Bret Anthony Johnston
is the author of the
internationally acclaimed Corpus
Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming
the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.
His work appears in magazines such as The Paris Review, The New York
Times Magazine, Esquire, The Oxford American, and Tin House. He is a
graduate of Miami University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the
recipient of the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers and a National
Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. He has written essays
for Slate.com and is a regular contributor to NPR's All Things
Considered. In 2006, the National Book Foundation honored him with a
new National Book Award for writers under 35. A skateboarder for
almost twenty years, he is currently the Director of Creative Writing
at Harvard and teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars.
with Bret Anthony Johnston
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Bret Anthony Johnston: About
five years, give or take. I wrote three of them while I was a
student at Miami University, and then another six while I was at the
Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The last two came in the summer after I
graduated. I’ve always known that I’m a slow writer, but man oh
man; looking at it this way really highlights it to an embarrassing
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
at all. It was only after I’d written five or six of the stories
set in Corpus Christi that the shape of the book—the possible
existence of a book—began to suggest itself. After writing what
would become half of the collection, I was still deeply interested in
South Texas as a setting for fiction. I began to see the place as a
character in the collection, maybe the main character, one who was
proving dynamic and nuanced and strong enough to sustain the weight
the stories would individually and collectively exert upon it. No
one was more surprised by the book than the embarrassingly slow
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
If there’s anything redeeming about being such a slow writer—can you
tell I’m feeling sensitive about this issue?—it’s that once I commit to
a project, I see the thing through. So, for the most part, the stories
I had to choose from were the stories that came to comprise the book. I
revise endlessly and mercilessly; I throw out countless pages, but I
tend not to throw out whole stories. If the idea for a story has
captured my attention to such a degree that I’ve signed on to write it,
then I’m not going to throw it out. Whether the story succeeds or fails
is an altogether different matter, but I’ll always see it through.
I arranged the stories in an order that, I hope,
compels the reader to keep turning pages. Honestly, that was my primary
concern. I understood that my stories were going to be competing for
the reader’s attention, so I tried to come up with a progression that
My editor for that book, the brilliant Dan Menaker,
only made one suggestion in terms of order. There’s a cycle of three
stories in the book (I See Something You Don’t See, The Widow, and Buy for Me the Rain)
that proceed chronologically through a period in the lives of a mother
and her grown son. I thought the book should start and end with the
first and last stories in that cycle, but Dan worried the first story
was too sad to open the book. He made a very persuasive argument that
the reader might feel emotionally bludgeoned if we started with I See Something…, so he suggested we flip the order and start with Waterwalkers.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
think of the word "story" as irreducible. There are, of course,
academic and lexical definitions, but I’m markedly uninterested in
them. I’m most interested in stories that refuse to "be about"
actions, but rather become actions themselves. I think to take part
in the making of a story—by which I mean to read or write one—is
to take part in the profound act of witness. I suppose that’s what
the word means to me.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
BAJ: Yes. Always.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
would never dream of imposing on that generous soul any more than I
already have. I would simply and humbly offer my deepest gratitude
for his or her time.
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
I mentioned, and I mean it very sincerely, I’m grateful to anyone
who takes the time to read anything I’ve written. I consider it an
honor and a privilege, and I’m trying to make good on their implied
faith—and the chunk of change I’ve cost them.
What are you working on now?
working on a novel and another collection of stories. They’re both
going well and slowly.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
I’m gearing up to start teaching again and I’m deciding what to
include on my syllabus, I’ve been rereading some of my favorite
collections: Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Liz Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and collection of Chekhov’s stories. The books are so
exquisite they make me both want to write and never write again.