Cheri Johnson was raised in Lake of the Woods County in northern Minnesota, and has since lived in Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Minneapolis. She studied writing at Augsburg College, Hollins University, and the University of Minnesota, and her fiction, poetry, plays, and reviews have been published in magazines such as Phantasmagoria, The Rio Grande Review, Glimmer Train Stories, New South, Cerise Press, The Emprise Review, Pleiades, and Puerto Del Sol. Her chapbook of poems, Fun & Games, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2009, and she has won fellowships from the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center, as well as the Glimmer Train Stories Fiction Open and the Dorothy and Granville Hicks Residency in Literature at Yaddo. A fiction reader for the magazine Our Stories, Cheri is currently a second-year fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.
[Grist]: As someone who writes in many genres—short and long-form fiction, poetry, drama—how do you keep them all straight? Do ideas come to you as poems or short stories, or do you play around in different forms? Finally, what do you see as the benefits of being such a literary chameleon?
[Johnson]: Ideas usually come to me asking for a particular genre, although there are exceptions—once I turned a story into a play, although I’m considering changing it back again. I do love writing in different genres. There are practical benefits, such as, when I’m tired of working on one project, I can move not only to another, but to one that asks different things of me—or maybe the same things, but in different proportions. If I want something completely different, I’ll play my clarinet. I like how being comfortable in many genres, including criticism, makes me feel fearless about trying something in one genre that’s normally associated with another—like leaving in an accidental rhyme in a piece of fiction, if it works. In this way, I guess I don’t try too hard to keep them all straight.
[Grist]: Do you have a particular process for short stories, in particular? Do you typically begin a story with one thing in mind—a character, image, scene, etc.—or does it vary? How much of the story do you know before you begin?
[Johnson]: Yes, I usually begin with one thing: a character, a line of dialogue, a conflict, a visual image. I usually begin by writing the first paragraph, then writing that paragraph over and over again, often copying the same sentences five or six or seven times, but adding things, too, a word here and there, a sentence, as well as deleting, and altering—until I’ve found the feel, the tone, the style I want. I write the story all out longhand, mostly by instinct. Then I type it. Then I read over what I have and analyze it to see what the story is about: what its themes are, what its characters want, what structure it needs. I try to get rid of the idea I had for this story in the first place, and see instead what it’s become. Then I revise with that second identity in mind, sharpening its themes and structure. Usually, I don’t know much of the story before I begin.
[Grist]: Much of your fiction features a strong, palpable sense of place. Like many writers these days, you’ve lived in several places. Does this pose any challenges when thinking about place?
[Johnson]: Sometimes I love a place so much I want to write about it; but then, when I try, I can’t do it effectively, because I don’t know the place well enough yet: its trees, its weather, its defining histories and attitudes. I don’t know, yet, the story that would take place there. I hate that.
[Grist]: Thinking about place in “Guralnick,” what draws the narrator, a Californian, to the harsh landscape of western Minnesota? The life he’s trying to live wouldn’t be easy anywhere, but the extreme weather and isolation of this area doesn’t help.
[Johnson]: Some people go to that area to escape something, because it is very isolated, and, because of the very big lake there, it can feel like the edge of the world—in the same way people might flee to the coasts, as the narrator does at the end of the story. However, I think he doesn’t go to Minnesota as a hermit, to flee the company of all humankind; but in the hopes that here at the edge of the world there will be people like him, with whom he can build a meaningful community and a life.
[Grist]: The story contains a nice contradiction between the narrator’s fluent description of events and his outward inarticulateness (in speech, he’s rarely capable of putting together a complete sentence). How did this develop?
[Johnson]: I think many thoughtful people are not articulate, and make many beautiful and terrible observations in their heads that they would have difficulty doing justice to in speech. I had this problem for a long time. I could write, because I read all the time as a child and teenager, but I didn’t hear too much debate or discussion, so everything I said sounded pretty dumb. That’s why I was quiet for so long in class, when I was in college. I wanted to have something to say, and the means to say it well, before I really started to speak. It was graduate school that really taught me how to organize and articulate, and now I feel as if I can’t shut up.
[Grist]: In one of the more meditative passages, after Guralnick has quit working at Linnet’s, the narrator wonders, “How could a person work as he wanted to? What wouldn’t stand resolutely against him? How could he dare?” Work plays a key role in this story. The effort the narrator, Guralnick, and the Tisdales put into the land is the only thing that keeps them from going under, but I get the feeling the narrator means something more in the above quote. What did you have in mind?
[Johnson]: I think there is no greater source of satisfaction and happiness than the work people choose to do, and they suffer if it’s taken away from them; also, if people are compelled to do work they don’t choose, that work can be torture. Guralnick and the narrator love to work on the land; Molly loves to take care of Letty. Both Molly and Guralnick also each feel the pull of each other’s loves—and yet the ferocity with which they pursue their defining desires brings about the clash between them that is the tragedy of the story. When I was a little girl, growing up in northern Minnesota, my father was trying to raise a family of five on the independent work he liked to do the best: raising beef cattle, doing stonework, shoeing horses, and making saddles. But it wasn’t enough, so he got a job at the window factory, where he stayed, pretty miserably, for twenty years. His struggle is in this story, as is my own dislike for much of the work that takes me away from writing.
[Grist]: “Guralnick” ends on a truly heartbreaking line—”I would not know anything else, if someone could tell me the worth of this.” Do you think it’s possible for the narrator, or anyone else for that matter, to understand an event like this as he would like to?
[Johnson]: Guralnick’s situation was tragic, as was Molly’s—but no one’s tragedy compares to Letty’s, who was not allowed to grow up and choose her own work. The narrator might be tempting the gods with this statement, and maybe that’s why he couches it in such an obscure way—he wants to know, or thinks he does, because he feels he must reckon with this heartbreak in some great way—and yet he suspects that what he would be giving up to know it would break him. He wouldn’t be able to bear it; going forth, I think he would be lost.
[Grist]: You’re now in your second year as a fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Beyond the obvious—time to write—how else has this experience been beneficial for you?
[Johnson]: I love Provincetown! Here, I can relax. I feel like a working artist all of the time. The loveliest thing about the Fine Arts Work Center is that, surrounded by other serious young artists, and the arts community, I feel as if, at least for the next six months, I’ve already gotten where I wanted to go.