Johnson’s Californium Explores How Life Functions Beneath Appearances
An exclusive Authorlink interview with R. Dean Johnson
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
by R. Dean Johnson
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R. Dean Johnson was working at an ad agency when he decided to apply for a Master of Fine Arts degree and pursue his love of writing.
“Fortunately, none of them would let me in,” said Johnson, laughing. With an undergraduate degree in business and little experience in writing, he needed to strengthen his foundation.
|“I had to learn about good writing before I could write . . .”
“I had to learn about good writing before I could write,” he said.
Johnson went on to earn a Master of Arts in English from Kansas State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Arizona State University.
His first book, Delicate Men: Stories, was published in 2014. His latest, Californium, was just released.
Set in 1982, the story follows fourteen-year-old Reece as his family relocates from New Jersey to California after a family tragedy and he forms a punk band as he tries to fit in. The novel is a meditation on authenticity, hero worship, what it means to be cool in high school and the challenges of family communication.
The book sprang from a short story Johnson wrote where Reece is witnessing a fight between two other boys.
“My stories always spring from a pursuit of character,” said Johnson, who once wrote a short story about a man who wrote greeting cards but had difficulty in relationships because he couldn’t express himself well.
The novel was his thesis at Arizona State. After graduating, Johnson got married, had children, and wrote a book of short stories and an as yet unpublished collection of essays before returning to work on Californium.
While the book has a young protagonist it also has lots of satire about Richard Nixon and the Southern California military industrial complex.
“I don’t think I wrote a Young Adult book, though YA readers might like it. I see it as more of a crossover book,” said Johnson.
As the new kid in town, Reece strikes up a friendship with Keith, a clueless but funny guy, Treat, a loner with a Mohawk, and Edie, a classmate. In an attempt to be cool, the guys form a punk band.
As Reece deals with his transition to a new place, he writes letters to his Uncle Ryan, who appears in the beginning of the book.
“The book is about things that look one way and function another way . . . .”
“The book is about things that look one way and function another way,” said Johnson. For example, how punk, which seemed really cool and even scary in the 80s, really had to do with a bunch of kids geeking out about a particular kind of music.
The book ends with some dramatic revelations and a reckoning both at home and at school. Johnson noted that having the story told in first person present from Reece’s point of view limits the reader to learning about things as Reece learns about them.
As he was working through the plot, Johnson wrote lots of material that never showed up on the page, including a scene where Reece’s family attends a wake.
“I had to write it to know it . . . .”
“I had to write it to know it. It’s like Hemingway’s iceberg principle. There is a lot that goes on underneath the surface. Your legwork with backstory will pay you back later in scene, dialogue and exposition,” said Johnson.
His greatest challenge when writing Californium was finding the right narrative distance. “At first I wrote it with Reece two years older looking back,” said Johnson, “and it sounded like a cheap version of Wonder Years.”
When he wrote the novel in present tense the voice “livened up.”
“I had a good story and a good character. I just wasn’t telling it right.”
Johnson had fun researching California culture and the clothes and music of the 1980s. The book was originally set in 1980, but after a copy editor found a discrepancy with the timeline and one of the punk band’s history the time was changed to 1982. That change caused small changes throughout the book.
Johnson, an Associate Professor at Eastern Kentucky University and director of EKU’s low residency MFA in creative writing program, Bluegrass Writers Studio, advises writers to be clear-eyed about the nature of the business.
“Writing is work. It is okay to think of it as work. I know talented writers who have not put in the work and have not gotten published.”
He suggested writers draw encouragement from little victories, the publication of a story or a reading that goes well, even when it doesn’t yield a contract or other benefits.
“I like the writing life,” noted Johnson. “If you love it and put in the time it is worth it.”
He is currently working on his next novel and revising an essay collection, Poser: A Mostly-True Memoir.
|About the Author||
R. Dean Johnson is the author of Delicate Men: Stories and Californium. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Julie Hensley, and their two children. An Associate Professor at Eastern Kentucky University, he directs and teaches in EKU’s low residency MFA in creative writing program, Bluegrass Writers Studio. His essays and stories have appeared in journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Orleans Review, Ruminate, Slice, and The Southern Review.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.|