Smoking with Stephanie Johnson

Read the Story June 15, 2007

“I’ll never escape being lost.” Wow. That’s killah. From where did that line come?

In this story, the characters are all lost in some way: they’re physically lost navigating the highway, they’re emotionally lost in terms of navigating familial relationships, and they’re metaphysically lost because the death of the aunt offers no definitive answers in terms of their journey’s purpose. Despite our natural inclination and our best efforts to try to explain everything, for me, being lost—or being at a loss —is often at the heart of the human condition. Accepting uncertainty is often more authentic than pretending to have answers.

What does God want of writers?

I think God wants the same thing the rest of humanity wants: honesty.

Tell us all you can about The Rambler.

Elizabeth Oliver and Dave Korzon, the creative minds behind The Rambler, love a good story. They’re invested in showcasing accessible and thought-provoking work, work that has something to say. I think this is a great magazine for writers and readers. Most writers invest a lot of themselves in their work, and Elizabeth and Dave match that dedication in terms of editorial attention. Extended conversations between writers and editorial staff during the editing process aren’t uncommon. In turn, this dedication to writers, to illuminating the story and sharing ideas, makes The Rambler a great mag for readers.

I’ve heard amazing things about the MFA program at Emerson College. Did it live up to the hype?

By nature, I’m skeptical of all things surrounded by hype—does that make me a cynic or a realist? Seriously, Emerson gave me an opportunity to exchange ideas with some great teachers and thinkers—Sven Birkerts, Andre Dubus III, Jessica Treadway, David Daniel to name a few—and to receive tons of feedback. Whether in a formal MFA program or outside the confines of academia, I think understanding how readers interpret and react to your work, evaluating feedback in terms of what it does or doesn’t contribute to your vision for a piece, and being in an environment where people are actively producing work help you solidify your own artistic vision. You get your hands dirty. You get space to develop your aesthetics, the importance of which can’t be overestimated.

The titles of the stories in this issue wowed me and got me thinking about the value of the great title. What are some great titles—for novels, stories, movies, albums, CDs, and the like? And what is the worst title you’ve ever encountered?

A great title is like meeting a new person. I want to be intrigued, tempted into staying up all night because I don’t want the conversation to end. I want a title that suggests I won’t be the same once I’m through the work, and I want the work itself to live up to that promise. A few of my favorites in no particular order: Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? by the Replacements, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” by Haruki Murakami, “Dirty Wedding” by Denis Johnson, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Will You Please be Quiet, Please? by Ray Carver, Big Bad Love by Larry Brown, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Punch-Drunk Love, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As far as the worst, the anti-title “Untitled” usually leaves me uninspired.

About the Author:

Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and holds an MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Village Rambler, R-KV-R-Y, Boston Literary Magazine, and Idlewheel. Her essays have regularly appeared in The Rambler in her column "No Do-Overs." Johnson's story collection One of These Things is Not Like the Others is available from Keyhole Press.

About the Artist:

An Old Woman of Arles by Vincent Van Gogh. This artwork is in the public domain per Wikipaintings.