An Interview With Dana Johnson

We’re just past the halfway point of our submissions period for Indiana Review’s 2012 Fiction Prize, which will be judged by Dana Johnson, author of Elsewhere, California and Break Any Woman Down.  If you’re unfamiliar with Dana’s work, you should put down that copy of IR (just for a little bit) and pick up one of her books.

Recently, I got the chance to ask Dana a few questions about the many ways stories can succeed and fail, and about the importance of literary journals like IR.  My favorite line from her responses:  “I don’t have the patience for stories that are clever but have no heart.”

I’m going to have that printed on my business cards.

Here’s the entire interview with Dana:

Q:  What’s the difference for you between a good story and a great story?

A:  A great story surprises the reader somehow. You read it, and there’s something mysterious about it, or themes and characters that would be expected or familiar in a lesser story catch the reader off guard. Good stories resonate and make the reader feel something, but great stories make the reader feel something about what’s being said in the story, and about the craft itself.

Q:  What does a story need to do to hook you on the first page?

A:  I like stories that have compelling opening lines or stories that may be doing something interesting with point of view. I just read a great Tony Earley story, “Jack and the Mad Dog” and the protagonist was Jack of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale. It opens with Jack hoping to pay a farmer’s wife to have sex with him. I had no idea what in the world this story was going to be about, but I kept reading because the premise was so captivating and funny.

Q:  What does a story need to do to sustain your attention and compel you to read it to the end?

A:  Stories with strong characters always keep me turning the page. Stories with fresh language sustain my attention as well. And I really like reading stories that keep me guessing about what’s going to happen next. Sometimes I read stories, and I can more or less see what’s going to happen, because the writer makes the expected move and has, for example, stock characters like “the alcoholic mom” or “the ladies man.” But if I read a story wherein such characters are made completely new and different, it’s difficult to tell where the story is headed, and that makes for much more satisfying reading.

Q:  What can a story do to turn you off?  What makes you put down a story after the first page?  What makes you put down a story a few pages into it?

A:  Sloppy or imprecise language from the outset makes me want to put a story down after the first page and, after a few pages, I don’t have the patience for stories that are clever but have no heart. Stories that have a lot of bells and whistles, that seem to be showing off for no reason, make me feel that those stories are really about the writer and not the discussion the writer means to have through his or her work. I’m not completely anti bells and whistles, though, as long as I’m left with a feeling that such work is reaching for something deeper and resonant. So work that is experimental can be just as compelling as a more straightforward story, as long as something is actually being said.

Q:  What is your experience with publishing your work in literary journals like IR?  What do you think journals like IR can do for aspiring writers?

A:  Journals like IR seem to be some of the few places where brand new writers can land. If a story is good, it can find its way to a great literary journal. All it takes is that first story, and that first publication can be a wonderful shot in the arm, incentive to keep writing and very helpful in getting the next story published because you’re building up publications. This was the case with me. My first publication was in the American Literary Review out of the University of North Texas. Soon after that, it was the Missouri Review out of the University of Missouri.

Q:  What’s one piece of advice you would give to writers who want to see their work published in IR and elsewhere?

A:  Read very carefully the journals you’d like to publish in, to see what’s usually published there. Then work as hard as you can to send your very best work out. The rejections are difficult to take, but just turn right around and get that next submission out as fast as you can.

One Response to “An Interview With Dana Johnson”

  1. Anthony Martin

    The question about Dana’s own experience with lit mags is especially helpful. Thanks.