Faculty Facts: Bob Johnson
Bluegrass Writers Studio student Jen Parks interviews faculty member Bob Johnson, beginning in the style popularized by Bernard Pivot and James Lipton.
What is your favorite word?
Sycophant. But not because I teach. Like any other student in an English class, I always heard I should look up the words I came across but didn’t know. Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn’t. It always felt like a chore and I often couldn’t remember the definitions I looked up. Then I heard this Smiths song where Morrissey sings, “The sycophantic slags all say / I knew him first and I knew him well.” I’d no idea what a sycophant was but I was excited to look it up because of the way it sounded in the line. After finding the definition, I liked the way it fit with the sentence and the way it didn’t throw me out of the moment but rather deepened the line. It’s a lesson I could have learned from poetry but I hadn’t yet begun studying it. Now, I see it’s a lesson I could have learned from prose as well, especially when the prose is particularly lyrical. In the end, though, that’s the word that made me really start to think about words as opportunities and not simply as bricks or, worse, chores.
What is you least favorite word?
Occasionally. I can never spell it right on the first try. Never.
What turns you off (with regard to writing)?
Nothing anymore. I used to get annoyed when I’d go to a conference and see people in berets or carrying a notepad and pen that looked like they cost more than my car. I’d think they couldn’t possibly be real or good writers because they were trying too hard to look like writers. But being a successful writer takes such commitment that, short of criminal activity, it doesn’t matter what you have to do to get yourself into that mindset as long as it works for you. I write in a coffee house half the time, so who am I to judge?
What turns you on (again, with regard to writing)?
All of it. I like going to readings. I like going to conferences and residencies. I like reading, which is a must, and I still like writing. Early in graduate school it hit me that by committing to writing it was now a job. For about six months, that made me feel like writing was work and not fun. Gradually, I began to understand that writing should be work. If it was all fun all the time, everyone would do it. If it was so easy, anyone could do it. Over time, I began enjoying all aspects of that work. Teaching writing, for instance, keeps me enthused about the work because I am constantly learning new things from the research I do and what my students write. So, I get geeked up pretty easy about anything writing.
What sound do you love?
It’s a tie: Coffee brewing and the pop of a baseball in a glove.
What sound do you hate?
My alarm clock, but I guess I’m supposed to because it gets me out of bed.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I used to tell my wife that someday I’d open a bakery, which makes no sense because I don’t like to wake up early and I’m not particularly talented in the kitchen. Really, I just want to talk to people and sell them something they don’t necessarily need but really enjoy. Short of that, I think I’d rather host my own radio talk show.
What profession would you not like to do?
President of anything. It’s a thankless task, isn’t it? Somebody is always angry with you. I also began college as an engineering major and that didn’t work out so well.
Who is your mentor?
I can’t say that I have one. In terms of career advice, the poet/nonfiction writer Christopher Cokinos, whom I met as a student at Kansas State University, and the fiction writer, K.L. Cook, whom I met while teaching at Prescott College, have been immensely helpful and supportive. In terms of craft, I’d put former teachers Steve Heller (Antioch University), Lex Williford (UTEP), Ron Carlson (UC Irvine) and T.M. McNally (Arizona State) on the short list.
What is the best advice he/she ever gave you?
T.M. McNally once said in workshop to write what you would want to read. That’s where I start with everything I write.
What was your favorite publication and why?
It’s hard to beat the first, though oddly the first story I had accepted for publication, “The People We Were” in New Orleans Review, isn’t the first I had published. A second story, “Captain of the Drive,” was accepted by Santa Clara Review a few weeks later and that issue actually came out before the New Orleans Review. I was fresh out of my MFA program and with two quick publications I thought I was on my way. Then I didn’t get anything published for several months. I was getting a lot of straight rejections, in fact, until an essay, “A Few Hills Over from Hollywood,” got accepted by Ascent. I was happier than I’d been the first two times and I think it made me realize that every single publication is a triumph and worth celebrating because there can be a lot of time between those triumphs. So, even now with many more publications to my credit, I still get really excited when an editor says “Yes.”
What was the hardest lesson you had to learn, (or), What was one habit you needed to break?
Learning how to write anywhere at any time. I used to write at night and at night only. When I began graduate school, there were suddenly a lot of other obligations and if I didn’t have an opportunity to write at night, which I often did not that first year, I simply didn’t write. I finally started making myself get up early in the morning, when I could at least coax myself awake by holding cup of coffee in one hand and typing with the other, and write. It was more exercise than production at first, but I eventually got a rhythm to it. By the time I was writing my thesis, I’d learned to write at any coffee house or restaurant that would let me sit for an hour and at any time of day. This has become especially useful now that I have kids and need to carve writing time, say, in the hours I have between dropping one child off at school and teaching a morning class.
What makes you want to close a book and not even read past the first chapter?
Bad prose. If I’m already counting the clichés, or if the author is over-writing, I know it’s not going to get better from here. I won’t name names, but there have been a few bestsellers in the last ten years that I picked up at the bookstore, read the first two pages, and put right back down. There are too many great books out there in every genre for me to waste my time with a lazy author.
By contrast, what makes you want to stay up and read "just one more chapter"?
Character. It’s hard to step away from a character at any point once he’s come alive for you. How can I leave him without knowing he’s going to be okay, or when things are really going well, or, well, anything is possible. Reading a great character is like being in love. You don’t want to leave even if all you’re doing right now is folding laundry.
Aside from writing, do you have any other talents or gifts?
I can think a really great game of soccer, but my body isn’t capable of doing what my mind tells me it should be doing. The same is true of baseball and softball, though I have a bit more success there.
In college, I used to go to parties with one of my best friends and we’d try to pull off an accent for the entire party—British, Scottish, French, or a particularly over-the-top Kennedy or New Jersey accent. It was ridiculous but we got pretty good at it. I learned that I tend to pick up accents pretty well, which embarrasses my wife now because I don’t always realize at first when it’s happening. She’s pulled me aside more than a few times in Ireland and England and whispered, “You’re doing it again.” I thought my kids would like it when I read books to them but they tell me they just want my voice. I try to take that as a complement.
If you could pick one writer/poet (dead or alive) you'd like to meet up with for coffee, who would it be?
Oh, this is never an easy question is it? Can I just go to Paris and hang out with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and company? I’ve been lucky—through Bluegrass Writers Studio and my own education—to meet a lot of contemporary writers and save one odd encounter in grad school it’s always such a pleasure to meet writers whose work you already admire or whose work you can’t wait to get at now that you’ve heard them read and speak about craft. So, I’ll take the time machine option and go have some black coffee with Herman Melville. I admire, but do not always love, his work, but more so than that I admire his commitment to writing. All his letters to Nathanial Hawthorne, all the research he did to write Moby Dick, and his willingness to risk everything in writing Moby Dick. It was so like nothing else, so ahead of its time, and it ruined his career. That’s an artist.
And what would you want to ask of him? Or hear him say?
I’d want to talk to him right before he’s started writing Moby Dick and ask him what he thinks are the most important elements in a good story. I’d also ask what he’s working on. It’s always a nice complement to ask a writer that and even if a lot of writers don’t want to say too much, they tend to be pleased that you’re interested. So this is my way of getting Melville to like me so that he’ll trust me enough to let me cut about 200 pages from Moby Dick. He does that and we save his career, I think, and he writes a couple more masterpieces. I know, blasphemy to alter a classic like that, but there’s an even better book trapped inside that already great book.
If you were ever stranded on a deserted island, what three books would you hope you had with you?
First, I don’t have an e-reader with solar powered batteries and I don’t have a fat anthology of any kind. That’s cheating. I have The Great Gatsby with me because it’s fresh every time I read it and I still can’t get enough of Fitzgerald’s prose when he’s on. I have something by Michael Chabon too, for similar reasons. Also, Monkeys by Susan Minot.
Do you have a writing routine? If so, how does it go? (Do you have a favorite writing place, a target word count, etc?)
When I have the time, mainly summer, I like to write in the morning for at least two hours. When I stop, I write a note for myself about what I want to do the next time I sit down to write. Some time before bed, I re-read what I wrote that day and make a few more notes. The next time I write—hopefully the next day—I don’t re-read my manuscript but, rather, just the two or three lines of notes I have and then start going again.
During the semester, I do more revising than composing. I still take the time to write myself notes at the end of each session, but I usually do not have the time to re-read what I’ve written later in the day so I have to trust myself that the notes will suffice.
Here are some questions that Chris Dixon asked Nancy Jensen when he interviewed her, that I wish I'd thought of! (Jen)
What's one kinda-odd thing you do that helps with writing?
Before sitting down to write, I put on a little rubber wristband that my son brought home from kindergarten that says, “I love books.” It’s ridiculous but it’s like putting on a uniform that says, “Time to go to work.”
Which book have you read and thought, "I wish I'd written this."
I don’t ever get there, really. I read a lot of books that I admire and think, “I hope I can be that good.” And, of course, I find myself learning from those books. But the books I love are better off having been written by the authors who birthed them.
If you could offer fledgling writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Writing is work and it’s okay to think of it that way. Yes, it’s art, but it’s the result of good, hard work. If it weren’t, how could anyone respect the finished product?
Thanks Bob! -JP
Published on July 08, 2014