“Except for the stink and the heat and the mosquitoes, it was beautiful at night. Like being out in the country,” says Barb Johnson of living on her balcony post-hurricane Katrina and working on her collection of short stories, More of This World or Maybe Another (Harper Collins, October) often by the light of a headlamp. None of the stories is about the hurricane, though. They are, instead, about the often chaotic lives of a few scrappy characters that frequent The Bubble, a Laundromat in a New Orleans neighborhood known as Mid-City. The award-winning author is a talented and practical woman in an often-times impractical world. Johnson tells PopMatters 20 Questions about how everyday machines are rather like short stories (read on), and about the delightful influence of a certain renaissance monkey.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Movies routinely make me cry as do certain commercials and many songs, so I tend not to remember which of them has brought me to tears. Just about any moment coupled with the right music, and I’m a goner.
But books, well that’s a different thing altogether. It takes some pretty powerful writing to make me cry. While not the latest book to leave me sobbing, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines is one of the few that ever have, and it is memorable for that and for the fierce heart of its story.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Curious George. He’s good-hearted but often gives into the temptations that even a good little monkey can’t resist. He’s good at fixing things and always willing to be engaged by that which needs repair. He’s persistent (see #6) and he’d rather be out in the street playing. He’s given to bouts of nervousness and unrestrained enthusiasm about a great number of things. He’s a real renaissance monkey.
3. The greatest album, ever?
For sheer musicality and invention and groove, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one I’ve listened to again and again over the last 20 or so years, and I never stop hearing something new. I love Bill Evans, too, and Coltrane, and they’re both on that album.
For lyrics and for the fact that side A is just as good as side B, and for completely sentimental reasons, Harry Nilsson’s Harry is a long-standing favorite. One of my brothers brought it home with him when he came back from Vietnam in ’72. That record went ‘round the turntable a million or so times before my brother moved away.
I took the album with me when I graduated high school and left town. A few years later, we were back at my mother’s house, sitting around playing guitar and my brother was foraging through old albums. “Anybody know what happened to my old Harry Nilsson album?” my brother asked. I told him I hadn’t seen it in a while. I still haven’t copped to the theft, so mum’s the word, okay?
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I have completely failed to have any interest in any of the characters in either of those movies. It may be that I was born that way, or it may be that certain elements in my environment made me that way. It may be that I’m just trying to shock my parents, just a phase. All I’m saying is that I am consistently unmoved by both of those movies.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I hope this isn’t a zombie reference. Zombies give me the willies as does their food of choice. And I’m not sure whether you’re asking my opinion or whether you’re looking for cold, hard science, so, first with my opinion.
Opinion: For optimum cerebral and creative nourishment, I listen to music. Sometimes I choose a certain kind of music because I feel it is strong enough to wrestle down whatever other music is stuck in my head and driving me crazy. Opera is a good wrestler, but it’s also a pretty badass stalker. You got to be careful how you use it.
I like jazz and the blues—Wig Wearin’ Woman has been stuck in my head now for days—and I like singer-songwriter stuff.
My scientific answer: Curious George, the cartoon, is both brain food and palate cleanser for me. It is also an excellent tool for examining characterization and episodic writing. I love how the names of the characters explain the character, so you never have to ask yourself, Which one is he? The Man with the Yellow Hat, Jumpy the Squirrel, Professor Wiseman (who is a woman—hmm) and Charky, the most irritating dog with the most irritating name ever.
There’s also a little irony in some of the names. For instance, Compass the Pigeon lacks a sense of direction. Compass also is without a clear understanding of what kind of creature George is, though he’s always trying to suss that out. Sometimes I think the writers may be trying to imply that Compass is dim, an unkind but maybe realistic touch.
If dim is what they’re going for, I would like to propose a new character. Duhhh the Dove. Dimmest creatures ever. Seriously. Have you ever watched them pecking around the yard, squinting at that furry, whiskered thing crouching under the bushes? The one that has a clear shot because all the pigeons have flown away? Duhhh.
Curious George also has ongoing narrative tension. The Man with the Yellow Hat kind of has a thing for Professor Wiseman, but it’s unclear what her deal is. She’s good with tools, and that makes me like her quite a bit. And although she spends leisure time with The Man in the Yellow Hat, the two of them never ever touch—unlike Chef Pisghetti and his lady, who are all over each other.
But George’s world is not sunshine all up and through. There’s tension because even though George is a happy-go-lucky-means-well monkey, he is the nemesis of Hunley, the anal lobby dog, who finds George’s sloppy enthusiasm unnerving. Brain food, indeed.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I will admit to being proud of learning to whistle through my teeth. And here is why. It took 25 years. I kept dropping out of the class. But now and then I’d go back and give it a try. Until one day I finally got it.
I admire persistence in others—not weird, stalker-y pursuits, not that—a willingness to keep trying. Learning to whistle through my teeth is the fruit of my own persistence and a very handy skill.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
I’d like to be remembered for my gracious manners and flawless bearing in social situations, but that doesn’t seem likely. So maybe I’ll just hope to be remembered for my congenial temperament and my ability to tell a person all about herself—a complete stranger—based on her keychain.
Keychain analysis is the science of examining the arrangement of a person’s keys and interpreting the larger meaning of both the arrangement and the function. Having interpreted all the signs, I am thus able to give the holder of the keys a startlingly accurate (because it’s science!) portrait of herself.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I’m completely inspired by those who have stood up to the bullies of the world, those who have left their homes in search of adventure or a better life or a country free of tyranny. Those who have done wrong and set themselves right. Those who got back up when they fell. Those who started late. Those who finished last. Those who finished.
I am stunned with admiration by those who have troubled themselves to learn what turning the other cheek really means. I am inspired by those who have bucked the system when it was wrong, by those who have found their own way, by those who woke up after a long sleep.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
That seems a pretty unhappy state—wishing to have written something I did not write. Not my thing. I’m pretty happy when I come across something that strikes me as a masterpiece, though. Especially when that something isn’t 100 years old. Or even 50.
Joan Osborne’s song, “Pensacola”, makes me weak in my knees because I am still in love with it after all these years. The lyrics are a concise, and evocative and effective example of characterization. Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek, I am greatly moved by this song.
It’s about a girl who goes looking for her father, “the man from the picture/creased and yellow in my hand.” She finds him in a trailer in Pensacola. “He was squinting and stubbled/ and standing in the door./He said if you’ve come to take the car away/ I don’t have it anymore.” He’s got “…gospel on the radio/gospel on TV/He’s got all the transcripts/back to 1963.” Well there you go. Helloooo daddy. It’s a magnificently devastating and depressing song.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I am a machine whisperer. I can fix most anything even though I don’t know how it works or why it’s broken. I can take a machine apart, make some adjustments and put it back together and, voila, it works.
Often there are leftover parts. It’s a little known fact, but having too many parts is actually a common malady for machines. Machines are just like short stories: they get bogged down by excess.
Photo (partial) by P. B. Baldwin
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
The best advice I’ve ever been given was also the most oblique, thus it is broadly applicable. When I was learning to canoe a number of years ago, by way of instruction a friend said: “You can’t fight the river. The river is boss. It gives you the ride. You’ve got an oar if you need to change the direction. But don’t fight the river. Work with it.”
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I once traded a customer some work—I have been a carpenter for most of my life—in exchange for a portable dishwasher. That was sometime in the ‘90s, and the dishwasher was old then—made in 1972. I still have it. It still works. And I love it every day of my life.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
What are these countries you speak of? This Armani. This Levis. And what do they have that we don’t? I feel best sitting on a balcony with a breeze and friends and a Pimm’s Cup. And it’s just about sunset and people are walking by below, their dogs pulling them along. And somebody is driving by and sees us all up on the balcony, lays on the horn and yells, “Where y’at!” and then an arm comes out the window of the car and waves.
Someone sitting with me says, “Who was that?” But I’m not sure who it was. Still, the friendly feeling of the honking and the waving, the calling out, the friends on the balcony at sunset—those are the things that make me feel best.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
My first choice would be Joseph Campbell, whose study of myths probably prepared him well for travelling from whatever afterlife he’s found to a dinner engagement at the Ritz Carlton. I imagine he wasn’t a very neat eater. I could be wrong about this. Maybe it’s a wish I have because I’m not a neat eater. I’m messy as hell. But I think Campbell would be able to keep up his end of the conversation.
And if Bill Moyers and Gloria Steinem stopped by for cocktails, so much the better. If Tom Waits was singing in the corner, I think that would be just about perfect.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Paris/London. The ‘20s. And why not? I imagine it was a literary Where the Girls Are. At least the girls I find particularly interesting. Stein and Toklas. Natalie Clifford Barney. Virginia Woolfe and Vita Sackville West. Sylvia Beach. Radcliffe Hall and Una Troubridge.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I think living in New Orleans is excellent treatment (and prevention) for stress in general. It’s a lot like living in a banana republic, and we are all used to the extreme leisure of the pace.
The only people who get stressed by it are from out of town. They are often puzzled and angered by the fact that there is no record of their hotel reservation, and their rental car has been rented to someone else. They wonder why the person in the car in front of them has stopped in the middle of the road to chat with someone on the street, letting long lines of autos pile up behind them. They wonder why no one honks his horn to express disapproval for such inconsiderateness.
Or why everything starts an hour late. And why no one else seems upset by this. And why no one is at work. And why so many young men want to bet you they can tell you where you got them shoes. (The answer is: You got them shoes on your feet! The cost: hope you didn’t bet high.)
In a world of product over process, we are mostly process-oriented here. Prozac we save for other things, like so much water being where it’s not supposed to be or the constant awareness that, topographically, we live in a bowl, and bowls fill up. They just do. That requires a certain amount of medicine.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Oh those racy, racy ellipses. I can do without the cigs and even the vodka, but if there were no chocolate or coffee or whiskey, I’m not so sure I’d be able to connect the dots of my existence. The fact that chocolate goes equally well with coffee and red wine can’t be a coincidence.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
The city, for sure. The country’s good for a break, but it gets on my nerves after a while. New Orleans. Mid-City, baby. It’s like a spa vacation for your head. And for your body, there’s a sauna going on 24/7.
I have never in my life understood people who pay good money to sit in a sauna. I’ve spent most of my life working outside in one. Blecch. But the extreme heat and humidity of New Orleans, along with the complete absence of organization, serves to weed out the insincere and the truly sane, and that leaves an interesting group of people to spend my days with.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Um. Hey. You remember when you came up with that “yes we can” tagline? That was cool. And that song? That “yes we can” song? And then it was in all kinds of languages, even Cajun, which is the language of my hometown. “Oui, en peut!” Did you hear that one? That was cool, too.
You’re a smart guy. You are. And you talk pretty. And that’s cool. Kind of a relief after that other one, you know? I don’t think you’re at a loss as to what needs to be done, so I won’t participate in the pile on and give you directions.
I’m just going to lay some fake Latin on you. I got it out of a Margaret Atwood novel a number of years ago. It’s pretty good advice considering it’s fake Latin. Mr. President, may I humbly suggest: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. (Don’t let the bastards grind you down.)
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
In late October 2009, Harper Collins will release More of This World or Maybe Another, a collection of my short stories.
Starting in January 2010, I’ll be working on a novel. I got a two year writing grant from A Room of Her Own Foundation so for the first time in my life writing will be my only job. The novel will pick up where my short story collection leaves off, with a group of unruly characters doing what they do best in Mid-City, New Orleans.