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

By Curtis Sittenfeld
book cover

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



Author photo
Photo credit

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.

Having written about the city in a public way, are you worried about going home now?

No, because I've never tried to get all the facts right about Corpus Christi. I didn't want the book to be a travel guide, or the sort of book where somebody reading it could say, "Oh, that's where I buy my groceries." I wanted the book to be truthful rather than correct. Instead of shackling myself to the facts of the city, I wanted the place to become almost a fictional character unto itself.

So is the Catalina Motel, for example, which shows up in the stories "Birds of Paradise" and "Anything That Floats," a real place?

It's a real place, but it's not the one on which the motel in the book is based. Many of the street names in the book are real, but I didn't feel obligated to faithfully represent their locations. If I liked the name of a street I put it wherever I wanted it to be.

It seems like the majority of story collections published these days are thematically linked. Do you view that trend as positive, or do you see some danger of the links being forced? In some collections, it seems like characters from separate stories cross paths only for the sake of crossing paths and not because doing so serves the individual stories.

Linked story collections are nothing new, going back to Winesburg, Ohio, or even The Canterbury Tales. But the fact that the trend is enjoying such prominence now has to do with marketing. It's a way for publishers to find a hook.

In my case, I'd written six stories before I knew the direction of my book. It really hit me when I wrote the title story, which is the biggest story in the collection—both in length and in narrative complexity. In some ways, writing it was a watershed for me. I had never taken those narrative chances before—shifting points of view, an unconventional structure—and when I started to take them and felt like the gamble was paying off, I recognized that this story was the key that unlocked the whole book. I saw that this place, Corpus Christi, could sustain a collection of stories. I hoped that the setting—the vulnerability of the region, the mystery of South Texas, which never quite knows what it is or wants to be—would play out through the characters. And because I wasn't getting bored with the subject or the place, I felt that I could keep writing these stories and taking chances.

You're white, and most of your characters are white. In writing a book about a significantly Latino city, did you feel that you needed to include the Latino population, or did you worry about being presumptuous in doing so? Or did you find that including Latino characters happened naturally?

I certainly didn't feel any hesitancy about including Hispanic characters, any more than I felt hesitant to imagine a story from a woman's or child's point of view. I was trying to arrive at an overall emotional truth of this place, and to imagine Corpus Christi without Hispanic characters would have been as impossible as imagining Corpus not being on the Gulf Coast. Both of these things are absolutely central to the place's identity. Also, I don't want to sound too New Agey, but I'm interested in people's hearts rather than the color of their skin.

On a lighter note, I understand that you were once a quasi-professional skateboarder. I suspect this is pretty unusual among fiction writers.

I got into skateboarding in junior high, all because of the movie Back to the Future. I thought Michael J. Fox was cool riding behind the car. I fell in love with skateboarding—skateboarding was my girlfriend all throughout junior high and high school—and by the time I graduated from high school, I was doing well in amateur contests. I made a deal with my parents that if I made all A's for one semester at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, I could take time off and pursue skateboarding full time. I ended up taking off about three years. I had factory sponsors, I went on a tour of North America, and I had plans in the works for a European tour. Then I broke my foot, had a falling out with my sponsor and, for lack of a less serious term, retired. I went back to school, and that's when I started writing seriously.

I actually think there's a connection between skateboarding and writing, and it comes down to observation and discipline. Skaters, like writers, look at the world differently than most people. Whereas a non-skater may not notice the pitch or angle of a handrail, or the cement transition of an outdoor fountain, skaters' eyes are acutely trained to notice such details. Writers also view situations from a different, often more intense, perspective. Most of us aren't so deliberate as to go out explicitly looking for details, but we make ourselves available to them; what will be useful to our work often offers itself up to us if we're concentrating. Skaters are the same way, always watchful for something to skate, to use.

As for discipline, both skateboarding and writing are solitary endeavors, and "success" in both often depends on how many hours you've logged. When I'm skating, I think nothing whatsoever of spending days or weeks, or in some cases months, trying to learn a new trick. The same goes for writing: none of the stories in the book were completed in less than ten or fifteen full drafts, and some took a year to write. Skateboarding, I think, taught me determination, and it conditioned me for the long, lonely hours of trying to write meaningful stories.

I know you placed several times in The Atlantic Monthly's annual student writing contest. Was that the beginning of something for you?

I placed in 1997, 2001, and 2002: two honorable mentions and a third prize. The first time I placed there was nothing going on with my writing, so the continued support was certainly inspiring. The fact that I would get little notes from C. Michael Curtis, The Atlantic's fiction editor—the fact that someone at that level was taking my work seriously and encouraging me—was terrific.

So what's it like to have a copy of your first book?

It's thrilling and emotional and surreal and wonderful. It's on a shelf right above my desk and I can't pass by without looking at it—it's sort of like a mirror.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/07/stories-to-break-our-hearts/303381/