In his new book, Kansas City writer Andrew Johnson stares down the tiny occurrences that make up everyday life, using observations about small things, such as people's habits of speech and social media comments, to raise big questions about humanity.
Johnson earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and his work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Sonora Review, Guernica Daily and other publications. His new book, out this week from Possum Trot press, is a collection of 29 short pieces that fall somewhere between prose and poetry. It's titled on earth as it is: essays and ephemera.
KNIGGENDORF: "The title of your book is on earth as it is: essays and ephemera. Is this like anything else you’ve read?"
JOHNSON: "Julio Cortazar is a favorite writer of mine, and he’s mostly known for short stories and a novel or two, but he has one collection called Cronopios and Famas, which is these weird in-between things, some that can be called nonfiction, some that are fiction, some that are just odd little speculative things. I also really enjoy Brian Doyle, an essayist who just passed away this year, who had these collections of really short nonfiction stories — his collections would be 120 pages, with about 70 small stories in them. Lydia Davis, she writes fiction, but very, very short form. I really enjoy working in this really short prose form. It fits well with how I think and write."
KNIGGENDORF: "Would you say that there’s any sort of overarching theme? I’ve noticed loss and disappearance, gratitude, searching for God, being trapped."
JOHNSON: "Those capture them pretty well. Particularly over the last eight years of being a father, my kids show up in a lot of these stories as well. I think paying attention to life as a father lends itself really well to noticing those moments of joy and those moments of surprise, but also those moments of loss and how fast and short life is. And things that we struggle to do and fail to do to provide for kids with an uncertain future."
KNIGGENDORF: "You do a really nice job of turning common notions on their heads. People will so often talk about being 'blessed' for this or that reason. Some people even pepper their language with 'I’m so blessed.' I wondered if, since it’s really short, you could read 'Blessed.'”
JOHNSON: "Sure. This is called 'Blessed':
Ran into a friend at grocery store this morning, she told me she arrived home night before, broken furnace, negative wind chill, but so blessed, so blessed, and husband called repairman, up until two thirty under blankets, kicked back on, so blessed, and the job, tolerable, frustrating really, all-consuming, underappreciated, but all shall pass, so blessed, and the upcoming trip overseas, four cities, ten days, adventure, so blessed, so blessed, and just in general, a husband, job, house, dog, friends, both parents alive, so blessed, yet unsettled, thinks too much, craves something, living parents say they never second-guessed this much, if ever, no, they lived well, are living still, so blessed, so blessed."
KNIGGENDORF: "What does it mean to you when people say that they’re blessed? And what are you trying to say with this piece?"
JOHNSON: "As a writer, I’m interested in language and paying attention to how, in culture, we just lean on these very easy words in conversation: 'How are you doing?' 'I’m doing great.' That kind of leaves it there, when there’s actually so much more to say. For me, having grown up in a faith community with a religious background, that word in particular and a lot of that language becomes a stand-in for so much more that we actually need to say."
KNIGGENDORF: "Like what?"
JOHNSON: "Even the notion of being blessed. That something is divinely given, or a gift, is very rich and has some wonderful meaning to it, but also has some negative connotations around, well, why is this person blessed with that and not me? And it’s a very different way of seeing events and seeing one’s life as opposed to being lucky or being fortunate or just things being as they are. It’s something we do even outside of religious circles: We use different language as shorthand. But, 'blessed,' in particular seems to me one that is actually a really wonderful thing to acknowledge, like, 'Yes, we have been given life, we are living.'"
KNIGGENDORF: "I thought 'Stuck' was really interesting. You find a mouse — is this fiction?"
JOHNSON: "It’s not fiction, but it takes a twist."
KNIGGENDORF: "You’ve found a mouse, his head is stuck in a grate and his tail is in the air, so you take a picture of him, but not his face because that would be too intrusive to take a picture of his face, right? And then you post it. But you’re not saying you posted it on social media, you posted it in a common …"
JOHNSON: "… in a public square."
KNIGGENDORF: "And then you wait for comments. Tell me what happens."
JOHNSON: "In reality, I did take a picture and post it to Facebook and people commented on it. But, I wanted to take a step back from the kind of rush of social media, and I used the phrase 'posted it in the public square.' And I put up a piece of paper for people to scrawl on, partly because I think it’s important, with so much social media and the way we’re immersed in it, (to remember) we’re doing is still essentially going to the public square together. We’re just doing it on a screen.
Most of those comments were actual comments on the board as well. I was trying to say something about our fascination with watching the grotesque and violence on our screens and in the news, and yet what’s the line of, 'Oh, but that’s too much.' Or, 'Yeah, that’s intrusive,' or, 'I don’t want to see that.' But then truly, watching how our current media landscape enables really our worst thoughts and comments to just be posted in public ways. I was just amazed by: When you see a picture of a mouse stuck in a grate what do you expect your reaction to be? And some of the comments were humorous, some of them were very dark, and some of them were very utilitarian."
KNIGGENDORF: "Then you throw in Lynndie England’s name and suddenly you’re talking about something almost different. Or that’s our ticket into thinking about this in a different way."
JOHNSON: "That’s right. Lynndie England was one of the soldiers who got in trouble for the abuses and photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. That was, goodness, over ten years ago. And realizing the ways that, for a country who has taken such a long stance against torture and has said that it’s not part of who we are, and then to see these images emerge, and to see that was the practice we were participating in and these were our brothers and sisters and cousins participating in these horrible things. So I have her as just one more commenter. I was (thinking about what) someone participating in torture might think about something that’s relatively benign — a mouse stuck in a grate — and what it says about who we are and where we are as a country."
KNIGGENDORF: "That changes the entire piece. I thought that was a really smart way to look at that mouse photo a little differently. I thought you wanted us to think about respect for all life, whether it’s soldiers or tiny, tiny mice."
JOHNSON: "Yeah, whether it’s soldiers or mice, our response to that says a lot about who we are."