Friday Feature: Interview with Couri Johnson
Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Couri Johnson, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.
Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?
The first piece I ever got published was actually “Runt” in the Fall 2010 issue of Jenny. I must have been about 20, 21 at the time. I really wasn’t actually expecting to get in so it was a really pleasant surprise. That’s when I started to think that I maybe really could make something out of my writing, and it’s also what motivated me to start getting more involved with literary scenes in general.
What inspired your pieces in the Jenny?
“Runt” — I was super young, and at the time I was working the night shifts at a McDonald’s. I know that’s not exactly a security guard at a mall, but you know McDonald’s has all those little plastic toys they give to kids, and one night, I think we were selling dolls — Barbies or something — and I was really tired — I just kind of fixated on how creepy they were. And confident. And ageless. I was getting pissed. I was just this kid just becoming hauntingly aware of my own mortality and getting grease slopped all over me from 9 to 5 a.m., and just feeling grossly unattractive and mortal, and there were these little fuckers just sitting there all pristine. So all night I kind of shifted that rage into a narrative.
“Heathens” — I had really wanted to play with a “we” narrative, and I think that works best with a hive-mind of cold, judgmental suburban types. That was one of my first big steps towards trying to weave social commentary and social justice into my narrative — I wanted to talk about race and sexuality, and I thought that it would be most interesting to do from that perspective since it would obviously be so flawed.
I think I had also just read a “Rose for Emily.”
What got you into writing?
When I was a kid I was big into reading. My Mom and Dad were both big into it too, so that’s probably where it came from. On top of that, I didn’t have the most sparkling social skills, I guess, so most of my horsing about was just me making up stories based on whatever I read. I remember this horrible videotape I had where I tried to act these out with a bunch of stuffed animals. It was pretty goofy, standard kid stuff. Eventually I started writing my stories down, and even when I finally did score a few pals, we mostly just passed notebooks between one another that were filled with these ridiculous over-the-top stories we’d co-author. So storytelling, writing, has always been the way I’ve felt most comfortable interacting with others.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
Speculative fiction, ghosty stuff. I like exploring social issues through the fantastic and flipping standard horror tropes as a way to kind of develop intersectional social justice issues. I’ve always been drawn to horror. I think that it, and a lot of other genres, have the room to explore and subvert social expectations in a way that other, more straight forward literary works don’t. I could be bias here, but I feel a lot of those narratives get bogged down and heavy, and that the inclusion of intangible elements and the fantastic can develop their themes in a way that speaks to an audience’s subconscious while entertaining them.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
When I was young it was Tom Robbins. 100%. My mother loved him, and she passed that love on to me. I wanted so badly to be Bonanza Jellybean, it’s ridiculous. As I matured as an author I turned towards a lot of Southern Gothic. Joyce Carol Oates. Flannery O’Connor. I started looking into female authors specifically, because I wanted to contextualize myself as an author, and I think women write amazing speculative fiction. Kelly Link is another that I find really breathtaking.
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
Hands down it has to be at the Juniper Conference this last summer. I got into a workshop with Joy Williams, and she also did a manuscript consult for me. She was wonderful and intimidating, pretty much everything I’d like to be one day. She loaned me a book after reading a portion of my novel, and even indicated that she’d like me to send her the finished draft. I pretty much piss my pants every time I think about it. I should probably finish editing it and send it her way. I’m constantly afraid she’ll forget I exist.
How has your writing developed over time?
Oh my gosh. I started off real bad. Like, so bad. In 7th grade I wrote this horrible, self-inserty novel about dragons and elves. But that was then. Ever since I’ve become serious about my writing, I’ve developed a lot. For a while I was forcing myself to write straight slice-of-life narratives that we’re overwrought and cumbersome, and then I kind of found my niche in speculative fiction. I think I still do a bit of the over-wroughtness from time to time, but I’d like to think that my work is a little more nuanced now than it had been. My time in the NEOMFA has really helped sharpen my writing skills. I have a better sense of how to put together a narrative, how to develop voice. Being around other writers and discussing how fiction is crafted has really helped me focus. I think finding a community like that is important, no matter what kind of art you’re making.
Are you currently working on anything?
I just wrapped up the first draft of a novel. It’s a sort of novel in stories/novel from different perspectives. It’s centered at a strip club and the neighboring motel, and told from the various perspectives of the dancers and the children living out of the motel. Also, the ghost of an antebellum prostitute, Delia Swift. She pretty much became my favorite person ever, once I looked into her. I wanted to explore gender, sexuality, and poverty. How we look at women, and most especially, women who do sex work. The toxicity of sexism and how it develops children living in such environments, and women’s identities. It’s been about 9 months now, and I’m in the editing phase. I hope to have a good, solid draft finished in the next month. Hope to.
What’s your writing process?
When I’m doing good — like actually good — which is most of the time but not lately — I wake up at 5 a.m. and do cardio for about half an hour to get my brain juice going. I listen to music that kind of develops the texture and voice I’m after. Then I shower and down coffee and write for about an hour. Man, I’m jealous of on-the-ball me. It’s been about a month since I was that on top of things. I think it’s important to write pretty much every day. At least a little. Just hammer it out. It’s a habit that needs maintained.
What are you currently reading?
I just got done reading This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, which was amazing. He’s one of my favorites. He does so much with gender as a construct and voice, and he engages with tenderer emotions in raw and surprising ways that keeps it from ever feeling overdone or mawkish. I’m just now about to start in on Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle. I’m super excited about it because The Mountain Goats are my favorite band, and from what I’ve read so far it seems like it’s going to be heart and gut wrenching. I expect my organs to be everywhere by the end of it.
Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?
Not seriously. I had those notebooks with my friends when I was young, and I’ve played a lot of games of round-robin poetry, but nothing seriously. It’s something I’d really love doing though, if I were to be approached by anyone. Like maybe Matt Lattanzi. I’ve always respected him as an author. Hint, hint. Obnoxiously obvious wink.
Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
There was a period of time where I drew comics. A lot. This was mostly throughout high school. I actually wanted to be a comic book artist for a while, but then I realized I cannot, for the life of me, draw hands. Or buildings. Or much of anything else. So flush that dream down the toilet.
My best friend and roommate, Michelle Moomau, she is a great artist though. Like, one of the best. She’s been working one of my short stories, “Providence,” into a comic. Or graphic novel? I’m not sure what the right words are for this. It isn’t exactly a collaboration though. She keeps it all very secret, what she’s doing to my story. I’ve snuck glances, and it looks wonderful. Much more wonderful than I could do, and even more wonderful than the original. But again, I don’t really know what she’s doing with it. It’s been a while since I peeped a glance and she hasn’t given me a status update. Which would be cool of her. Hint, hint. Obnoxiously obvious wink.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.