evanston, Illinois, studied with John Gardner at Southern Illinois University, and completed doctoral coursework in philosophy at the State University of NewYork/Stonybrook. In 1976, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington, where he also serves as the Seattle Review’s fiction editor. This interview will appear in two parts, with the second half scheduled for the special 1993 autumn issue focusing on the 159 Reprinted from the Seattle Review 16.1 (Spring/Summer 1993) and 16.2 (Fall 1993/Winter 1994), by permission of Charles Johnson. topic of work. In anticipation of this upcoming theme and in keeping with SR’s “Writers and Their Craft Series,” the following discussion has been edited to concentrate primarily on the art of fiction writing. The conversation with features editor , Irene Wanner, was taped on August 2, 1992, in Johnson’s campus office, a small room filled with books, photographs, and the lingering scent of cigarette smoke. WANNER: You mentioned the first classes you were assigned to teach at the University of Washington were story classes. Did writing short pieces allow you to focus your ideas more than in novels? JOHNSON: Yes, it allowed me to treat them in a more compact way. Less characters, a tight framework in terms of the time that elapsed and location. WANNER: Fewer story lines? JOHNSON: Yes, fewer story lines. It wasn’t the multiple kind of thing that a novel would have to involve like ten characters or something. You only use two or three. WANNER: You were fortunate that your short story classes taught you. JOHNSON: Well, I had to teach people about parables and things like that, and so I would have to go back and write a parable . That’s how the stories in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice got written over seven years. I’d do one or two a year. Because I was really working on OxherdingTale . . . I finished it around 1980. And that book is still something that I can’t understand. It went to twenty publishers. Seriously. Until it wound up at Indiana University Press because the editor there understood it. I had been working since ’83 on Middle Passage, right after Oxherding Tale came out. I did two chapters in the late summer of ’83, showed them to my agent, and she got real excited. I said OK, I’ll finish the book in a year. I spent the whole year until the next summer and rushed a number of things. The plot of that book was radically different in first draft. IRENE WANNER 160 WANNER: What started you on Middle Passage? A character ? The slave trade? JOHNSON: I wanted to work with the slave trade, that is to say, that voyage across the water, after Oxherding Tale. I had a few other things in mind. I wanted to work with a sea story as a form because I had never worked with a sea story as a form. WANNER: Have you been to sea? JOHNSON: No, I haven’t. WANNER: I ask because I review so many books, say, that New Yorkers write about being New Yorkers. I think we may agree on this, that writers don’t use their imaginations enough? JOHNSON: Oh, I agree. I agree absolutely. WANNER: One strong point in Being and Race was that you took writers to task and said you’d like us all to try to do more. JOHNSON: I do think that you have to stretch and push.You have to imaginatively project yourself into as many other human places as possible. The curiosity that human beings have is not limited by history or race or gender or any of that and you have to try to really understand . . . we wouldn’t have historical novels if that were the case, if you only wrote out of what you’ve directly experienced. In Being and Race, one of the things I felt I had to do—and phenomenology provides the basis for this—is to look at what we mean by experience. Just what is...