Joseph Johnston’s piece “The Chimney Effect” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 20, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born in Central Michigan and then spent my grade school years in Colorado. I moved back for high school and have lived in Michigan ever since. Went to college in the middle of the mitten and have resided in the Detroit area since 1998. The region has a huge influence on my writing. Nearly everything I write is set here, either overtly or subconsciously. I suppose it’s only natural to have what you consider home inform your writing, but certain areas and buildings in my hometown of Alma, Michigan as well as the back roads of the Upper Peninsula and Thumb region could almost be considered a muse. My mind always perks up and listens when I’m around them.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
There’s an old-fashioned problem-solving sensibility that many Midwesterners possess, the ability to quickly find solutions to anything that might get in ones’ path, no matter how huge. Hell, we reversed the flow of the Chicago river to solve a typhoid fever problem. Seasonally, things tend to run to the extremes, with massive snowfall and bitter cold on one end followed by intensely hot and miserably humid summers. Getting through these extremes every year toughens up the body and the soul and necessitates a fair amount of problem solving. This can have its drawbacks, however. Physical problems can be solved but often there’s a stoicism to us, an unwillingness to talk about what lies beneath the physical. A stubbornness that can be borderline dangerous. That can be a pain. Ultimately, though, it’s that hardiness and problem-solving sensibility in the people that I find irresistible. I should also mention the landscape. It’s unmatched. We have the whole world within a couple hours’ drive. Forests, sand dunes, lakes that look like oceans, rivers, waterfalls, giant cities both on the move and in decay, farmland, miles of open road, seas of grass, mountains. Everything.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
More and more they occupy larger places within my work. I think the longer I exist the easier it is to access the steel trap of a memory I’m cursed with. I find myself mining these archives for story. In fact my story for this issue began with a couple of childhood memories of being on back roads with a bad car battery. I don’t know what caused these memories to start playing like reruns behind my eyeballs but I couldn’t get them out of my head until I worked them into something. The more I do this, the more this happens. Buildings and people and tiny moments and entire seasons of moments will invade my head and I’ll feel like I did when they first occurred or when I first encountered them. Furthermore, my head and heart are constantly open to new experiences and new moments and new events and places and I file them away for potential use down the road. Everything is always wide open. I sometimes wish I could shut it off and just exist, but I wouldn’t know how to.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I used to wait and only write during moments I was particularly inspired. As I got older, these moments of inspiration came in fewer and fewer installments and I realized that to be a writer I had to put in more work. I try to discipline myself to write every day, for at least a couple of hours, regardless of inspiration level. I’ll generally have a number of flash-fiction pieces going at any given time, and one or two larger stories, and outlines for the video literature projects I do. I always read stories of the great success other writers have working in the early morning, but I just can’t get myself there. My time is night, late at night, after the kids are asleep and their lunches packed and the laundry folded and dishes washed. And even if I don’t want to, I make myself work. I have a tiny roll-top in the corner of the living room and that’s where I have the most luck. When I’m tired of working at the desk, I have a little tablet with a keyboard that I’ll tote down to the kitchen table or set atop the coffee table or take out to the patio in the summer. I’ve tried the coffee house thing like most writers probably try but I’m always too preoccupied with the people watching to get anything down on paper. The Evernote software has been a huge boon to me. If I have an idea for something while I’m out and about, I can enter it right into the story from my phone and don’t have to rely on napkins or old receipts. I hardly ever use notebooks anymore, sadly. Notebooks are cool! When I’m stricken with writer’s block on one project I can usually just switch to another. If I’m REALLY blocked I’ll generally catch up on e-mail correspondence with old friends or I’ll look up poetry prompts and try to improve my poetic voice. Or I’ll just do more research. Falling into esoteric Wikipedia holes has stirred me back on track more than once. If I’m absolutely flummoxed and the idea of staring at a blank screen is less appealing than jumping in front of a truck, I’ll switch to carpentry or honking on a harmonica out in a field or something.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I’m dreadful when it comes time to know when a piece is finished. I’ll revisit a piece twenty times before a submission deadline and then only notice after it’s been submitted that there is a gleaming error or typo or otherwise alternate way I’d like to tell a story. For me, I suppose a piece might never truly be finished. I only get something as finished as it can be before I have to turn it in. However, once a piece has been published I don’t tend to revise it further, no matter how badly I’m compelled. There’s danger in repeating yourself. There is wisdom in letting things go and moving on.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I’d have to say Sam Shepard. I majored in theatre in college and in one of my first acting classes I was assigned a scene from Shepard’s True West. I ended up pouring through every Shepard play I could find. I knew Sam Shepard was an actor when I was a young boy, from his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Didn’t realize he was a playwright until that acting class. Then in my late twenties I discovered he also wrote fiction, which I also devoured. It was interesting because at each of these stages in my life I was drawn to this one artist, but for entirely different artistic media. His literary focus is primarily the lonely American west and the loss of the American dream, things that resonate with me and my experience here in the Midwest.
What’s next for you?
My brother and I are wrapping up a documentary about the famous Kronk boxing gym in Detroit. It’s part of a series of documentary shorts that will be compiled into a feature of old Detroiters returning home to tell stories. I’m compiling and editing a chapbook of my fiction. And as ever I’m constantly writing and making music which usually results in a piece of video literature once or twice a year.
Where can we find more information about you?