Johnny Townsend earned an MFA in fiction writing
from Louisiana State University. He has published stories and essays in
Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The
Progressive, Christopher Street, The Massachusetts Review, Harrington
Gay Men's Literary Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Dialogue: A Journal of
Mormon Thought, Sunstone, and in the anthology In Our Lovely Deseret:
Mormon Fictions. He has also spoken at the Sunstone symposium in Salt
Lake on the subject of gay Mormon literature.
Zombies for Jesus
by A.J. Kirby
The Gay Mormon Quilter's
Dinosaur Perversions (BookLocker)
The Circumcision of God (BookLocker)
Sex Among the Saints (BookLocker)
with Johnny Townsend
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Johnny Townsend: I
had recently gotten a job that offered lots of down time, so I was able
to do a great deal of writing at work. I was able to crank out about
one story per week. I arrived at work early and wrote, then wrote a
little during down times, and then again during my lunch break, and I
would type what I had written when I got home, revising as I went. This
particular book probably took less than three months, including
several revisions, though there are three stories in this
collection which had been written years earlier.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
did not have a specific collection in mind, other than that the stories
would all have Mormon characters and be essentially a "straight"
collection. I have several other books which are entirely gay Mormon
books, but I have three which are mostly straight, with just a couple
of gay stories thrown in. I believe anyone reading even my straight
collections will be open-minded enough to be willing to read about gay
characters, but I still think it's best to segregate my stories into
"straight" and "gay" collections.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
the particular stories for a given collection and the order they'll go
in is always tough. You need to start strong or no one will read any
further, and yet you need to finish strong so people leave with a
positive feeling toward your book. And you need strong stories in the
middle, or people will quit reading! So what to do? You just have to
try to make every story in the collection count. Still, I do feel
that The Ghost of Emma Smith
is one of the stronger stories in the book, and that's why I chose to
start with that. I also have a favorite recurring character, Miranda
Ryan, who appears in all three of my "straight" collections. And there
are three stories about her in each of those books. So I have to
space out those particular stories by separating them with other
stories, to keep the book from feeling like a
Miranda Ryan collection.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
have to tell something meaningful about a person. I try to set my
stories during a pivotal point in a person's life. I prefer that pivot
to be centered around an interesting plot, but sometimes, the plot
is fairly minimal. Lots of life-changing events are suspiciously dull.
Interesting plots move things forward, but I think I focus more on
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
Since my stories all deal with Mormons, you'd think I had a Mormon
audience in mind. But I think any reasonably well-informed person could
enjoy my stories. I've read a great deal of Jewish fiction, and many of
the terms and customs are explained in the text, in case the reader is
unfamiliar with them. That helped me as a reader, and yet, I don't like
to spell things out too fully for my own readers. I indulge myself by
imagining my books being read at some distant future time, in an
annotated text with footnotes explaining anything that needs further
background, but I want my readers to be able to figure things out from
what's provided. My partner warns me that my stories are too specific,
too narrow in their subject matter, that there are probably only three
readers out there who will be interested. But I believe even a story
set in a very specific culture can be universal, and my ideal reader is
someone who's simply interested in opening their mind to someone else's
experience. I believe there are plenty of these people in the reading
world. This seems to me the whole reason for reading in the first place.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
always like to ask readers, "What did you like?" "What didn't work for
you?" "Got any ideas for other stories?" I'm always trying to improve
my writing, and feedback is essential for that.
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
It feels GREAT knowing people are buying my books. I am reasonably
humble and self-deprecating most of the time, but I think in order to
write, you have to have some degree of self-assurance. You have to
believe that what you're saying is worth hearing. So to write for
yourself and just keep your work at home may be satisfying to some, but
it isn't to me. I want my work "out there" engaging other people. My
stories may not solve any of life's big mysteries, but I want to be
part of the discussion.
What are you working on now?
working simultaneously on two books, another straight collection of
Mormon stories and another gay collection. I'm not sure of the title
for the straight collection yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll call the gay
collection "Mormon Fairy Tales." The fairy, obviously, can mean "gay,"
but it also clearly has to do with the fact that religion often leads
people astray with nonsense. Still, I don't mean to attack religion,
only point out that we need to be careful what we invest our energies
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
last three short story collections I've read were all by Isaac Bashevis
Singer. He's a wonderful short story writer, though I've been less
impressed with the two novels of his I've read. When I feel inadequate
because I haven't produced any novels, I think of him and realize that
some people are better at one form than another, and writing a good
short story is nothing to be ashamed of. I also love Flannery O'Connor
and Edgar Allan Poe for their consistently good stories, and I think
Shirley Jackson's The Lottery
is incredible. There's a lot of other great stuff out there I just
haven't gotten around to yet. I read a lot of juvenile literature as
well, and am working through the Theodosia Throckmorton series and the
Enola Holmes series.