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.

Short Story Collections

Zombies for Jesus
(BookLocker, 2010)

reviewed by A.J. Kirby

The Gay Mormon Quilter's Club

God's Gargoyles

Dinosaur Perversions (BookLocker)

The Circumcision of God (BookLocker)

Sex Among the Saints (BookLocker)

Interview with Johnny Townsend

The Short Review: 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.

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

JT: I 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.

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

JT: Choosing 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.

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

JT: Stories 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 character.

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

JT:  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.

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

JT: I 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.

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

JT: 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.

TSR: What are you working on now?

JT: I'm 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 into believing.

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

JT: The 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.
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