Ruminations of a Red Dirt Hussy

July 16, 2014

Transcript of interview

This interview was conducted by Emrys Moreau 7-8 years ago. It has been on the Center for Poets and Writers Web site, and Teresa Miller sent it to me so I could post it here. I don’t know what I said. I don’t know what I said five minutes ago, so expecting anything more than that from me is quite unreasonable of you.

Carol Johnson is the author of Autism: From Tragedy to Triumph and Everlasting, a novel published in October, 2006. Shortly after its release, Everlasting was nominated for the Oklahoma Book Award.

Everlasting tells the story of Vada Priddy, a 14-year-old girl forced to marry a much older man. Faced with raising three stepchildren who are not much younger, Vada adapts to her new life and responsibilities. Through perseverance, strength and love, Vada transforms her life into a fulfilling experience.

In addition to writing, Ms. Johnson is an English instructor at Tulsa Community College. She lives in Tulsa with her husband and their four cats.

I met with Ms. Johnson at a Tulsa Starbucks to discuss books, her writing career, her experiences in publishing, and more books. She is vibrant, engaging, and insightful–the same characteristics that endear Vada to readers.

EM: Are you a native Oklahoman?

CJ: I moved to Oklahoma when I was sixteen–after I had lived in five or six states.

I was born in Kansas and we started moving back and forth before I can even remember. We kept going back to Kansas because we would get somewhere and my dad would leave us. So, my mother’s father would come and get us. He would drive this old Chevy that he had painted with a paintbrush–I can still see those paintbrush streaks. And then my dad would come back.

I moved here [to Oklahoma] when I was sixteen because my best friend, Phyllis, had moved here with her brother and sister-in-law. My family was so dysfunctional that I never really got homesick; although a couple of times I missed my mom. Where Phyllis was became my point of reference for “home.” It just killed me when she left here [Phyllis now lives in Missouri], but by then I would not have left under any circumstances.

I went to Denver once for six weeks and I came back. I went to Houston once, but I was back within a week. I just missed Oklahoma. I really can’t imagine being anywhere other than Oklahoma–even in the summer when it’s so sweltering.

EM: Why did you go into teaching?

CJ: I started out majoring in psychology and then I scared myself out of it. I think that anyone who has been in therapy thinks they want to be a psychologist… But I realized that I’d have to sit and listen to people like me all day long! [Laughing] It’s just as well, because I’m not really suited for it. I want people to do what I say. I want them to do what I think is best. I don’t have the kind of nature that would offer unconditional support. I might do that for my friends, but I probably wouldn’t like everybody that I counsel…

I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a clue, I had never thought beyond going to school. I hadn’t thought about getting an Associate’s degree, but I did and then Sally Bright [Johnson’s English teacher at TCC] said, “Well, you’ve made it this far. You may as well get your Bachelor’s.” So I did. Then I got this humongous scholarship from TU for graduate school. It’s like fate put me where I needed to be in spite of myself.

I know I’m not cut out for eight-to-five. I have never been successful in that kind of environment. I wanted to teach because it suits my personality. And I wanted to be at TCC, so I started out tutoring there.

I like teaching. I like my students. I get bored easily, and with this it’s “four months” and then on to something else.

EM: What classes are you currently teaching at TCC?

CJ: I teach Composition I and II, Introduction to literature, and a creative writing course, “Writing the Novel,” on campus.

I had been teaching “Writing the Short Story” every fall, but I think I like the novel class better. I was hesitant to teach it because I’ve never taken a class in writing a novel; I’ve only written novels. I know how to teach the short story because I’ve been taught it. When you don’t have a degree in education, it’s like learning a whole new discipline. I have a degree in English, but we didn’t have any pedagogy classes. But, Mary Cantrell [a fellow instructor at TCC] convinced me to teach this novel class and I really like it.

EM: Are the students more involved with their work in the novel class?

CJ: They are. I think they see some future in writing a novel. It may be an illusory future, but they see it. Whereas with short stories, what are you going to do? What they think of mostly is money. “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna get a lot of money.” A novel is not that easy, or everybody would have one!

EM: Flannery O’Connor was asked if she thought university programs discouraged too many writers and she replied they don’t discourage enough of them. Do most students think of writing as being too easy?

CJ: Yes, everybody thinks it’s so easy. In Composition we teach them, “Okay, no fragments and no bad grammar.” Then they read fiction and they can’t tell the difference between a character’s bad grammar and the narrator’s bad grammar, or a fragment that works and a fragment that is an unintentional fragment. I think that somebody who has it in them to be writer does recognize those things, even if they can’t articulate it.

I don’t think anybody can write. I think anybody can have competence in writing if they care about making themselves understood, but there’s a kind of sensibility that writers have that other people don’t.

EM: Is that sensibility something they’re born with?

CJ: Maybe… Maybe they acquire it by reading so much, although I know people who read a lot who don’t have it.

EM: I think of writing talent as a gift, but I don’t like calling it a “gift” because it seems like there’s no work involved.

CJ: Well, yes, because you do have to work.

There’s something like a “special eye,” and some writer’s eyes are more special than others. Some of them see things in such wonderful ways.

EM: When did you begin writing?

CJ: I never knew I could write until I was in my early thirties and I started school at TCC. I wrote letters, and I knew people liked my letters but that was a different thing. I had this really great Composition teacher, Sally Bright, and she told me I could write. She just started gently pushing me to do more things, like taking a creative writing class. I won a writing contest at TCC. Then I worked on the TCC newspaper. Then I won the friends of the library contest. Then a woman in Mounds looked me up. She wanted somebody to help her write a book [Autism: From Tragedy to Triumph].

EM: Did your background in psychology help you write your first book, Autism: From Tragedy to Triumph?

CJ:  It was about a boy who had autism and he went through a controversial experimental program at UCLA. I had some psychology classes, so I knew maybe a little more about autism than the average person. The book never really made any money because I didn’t know how to look for a publisher. I started in the A’s in Writers Market. I got to the B’s, and Branden Books took it. I promoted it to the very best of my abilities. The thing I could have done differently was to get a bigger publisher. That may have worked. But I didn’t know… I just did the best I could.

EM: Your novel Everlasting was published by a local company, Hawk Publishing. How did that relationship transpire?

CJ: Bill Bernhardt [founder of Hawk] was a member of Tulsa Nightwriters, so I knew him before he’d ever published anything. I watched what Hawk was doing. He did things differently than they do in New York, hoping to rectify some of the wrongs he thought were perpetuated on writers. That appealed to me. I really do believe in what Hawk is trying to do.

EM: How long did it take you to write Everlasting?

CJ: I started it the summer before graduate school. It started as a collection of short stories. Rilla Askew’s first book [Strange Business] was related short stories so I thought that’s what I would do, too. But she looked at them and said, “You know, these want to be a novel.” And I said, “They do?” So I started working towards that.

I started it in 1995 and I finished it in 2003. It took close to ten years. During the last couple of years, I rented a colleague’s apartment. I paid half her rent (she wasn’t living there at the time) and I would stay there and write. My mom died suddenly while I was staying there and suddenly I just couldn’t be in that place anymore. After that, a friend gave me a week in a cheap motel in Chandler where there’s nothing to do but write. From time to time I would go get a motel room when they would have specials and I would write there.

EM: How much of Everlasting is autobiographical?

CJ: People ask me if my writing is autobiographical, and I say “I hope not!” [Laughing] But things in it are. They just always are. You can’t help it.

If you don’t come to terms with your life, I don’t think you can be a good writer. You don’t have to wallow in whatever’s happened to you, but you can be honest with yourself. And then you can be honest in your writing without being autobiographical.

EM: I was surprised by the character development of Vada’s husband, Harmon. Did you plan his transition from “bad guy” to “good guy”?

CJ: I knew he wasn’t all bad, but I didn’t know how I was going to show that. There wasn’t a story there, to me, if he was all bad. In the beginning I didn’t know if she would actually come to love him, which I think she did.

That was difficult for me because I always start out with men being evil. I have a great husband, but there have been a lot of men in my life that weren’t good. I think there’s a lot of my husband in Harmon’s steadfastness.

EM: What are you working on now?

CJ: The book I’m writing now is about Vada’s mom [Esther Louise]. Everybody disliked her so much, but I never saw her as completely bad. I knew there was a method to her madness, but I didn’t know what that was. This book starts in 1917 when Esther Louise is seven, and I’m working backwards to figure out why she is the way she is. I sort of know it has to do with her mother. I don’t understand her mother yet, either… Oh, I hope I don’t have to go back to the Stone Age to understand them all! That would be awful! [Laughing]

EM: When I read Everlasting, I saw some indications of mental illnesses and physical abuse in Esther’s past. I felt that there was a lot going on that had led to her behavior.

CJ: I think sophisticated readers would see that. In my class, we were reading Fire in Beulah [by Rilla Askew], and I don’t think I got any of my students to finish it. I said, “What’s wrong with you people? This is a wonderful book!” and they said, “Well, Althea… yech! She’s just an awful person. And Graceful… what is her problem?” They’re just not reading any deeper than a spoon, I guess. They probably haven’t been taught to read deeply, and it’s not an “easy” book to read.  But it’s thoroughly fascinating. I thought Althea was a really complex, deep character. If she had acted any differently, it wouldn’t have been true.

EM: When people read any book, they bring into it their own background and experiences.

CJ: They do. You read from where you are in life.

I can remember the first creative writing class I took at TU. I had a story that was about a little girl whose parents were abusive to each other. There was a grandmother who didn’t take the little girl away and take care of her (because she didn’t have the means). Somebody in the class said, “Grandmas don’t act that way.” Ah, they should have met my grandma! [Laughing]

Also, there was a woman who was in a lot of my graduate classes who was lovely and she had three children. You know, she was a “soccer mom.” I would just look at her like she was from Mars! And she probably looked at me like I was from Mars, too! We would read novels by Toni Morrison and she would say, “Now, I know I’m new at this, but I just don’t believe a mother would act that way.” And probably her mother didn’t, but she was also probably one of those people who think that mothering is an instinct. I don’t think that. I don’t believe that every mother automatically falls in love with her child. I think it’s something you have to grow into–and some people don’t because they’re so dysfunctional or because they haven’t had that love themselves.

EM: Do you have a set writing schedule?

CJ: I don’t have a really regular schedule right now. I used to write every single day. With teaching, you’ve got to be “on” like an actor, and it wears me out. But when I’m not writing on some regular basis, I just get depressed.

Something I’ve been doing lately is writing as often as I can and keeping a journal of how many words I write each time I sit down. Then I can look at how much I’m really writing. It keeps me in touch with reality.

Any number of things can prevent me from writing because I’m so distractible. I keep a tablet so when something occurs to me, like something I need to do, I can write it down. Otherwise it just niggles at me until I get up and go do it. I remember Anne Lamott saying in Bird by Bird that at one time she couldn’t write if there were dishes in the sink, but now she can write if there’s a body in the sink! I’m trying to frame myself to do that, to think, “That cat box has waited this long. It can wait a little longer.”

When I’m writing something really actively I can’t think of anything else. I guess that’s a good thing. John Gardner said that a writer’s compulsiveness can serve her well.

EM: You mentioned Anne Lamott earlier, and you just mentioned John Gardner. Do you read a lot of “how to” books about writing?

CJ: I buy a lot of books about how to be a writer! [Laughing] I have every book written on that!

One of the first books I got was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. That was a good one. I’m a big believer in writing exercises–but I never do them because “if I have time to do exercises why not just write?”

The stuff that sticks with me is the stuff like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and out of that it’s the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter because I am such a perfectionist. It helps me so much to remember,”It’s all shitty. When you first look at it, it all stinks.”

And I’m scared that the words won’t come. I’m scared every time I sit down that it won’t come. I say I don’t believe in writer’s block because I’ve never had it. But it might be because I’m scared to get it. I’m scared to believe in it, because if I believe in it I’ll get it. I’m very complex. It’s hard being me! [Laughing]

EM: What writers have had the greatest influence on you?

CJ: Those who were most influential and made me realize I could write the truth, and not some syrupy version of it, were Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Allison. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” came along first, and I had to read every single thing O’Connor ever wrote. But I started thinking, “Well, that was then, not now. And I’m not Flannery O’Connor.” Then I read Bastard Out of Carolina, and I’m telling you, it blew the top of my head off. I couldn’t believe anything that raw could actually be published. Then there was Harry Crews. He’s an amazing writer, and I read everything of his, too.

EM: What other writers do you enjoy?

CJ: I love Anne Tyler, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Strout, Wally Lamb, Brett Lott, and Beverly Donofrio. Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs crack me up, but I don’t want to read his novels because I’m afraid they would disappoint me. I love to read and listen to David Sedaris. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is just the most beautifully written book. I love Rilla Askew’s books.

I love Pete Dexter and I re-read Deadwood at least once a year. I don’t re-read things as a rule, but Deadwood is just one of the best books. It’s like Deadwood the [HBO] series and it has many of the same characters. He also wrote Paris Trout, which I really like.

I read a lot of forensics books. I’ve read every serial killer nonfiction book and I’m just fascinated with the psychology of them, not necessarily their crimes but their craziness.

EM: What are you currently reading?

CJ: Right now I’m reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which I have avoided for a long time. When I read The Bean Trees, it irritated me that Kingsolver didn’t know that here in Oklahoma we don’t call Grand Lake “Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees.” You know, that would have been so easy to find out–just call somebody who lives here!

EM: If you were speaking to writers who are just starting out, what advice would you give them? What do you wish you had known back when you were starting out as a writer?

CJ:  Realize how important contacts are.  Sally Bright always told me, “People need to hear your name.”

Know that you have to be careful whose critique you listen to. It’s ultimately your book.

A lot of what I wish I had known has to do with self-confidence. The importance of believing in yourself can’t be overstressed. I’m just now finding that and I wish I’d understood it in the beginning.  People need to just do it and not wait for anyone to tell them they can write!

It had never occurred to me to think I could be a writer. It had never occurred to me to think that I could be anything. I never aspired to anything; it’s all like it just happened. I used to have little fits and lie on the bed and cry because I wasn’t good at anything, and I wanted to be good at something. I can’t draw. I’m an inconsistent cook. If I try to do crafts, I get my fingers stuck together. I’m not particularly athletic. I tried bowling and I sucked. I tried tennis and I hurt my shoulder. I wanted to be good at something, and I am.  I think it could have made such a difference in my life if I had known that earlier…

I look at Rilla Askew and Teresa [Miller] and there are no greater people than they are. They help other writers so much. That’s what I want to do. I want to give back everything that’s been given to me because people have been so good to help and direct me.

 

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3 Comments »

  1. Some great insights–both into writing and into you!

    Like

    Comment by Michelle — July 16, 2014 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

  2. Carol gives me WAY too much credit. She entered class as an excellent writer–that’s what caught my attention. I didn’t teach her a thing that helped her write. Several faculty members and I just pushed her to keep going. Who knew . . .

    Like

    Comment by Sally Bright — July 16, 2014 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  3. This is so “you,” and now I know you better. Thanks, L

    Like

    Comment by Pony-tail girl — July 17, 2014 @ 8:26 am | Reply


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