Smoking With Stephanie Johnson

by Meg Pokrass Read the Story July 25, 2010

“Rock” is an amazingly powerful story, Stephanie. How did this story come to you?

The story started with an image of ants (a part of the story that was ultimately cut). My son loves insects, but is still learning that they can be fairly delicate, that holding them tightly in hand can cause unintentional harm. So I think the story grew from that, from a consideration of how closely we hold (or don’t hold) the things we love.

One of the many pleasures in a Stephanie Johnson story, is how characters talk to each other genuinely. Do you have advice for writers in that regard? What are you shooting for when working with dialogue?

You’re very kind. For me, dialogue is a constantly evolving challenge. It’s a delicate balance of providing enough detail without over-telling or sounding expository. As humans, we’re messy communicators. We say too much, we say too little, we say nothing when we should have said something, we don’t say the right things at the right times, we try to say what we mean, but it comes out wrong… For me, the art of dialogue comes from cutting through the noise to determine what’s at the heart of our well-intended but often misguided communication.

Can you talk about the use of the animal characters in this story? Specifically, the birds are so very crucial to bringing out the inner damage to this family…

I think just about anything can become a useful character in a piece—we negotiate over animals, objects, and situations all the time. Our conversations about, say, whose turn it is to take out the garbage or to walk the dog can carry as much emotional weight and significance as discussions we believe are about big events and decisions—it’s just that the quotidian discussions often draw less attention to themselves.

What tricks do you use to get creatively unstuck? What creativity tools do you recommend?

I’m pretty nonchalant about times when I’m creatively stuck. I know this probably isn’t a terribly sexy answer, but I see it as part of the ebb and flow of creative work. I know a lot of people work for a set amount of time every day (no matter what) and that the process works for them. But it doesn’t for me. I just start to feel neurotic about the fact that I don’t have an idea that interests me and then I start to feel as though I’m wasting time. So mostly, I give myself permission to enjoy the state of being stuck and to find other, productive, non-writing things to do.

What is new in your writing life since the release of your story collection, “One Of These Things Is Not Like the Others”?

I’m working on a new collection of stories.

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.