“I write what I feel like writing,
though I feel most comfortable in short forms.”
Peter Johnson’s work has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rhode Island Council on the Arts, along with a “Best Book of 2012” citation by Kirkus Reviews. His second book of prose poems received the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets. He has a new book of prose poems, Old Man Howling at the Moon (MadHat Press, 2018), and an anthology he’s editing, A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Poets on Their Prose Poetry, will be out in the fall of 2019.
Q: How did you come to write “Vigil,” appearing this month in WTP—an especially ambitious piece, written from the perspective of the deceased?
Johnson: “Vigil” is from a short story sequence called Shot. The first story is about a high school girl who buys a gun to scare a rich kid who has sexually assaulted her. Instead of scaring him, though, she kills him when the gun goes off by mistake. The story ends with the sound of the shot. The remaining stories, told from the points of view of different teenagers, all begin with the sound of that shot. It’s as if the shot is a magnet attracting all the energy of the sequence to it. In “Vigil” many of these characters end up at the same place at the same time. When my agent sent the book to big publishers, I was astonished to learn that no editors even knew what a short story sequence was. That was troubling, so I plan to publish it with a small literary press.
Q: You’ve been enormously prolific, writing young adult, poetry, and short fiction. How have you been able to straddle so many forms?
Johnson: In a way it’s a curse to write in many genres because publishers like to market you in one, and if you write realistic novels, editors become disturbed if you all of a sudden decide to write a fantasy. “How will we market it?” Weird!
I write what I feel like writing, though I feel most comfortable in short forms. My novels are really novella length. I think there is way too much overwriting going on. You could probably cut out at least a quarter of most novels.
Q: There are so many short forms out there now, especially now with flash fiction, and the proliferation of poetry on social media. How do you define your prose poems as distinct from poetry? And do you write both?
Johnson: I’ve been thinking about these questions lately because I’ve been asked to write an essay on the prose poem. I don’t have time to delve into the nuances of the prose poem-as-genre here, so I would paraphrase Michael Benedikt who said that prose poetry is “characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse,” except the line break. There is of course much more to it than that, but the more general, the better. The prose poem is a welcoming genre, so to try to pigeonhole it is fairly criminal.
I don’t write verse poetry. I had nine years of Latin and five of Greek, so I certainly know a lot about versification, but early on I learned—thankfully for readers of poetry everywhere—that I am a terrible verse poet.
Q: Was it your teaching that inspired you to write young adult and middle grade, or vice versa? How has one influenced the other?
Johnson: I don’t consider my middle grade or young adult novels to be Kid Lit. I think of them as adult novels with middle grade or high school characters. I don’t dumb them down, though of course you can only be so lyrical with a first-person middle grade narrator. I came to YA after my second book of prose poems won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. One of the judges, Marilyn Nelson, suggested I write a YA book. I had the beginning of a novel with a sixteen-year-old narrator, so I finished it and Marilyn directed me to her publisher. In short, I came to writing in that genre by accident.
Q: What is your revision process? Give us an idea of how many drafts it might take to write a novel. Do you write on the computer, then edit longhand etc.
Johnson: My first drafts always stink. The fun to me is rewriting, which I can do endlessly. It’s a cliché that stories are never finished but instead abandoned, but it’s true. My assumption is that I always have something to learn. That’s the fun of it all.
Q: What is your writing routine, and do you have a favorite place to write?
Johnson: I can write prose poems anywhere, any time. When I’m working on fiction, I write at least three hours in the morning. Then the next morning I rewrite what I wrote the day before and add more, and so on.
Q: What are you working on now, and how do you see your writing evolving in the future?
Johnson: I’m working on short, mostly comic, short essays, which I’m calling “fictional memoirs.” Yes, yet another genre. They’re autobiographical, the first person narrator (me) is an exaggerated a bit. I think most memoirs are always part fictional. I’d like to eventually collect these into a book for the baby boomer audience. If this project tanks, then I have a novella and stories in my head called Old Guys. As you can see, I’m moving away from YA. I don’t like the direction it’s gone in. I’m an author of “realistic boy” books, and I think they’ve given up on boys of that age.
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