Tag Archives: Remember Me Like This

An Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston

15 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's story collection, Corpus Christi, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. He has just published his first novel, Remember Me Like This.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s first book, Corpus Christi: Stories, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. His new novel, Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a boy who disappears in Corpus Christi and then mysteriously turns up.

Bret Anthony Johnston new novel Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a Corpus Christi family whose young son disappeared for years and then mysteriously reappeared. A review in the Washington Post says that the book asks, “But what happens after the cable news hysteria fades away, and the mayor issues a proclamation and the tearful grandparents fly back home? Are these rare families like lottery winners who celebrate in public and then, in the months that follow, squander their good fortune?”

Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In this interview, Johnston discusses suspenseful imagery, the challenge of finding the right tone, and his approach to place in fiction.

To read an excerpt from Remember Me Like This and an exercise on setting the mood in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a body facedown in the water. This image doesn’t return until almost the end of the novel. In fact, it’s almost possible to forget about it since it’s not long before the drama of the novel takes over. What went into your decision to open the novel with that image? Did you worry that the reader would become impatient with wanting to return to it?

Bret Anthony Johnston

My hope was that the image would embed itself in the reader’s subconscious memory, that it would be something of a shadow that followed them through the story. I wanted them to wonder about the body; I wanted it to keep them from getting too comfortable in the story, to preclude them from taking survival for granted. That is, I wanted them to share the experience that the family endures. Starting the book that way seemed to invite a necessary kind of empathy. Of course you’re right, though, in that it’s almost possible to forget about the image. That’s the gamble I had to take so that when the body returns, the reader is jolted and yanked back toward a kind of raw vulnerability. I hope it works. If it didn’t, don’t tell me.

Michael Noll

The scene where Justin appears for the first time is really well done and uses a deft trick of misdirection. I can imagine that scene was difficult to write. The readers been waiting for it intently, and so there’s a need to both meet and confound their expectations. How did you approach that scene?

Bret Anthony Johnston

Your reading of the scene, the craft behind it, is incredibly accurate and I really appreciate such close reading, Michael. Thank you. What you’re pointing out, though, actually came with relative ease—meaning, it was stunningly difficult and time-consuming, but still not as difficult or time-consuming as other scenes—because it was the result of empathizing with the characters. I only had to understand what the characters would be feeling in that moment, and because I knew them well by that point in the book, their reactions were readily available. Once I understood that she would fixate on her memory him being afraid of snakes, I felt really at home in her reaction.

What took an enormous amount of time was striking the right balance in what might be called tone. I revised and revised and revised to get the scene to move evenly toward the revelation. I struggled with the pace for many drafts. I struggled with the cop’s reaction and the district attorney’s entrance. As you say, it was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.

Michael Noll

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

The novel returns to certain places (the empty pool at the “half-razed TeePee Motel” and the Marine Lab). The places begin just as places where the characters go, but over the course of the novel, several of the most important events occur there. Did you have certain dramatic scenes in mind when you first introduced those places into the novel? Or, did you explore the places and return to them until the drama presented itself?

Bret Anthony Johnston

The latter. When I start writing anything, I have no intentions of any kind, and the novel was no different. I approach every piece of fiction the same way, which is to pay attention to the details, images, and artifacts of the story and take nothing for granted. My impulse is to reach backwards in a story rather to stretch forward, so I’m always asking myself what’s already in play that I can use again, that I can recycle in a manner that will reward the reader’s attention. It’s a mechanism of repetition and evolution. In this case, I returned to various places until those places evolved to mean something other than what they had. I think a lot of new writers are excited by the prospect of constantly bringing in new material, new imagery or settings or objects, but I think the more satisfying move is often to juggle what you already have so that the reader sees something familiar in a new, more revelatory light.

Michael Noll

It’s been ten years since Corpus Christi: Stories was published. Since then you’ve continued to write stories, and you’ve also published a book of creative writing exercises and written a film documentary about skateboarder Danny Way. Plus, you direct the writing program at Harvard. In other words, you’ve been pretty busy. And yet, I can imagine there was pressure to produce a novel, especially since your first book was so well received. How were you able to resist that pressure, to discover the novel you wanted to write and then write it at a pace that would allow it to become the book you had in mind?

Bret Anthony Johnston

You’re absolutely right about the pressure, but I regard any kind of pressure as a privilege. I’m incredibly fortunate to have editors and readers who want to read my work, and I refuse to take that as a given. Honestly, it still surprises me. It really does. It surprises me to the degree that I don’t fully believe anyone when they ask to read something I’ve written; I think they’re just being nice.

And yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m a slow writer and there will be years between the books that I’m lucky enough to publish. Meaning, I don’t want to publish something until I think it’s ready, until I’ve written the book I want to read, because it will be a long, long time before I have the opportunity to redeem myself. What this means is that I’ve missed many deadlines. I know I missed at least three for the novel, though maybe I missed more. The book just wasn’t ready, and publishing it would have seemed a kind of malpractice. I always gave the publisher the opportunity to cancel my contract, and I apologized profusely, but I also wouldn’t show them the book until it was ready. I worked with an amazing editor named Kendra Harpster, and she was beyond supportive. Not only would the book not have been published without her, the published book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without her guidance. It’s another way that I got lucky. I’ve been lucky my whole career. Lucky and slow, that’s my life as a writer. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set the Mood

13 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered.

Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This. The book is set on the Texas coast, in and around Mustang Island, a place that can inspire many emotions. But the novel quickly focuses on a specific mixture of them that hints at the story to come. You can read an excerpt at the Random House website.

How the Story Works

Most writers are probably familiar with John Gardner’s famous exercise for emotion in description: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” This is a brilliant exercise—unless you can’t do it. I’ve seen very good writers in workshops tackle this exercise and come up with nothing. Yet, Gardner’s goal of establishing emotion and mood through description is still a valid one; the thing that might be tripping up some writers is the exercise’s focus on an emotion stemming from a specific event: the son’s death. Emotion and mood can also be general, as seen in this paragraph from the first chapter of Remember Me Like This. Pay attention to the word choices Johnston makes, the way they seem to have been pulled from a stream with a pan that lets all but a certain kind of word sift out the bottom:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.

You may have paused at these words and phrases: gauzy, glomming, close, pale as caliche, played-out, dragging, holding out, humid and harsh, stung like wasps, surrendered, cut bait, dogged, scalding. And, of course, there’s the static image of the cars lined up, waiting for the ferry. Taken together, the words don’t describe a particular emotion so much as a general sense of an end of things. If this was a film, it might be called a tone poem: the mood is unmistakable. As readers, we’re made uneasy.

And then there’s that last line: “Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.” Its tone is markedly different, even the opposite of everything that came before it. It might be tempting, if reading this in a workshop, to suggest cutting the sentence. But, in fact, it might be the most important line in the paragraph. It’s the postcard from Hawaii taped to the bathroom mirror in a Chicago apartment in February—the reminder, good or bad, that there are other ways of being and other perspectives on the world. Placing this bright line in a dreary description makes the dreariness even harder to bear. It also suggests that there are entities in the world that relish conditions that the rest of us find unbearable.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the mood in a story, using the passage from Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel Remember Me Like This as a model:

  1. Choose the place to describe. Be specific. Johnston shows us a particular spot on the beach. In the prologue, he focuses on the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi.
  2. Choose the moment to describe it. Descriptions tend to focus on moments of transition. So, Johnston shows us the beach as the weather is driving the surfers, fishermen, and sunbathers away. The bridge in the prologue is shown at its beginning and then in the moments before and after a group of people walking over discover something terrible. So, think about what often happens in the place you’ve chosen. Or think about an incident that occurs there in your story. Describe the place just before or after that moment has occurred.
  3. Choose the emotion or mood. Unlike your choice of place, specificity is less important here. It might even be easier to think in terms that are tangential to emotions: positive, negative, bright, dark, still, frenetic. Emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, or jealousy can be too pointed and produce obvious personifications: skies shedding tears, happy breezes, etc. Leave room for the language to surprise you. Sometimes you’ll discover lines like this one from Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: “a child up on its knees on the mattress howled out of a face like a fist.”
  4. Choose a narrative arc. Think of the description as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, Johnston begins with the weather conditions, which drive the people away, who then sit in line for the ferry while the porpoises swim. In other words, the end of the description should be different from the beginning: a narrative arc, no matter how small, is a way to ensure this.
  5. Write the description. Keep all of the above in mind: the moment of transition, the arc, the mood. After each phrase or sentence, take a look back at the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in it and ask yourself if they can be changed to fit the mood. Play around with the diction. In Johnston’s paragraph, the difference between “small waves” and “small played-out waves” is small but significant. That difference is the source of much of the pleasure in writing. Challenge yourself to lean toward the mood at every opportunity. If you lean too far, you can always pull back.

It’s possible that these steps may seem overwhelming. You might wonder if Johnston approached the paragraph in this way or if he simply wrote it. The odds are, he just wrote it, and perhaps you will, too. But one drawback to modeling your work after published writing is that you’re trying to achieve the same effect as someone who’s been working for many years. As beginners, we must sometimes parse out the processes that more experienced artists seem to manage naturally, without thinking. So, give yourself permission to scramble these steps, to forget some or focus more heavily on others. Let yourself experiment. You’re giving your imagination room to work.

Good luck!

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