A Thrice Recorded Conversation with T. Geronimo Johnson
Months ago I was informed Late Night Library would be featuring T. Geronimo Johnson’s sprawling debut novel Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, and that this feature would be my first time interviewing an author. Thrilled by this news, I immediately entered into Johnson’s well-crafted world of Achilles Conroy. Achilles and his younger brother Troy return from their second term of active duty in Afghanistan to the funeral of their adopted father. Their mother has just given them the information regarding their biological parents concealed in a blue envelope. While Achilles stashes his unopened envelope deeply away, Troy is eager to uncover his origin and disappears in a search to locate and connect with his biological family. Achilles’s obligation to protect his brother and bring him back home leads him down a gritty exploratory journey to self-discovery. Dealing with the fresh memory of serving in Afghanistan, Achilles searches for Troy in New Orleans and Atlanta.
After concluding Hold It ‘Til It Hurts in December, I began my period of waiting over three months for the day when I would interview Johnson. During this time T. Geronimo Johnson became a household name for anyone who knows me. I carried a copy of Hold It ‘Til It Hurts around waiting for the opportunity to bring the book and the interview into conversation. I familiarized (memorized) every interview with Johnson online. My girlfriend patiently listened to all the possible questions I could ask. What I should have been doing is familiarizing myself with the audio equipment and programs necessary to record the conversation.
When the day of the recording, March 15, 2013, arrived, I was nervous but unprepared for the outcome. Nimo and I spoke at 10AM for about a half an hour via Skype. After the call I listened to the audio only to discover a loud static noise throughout half of the interview. Tail between my legs I retreated to seclusion in my bed. Hours later I emailed Nimo and informed him of the bad quality and asked if we could rerecord. We immediately rerecorded, only to have the audio program quit unexpectedly at the end. After a minute of lamentation and cursing I called Nimo back and asked if we could record one more time. He graciously accepted. Once again the static persisted through the audio file.
Unfortunately there was not enough audio to include our conversation on our monthly podcast Late Night Debut. Once again, I would like to thank T. Geronimo Johnson for the time he took out of his busy schedule to talk with me multiple times. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Steven: Congratulations on being nominated as one of five finalists for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner. What does this mean to you as a writer?
Geronimo: This means I am surprised and humbled beyond words. It is such remarkable company to be amongst. Someone asked me the other day: “How does it feel to be selected by the largest peer juried award?” But I don’t feel like the jury is my peers. I am just getting started and feel very very lucky and honored.
S: Hold It Till It Hurts is published by Coffee House Press. Did you initially want your book published by Coffee House Press because of the terrific books they publish?
G: Well, when you ask like that I feel I should of course say, yes. But I didn’t know much of Coffee House Press when my agent began selling the book. As soon as I landed there it felt very serendipitous. My editor, Anitra Budd, and I really hit it off well. She is a phenomenal person and a fantastic editor. She is a dream to work with. Even though I knew little about the press I really feel the book landed in a bed made for it.
S: What was the road to publication like for you?
G: It was bumpy at first. It was like there was a parking lot with nothing but speed bumps. I did have several rejections. In the end this is a good thing though, because that is the sort of trial I need. Many people it would take even longer to sell a book, but I think not being successful immediately forces you to evaluate your motivations. This is an important process to ask myself, “Why am I writing?” The reason I was writing was more important to me than any measure of success. So, it was okay it was taking a long time for the book to be sold.
S: A good portion of the book takes place in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina. You were raised in New Orleans. How much of the depictions are based off of your experience?
G: I would say its 50/50. Half is my experience, and more so my experience as love letters and lamentations, the celebration and mourning the wake of the storm. Each of these areas is ungirded by a lot of research. Even though I went to high school in that city and have relatives there, I did a lot of research on the storm and how the city was faring in the wake of the storm. I needed that grounding in reality so it wouldn’t feel so maudlin.
S: In an interview with Earlene McMichael you mention Hold It Till It Hurts comes from a novella collection with seven stories featuring Achilles, his brother Troy, Wexler, and other characters from the book. The predominant theme of these stories being holding onto things and the inability to let go. What initially influenced you to write these stories?
G: That’s a great question and no one has ever asked me that. Actually I do have an answer. At the time just before I started these stories I had been working in real estate and renovated a few houses. I had been living in this area in Atlanta called the Old Fourth Ward which is where much of the novel is set and where a good portion of the novella collection is set. While I was there I was dealing with so many people who had conflicting interest in the neighborhood. My direction spawned this idea of looking at the neighborhood through these different eyes and how people who didn’t even know each other were affecting each other’s lives in surprising ways.
S: How long was it before you realized these stories could be a novel?
G: I don’t know when you know that. In my last year I was advised to extend one for my thesis project. I selected this one which became Hold It ‘Til It Hurts because I suppose I was trying to deal with the storm in some way. I am not exactly sure. I knew after the storm hit it had the potential to be a novel and not a novella.
S: One aspect of the novel focuses on the loyal relationships created through a shared collective consciousness of active duty in Afghanistan. You have done research on bonds being formed by living under the threat of violence. Why do these kind of relationships interest you?
G: Well they’re critical to the story. Even if you have played team sports you have a different sense of what it means to rely on other people. I was thinking of them not only as the bonds formed under violence, but also as shifting family lines. I do have friends who have served in Episode I, as some people now call it, as well as Episode II. Seeing how their experiences affected them moved me to want to write about that.
S: The novel begins with the sun setting and Achilles being summoned to the kitchen table by his mother after his father’s funeral. The novel ends at dawn. Achilles gets up from the kitchen table to eavesdrop on a conversation between his mother and Ines. Did you frame the novel in this way as if throughout the novel Achilles was searching in the darkness of night?
G: Not initially. It is just the good fortune a writer has if he/she stays in a project long enough for it to become magnetized. For everything to sort of line up. There was a sense that he was moving through darkness in this sort of underworld, especially in New Orleans, into the light. I could not have predicted it would frame itself like that. It was only in later revisions I knew how his return home would end.
S: What were yours reasons for using the words “zigger” and “crush”?
G: I made that shift a couple years ago. This is when our collective attention as a country was turning from crack to crystal meth. There is a lot of political and racial angling around this shift in attention. I didn’t want to use a drug that had that much particular social weight to it. The trick with “zigga” is it reflects in many ways Achilles’s consciousness because he doesn’t feel comfortable using this word. He has rarely used this word and when it is used toward him he feels disease. As an author I felt rather certain that if I didn’t make this change that no one would actually see the word. If no one sees the word in the text then that diminishes the experience, because I am trying to stay so close to Achilles’s point of view. That was a writerly decision and also a political decision, because I didn’t want to write the word out that many times.
S: Have you come across any unexpected responses to the book?
G: Achilles has a particular anxiety concerning black females which is something he is working through. I had a couple black female readers who were less than satisfied with the resolution of that particular tension. Or a couple who seemed to have misread Achilles’s misgivings as being less an indictment—which is what they are because they are something he is working through—and more of a statement. It felt really odd to me that the book was taking its stand it wasn’t taking, but it was setting this up to work through it later. I hadn’t anticipated that reaction.
S: You teach writing courses at UC Berkley and are currently a visiting professor at Western Michigan University. Is there any particular course you love to teach more than the others?
G: I’m at Western Michigan University teaching creative writing to grads and undergrads, and I also teach how to teach creative writing and a creative writing pedagogy class. I really like teaching creative writing in pretty much any context because it is exciting for everyone to sit around a table and bring to bear their full faculties on a potential work. I love it.
S: What have you learned about writing through instructing others to write?
G: This semester teaching a class how to teach writing I keep reflecting on the practices of a writer and a teacher. Teaching writing reminds me that so many of our decisions are based not necessarily by craft but by our own desires and our own opinions of how literature works. Then we enlist craft in service of that. I am reminded time and time again to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. To occasionally take the time to give some thought about why fiction matters.
S: Have you recently read any debut authors?
G: I read Emma Straub‘s debut collection of stories, recently, America Pacifica by Anna North, and A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois. Those are the few that come to mind.
Steven Clauw is Late Night Library’s Communications Director and a versatile reader and writer out of Portland, Oregon. He earned his B.A. in English from Oakland University of Michigan. Some of his favorite books are The History of Tom Jones, Reality Hunger, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the essays of E.B. White. Also, he is an enthusiastic fan of Bob Dylan.