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Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston: "Write what you're afraid to know"

The American writer Bret Anthony Johnston is shortlisted for his story, Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses. The published author is also a Harvard professor and part-time skateboarder. He talks to Sophie Haydock about curiosity, the current political climate and his unusual childhood desire to be a “garbage collector”

Tell us about your story, Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses – where did that story begin for you?
The story has no clear origin in my mind, but I worked on it, off and on, for almost a decade. Every time I wrote a new vignette, I would print the story and arrange it in a different order on my office floor. For the actual writing, I drew on my memories of growing up with horses, anecdotes I’d heard and read, and I followed my own curiosity into Atlee’s life. In my mind, and with my trusted readers, I always call it The Weird Horse Story. Part of me is shocked that it was ever published.
What literary heritage are you drawing on when you write a story like this? Can you explain who you are influenced by?
My influences range from Chekhov to Alice Munro to Cormac McCarthy to Haruki Murakami to Gustav Flaubert to Amy Hempel. When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stuart Dybek had us read the work of the criminally underappreciated writer John O’Brien, and I found his nonlinear, collage-y narratives really stirring. This story also owes an awful lot to Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge.
Do you admire the characters you create? Are they people you’d want to spend time with?
Not only do I admire them, I love them – almost unconditionally. There are few people that I’d rather spend time with than these characters. Their lives are far more interesting than mine, but I also wouldn’t want to walk in their boots. I feel lucky to follow them around and take notes.
Your story is packed with so much emotion and intensity, how did you achieve it? Are there any secrets to your ability to do that?
Thank you for these kind words. I worked hard to empathise with Atlee at various moments in his life, the good and the difficult, and often that work amounted to taking the story through yet another draft, rinsing myself out of the prose so that there was more room for him. That’s the best trick I know for writers: log extra hours, work overtime, develop deep reserves of patience and stubbornness that you can use up when the right character stumbles into your imagination.
Is it necessary as an author “to write about what you know”? Should writers move away from their own consciousness and experience?
The best writing I’ve done hasn’t come from my autobiography but from my curiosity, and the same is true of my students. My advice would be to write what you don’t know. Or better, write what you’re afraid to know.
When did you first begin to write, and why? Do you remember the initial urge to create alternative realities?
I am, as Henry James has said, a reader moved to emulation. Before I understood that being a writer was a possibility for anyone, let alone me, I loved to read. I loved story. I loved language. I loved the shape and contour of sentences. I loved the nuance of syntax. And, like most fiction writers, I started out as a poet. My poetry amounted to watered-down Jim Morrison lyrics. But my abiding curiosity in these 26 letters and their infinite combinations was already so ingrained that I eventually found my way to stories. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever chosen to do, and it gets harder the longer I do it, but the rewards of having written a decent sentence are unparalleled.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Is there another path you could have taken?
When I was younger, when every other little boy wanted to be an astronaut or a fireman, I wanted to be a garbage collector. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. Both of those prospects still feel viable, interesting, and worthwhile.
What do you think about our post-truth era? How is our current political climate going to impact on writers today and in the future?
I think the current political climate, in a word, sucks. There’s a distinct and distinctly gutting sense of isolation in America, and it’s where most of us, certainly most writers and artists, will live for the foreseeable future – in exile. If there’s a saving grace, it’s that art – visual art, music, literature – has always deepened when it’s been attacked and oppressed. It may not be enough, but it’s about all we’ve got right now.
What advice would you give to others who are looking for success as authors? Are there any techniques or tips that can be easily emulated?
Think of writing as your vocation. It’s labour, yes, often very intense and poorly paid and maddeningly frustrating, but if you show up for work every day, if you give up on the self-defeating myths of the muse and writers’ block, then the labour will pay off. But a vocation, in the truest sense of the word, is also more than a job – it’s a calling. The world is going to make it very easy, very tempting, for you not to be a writer, but if that calling comes, give yourself permission to answer it.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
There’s so much I’d like to say, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that I feel immensely honoured and deeply humbled, and I’m still completely convinced that there’s been a mistake. Every time I get an email, I expect to learn that the jig is up, to hear that the original message was actually meant for Bret Easton Ellis or Anthony Michael Hall. But so far no email has come, and until one does, I’ll just paraphrase Shakespeare: thanks and thanks and ever thanks, there are no more perfect words than these.

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