Ann Fisher interviews author Blake Johnson about finding safety in a chaotic world in his fiction story, Revelations.
“My wish is that people will say this to themselves after reading my stories: “Someone understands. I am no longer alone.”
You recently Tweeted out that after a year of sparse writing, you put your entire spirit into your story “Revelations.” Can you tell us more about how this story came into being?
It had only been two or three months of sparse writing, but it certainly felt like a year! For better or worse, the act of composition is intrinsically tied to my physical and mental health. When life keeps me from the craft, I do not feel well. During this period, I was dealing with bouts of insomnia and some significant anxiety—the descriptions of sleeplessness in the story are taken directly from my own experience.
By the time I found the time to write again, the story had already been brewing in my subconscious for a while. I knew my next story would be about a quest for sleep and safety in a chaotic world.
On the craft side, how many drafts did it take to bring the story to this point? Do you have go-to readers who help shape your work?
I tend to take a lot of notes about a story before even attempting a first draft. I’ll create a tentative outline, describe each character’s motivation, and try to settle on an opening paragraph. I also write down lines as they come to me throughout the day—the page usually ends up looking like a collage of random phrases.
It took me five drafts to get the story in its current form—a lot of the later drafts were focused on tweaking things on a sentence level. The rhythm of the prose is important to me, so I tend to be meticulous. As for readers, I usually keep early drafts to myself, but sometimes I’ll send them to my sister to get her feedback. I also have a few writer friends I occasionally send work to.
I was struck by the way your other characters on the streets had complete selves and roles within the community. The Trader, for instance. Each sub-character had their own prophecy, so to speak, that ricocheted off the main character. Did you start out with all these characters, or did you add some later? How did you hone in on each one’s sense of purpose?
They were all included in the first draft, but I took a lot of notes about each character before even attempting to write the story. This may sound like a writer’s platitude, but character motivation dictates the action. I made a point of learning what each character wanted and believed, and why they believed it. After that, I framed each scene around the characters’ respective motivations. I find setting scenes up in his way naturally leads to some poignant and meaningful interactions.
Say more about why you chose a book as the object of trade in the opening sequence.
There are several items in the story that are supposed to lead to some sort of transcendence—either spiritual or intellectual—but only leave the narrator feeling baffled and estranged from the world around him. I see the book as a conduit of understanding and knowledge. I won’t get too deep into the Trader’s background, but he is very concerned with acquiring knowledge.
In the opening scene, I wanted to draw an immediate contrast between the Trader and the narrator. The Trader is sure of his worldview and himself. He is not only able to read the book, but understand its contents. The narrator is hesitant, confused, afraid—his attempts to read the book only heightens his sense of confusion as he tries to make his way in a world he can’t access.
The dialogue in this piece is pithy, sharp, and revealing. Many writers struggle to capture interactions between characters in a way that drives the story home. Can you talk about your process of crafting dialogue?
Simplicity is key. I avoid soliloquies and forced exposition. The most important thing is to trust the reader. We are all attuned to the human experience, so I try to do away with excess descriptors and dialogue tags in favor of blank space. One worry that plagues writers is the fear of being misunderstood, so the tendency in early drafts is to over explain a story’s subtext. This often spills over into dialogue. When it comes time to edit, I remind myself that the emptiness surrounding the text is sometimes more resonant than the text itself. The other piece of the puzzle is understanding each character’s psyche on a deep level. Most of what I discover about a sub-character doesn’t end up on the page, but it helps inform things like dialogue. I’m a huge advocate of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory.
Where do you find your inspiration as a writer? Are there certain authors, blogs, etc. that you are drawn to?
I consider Denis Johnson one of my greatest teachers. I never got the chance to meet him, but his collection Jesus’ Son completely changed the way I view short stories. On a thematic level, I’m drawn to the work of Hermann Hesse, particularly his novel Steppenwolf, and my favorite book about writing is probably Stephen King’s On Writing.
Something else I love is author interviews! Learning about an author’s process, struggles, and habits has always been inspiring. It definitely curbs the sense of isolation that I think most writers struggle with.
Reading constantly also keeps me motivated to create. The more I read, the more I fall in love with writing. And the more I write, the more I want to read. The cycle is beautiful and addicting. It has changed my life.
I see you have two books coming out soon. What are you currently working on?
I have a few pots boiling right now! My novella Prodigal: An American Parable is coming soon from Trouble Department, a small publisher based in Arvada, Colorado. It’s a much darker tale, but I think those who enjoyed “Revelations” will find the novella compelling for its similar themes. I also have a gritty urban fantasy novel, God-Box, forthcoming from Literary Wanderlust—it’s an action packed, propulsive story with philosophical undertones. Neither book has a release date yet, but I tweet updates as soon as I get them @bjohnsonauthor.
In the meantime, I’m shopping around a few other manuscripts and plugging away at more short stories. I also hope to begin writing a new novel soon. We’ll see. 2020 was a difficult year, but the writing saved me. I suspect it will for years to come.
What do you hope your readers come away with, after reading?
Most of my work is less concerned with imparting a lesson than with making readers feel that they are understood. In the case of “Revelations,” my hope is that readers can find catharsis through the narrator’s sense of aporia. My wish is that people will say this to themselves after reading my stories: “Someone understands. I am no longer alone.”