Interview: Tim Johnston

I first encountered Tim Johnston’s work while reading Narrative Magazine, a year ago. His story, Two Years, remains one of my favorites from that publication. It’s built on what I might only call intricate microclimates of human drama––delicately suspended, superbly woven.

Recently, I bought and enjoyed Tim’s highly praised collection, Irish Girl. The titular story of that collection won the prestigious O. Henry Prize, and was selected by David Sedaris for the anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. See the totality of his numerous accomplishments on his site.

There’s plenty of well-deserved praise for all Tim’s work. Here, for example, The Bookslut describes his collection as “sharp and smart, infused with a small-town sensibility that renders them eerie and restless.” For a small taste, read Two Years.

Tim was born in Iowa and holds degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He’s currently living in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Find Tim’s facebook fan page here, and his blog-in-progress, here.

We talked over e-mail and discussed e-books [as per usual], MFA programs, and––most importantly––his writing.

Interview Follows


Though practical, does the e-reader dilute the “artfulness” of print literature? [Ironically enough, I bought an e-copy of Irish Girl after reading your Facebook Fan Page.]


I’m not sure.  There are certain great movies which are better seen on giant screens, like Lawrence of Arabia, and which feel diminished in more than scale when seen on a tv or an iPod or what have you.  But the changed medium doesn’t change the artfulness of the movie, right, only the reader’s experience of that artfulness?

On the other hand, you can’t experience the full artfulness of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, say, unless you are standing there looking at the canvas. Unlike both of those mediums, the artfulness of great writing isn’t in the physical visual thing — the writing on the page — but in what those words do inside the reader’s head & heart.

You can’t diminish or dilute the artfulness of great writing by throwing it onto an e-reader; you only change the reader’s experience of reading it. (And what of audiobooks, while we’re at it?  Do they diminish the artfulness of the printed words?  And what of written texts which aren’t read for their high literary wonderfulness, but just because they tell a damn good story?)

All that said, I continue to believe in the artfulness of books themselves — the beauty of their covers & the smell of their pages & the feel of them in my hands, & I believe that the lovely old book itself does contribute to my experience of reading literature — great writing — in particular.  For me it’s the only way to go.


Many of your sentences progress very naturally. In this period of experimental, hyper-structured work–e.g. that of the late David Foster Wallace–what do you prefer about your rhythmic, developed style?


It’s not a deliberate choice, it’s just how my writing has evolved. I really love the hyper-brained writing of DFW & others like him. But I’m just not wired that way.


“He looked to the north and made out the invisible mountains by the high and absolute erasure of the stars along the base of the sky,” from Two Years.

“A January wind was in the seams of the backdoor, moaning eerily. The house, the whole neighborhood, kept its back to open farmland and bore the first, hardest blows of weather,” from Irish Girl.

More than elegant descriptions of setting, these reoccurring, natural elements of your prose become real implements of your characters’ human drama. Does your time in Iowa inform these scenes? Does ‘the natural’ play a big part in your creative process?


I certainly have been known to draw on the weather & landscapes of my native land, just as a writer raised and/or living in New York City would be inclined to make use of that city’s particulars. As for the natural & the creative process: I lived in Los Angeles for nine years and never wrote a word about that city.

But I was in the Rocky Mountains for about three months & began writing a novel which takes place there. Likewise, when I lived in New Mexico, I found the landscape inspiring.


Irish Girl, the titular story of your recent award-winning collection, exposes adolesence to life’s grayer, tougher moments. In the story, a young boy named Charlie witnesses his adopted older brother’s violent, damaging struggle for identity and belonging. What made you pick Charlie, the youngest, to be the narrator?


Well, if I recall correctly, Charlie is not actually the narrator, as he’s not telling the story. But the story does come exclusively through his 3rd person P.O.V. — and through an older 3rd person Charlie at that, looking back.

I belabor the point only because I think, in some prenatal draft, I may have tried to write the story in the 1st person, with Charlie as narrator, but that wasn’t working and I was drawn to the distance which this other P.O.V. put between the storyteller (me) and Charlie and the events of the story.

On the less self-conscious level, I think the story could only have come to me through Charlie, and that particular voice, which was the voice, to my mind, of someone who had been altogether stunned as a youngin by these events, and had never become unstunned.


N+1 and Slate have recently published an article entitled “MFA vs. NYC,” discussing the artistic viability of America’s “two distinct literary cultures.” From your experience, what would benefit new writers most: urban enculturation or graduate education?


I can’t speak to urban enculturation, at least not NYC style, as I’ve never tried getting encultured there. I did, on the other hand, go from a home-town undergrad writing education in the thick of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop nearly directly into the MFA program at UMass, Amherst, where I was given the time & protection to learn that writing fiction was, in fact, what I wanted to do.

I also learned that I did not want to jump out of academia right back into academia as a teacher in the undergrad trenches, but instead I fled the country for a while, and then by & by found myself making a living as a carpenter, continuing to write, & even to publish some of that writing, all the while.

Twenty some years after grabbing my MFA & heading off into the “real” world, I believe, even as a product of one, & even as someone who is about to return to teaching fiction as a writer-in-residence, that MFA programs have become too much a self-perpetuation industry in which one crop of graduates ends up teaching the next crop the same essential tricks & lessons. I learned a lot of useful tricks & lessons in that industry, surely . . . but the real learning came after I got out & began pounding nails all over the country.

Also: I believe that trying to keep your finger on the publishing pulse of NYC, as a writer, is a loosing game. I think a writer should not write what he or she thinks will scratch some particular market itch, but should always write the story he or she can’t help but write. If there is not genuine joy & anguish & passion in the creation of the thing, then it won’t matter how much it resembles something marketable. One man’s opinion.


What’s your next step? What’ve you been working on?


You mention my story “Two Years,” which appears online in Narrative Magazine, and that story is actually an excerpt from the novel I’m writing. (There’s another excerpt in Irish Girl — someone called it a prequel to “Two Years” — which is the story “Up There.”)

“Two Years” has also been selected to appear in Best of The West 2011, which was my first clue that I was writing a kind of western novel. Set in the present and populated largely by midwesterners, but a western nonetheless, with mountains and horses and guns, pardner.


Who’ve you been reading recently?


Lately I’ve been on a Hemingway jag. I’ve always loved his stories but I’d not read his novels, and I’ve been lining those suckers up and knocking ’em down. I also like to keep Cormac McCarthy nearby, for the way he feeds the well.


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