Barb Johnson hails from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Though she showed promise as a writer while an undergraduate, she made her living in New Orleans as a house painter and then a carpenter for twenty years before beginning an MFA program a year before Katrina hit. She has won awards from Glimmer Train and Washington Square, as well as a grant from the A Room of Her Own Foundation.

Short Story Collections

More of This World or Maybe Another
(Harper Perennial, 2009)

reviewed by Scott Doyle

Interview with Barb Johnson

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Barb Johnson:  It took me about four years. I was learning to write short stories as I went along, so there was a lot of back-tracking and revising before I got to the editing stage.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

BJ: I had no idea I was writing a collection. One thing just kind of led to another; one person appeared and then reappeared, bringing along a friend. The fact that the stories are interlinked is, in part, an accident of the learning process. It’s hard to build a character from scratch. Once I had one I liked, I’d stick her in other stories doing other things. The recurring characters are also a measure of my love for episodic tales, of seeing one person I know well through another person’s eyes, of hearing the same events described differently because we don’t all experience an event the same way.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

BJ: I had a certain number of stories about four different characters: Delia, her brother, Dooley, their friend, Pudge, and Pudge’s son, Luis. They are mostly stories that take place in New Orleans, specifically in a neighborhood called Mid-City. I eliminated any stories that weren’t about these people. I thought it might be nice to have a look at each of the characters as young people and then as adults. Because all the characters' lives intersect and because they all refer to common events in the past, I thought it made the most sense to show the characters as young people first and to add stories sort of chronologically. The final story is about Luis, a twelve-year-old boy whose life, by the end of the story, is on the verge of taking a drastic and unpleasant turn. He is the only character who doesn’t have an adult story yet. I thought this was a good way to end my examination of the question of how childhood experiences influence the sorts of adults we become.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

BJ: Story means, "Who was there?" and, "What did she say?" and, "What did he say back?" and, "How did that baby die?" and, "How could anyone make such a mistake?" and, "Does that make him a bad person?" and, "Why in the world would he break into a neighbor’s house?" and, "Does that make him a bad person?" For me, story has a lot to do with questions. Because we’re all asking essentially the same questions, we are all telling the same stories, just in different ways. My favorite stories are the ones that don’t answer the questions directly but merely suggest an outcome and perhaps encourage the reader to imagine several different outcomes for any character.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

BJ: I don’t. When I’m writing, I am not thinking about someone reading what I’m writing. I’m too busy trying to make sense of the yammering in my head.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

BJ: I’d like to ask readers what sorts of children they were and whether they can see that same child in themselves and how large a role they believe personality plays in what we make of the gifts and challenges we’re faced with in life.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

BJ: It’s completely bizarre to me. Though I’m an avid reader and have often read books by first-time authors, it just blows my mind to think that all the stuff I sat around making up is now available for public consumption. In my life as a carpenter, it was easy to see why people would pay for my work: it was tangible, useful. But a book of lies? Hmmm.

TSR: What are you working on now?

BJ:  I recently received a two-year grant from A Room of Her Own Foundation. The grant is meant to give a writer the time to write a novel, and that is exactly what I’ll be doing for the next two years.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

BJ Jill McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes, Elizabeth Strout’s,Olive Kitteridge, and Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>

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