A Conversation with Todd Johnson

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Sweet By and By
Todd Johnson
William Morrow,
ISBN 13: 9780061579523, $24.95 

On Sale - TODAY
About The Book
Q: What inspired you to write your first book, The Sweet By and By?
A : Memories of my grandmothers and the women around them compelled me to write The Sweet By and By. But it’s not autobiographical in any sense. I can assure you everyone in my family is relieved. They’ve all finally exhaled.

Q: You dedicated The Sweet By and By to your grandmothers. Who are they? Are they Margaret and Bernice? 
A : So many people have asked that, but no, Margaret and Bernice came solely out of my head. Both of my grandmothers did spend time in nursing homes, one when she was in her nineties, and the other, while still a relatively young woman in her sixties, but very ill and no longer able to live alone. They both ended their lives in that setting. For years, whenever I visited my parents in North Carolina, I also visited my grandmothers. So, of course, I absorbed those sights and sounds, as well as memories of certain people, but it wasn’t until much later that I started working on the book. I daresay that anyone who has had a parent or grandparent in a nursing home has probably known a Margaret or Bernice. They’re unforgettable, in their way.

Q: Why are all of your lead characters women?
A : I’m often asked “why all women?” Honestly, it never crossed my mind while I was writing the book. There are so many male authors who have written in women’s voices beautifully. The great Reynolds Price, for example. In Kate Vaiden and also Roxanna Slade, two of my favorite novels. Also Allan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. There’s a long list of others. I put down the story the way it came to me. I grew up going to family reunions every year in North Carolina on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. And for some amount of time, both families got together on the same day. They had a knack for picking the hottest one of the year. And always outside. We had to go to one place and eat until we were stuffed and then do the same thing all over again ten miles down the road. But what I remember most is the preparation. All the women – young and old and in‐between ‐‐ filled a mile‐long table with every kind of food imaginable while talking the whole time. The men were definitely there, but it’s the women’s voices that resonated and shaped my ear for storytelling. It was sort of a chaotic symphony.

Q: How does being from North Carolina inform your writing?
A : I wrote The Sweet By and By entirely in the first person, so part of my work was to create a distinct and recognizable narrative voice for each of my five women characters. And there’s no generic Southern way of speaking. North Carolina alone abounds in regionalisms. And what one might assume to be rules are not necessarily hard and fast. Southerners know, for example, that even the most educated and refined woman might use “ain’t” if she’s trying to make a point or a joke or both. It’s all about the context. Those sounds, the sounds of the South, especially eastern North Carolina, are deeply embedded in me. It was the most natural way for me to tell the story. But the heart of The Sweet By and By would be the same wherever it might have been set. These women are everywhere if you look hard enough.

Q: Who were your early influences as a writer? 
A : The obvious answer is also the true one: the Southern writers. I have favorites, of course. The earliest would have to be Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Reynolds Price. Later, I read Gail Godwin, Lee Smith, Alice Walker, and Kaye Gibbons, all inspiring to me. There are so many others. Not to mention the classics: Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and of course, Dickens. Absolutely, Dickens.

Q: How long have you been writing? 
A : I have been writing in journals since I was twenty years old. That’s a late start compared to an awful lot of writers. But creative writing wasn’t a big part of my childhood, or even my education until I was in college in Chapel Hill. My journey as an artist took me down a different sort of path. I knew that I loved telling stories, but writing a book was a dream that I had to grow into. I’m in awe of the gifted twenty‐one year‐olds who turn out stunning work so early on. I just wasn’t ready to try when I was that age.

Q: How long did it take you to write The Sweet By and By? 
A : I wrote The Sweet By and By in about three years, although I wasn’t working on it full‐time. I started it while I was still producing The Color Purple on Broadway. That took a great deal of my time. But I’m not one of those writers who can sit down and work for ten hours. Maybe once in a blue moon, but that’s it. I like to work in four‐hour blocks. That’s how much time I need for something to happen, even if I’m just sitting at my desk thinking. And even then I don’t always know whether anything has really happened until weeks later when something might show up on the page. I have no idea when I’ll finish the one I’m working on now.

Q: Will any of the characters from The Sweet By and By carry over into your next book? 
A : No. I don’t yet know whether Rhonda is finished with me. She’s so full of life and possibility. But she’s not in the next book.

Q: The Sweet By and By has a lot of talk about God and church in it. Are you a religious person? 
A : The Sweet By and By is not a religious book. It’s a book about daring to live fully. That said, I find it hard to extricate religion from Southern culture. I grew up going to Sunday school from the time I could walk. It was part of the social fabric, and for a great many people, it still is. You might say Lorraine is a theologian – she certainly asks enough questions to be one – although she would never call herself that. For her, faith is a natural, evolutionary process. She isn’t looking to make God small enough to fit into her world. On the contrary, she’s more interested in the mystery of it all. How her world might fit into God. I think – I hope – that describes my spiritual life too.

Q: Do you always know the whole story, including the ending, when you begin? 
A : Given that this is my first novel, I’m careful not to use the word “always” about anything! What I can tell you in the case of The Sweet By and By is that no, I did not know the whole story from the beginning. The novel is driven by the characters, not a linear plot, premeditated or otherwise. My challenge was to find a way to care about the characters in a setting in which nothing at all really happens to differentiate one day from the next. That’s why I used holidays on the calendar. It was a way to create some kind of structural arc. Often holidays are the only distinctive days in a nursing home, primarily because people from the outside come to visit. While I was still writing the book, it was suggested to me by one person that I inject more tangible drama into the novel, building to a single climactic event, such as perhaps a fire in the nursing home. I explained that I wasn’t interested in that kind of heroism. Lorraine is the kind of hero that no one will ever know about beyond those few whose lives she quietly touches. That interests me. Ordinary people doing great things, far from any spotlight. In my next book, the one I’m working on now, I have a stronger idea of what’s going to happen, but I have to be willing to let the characters show me otherwise, which they always – there’s that word – do.

Q: Do you have a favorite character in The Sweet By and By?
A : They’re all my favorites, and since they live together in my brain, that’s a good thing! Seriously, there are things I love about each of them. Margaret’s wit, Lorraine’s compassion. And they mean different things to me too. April, for example, is the future. A successful black woman doctor in the South who is also a successful single mom. I love hearing from readers which characters they’re most drawn to. I’m always surprised by the reasons they give. That’s one of the things I love about reading and speaking in public, the chance to hear what people think.

** Reprinted here with permission of Harper Collins **
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