You can read the full introduction to the series here. In short The Conversations with the Bookless series is designed to raise the profile of and increase the exposure of some of the emerging writers we knew were out there.
In this installment we talk to Naomi Johnson
After the jump check out the full interview.
Why do you write?
Everyone’s doing it! No, mostly I write whenever an image or a situation gets in my head and I can’t get it out. Sort of like water in the ear, just gotta get it out of there somehow or there’s no peace. And writing fiction is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. Ninety-nine pieces out of 100 that I write will never see the light of day. Count your lucky stars.
What is the value and purpose of short fiction in Mystery/Crime fiction for you? For you personally and overall for the form and genre?
Short fiction lets me know right away whether I want to read anything by the author in a longer format, so in that regard it’s kind of a reading shorthand. But beyond that, there is a skill required in short fiction that is not necessary in the longer forms. That old cliché, every word counts, is so true. To create a unique, cleverly-told, short story takes more than a talent for storytelling. It takes craftsmanship. A great short story is like a sculpture, where every bit of excess material has been chiseled away to reveal something not previously expressed. And then to do that within the framework of genre? If I can steal a line from “Ya Got Trouble,” it takes judgment, brains and maturity to get it right. I haven’t yet, but I always was slow on the uptake.
What do you most value in the fiction you love?
The quality of the writing. I don’t care how interesting a plot is or how fine the characters, if the writer doesn’t deliver prose that pulls me in. Doesn’t always have to be lyrical, like James Lee Burke, or witty or dark. The words can all be workaday. But they have to have a flow and rhythm and a consistency that work in accord with plot and character. As I get older, I find I’m more appreciative of lean, muscular prose, than I am of the dreamy, poetic variety. I don’t eschew the latter, I’ve just developed more of a taste for the former.
What’s your favorite story written by someone else?
You’re kidding, right? Who could pick just one? I really like the classic short stories: Saki. Poe. O. Henry, certainly. And James Lee Burke’s short stories are just brilliant, my favorite of which is probably “The Convict.”
Recently Craig McDonald has sent me back to Hemingway, whose stories I had not read since high school (back when Ohio was still dealing with glaciers). I find I’m intrigued by Hemingway’s work now as much for how people react when I say ‘Hemingway,’ as for the stories themselves. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a situation where people seem so completely unable to separate the man from his work. That may be, as many assert, something Hemingway encouraged in his lifetime, but for it to still be so prevalent almost fifty years after his death, strikes me as some kind of literary anomaly.
Who are your influences and what is your unlikeliest influence?
Robert Crais made me want to write crime fiction, may God forgive him, but I had been writing some fanfic and odd bits of things for several years before that. But I’ve never tried to write like Crais, there’s a quality to his voice that I can’t even describe and could never begin to capture.
My most unlikeliest influences are probably C.S. Forester and Little Joe Cartwright. Well, not Little Joe, but my older sister. When we were young, she used to write stories about the “Bonanza” characters. Today we would call it fanfic, but that was about 1962-63. Who knew from fanfic? For the last decade, she has encouraged me to write, even though she really, really hates the kind of stuff I’m into now. As for Forester, I loved the Hornblower books and the TV series, and about 2002 or so, after several short nautical tales, I set out to write a Hornblower adventure with the intent of being as true to Forester’s character and as much in Forester’s voice as I could. I think I had a backlash reaction to much of the incredibly bad romantic fanfic and slash that was spawned by that TV series. Yep, that produced my one and only novel, “Hornblower in the East Indies.” It’s not good. I researched the hell out of it, too. It has some good moments and I stroke my ego by saying I really wrote a couple of fine naval battle scenes, occasionally a nice bit of dialogue, but overall it’s bad. I haven’t been all that tempted to try my hand at a novel again.
What issues or ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?
I think the diminution of a key figure in publishing, the editor, in deciding what novels get published and promoted, has been profoundly tragic. As with so many businesses, publishing allows itself to be completely dictated to by its sales and marketing arm. That’s fine if you’re in the business of selling lawnmowers and clothes, but in the book business I think it means the publishers have surrendered to the lowest common denominator. I enjoy reading Lee Child’s books as much as any of his fans, but does he (or Stephen King, or James Patterson, or Janet Evanovich, etc.) really need all the PR push from the publisher these days? What if some of that advertising money could be diverted to promote someone like Paul Tremblay? Or to sign a writer like Declan Burke to a book deal? Yeah, maybe I’m insanely naïve and idealistic to think of book publishing as a higher calling. That just means I haven’t changed much since my college adviser in the school of journalism invited me to change majors because I felt the same way about newspapers. (I took his advice and switched to criminology. Go figure.)
Who is the best short story writer that people haven’t gotten hip to yet?
Kyle Minor is right on the edge, I think, of getting some real attention. He has a distinctive voice, where so many short story writers, myself included, do not.
What do you like most about short fiction?
The impact. Short fiction, when done right, carries this enormous wallop. It can be a caress or it can shatter the reader. Also I like the immediate gratification. My day is so fragmented, because I’m a full-time caregiver for an elderly parent, that I appreciate the almost instant gratification of short fiction.
Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
In the home office, which is a euphemism for junkiest room in the house. But it’s moving on toward lunch time and I have to prepare something.
When did you start writing short fiction and what prompted you to do so?
See the answer re: influences.
Of all of your stories, which is your favorite; the one that showcases best your abilities?
Probably the first one that was published on the web, “The Winter of My Discontent.” And no surprise, I probably worked harder and longer on that story than on any of them since. Long after Christopher Grant published my story at A Twist of Noir, I read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter Bone and I felt a real sense of kinship to his Ree Dolly character. I thought she might have been a female counterpart to the boy in my story. Or maybe, probably, I just flatter myself. Anyway, as a result, there’s been a real temptation on my part to revisit my Appalachian roots in my writing. I haven’t done it, but I won’t be able to resist forever.
Do you have any short story publications forthcoming?
I have hopes that CrimeFactory will be publishing one called “The Persistence of Memory,” about a woman who can’t forget something bad that happened but whose memory might be a trifle faulty. Right after I sent that story off, I got an ARC of Donald E. Westlake’s Memory, and after reading it, I wanted to just kill my story. Everything that needed to be said about memory, Westlake said it, and said it better.
I recently finished a horror story called “Fatality,” that one is in the aging process. After the aging and some further polishing, I intend to submit it to one of the print magazines. Fingers crossed.
How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
Well, I don’t. Having a book published is neither a dream nor a goal for me. Not now, anyway, not while I have the family responsibilities that I do. Getting a short story published in a print magazine or book, that’s my dream. My goal is to write a story worthy of that dream. And the way to achieve these things is to write, re-write, polish, accept and evaluate criticism, submit the work, endure rejection, and then do it all again and again.