A Conversation With Bret Anthony Johnston

by J. Rentilly

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you grow up in a household of readers or writers? What were your first experiences with writing?

My parents were voracious readers, so I was always surrounded by books, and I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by books. I’ve never wanted expensive cars or mansions or yachts, but I’ve always wanted a huge library, one that I know I’ll never be able to finish reading. Still, I never thought that any of the books I’d surround myself with would be ones I’d written. I enjoyed writing, though; I enjoyed the challenge of making a part of imagination real, believable.

You were once a professional skateboarder. Can you give some background on
that, on what it meant to your life?

I started skating in junior high; I sold my television for money to buy my first skateboard,
and aside from a long break around the time I went to graduate school, I’ve really never
stopped skateboarding. I skated competitively for a number of years in Texas, and I
toured the country as a ‘professional’ in the early nineties. I was never one of the heavy
hitters in the sport, not even close, but I did pretty well in contests and before I ‘retired,’
I had a couple of national sponsors. There was no money in it, not really, at least not for
me. I quit competing after I broke my foot at a demonstration, and my major sponsor
became livid with me for not toughing it out and finishing the tour. After that, I was
pretty jaded, so I went back to school and didn’t skate for a few years. Then I went to a
pawn shop, bought a board and I’ve been back at it ever since. One of the ways
California State University, San Bernardino, convinced me to teach here was by sending
email links to the many skateparks near the school.

A colleague of mine was a high school teacher for several years, and he recently
commented that a lot of the students who were really into skating were also
among his brightest, most driven students – and also the ones who were most
interested in coloring outside the lines. Does that mean anything to you?

I’m so, so happy you said that, and I couldn’t agree more. The public perception of
skaters is changing, and I think for the best, but they’re still often viewed as misfits or
delinquents. When I was in school, the perception was far worse, and it has very little
basis in reality. It comes from the fact that skaters are more likely, as you say, to color
outside the lines, and that inclination frightens and confuses most people and institutions.
Because skaters have always worn different clothes, different hairstyles, listened to
different music, and because they’re typically and genuinely happy to live outside of
convention, society deems them dangerous or troubled. The reality is that the ability to
think for themselves and to act independently is dangerous, but only in the way that art is
dangerous. It has the power and potential to bring about change. I’ve long thought of
skateboarders more as artists than as athletes. Off the top of my head I can think of
skaters who have become highly successful visual artists, actors and filmmakers,
musicians, teachers, and of course, writers.

What do skating and writing have to do with each other? Is there some rich,
heretofore unmined metaphor to be derived from the collision of these activities?

I think so, and I think it comes down to independence and discipline. Next time you see a
skater in a parking lot or at a skatepark, watch for a few minutes and see if he or she —
that’s another thing that’s changed since I started skating; now there are so many female
skaters; it’s wonderful — misses a trick. Chances are he’ll stay in that exact spot until he
completes the trick; it could take hours, but most skaters won’t be able to leave until
they’ve landed what they’re trying to land. It’s a bit masochistic, and it’s quite a bit like

None of the stories in Corpus Christi were done in less than fifteen or twenty drafts. I
can’t leave them until they’re as sound and as polished as I can make them. It’s the same
with, and perhaps because of, skateboarding; I think nothing, literally nothing, of
spending an entire day trying the same trick over and over. It’s the idea of process rather
than product. When I feel I’m on the verge of discovering something significant about a
character or a plot, I completely lose track of time just as I do when I’m close to doing a
trick I’ve never done. It’s impossible for me to write at night because once I close up
shop, I won’t be able to sleep. Likewise, it’s hard for me to skate at night because I
won’t want to stop until I’ve literally worn myself out or gotten hurt.

And skating, like writing, is an entirely singular art form. Other skaters can give you tips,
the way other writers or professors can, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the
work you’ve done, alone. Skating taught me dedication, and I think dedication goes a lot
further than talent. I’m not a very good writer, honestly, but I work as hard as I can and
eventually, I trust the hours logged will pay off.

You attended the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tell me what talent and drive
you took into the program and how it evolved during your time there. Also, tell me
about your working relationship with Ethan Canin who–it should be noted–cannot
say enough good things about you as a writer.

I took far more drive than talent to the Writers’ Workshop. Going back to what an
independent and difficult art form writing is, I think one of the best things about going to
a place like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the sense of community, the luxury of being
surrounded by brilliant people who care about language as much as you do. Most writers
will never have another time in their lives where they’re praised for putting literature
above everything else. Many of the reasons Corpus Christi exists is because of my time
at Iowa.

And Ethan Canin is one of the biggest reasons. He’s a fantastic writer and teacher, and I
feel incredibly fortunate that he’s been so supportive of my work. Every story that I
wrote for Ethan’s workshop is in the collection, and although I cringe at the thought of
those early drafts, he understood them very clearly, saw their potential, and he
encouraged me to keep at them. When I’m teaching now, I regularly hear myself
repeating what I learned with Ethan. There were three of us who, somewhat by chance,
enrolled in two of Ethan’s workshops (the typical routine is to work with four different
workshop leaders while at Iowa), so we studied intensely with him for the better part of a
year. All three of us have books out now.

What do you bring to your own classroom that you may have carried over from

You hear a lot about the competition at Iowa, its cutthroat atmosphere, and I just didn’t
see much of that there. All of my teachers — Frank Conroy, Marilynne Robinson, Chris
Offutt, Ethan Canin — really, deeply cared about their students’ work. They all stressed — as I stress to my students — that writing very probably can’t be taught, but re-writing,
patience, and stubbornness very much can be. The most important thing is for beginning
writers to feel as though their work is being taken seriously, which is how we felt at the
Writer’s Workshop, and that’s what I try to bring to my classes. I also try to give them
great, interesting things to read. The better books you read, the better books you’ll write.

What writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists have influenced your work? Corpus
Christi is, really, a singular work in my opinion, but with some fine flavoring,
maybe a little Denis Johnson, a touch of David Lynch, possibly a pinch of Wilco.

Thank you for those comparisons. Robert Stone is perhaps the biggest influence, but not
in an entirely conventional sense. He was the first ‘real’ author I ever saw read in
person. I’d never heard of Stone, but I went to his reading because my sophomore
literature professor gave me a free ticket. By the reading’s end, I knew writing was what
I wanted to do. It was a watershed moment for me. Writing stories seemed like a
dignified way to spend a life.

Beyond that, I can best answer the question by listing people who I wish had more of an
influence on my work. Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, the list is endless. There are also pieces of art
that I wish would have more of an effect on my writing.

What are your writing habits? Everyday, same time? When inspiration strikes?
Surrounded by bottles of hard liquor and playing punk rock on the radio, or by
candlelight with a string quartet tuning up in the background?

I don’t believe in inspiration nearly as much as I believe in the labor of writing, the
rhythm of the work. I try to work every morning, and on a great day I can go for three or
four hours, but not always. Even if I’m not working, or not working well, I still do my
best to finish out the session. It’s hard for me to miss days of work because I know it’s
going to take longer to get back into it, that it will be more taxing to find that level of
intense concentration. Frank Conroy taught me that. I write every first draft in longhand,
then I type it into the computer and revise a little as I go. Beyond the daily typing, I
never read anything I’m working on until I’ve reached the end of the first draft. The few
times I’ve allowed myself to reread earlier, I get stuck. I start doubting the work because
I’m not trusting the process, not trusting the labor. I didn’t read the first draft of my
novel, which was about six hundred pages, until it was completely done.

Let’s talk about Corpus Christi. Why did you choose to set the book in Corpus
Christi? Do you have a Texas background, or is the city simply the perfect
geographical representation of these characters’–indeed, all of our–lives? I mean,
there’s always a storm coming, isn’t there, and if we’re lucky our headlights stay
above the flood?

I grew up there, so I knew the area quite well, but I didn’t start to write about Texas, let
alone Corpus, until I was living in Ohio, attending graduate school at Miami University.
As the stories started to accumulate, as the themes and characters started to echo, I began
to recognize the profound role the particular setting of South Texas was playing in the
narratives. In many ways, Corpus is a beautiful, beautiful city, and as complex as almost
any place I’ve known. Being situated on the Gulf Coast, the city is always, as you say,
vulnerable, and at the same time, there’s a flourishing ranching and farming population
there — again, people whose fates are often directly linked to elements fundamentally
beyond their control — and of course there’s the city itself, the oil refineries, the tourism
industry, the beach community, the Naval Air Station, the wonderfully rich and diverse
culture of the people. Turn one corner in Corpus and the city can re-invent itself
immediately, turn another and it happens again. I’m fascinated by the city’s character, its
concerted and admirable effort to weather storm after storm.

Violence and love are so intrinsically and intimately interwoven in these stories.
Sometimes love requires violence. Sometimes violence begets love. Sometimes love
is violence and violence is love–at least to these characters. Can you speak to why
you’ve employed these elements in the stories?

Again, I think it’s not so far removed from the geography of the stories. In Corpus, the
weather can be terribly severe in the morning, 70mph winds that make rain fall parallel to
the street, and then it’s serene and gorgeous by early afternoon, and of course there’s no
controlling it. When these characters find themselves in violent or intimate situations,
they’re often stripped down to their essences, and I’m very interested in those
revelations. Violence and intimacy, or love, require the participants to leave themselves
unprotected, to take chances, to gamble with the worst odds for the highest stakes.

These characters are hanging on to stories, re-imagining their histories, angry and
afraid of the chapters they’ll not be around to witness. What role does storytelling, mythologies we make our own, and those that serve us all, play in the lives of these
characters, in your life too?

I honestly believe that we live by stories, and regardless of how tragic, how unsettling,
there is some comfort to be derived from the very telling of them, the experiencing of
them. This is linked to memory, of course, and one of the things that I’ve tried to explore
in the collection might well be called the mythology of memory. I find the subject
endlessly fascinating, so I was intrigued by those characters whose memories were
revised or lost. If our memories play a large part in defining us, what happens if those
memories are wrong or no longer accessible? How would a father who’s lost his son
react upon learning some of what he recalls most vividly is incorrect? How would a
woman who’s been clinging to the past, who’s really relied on her memories to sustain
her, cope with dementia? I literally couldn’t conceive of those answers, so I wrote the

John Lennon wrote that life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.
The characters in your stories almost count on this happening. Many of them are
past the point of trying to steer the current; they’d rather let the flood carry them
away. (Recalls for me Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes The Flood,’ which along with
Sparklehorse and Polyphonic Spree makes a fine soundtrack to your book, by the

I agree. I love Peter Gabriel for the reason that his songs tend to wreck and buoy me at
the same time. Other soundtracks might be Tool’s album ‘Undertow’, PJ Harvey’s ‘To
Bring You My Love’, or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue.’ Also, Willie Nelson’s entire catalog.
We can add all of those to my influences as well.

And I think you’re right about the characters, but I’m not sure that’s as nihilistic as it
sounds. Isn’t there an odd, almost paradoxical comfort or relief in knowing that there’s
no outrunning the flood, that no one can, and the flood doesn’t care one way or another?
Well, maybe it is as nihilistic as it sounds…

Mothers and fathers die a little bit for their children, and kill their children a little
bit in return. This idea crops up in the stories, doesn’t it? Whether they’re very
young (as in ‘In The Tall Grass’) or older (as in the Minnie/Lee trilogy), children’s
relationships to their parents seem to fascinate you.

What I find inherently interesting about the parent child relationship is its fragility and its
durability. Immediately, undeniably, there’s a dramatic conflict within the relationship,
not to mention the often divergent, conflicting desires of parents and children. The
parents and children in the book often face situations where no choice is clearly or
completely right, but my hope is that readers will still empathize with them if they make
the choice that is clearly and completely wrong. I’m not sure any of us can ask for
anything more.

There are a lot of cultural critics who have begrudgingly lamented the death of
poetry, the imminent death of the novel, and the unlikely survival of the short story
in today’s world. Why write short stories today? What does a short story do that a
novel cannot?

This topic seems to crop up every so often, and each time the cultural critics seem to
think they’ve offered some especially mortifying news. I just disagree. In reality, this
country has never been a country of readers. I remember reading that in the 1920s
booksellers estimated that 1 out of every 500 people bought and read serious literature.
Maybe I’m being naive, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that number has risen a bit. And
the fact that publishers continue to publish many good, great, and bad collections of
stories ‘not to mention novels and volumes of poetry’ might reliably indicate that
stories continue to find a dependable audience.

I think the reason short story collections don’t sell as well as novels is because they’re
much more difficult to read. Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories
demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather
not exert themselves in that way. On the surface it would seem as though our sound-byte
society would gravitate to shorter work, but it’s not the case. However, those that do buy
and read literary short fiction are among the best and brightest readers we have. They’re
willing to take risks, to invest their attentions and emotions; that’s exactly the kind of
reader I want. The book was written for them.

J. Rentilly is a freelance writer in Burbank, CA.