An Interview with Donna Johnson

2 Oct
Donna Johnson's memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, "takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can't tell them apart," according to Jeannete Walls, author of The Glass Castle.

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, “takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can’t tell them apart,” according to Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle.

Donna M. Johnson was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist for the tent revivalist David Terrell. The family became part of the preacher’s inner circle, and Johnson remained part of it until she was left at 17 years old. The experience inspired the memoir Holy Ghost Girl, which was called “enthralling” and “a sure bet” by The New York Times. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and created, wrote, and produced a five-day-a-week radio show called Tech Ranch.  Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize for a work in progress. Johnson lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the author and poet Kirk Wilson.

To read the first pages of Holy Ghost Girl and an exercise on writing setting, click here.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite parts about this book is that you convey the full complexity of David Terrell—not just the juicy stuff like his philandering and not just the effect that he had on people. You really convey the sense of the miraculous that he carried with him. The temptation would have been to reveal the truth behind the miracles he performed (a woman’s tumor vanished from her stomach) and the miracles that happened to him (God called him to give another preacher $100, and, lo and behold, that amount was returned to him manyfold). Did you struggle at all to portray these scenes without saying to the reader, “But, you know, of course, that it was all for show”?

Donna Johnson

I struggled with knowing that people would expect me to debunk the miracles, and that I would lose credibility if I didn’t. I decided to take that risk because in truth, I didn’t see trickery, or perhaps I did, but I didn’t know it. Please understand, I think there must have been some chicanery. But I also think amazing things happened. I experienced a healing in my young adulthood that certainly could have been a mind over matter thing, and I write it about it as such in Holy Ghost Girl. I’m somewhat of a mystic who believes in the rational world and in the possibility of the world of faith. I wanted to write from that perspective.

I now wonder if I should have been more explicit in my exploration of belief and the spell it weaves. The Terrellites saw the world through the lens of faith, and that shaped their conception of reality, and maybe even their actual reality at times. I wrote almost that exact sentence in the book, but readers remember the miracles, not my sideways musings about faith. Like many memoir writers, I hesitated to break the spell of the world I was creating on the page. Maybe I should have been more ruthless in my questioning of what was real and what wasn’t. I don’t know.

Michael Noll

You write quite a few scenes that show Terrell preaching, which presents a significant problem. His services were really long—hours and hours. How did you find the right moments to dramatize? I noticed that you mixed direct quotations with summary. For example, you summarized his reading of the story of Moses (“In a fit of pique, he kills an Egyptian) but then quoted his thoughts on the story (“You can’t outrun God. When God chooses you, you’re chosen for life”). I’m curious how many drafts some of these sermons would go through before you found the right frame or entry point that would allow you to craft a short scene from a great deal of material.

Donna Johnson

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up on the trail of revivalist preacher David Terrell.

I thought about the sermons I had heard Terrell preach from the time I was three until I was about sixteen, many of them a variation on a theme, and I chose the ones that seemed to best serve the story and to exemplify his peculiar worldview. I found his voice, his language, still very alive in me, and so I followed it. The phrases and lines quoted in the book are ones he used most often when making a point—and many of those points were made again and again in every sermon. Of course this makes sense only in retrospect. I didn’t have the sense I was choosing what to quote and what to summarize while writing. It felt like I was simply watching and listening to the character and trying to capture it in sentences.

I have no idea how many drafts I wrote of those sermons. I tend to rewrite as I go and move on only when I’m comfortable with a scene. It’s torturous.

Michael Noll

On the subject of that particular sermon, I love that line “In a fit of pique, he kills an Egyptian.” You go on to say, “Chapter three opens with Moses on the lam. God appears to him as a burning bush with a gift for gab and tells him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt.” That is just terrific stuff–such a strong voice. I know that you teach a memoir class, and one of the things you focus on is voice. How conscious were you of trying to construct a voice when writing a passage like this?

Donna Johnson

I worked hard to find that voice. I couldn’t get past the prologue until it emerged—and I had the luxury of working a year on the prologue. The voice is a persona constructed from a multiplicity of selves. The scrappy kid I was when traveling with the tent, the irreverent girl I became who said things to shock people, the failed poet, the outcast who longs to return home; they are all there. Mixed in too is a white trash version of Scout Finch. It’s me, and it’s not me of course. I have to work against tossing off the quick, easy line, a habit from years of writing feature story leads and ad copy.

Michael Noll

There are moments in the narrative when you pull back to provide context. For example, in a story about three white men surrounding Terrell and telling him to kick the black people out of his tent, you step back to give a paragraph of context about the attitude toward black people on the sawdust trail, focusing in particular on the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. Did the need for context like this jump out at you as you were writing? Or was it something you added in revision?

Donna Johnson

Once I finished the prologue, my agent sold the book on proposal. There was no time for revision, and I think the book suffers as a result. I always knew Holy Ghost Girl would include some of the history of Pentecostalism and the sawdust trail. It seemed necessary. Those three white men you mention above were with the KKK and they eventually beat Terrell over his insistence that blacks and whites sit together under his tents. If I had left the story there, Terrell might have seemed too heroic. Pentecostalism was born in Los Angeles on Azusa Street and the worshippers were black and white. The mixed race aspect of the revival ignited indignation among the press and the elites. The tents were one of the few places where blacks and whites gathered as equals in the pre civil rights south. That knowledge places Terrell in a tradition. It seemed important to let readers know he was not utterly unique.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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