Little Punch Somewhere Soft: An Interview with Barb Johnson

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What moves a writer to write? The work is laborious. The pay is meager. And readers are a small, fussbudgety bunch. Gore Vidal said that being a writer is essential to one’s nature—one is born a writer, or not. For author Barb Johnson, it was, in large part, an act of nature—Hurricane Katrina—that brought her prose into the world.

Unlike Jonathan Safran Foer, with the helping hand of Joyce Carol Oates, or Zadie Smith who took breaks from her university exams to write White Teeth, Barb Johnson published her first book later in life. Born in the small town in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Johnson worked as a carpenter for more than twenty in New Orleans. When Katrina hit, Johnson was exiled until she snuck back into the city with a fake CDC ID. She spent the days clearing refuse from the street and the nights writing on her darkened balcony. Writing, she told me, allowed her to remake the world as she remembered it.

A finalist for the Faulkner/Wisdom Prize, Johnson won the A Room of One’s Own Foundation’s Gift of Freedom Award for her short story collection More of This World and Maybe Another, an interconnected network of short stories about growing up poor in the South. Her characters are razor-sharp, often irreverent and filled with ardor. The stories are a window into being gay in the South, the dexterity of religion, and the often paradoxical city of New Orleans.

I met with Barb Johnson in a canopied cafe in her neighborhood of Midtown. We talked about her collection, navigating a city torn apart, the rebirth of a New Orleans literary scene and how a story should be a “small little punch in somewhere soft.”

INTERVIEWER

A friend picked up your book More of This World or Maybe Another while visiting New Orleans. She brought it back to me in New York, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s filled with soul.

JOHNSON

Well, thank you. Thank you. I always forget that I wrote a book.

INTERVIEWER

You forget?

JOHNSON

Absolutely. I’m still a carpenter in my brain. I was a carpenter for almost thirty years up until the storm. I started with framing, which is the roughest kind of carpentry, building the skeletons of houses. I really couldn’t drink that much beer that early in the morning.

There’s a hierarchy. Framing is the lowest rung—the knuckle draggers of carpentry. You don’t have to be all that accurate. We all had massive framing guns with the triggers taped open, so they fired when they touched anything—which is how people end up with nails in their hands.

I ended up as a “cabinet maker,” so I made furniture and built-ins. I specialized in Victorians because there is lots of Victorians architecture down here in New Orleans. I would do the trim work or milling, inside and outside.

 INTERVIEWER

That sounds like a step up. I hope you still got to drink.

JOHNSON

I managed, alright.

INTERVIEWER

More of This World or Maybe Another is a collection of interconnected short stories with recurring character and interlaced narrative. What do you think a short story—as opposed to a novel or poem—should do?

JOHNSON

Well, I’m just finishing a novel. But I think a short story—like all literature—is sometimes to entertain. Other times they shine a light on something in popular culture or the zeitgeist. At best, a short story is some small little punch in somewhere soft.

I just read Hari Kunzru short story “Raj, Bohemian” with a class. It captures the zeitgeist of hipsters in a world slightly in the future. But it’s so close that you can extrapolate. It makes you think, wow, I bet people already are monetizing their social groups. That’s a specific kind of story, which makes you realize that that is exactly where things are going.

INTERVIEWER

One of my favorite stories in your book was “Keeping Her Difficult Balance.” It begins: “Everything floats down to this place, the very end of Bayou St. John where Delia sits, her feet dangling just about the tepid water. An egret pecks at a bread wrapper that’s washed ashore. Delia is comforted by the filth of the city.” Do you think that New Orleans is getting cleaner?

JOHNSON

It’s getting cleaner. There is an inverse relationship between cleanliness and vibrancy of culture. Certain parts of New Orleans are squeaky clean. Certain parts of the city are turning into the idea of themselves—made for and by tourists. Other parts, like Mid-City, are filthy. The streets are really bad and nobody’s living strictly by the laws. You kind of have to do for yourself.

INTERVIEWER

The roads here remind me of Russian roads.

JOHNSON

Yeah, but for a different reason. There’s not a lot of swamp in Russia. In New Orleans, the substrate is peat and the water table is really high. So it expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry. And you have roots dying underground. Then a waterline will bust because of all of the movement. It’s a constant state of flux. Certainly you could put down a more expensive type of roadway, but I don’t think we’ll ever get there. That’s not a priority.

INTERVIEWER

I drove out to the Bayou yesterday.

JOHNSON

The Bayou? The Bayou is right there. We’re like six blocks away.

INTERVIEWER

I drove northeast where there are shrimping boats.

JOHNSON

Oh, Bayou Savage. It’s really nice. You can get to it fast. It’s surprising, you’re in the city, then boom, you’re right there in the middle of the swamp.

I recommend the moonlit canoe rides out there, particularly because they draw tourists, who really don’t understand how to drink. Just because there is liquor available doesn’t mean you should drink it before you get in a canoe for the first time in your life. They routinely flip themselves over. It’s great to watch. Oh, unhappy people driving home, smelling bad. But give them space because they will take you down with them if you’re too close.

INTERVIEWER

I visited the Ogden Museum as well. Michael Meads has an exhibition at there right now—his early photographs from Alabama, and his tremendously elaborate paintings from when he lived in New Orleans. He so perfectly captures the raucousness that the city is known for.

JOHNSON

I don’t have a problem with that. I grew up in the Southwest part of the state, which is Cajun French. There are significant French, Spanish and African influences in the city. It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. The vibe is we’ll get to it when we get to it. If we achieve something someday, that’s great. I don’t mean to achieve anything big, but make the groceries for instance.

But I don’t feel distracted here. I can go in and out of it. I could go to a couple of readings a night if I wanted to, but I don’t care how crazy or amazing something is, it’s going to come back around. We’ll get another one in a few days.

INTERVIEWER

It’s easy to feel that way about New York, too.

JOHNSON

I moved to New York when I was eighteen. I was from a tiny town in the very deep South, called Lake Charles. It was made famous by the Lucinda Williams song: [she sings] “He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles.” I don’t know what that would be. I got out the second I could.

When I first got to New York, I wanted to know everything. I was a governess, so I was isolated. I was taking care of three small children who were considerably messed up, which was nerve-racking for me. We had a network of governesses, so we could trade off the kids and go into the city occasionally.

The city was very new to me. I hadn’t been in a big city. So I was still making eye contact with people—getting exactly what that got you, which was a conversation with all the crazy people. It was kind of fun and interesting because I wasn’t busy. I didn’t hurry up to get somewhere. I was just there to see what would happen. Now we’re having a conversation about the holy cards you’re pulling out of your shirt of Padre Pio. That’s just how I am—I have an endless capacity to hang out. That’s what I was doing last night.

We have a fiction workshop on Monday nights. After workshop, there’s a neighborhood bar right down the street, a block from my house. So, we stay up all night talking and drinking beer. It’s fun to hang out with people who do what you do, or who want to do what you do, or are just interested.

When I was a carpenter, we weren’t talking about literature very much. One day, on site, I said the word “serendipitous,” and my assistant, who was from London yelped, “Serendipitous? How posh.” Yes, indeed. That’s the full ten dollars there.

INTERVIEWER

Class plays a large part in your collection. Delia calls people out for being little rich girls or posing as them.

JOHNSON

New Orleans, up until recently, was very mixed—rich people lived right next to poor people—I mean really poor. Not down on St. Charles Avenue, don’t get crazy, those people have always been all by themselves. But in the Garden District, if you crossed one street there were Irish ship-workers. Now, of course, there’s gentrification going on.

High school was definitely segregated by class where I grew up. My place was with the raucous wrecks because my family is known for being ill behaved. I have three dyslexic brothers. They did what dyslexic people do, which is to compensate to draw attention from the fact that they couldn’t read. Naturally, I fell in behind them.

Everything was defined by neighborhood. We were bussed in from “Greenwich Village,” a cruel, cruel name for a development of abandoned houses where there used to be an airbase. When the airbase left, all the houses went to a couple of slumlords. It continues to rot into the ground even today.

I said to myself, “I will never write about rural life, ever.” When I first got started, I was convinced that actual stories were about rich people, who are slightly bored and very well educated. I thought no one in the world wants to read about places with oil wells, rice fields, petrochemical industry, and the kind of bull that goes on there. I certainly wasn’t going to write about gay people because who wants to read about that. I had a teacher that said, “you need to write what you’re afraid of writing.”

INTERVIEWER

Like about Delia and Maggie being gay in a small town in the South?

JOHNSON

It’s still that way in New Orleans. If you’re gay you can walk through the Quarter holding hands, but nowhere else. It’s the sanctioned place. But even there, you’d have people go, oh, gross.

Part of that is something that imposed upon oneself. Lots of gay people came to New Orleans from very small towns for the express purpose of not having to hide. And then they hide. Because, you know, there are repercussions.

I think that’s changing though. The more familiar you are with something, the less threatening it is to you. Everyone in the city should just hold hands everywhere for one day. They’ll get used to it.

INTERVIEWER

That’s optimistic.

JOHNSON

Probably.

INTERVIEWER

Your story “St. Luis of Palmyra” addresses a boy’s relationship with religion and the pragmatism required to live in an imperfect world.

JOHNSON

Palmyra Street is just two blocks down that way. The kinds of things that happened in Luis’s neighborhood are especially true of this place. My shop was in that neighborhood. I had glass doors and I’m just watching the whole neighborhood come and go: kids going to school, drug deals going down. I knew all the players and who did what. Some of those people were deeply religious. They’ve got all the iconography—they’ve got crosses and observe the saints and All Saint Day. It’s like the catechisms—they don’t make sense and they never made sense, but they bring people together. They makes the universe seem more ordered, perhaps, than it actually is.

INTERVIEWER

I liked how the lives of the characters in your stories intertwined, but I wanted to know what happened to Luis after his confirmation.

JOHNSON

There’s a novel coming out. It picks up where those stories leave off. It’s got most of the same characters and a couple of new ones. So, you’ll find out.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote most of these stories after Katrina.

JOHNSON

Almost all of them. The city was closed indefinitely. But, I said, “No.” A friend of mine worked for the CDC. So we did a little photo shopping out of town. Anyone you would see anywhere, who knew that you were going back, would give you a pile of keys and ask you to go make sure their pets were ok, their houses were ok. They would ask you to turn off the gas. I snuck past the blockade with a fake CDC ID.

It was pitch black. I was living on my balcony. There was nobody else. I was desperate for something that was normal. All I did all day was clear huge branches out of my yard. I tried to clear paths on my street because nobody was coming doing that. I wasn’t supposed to be in the neighborhood. There were gas explosions.

One day, I was going up and down the street turning my neighbors’ gas off with this giant wrench. That National Guard pulled up to me and asked me what I was doing there. I pulled out my fake credentials, and said, “Why fighting mosquitoes, of course.” And everyday after that, they would come by my house, and I would be up on the balcony. They would say, “Ma’am, you can’t be here.” I’d say, “I know.” And they’d say, “Alright, have a good night.”

The actual landscape was horrible. At night it was pitch black. During the day it stunk. Everything was dead. The grass was brown. The trees were brown. Tons of trees were overturned, piled so high you couldn’t drive down the streets. It was disorienting.

I was at the University of New Orleans, which was the only University in the city to carry on with classes after the storm hit. There was no electricity in town. All our servers crashed. There was no website, so there was no central way to contact people. People went out hunting for each other. One found another, who found another. We were all over the United States. The government didn’t enter into it. We began sending each other stories by email. We would read them and mark them up.

There was no Internet. You had to go way out in the suburbs to find a place that had electricity and Internet. Everybody who was near town would gather in public places to charge their computers. There were impromptu charging stations—just power strips—so bunches of people could charge their stuff. The wireless was made public. So I would download the stories there.

After I had finished doing a day’s worth clearing or whatever work was necessary, I would spend the night read their stories or writing. Making the world as I remembered it made things okay. It was a respite. It gave me hope that that’s how things would look again.

Jacob Kiernan is a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and works at Bookforum. He has written for On Verge, MobyLives, and The Jordan Center. He’s currently working on his novel, Empire of Hope.

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