Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Joshua Phillip Johnson

Joshua Phillip Johnson lives in a little green house on what used to be the prairie with his partner and their child. His work has appeared in Syntax & Salt, The Future Fire, and Metaphorosis Magazine, among others. He teaches at a small liberal arts university.

Johnson's new novel is The Forever Sea.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I spent an enormous amount of time on my title, and my hope is that it gives readers both a sense of the lyrical prose as well as a glimpse into the mythology of the book. And beyond that, I hope it signals that the environment here is a major focus—if not the focus! Initially, I had called it The Book of the Forever Sea, but it was too misleading (since there’s no actual book in this novel called that). Following that getting nixed, I tried out longer, more poetic titles that were all iterations or permutations of the “A Noun of Noun and Noun” formula, but each one felt like a well-walked path, and so I settled with The Forever Sea.

What's in a name?

Names are all about sound for me. My main character is named Kindred Greyreach, and she’s surrounded by people named things like Cora the Wraith, Long Quixa, The Word, Little Wing, Jane Caraway, Scindapse. I like names that are evocative as much as they’re participatory. The word ‘kindred’ has all sorts of meanings and textures and history to it, and while I didn’t pick it to force some sort of heavy-handed interpretation, I did like that it was such an open and meaning-filled word. It asks questions more than it gives answers. With whom is this character kindred? To what is she similar and to what is she dissimilar? What is her family and what isn’t? Lots of my characters have names that were picked for that kind of participatory reason: they open the door for audience involvement in a really straightforward way.

The one character who isn’t like that is Little Wing, who is named after a favorite Jimi Hendrix song.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Teenage me would be completely shocked to see a book with my name on it! However, I don’t think he would be surprised to find what was inside. A book about found families and weird magic and expansive landscapes would’ve been exactly in his wheelhouse.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings! I write and rewrite beginnings endlessly. I think a good beginning promises the rest of a book, and so knowing what kinds of promises I want to make (and which ones I can actually keep) is a task that takes me many, many attempts to feel good about.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see myself in Kindred in lots of ways. She’s quite passive (at least at the start of the book) and unsure of how she fits into the world and the community around her, and those are things with which I often contend. She asks many of the questions I do about the natural world and our place in it, and writing her story became my attempt to answer those questions—for both of us.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Miyazaki films! There’s so much in those movies to inspire: the colors and stories, the characters and pacing, the intensity of sound and the generous helpings of silence. I rewatched several of the Studio Ghibli movies on a pretty regularly rotation during the drafting and revision of this book.
Visit Joshua Phillip Johnson's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Forever Sea.

--Marshal Zeringue