Interviews July 2004

Stories to Break Our Hearts

Bret Anthony Johnston talks about the fiction of grief and loss, skateboarding, and choosing a hometown setting for his first collection of stories
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Corpus Christi: Stories
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Bret Anthony Johnston
Random House
272 pages, $23.95

"I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about," William Faulkner once said, "and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it." While writing his debut story collection, Corpus Christi, thirty-two-year-old Bret Anthony Johnston made a similar discovery. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, Johnston depicts the city's inhabitants with lyricism and sympathy.

Johnston's characters are ordinary people often fighting to hold their lives together—men employed by Corpus's Naval Air Station or its oil refineries, women who work as secretaries, watchful teenage boys who feel ambivalent about growing up to be more educated and luckier than their parents. Most are either afflicted with illness, taking care of someone else who's ill, or grieving for someone already gone. Indeed, grief is so much a part of these characters' daily lives that they see it as a mundane reality rather than a dramatic occurrence; and in the course of dealing with grief, they realize that what it most often asks of them is simple decency rather than heroics. In one story a woman at her husband's funeral wishes he hadn't been on a diet at the time of his sudden death so she could have prepared fried shrimp for him once more. And in an especially heartbreaking passage in another, an adult son taking care of his cancer-stricken mother anticipates hearing the words "Your mother has died."

[The words] would hollow and shamefully exhilarate him.... Despite himself, he would start assessing her effects this way, categorizing them in terms of Sell, Donate, Trash. At breakfast tomorrow he would appraise the table and chairs, the dishes and cutlery, her robe, slippers and rings. And what would he find that he'd not known about? Love letters from his father, a diary? A childhood drawing he'd made for her, newspaper clippings about his graduations and meager achievements? Or would other, more innocuous things crush him? Half-finished crossword puzzles or a stash of chocolate, a postcard he'd sent her or a cut-out recipe.

Of his predilection for chronicling sorrow, Johnston explains, "Fiction Writing 101 says if you want to understand a character you're writing about, you have to know what the character wants. I feel like I also have to know what they've lost or what they stand to lose." Yet even when they have much to lose, and even when they act badly as a result, the characters in Johnston's stories are never unsympathetic. They are redeemed by their love for each other: a wife comforts her husband while he sits in the tub, weeping, after spending the night in jail; a teenager whose parents have agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts because they're struggling financially watches his mother find a necklace his father, agreement notwithstanding, has hidden for her in the tree.

She hesitated before taking it from the branches, and when she turned—eyes fixed on the necklace, tinsel tangled in her hair—she only shook her head. Nothing would have pleased her more than to have given my father one small gift, while nothing would have made him more angry, and even then I knew that. When my mother started crying, my father rose and held her to him.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at California State University in San Bernadino, Johnston has seen his stories published in such literary magazines as The Paris Review, Open City, and Crazyhorse and in the anthology New Stories From the South. He has also placed three times in The Atlantic Monthly's annual student writing contest.

Johnston and I were classmates at Iowa. I spoke with him by phone on May 26.

—Curtis Sittenfeld



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Bret Anthony Johnston

 

Is it fair to say this book is defined by grief?

I do think it's fair. It could be called grief or loss or, if we want to put a positive spin on it, resilience. How do different people in different circumstances deal with loss? Some of them deal with it very gracefully and others with less grace.

What drew you to the subject?

Partly it was my own experiences. If my mother hadn't had cancer, I don't think I would have been interested in writing three long stories about that subject. Yet when I tried to write autobiographical fiction, it didn't work. I was interested in the subject because of my experiences, but the experiences in the book are not really my own.

Are you at all concerned that readers might find the book too bleak? When I've taught creative writing to both high school and college students, there comes a point in the semester when, after I've assigned all these stories I love, they'll say, "Why is everything we read so depressing?" At first, I'll think, What are they talking about? but then I'll look back and see that, yeah, most of the stories are depressing.

I've thought about that a lot, and I've encountered similar reactions from students. Last semester, I taught One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. To a casual reader, that book seems to end with a moment of triumph and freedom. But in class, I had the unfortunate job of having the students look at it more closely and showing them that the ending is in fact tragic rather than triumphant. It breaks their hearts and they spend thirty minutes trying to prove me wrong. I have to say, "Look, I'm sorry, I wanted the chief to escape, too, but that's just not in the narrative—and an upbeat ending would be false and a disservice to the characters."

Most people I know who are reading serious fiction these days want stories that break their hearts, that make them feel—partly because mainstream media is often so vapid. But my hope is that Corpus Christi isn't entirely a downer. Some of the characters, if not all of them, have a certain strength and resilience—and there's hope in the fact that they're trying to transcend these experiences and tell their stories.

Given that all but one of the stories are set in or just outside Corpus Christi, you're obviously linking them geographically as well as thematically. What went into that decision?

Oddly, I never wrote about Texas while I was living in Texas—I've become an expatriate of the state of Texas. And I never thought about writing a linked collection until the stories piled up and the way they were echoing off each other thematically and geographically became undeniable.

South Texas is a region that hasn't been explored too often in literature or movies. It's a bit mysterious, a region that doesn't quite know what it is, which is kind of charming. In the book, there's mention of a hurricane. On the Gulf Coast, you're always in a state of flux and vulnerability, and that shows in the way people live their lives. It's a place that reinvents itself almost on a daily basis, especially when a hurricane hits. Yet five or ten miles inland there are cattle ranches, and five or ten miles north there's the city. All of these seeming anomalies go into making up the whole. It's an extremely diverse culture and an extremely underestimated community.

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Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, will be published by Random House in January. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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