Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Portland, queer culture, the families we make and unmake, and how we break free and find our true selves. Chelsey Johnson talks about her Indie Next debut STRAY CITY (brilliant title, right? Why can't I think of brilliant titles like that?)

What are more beautiful seven words than: You have to read this book? I was sent Chelsey Johnson's incredible Indie Next Pick, STRAY CITY and fell in love with it, so of course I had to host her on the blog. And I'm not the only one who loves her book about Portland, queer culture, rebels, and the families we make--and remake.  Look at this praise:

Stray City has it all. As funny as it is moving; as joyful, as radically communal, as it is lonesome, the novel covers the varied complications of place, home, sex, city—but mostly it's about the necessary and unexpected revolutions of the self, and about how queerly we make our way through this world. Honestly, one of the most absorbing, finely-tuned books I’ve had the pleasure of falling down into. Chelsey Johnson is a wonder.
Justin Torres, bestselling author of We the Animals

Written with wit and sensitivity and exquisite emotional intelligence, Stray City is an absolute pleasure to read. Chelsey Johnson is one of the most refreshing new voices in literature.
Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins and All Grown Up

A winsome novel about love and belonging—and the possibility of discovering both in the most unlikely of places, and among the most unexpected people. Tender and smart, Stray City is a fantastic debut from a huge talent.
Cristina Henríquez, bestselling author of The Book of Unknown Americans

A love letter to Portland and to the youthful effort of world-making that created its important queer culture in the '90s, Stray City is a gorgeous, funny, sharply spot-on tale of growing up and making family again and again and again.
Michelle Tea, award-winning author of Valencia and Black Wave

Insightful and brilliant, Stray City explores the stickiness of doing what’s expected and the strange freedom born of contradiction. I tore through this novel like an orphaned reader seeking a home in the ragtag yet shimmering world that Chelsey Johnson so wondrously brings to life.
Carrie Brownstein, New York Times-bestselling author of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Here's the impressive bio: Chelsey received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Teaching Writing Fellow, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her debut novel Stray City is forthcoming from Custom House/ HarperCollins in 2018, and her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and NPR's Selected Shorts, among others. She has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire Arts. She is an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary, and is currently in Los Angeles working on a television project for Hulu.

Thank you Chelsey!

I always want to know what haunted a writer (or propelled them) to write a specific novel. What was it for you?

So many things. I was driven from the outset by homesickness, by thinking about home and where you end up and why. The book actually originated from Ryan’s story, so I was writing about Bemidji, the town in northern Minnesota where my mom’s family is from, an hour from where I grew up. I feel deeply tied to northern Minnesota and yet I don’t know if I could ever return there to live, so I wrote my way through that tortured love and curiosity. Then I left Portland, and I didn’t mean to—it was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig that then turned into another and another—so I turned to Andrea’s perspective and wrote frantically, furiously trying to render the world I missed so much, trying to capture what it was, both so I could reinhabit it and also because I started to suspect I might not be able to go back to it, and I didn’t want to forget what it had been like. I’d never known a community or a city-love like that. But I also didn’t want the writing to be sentimental or nostalgic—I wanted to capture the contradictions and frustrations of that life. Queer people love each other and we hurt each other and we drive each other crazy. Just like any other family.

What I especially loved about Stray City, besides the whip-smart writing and Andrea, herself, was the whole notion of just what is conventional, what isn’t, and how we make up our own worlds and families. What does this all mean in terms of motherhood, relationships,  and locale? (Whew, long question.)

This is where living in Portland, among my particular community, had such an enormous influence on my thinking. It really is a city of strays, and although I came from an intact nuclear family, that was quite rare among people I knew. Nearly all of my dear friends (queer and straight alike!) came from families that had been ruptured in significant ways. We all carried some form of family damage, either directly from our own families of origin, or from the culture’s dominant lie of what counts as family, and which families deserve protection and exaltation and which are legally worthless. And we formed these deep, equally honorable familial and communal bonds among friends. So I wanted to write about how we form our own ad hoc families, and how we try to recreate family through actually having kids.

Just as with gender norms, I think that great American lie of what The Family is  hurts everyone, not just queer and trans people. I think its ironclad expectations of marry-reproduce-repeat suit some people perfectly—queer and straight!—and serve many people, of all orientations, very poorly. There are so many options of how to make your way and make your family, and I wanted Stray City to explore that.

So much of Stray City feels like a love letter to Portland—and to our youth. Please, would you talk about this?

It really is a love letter to my friends and to Portland itself, a flawed beautiful place that I love helplessly on some like, cellular level. The city has changed so much—it’s gotten very upscale and Instagram-y and in my shabby little North Portland neighborhood many of the shacks have been wiped out and replaced with obstreperous posh houses totally out of scale—but the homey jankiness and diveyness I love stubbornly hangs on, and the verdant greenery and moody weather will always be there. Until recently it was the perfect city for broke youth because even though you’d make no money, you could live cheaply and have plenty of time to play music, make art, volunteer at the rock camp, whatever. You could have a life. One thing I loved about Portland is that people never asked about your education or your job. It didn’t matter where you’d gone to college or if you’d gone to college, and what you did for money wasn’t really what you did. Thinking back, with many of my friends, I could not even tell you for sure what their day job was. What mattered was what you were making, what you wanted to do.  We were old enough to have some life experience and keep ourselves afloat, but young enough to still have that energizing hubris and a low enough standard of living that we were fine with whatever dilapidated roof was over our heads. I loved that age where you could follow some wild urge and overturn your life, and pull it off by the skin of your teeth, responsible only for yourself and maybe a pet.

The sad coda is that Portland’s soaring popularity and new affluence has started to kill off that DIY culture that made it special. Many of my friends have left, and many of those who remain are under constant financial stress and anxiety. The precarity that felt manageable ten years ago feels soul-crushing now, and it’s not just about youth.

What kind of writer are you, and did anything change while you were writing this book? How does it feel to be a debut author getting such major praise? Does it make writing your next book harder or easier?
I started teaching creative writing while I was writing the book, and that more than anything changed my writing—for the better. Teaching fiction was a crash course in spotting predictable narrative patterns and cliched language, and when I turned that eagle eye on my own work I instantly saw all the ways I’d unconsciously tripped into the same grooves my students did. I became a more impatient reader, eager for something fresh, eager for story, and that motivated me to make things happen on the page. But also my students made me up my game because many of them are so talented. I’m in awe of what they’re doing, how inventive and funny and dark they can go, and when they hit their stride, really inhabit their voices, I get to work with renewed pleasure and urgency.

I’ve gone from being a very quick writer, dashing off shiny sentences that pleased me and never looking back, to being a much slower writer, layering and plotting, not just doing  but thinking about what I’m doing. I also care much more about humor. Humor amplifies sadness and anger like nothing else. I want to read it, so I want to write it.

Press praise is wonderful, and I’m so grateful for it, though I’m always terrified that a hatchet job is just around the corner so I try not to put too much stock in what any particular critic thinks. The warm feedback that’s meant the most to me isn’t what shows up in magazines or listicles or online reviews, but from friends, from writers whose work I love, and from my former students. Those have real impact. And they’re what motivate me to want to write the next book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with public lands: their troubled histories and the violence of Indian removal that created them, their complex and precarious ecologies, recent tussles over their use, and their endangerment under the current administration. I’m also obsessed with the queer history of Los Angeles. I keep returning to the ONE Archives, this incredible LBGTQ archive housed at USC. I can lose myself for hours in that stuff. The 1970s in particular have seized my imagination—so much art and activism and community-building was going on. If you want to know queer history, you have to seek it out, it’s probably not going to get taught to you or passed down through your family. And when you do, you’re richly rewarded. There’s this treasure trove of publications and images and stories and ephemera and elders—a whole universe of which you are in some small way a legacy. It’s thrilling and very moving. Not surprisingly, both of these obsessions are making their way into my current writing projects.

What question didn't I ask that I should have.
Hm, maybe you could ask what is one piece of writing advice I give my students. And my answer would be: Estimate how much time you think you need to write this story. Write it down. Now multiply that by three. That’s how long it will actually take.

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