Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Delightfully Indulgent Conversation with Chad Thomas Johnston

Over the past three months, I've had the supreme joy of having a prolonged "conversation" with Chad Thomas Johnston, prolific blogger, author, artist, musician, and "PUNisher Royale".  His writing career spans a number of formats, media and genres.  His first collection of essays, Nightmarriage, is due out as an eBook from eLectio Publishing in late summer 2012.  His full length autobiographical work, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, is currently searching for a home, but rest-assured.  It will be released (believe me, I've read it).

Chad is extraordinarily witty, a massively talented wordsmith and a great friend.  I know you'll enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.

The Accidental Author:  Chad, first of all, thanks for agreeing to being put on the hot seat for my blog that literally tens of people read.  You and I first met in college at [Southwest] Missouri State University at the Baptist Student Union.  Fast forward fourteen years and two highly divergent paths later, and it appears that we have re-converged somewhat due to our love of writing.  Tell me a little about the path that brought you to where you are today.

Chad Thomas Johnston:  Dude, tens of people is not bad. Google Analytics says I have readers, but they apparently are not terribly fond of commenting. So in the end, I feel like I also have tens of readers, if that.

I’ve really always written in some form. As a child, I wrote little books and bound them with Christmas wrapping paper. My friends read them. I don’t know why, but they read them. Then in high school, I started writing music reviews for largely underground Christian magazines. I wrote about artists other than Amy Grant.

The only letter any reader ever addressed to me in a publication was written by a girl who bought the Prayer Chain’s 1995 Mercury album. I had written about how artful it was, but she only wrote about how the lyrics were too cryptic, and how she didn’t think it was really all that useful to her spiritually. I wanted to write her back and tell her never to read a poem of any kind, ever, because they would be of no use to her.

While working on my master’s degree, I wrote a thesis, which was my first long-term writing project. I got a feel for what that was like, and enjoyed it despite the often grueling nature of the project. Before bailing out of my PhD program in Film Studies at the University of Kansas, I decided that writing a dissertation would ultimately be of no use to me (just like the girl who could not interpret the cryptic lyrics). Only 5 people would ever read it. So I figured I could write a book of my own, and maybe net 6 readers. Unless my readers are lying to me, I have already done that. It took me three years to write my book, and now I’m writing a second with a friend of mine who lives in Virginia.

But writing my first book was when I got the writing bug for real. I realized I could put anything down on paper and lead any reader into my mental wilderness without a pup tent or a book of matches to save him or her from any mind-bears that might appear out of nowhere. I liked that. Thus it began. 
How did you get into writing? Or am I allowed to ask you questions?

AA:  Oh, Chad.  Those aren’t the rules of the interview.  But, since I love talking about myself, I believe I’m inclined to turn this into a conversation rather than an interview.  So, to your question.

I really loved writing when I was in grade school.  I wrote really ridiculous stories about Santa Claus, giant doughnuts and vampires.  Wait...those may have all been in a single story.  Anyway, I continued to dabble in writing when I was in high school, but I also found other ways to express myself artistically (acting and music).

I am reminded that during one of my early high school classes, we took an assessment that was supposed to reveal to us whether we were “right-brained” or “left-brained”.  I scored a big fat zero.  Fortunately, that did not mean that I was devoid of a brain.  Instead, it meant that my brain had no real preference for being artistic or analytical.  Ultimately, for my career, I chose to take the analytical path, and I got my Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, and then later got my Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Mizzou.  My dissertation was my first long-term writing project.  It is an excruciatingly boring 300-page opus, complete with graphs, charts and about 30 pages of C++ code that I wrote in the back.  I’m not even sure my committee even read it all the way through, nor do I blame them.

After the birth of my first daughter, I found myself in Washington, DC, working in the Optical Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory.  My particular position did not encourage a great deal of creativity without abandon.  So, I found myself writing in my spare time.  I also found at that time, and enjoyed posting stories I’d written and having critiques, although, very few of the comments and criticisms were all that useful, since most people were reviewing my work just so I’d be obligated to review their work.  Of course, I would conscientiously write an honest review, which many people did not like, and so I didn’t make a great many friends there.

I never really did anything with my stories at that time.  Then I moved to Dallas, and took a position that required a great deal of travel.  So that meant many lonely nights in hotel rooms.  One of the ways I would “wind down” at night was writing.  In 2010, I wrote a flash fiction piece called A Summer Wedding.  It is a sweet tale of young teenagers in the Viet Nam war era.  I submitted it to Untreed Reads, and by May of 2010, it was released.  I have continued submitting a publishing fiction through them, and now have five short stories.  As a result of my “successful” writing, I also did a collaboration with my pastor (Marc Farnell) on a book called Learning to Give in a Getting World, which has sold DOZENS of copies worldwide.

Now, back to questioning you.  You seem to have many artistic outlets.  Do you feel that writing is your primary outlet or just a pivotal cog of your creativity?

CTJ:  I think writing is the area of my creativity where I am most capable of expressing myself. While I love art and music, for example, both end up being wrestling matches where I am pitting my abilities against the ideas my brain is generating. A lot of times, I cannot quite realize what I imagine in those two creative pursuits, but with writing I almost always feel satisfied with what I come up with, and it is enjoyable for the most part. There are definitely times of writerly constipation, but for the most part, I find that if I regularly sit down and make an effort to write, it happens, and I am satisfied. 
I first realized writing could be an outlet for self-expression in high school when I wrote poems about women who broke my pitiful high school heart. I considered myself a poet then, but it was very one-dimensional in the sense that I only wrote when I felt sad, or maybe really uninspired. The same was true of the music I began writing shortly after that.

Eventually, I realized through my friend, artist Danny J. Gibson, that creativity could be a daily pursuit that was not necessarily dependent on a muse. I just sit down and create, and inspiration usually catches up with me along the way. It does not necessarily precede the creative process for me anymore. It can, but as a rule it generally does not.

With that realization, I came to understand that I could write about literally anything I wanted. I did not have to limit myself to writing when I feel sad or elated. I could write about absolutely anything, and I could do it daily, as a discipline like a runner who runs daily to maintain the progress he/she has already made.

Do you write with any kind of discipline, or is it just as the ideas kind of make themselves known to you? I like Stephen King’s idea of discovering stories in a way that is comparable to unearthing fossils that are already formed, and have a shape of their own. I am learning to approach each idea I have as the tip of a discovery that may have roots beneath the surface that are worth exploring.

I bought your Rumspringa short story from today and am looking forward to reading it. It’s a strange thing to think that you’re selling a short story for $0.99, and other authors are selling their full-length novels for the same price. It reminds me of the bizarre new menu imperative at McDonalds where all coffees, regardless of size, cost $1. It seems reasonable, but it’s also a little strange. If I want to buy a smaller coffee, but the large costs $1, I feel somehow compelled to say, “But shouldn’t this small coffee cost less?” Ha! I think this kind of thing is just indicative of how the market for writers has changed, and is continually changing. That pay-what-you-want idea Radiohead introduced into the music market in October of 2007 with their In Rainbows record has sort of become a pricing cue for writers as well. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think your work and mine both are worth more than $0.99. Ha!

AA:  Rumspringa is a bit of an enigma for me.  I started writing it with no apparent story line, just as a character study, since I tend to write more plot-driven fiction.  For me, my characters tend to be slaves to plot, and their environment and circumstances tend to mold their behavior.  I’ve never really written anything where the character is more the focal point, and so when I started out the story, I sought to study this interaction between biological mother and daughter meeting for the first time.  The protagonist, Corrie, is a sweet girl who was adopted by an Amish family, and whose life has been shaped by the values imparted to her growing up in a strict community that shuns modernity.  Her mother, Wilma, seems to be a vile human being that struggles with addiction of every flavor, and whose exploits have landed her in prison multiple times.

Funny thing, though.  As their interaction progressed, I found a story arc developing, and before I knew it, a simple plot developed.  Strange how those things work.  By the time it was finished, Rumspringa became something of a thematic piece about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and ultimately, sacrifice.

I wasn’t really sure how it would be received.  Much to my surprise, it has sold surprisingly well, in spite of its high “dollar-per-word” price point.  I can’t really say why it has resonated so well with buyers.  If I could, I suppose I would bottle that and sell it.

You mentioned writing as a discipline, with or without the ever-elusive “muse”.  However, every writer has something that consistently and invariably inspires them to write.  If you had to choose something that we could call, for sake of argument, your muse, what would it be?  And why do you think it inspires you?

CTJ:  I am almost always drawn to wondrous thingseccentric things, remarkable things, beautiful things, mysterious things. Whenever I come across something that arouses wonder within me, that’s where I truly light up and find myself inspired.

I was going through the list of films I have rated on Netflix in the past few months, and I ranked a few films highly for this reason alone. Films open up wonders to me on a regular basis. In my list of rated films, there was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which has lingered in my mind since I saw it. It’s a documentary about a French cave that features pristinely preserved human drawings from over 35,000 years ago. I saw that film and thought, “Now there’s a film that’s shown me something truly marvelous that I would never behold on my own otherwise.” 

Another was a documentary called Abel Raises Cain, which is about this man who propagated all of these media hoaxes in order to make society look at itself in the mirror and take a gander at its own absurdities. For example, he created this nonexistent organization called Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), which railed against animal nudity. One of their slogans was “A nude horse is a rude horse.” People absolutely bought into this hoax, started SINA chapters of their own, etc. In the end, it’s a hoax that shows us how prudish and legalistic we are, and also how eager we are to champion causes of all kinds if we think we will be better people for doing so. It also goes to show: We’ll believe anything. I was just blown away by this master of media hoaxes, and it occurred to memaybe as a person with a public relations backgroundthat this sort of manipulation was just creatively brilliant.

Films like that have a way of inspiring me, and making me want to create simply because it was creativity that led people to create the films that inspired me. I suppose it’s a self-reflexive thing. I see the mechanics behind it and say, “Look what creativity can yield! I have to create, too!”
It’s this sense of “I want to be in on that!” The only problem is, I tend to get carried away, and I become like this kid at a buffetlike when my sister and I would eat at Golden Corral’s buffet with our parents when we were kidsand we would just go whole hog. We would eat everything in sight, and cover everything in this ‘liquid cheese product,’ and stuff it down our gullets. I end up wanting to create all these things all the time, and I never have enough time. I want to do it all. That’s where I think cloning myself would be ideal.

But then again, cloning myself would mean my wife would have to put up with more than one of me. I don’t think she ever bargained for that in agreeing to matrimony.

AA:  So you would say that you aren’t necessarily inspired to write by a single type of “thing”, but rather the products of creativity of others in the world? That’s a fascinating perspective. I find myself most motivated by music, mainly because it is an art form that resonates with me on a very visceral level.  My short story, Collisions, was written in my head on a five-hour drive from Tallahassee to Tampa.  It was dark, it was stormy and it was difficult driving.  But about two hours into the drive, I found myself flipping to the ‘80s music channel on satellite radio, and the first song that came on was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by YES. As I listened while I tried to concentrate on the deteriorating road conditions, I found that I had never really listened to the words of the song before. I started to wax philosophical about the question posed in the concept of the song: “Is it really better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?”  I allowed my mind to run laps around that idea, and by the time I pulled into my hotel for the night, the entire plot of Collisions was complete.

That’s the way I work quite frequently.  Other art forms can have similar effects, but rarely do they have the impact that music has on me.

But, let’s “turn the page” shall we?  In your autobiographical, magnum opus The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, you draw from a great deal of personal experience.  And, when honesty prevails, there is always the potential to paint unflattering portraits, not only of yourself, but of other people.  Even though the intent is not to offend, do you find that you have to balance your portrayals of real people in your life with a “dash of kindness”, or do you prefer a more unvarnished portrayal that is consistent with memory?

CTJ:  When it comes to portraying others in my writing, which I do often in my writing, I prefer whimsical, exaggerated recollections because they suit the way I see the world. When I write I sort of play in my little sandbox of ideas, and painting unflattering portraits is not really something one does in a sandbox. One plays in a sandbox. One does not stick it to people in a sandbox. That’s someone else’s hairy business. I don’t care to do that. If I truly do not like somebody, I simply will not write about them.

A lot of writers talk at length about this though. Anne Lamott tells the ugly truth with great gusto, and makes me laugh while she does it. I’m not as courageous as she is, frankly. But I also don’t think the ugly truth is the only truth there is. As much as relativism is a dirty word in church circles, I think it applies here: I think people are more than just collections of facts, or a summaries of experiences. People are who they are when they’re alone and no one’s looking, but they’re also publicly constructedtalked about by peers, coworkers, family members, etc. I like the notion that I’m writing about people in a way that only I experience them. And like in a lucid dream, I believe it’s okay to take the controls and take creative license with how I depict someone, especially if it’s true of how I uniquely perceive that person. Someone else might take issue with it, but my response is: Go write your own book about that person if you want. This is my book. I’ll write it my way. Ha!

By the way, I think ideas sort of plant themselves in my mind in all sorts of ways. I didn’t mean to say that I only find inspiration in the works of others. That’s just one source, really. I have experiences like you mentioned with that YES song all the time.

My last essay for IMAGE Journal’s blog was both inspired by and a reaction to the documentary Being Elmo. But the one I’m currently polishing up is inspired by and is about the new Mark Kozelek albumSun Kil Moon’s Among the Leaves. I got the idea for the essay while listening to the album over and over after getting it in the mail a few weeks backa few weeks prior to its official release. I pre-ordered it from Kozelek’s record label, Caldo Verde, and just devoured it as soon as it came in the mail.

It’s like “Put a quarter in my ear, and out pops a prize!” That’s how I feel about cultural consumption for me, and how I get inspired. But I also get inspired by nature, church, friends, family, books, Internet articles, tweets, etc. Nothing is off limits when it comes to the source of inspiration.

AA:  Whenever I allow thoughts to spill forth from my mind to the keyboard, via my sometimes unreliable fingers, in the afterglow of the birthing process, every piece I write always seems like the “World’s Cutest Baby”.  But, after it is allowed to sit and just exist for a while, it can occasionally fester into a steaming pile ofwell, you can choose your own euphemistic expression.  And yet, most times I can’t bring myself to consign even my worst writing to the digital oblivion that lies on the other side of the emptied recycle bin on my desktop.  In rare cases, something I’ve written before gets reincarnated into something that really is worthwhile.  As you process your writing projects, how do you know a “keeper” when you see it?  Do you save your “stinkers” for later resurrection?

CTJ: Yeah, I have “World’s Cutest Baby” syndrome with my writing, too. I really tend to think my writing is always good, but then I look back after about a year and react with something like shock (horror in some cases) at what I thought was great before. Sometimes it’s not even passable. Ha!

For me, that’s one of the benefits of writing over a long period of time. I can keep looking back at things I wrote a year or two ago, and determine if it’s substantial or not. It took three years to write The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, and I definitely threw out some contenders for inclusion along the way. (Note: “Threw out” = saved in a folder separate from the main document, but ultimately retained in case I want to revisit in the future.) It’s a good thing it took awhile though, or else I might’ve included some things in the moment that I wouldn’t have in the long run.

I also learned a lot about the writing process while writing it, and I’ve learned enough since finishing the book that I could never write The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope again. It was just too cumbersome. So my 1,000 word essays for Image Journal are it for now. I want to write 50 of those and publish it as my next book. Not that the first book has been published yet, but … you get the picture. I liked tangents way too much before, and I still like them, but I’m learning to streamline things a bit.

AA:  Speaking of first publications, obviously, you and I (and a bunch of other people on Twitter and FaceBook) know that my digital publishing venture, eLectio Publishing, will be releasing your collection of essays about your wedding, marriage and parenthood a little later this year.  Obviously, in order to write a book like Nightmarriage that is very self-effacing at times, you have to be able to look at yourself and laugh, sometimes in situations that were probably very painful at the time.  How are you able to re-cast “cringe-inducing” situations in such a way that (1) they are pleasing for you to write, and (2) enjoyable for the reader?

CTJ:  Well, mostly I don’t like to think I have to remain the monster that I am at my worst moments. So the writing is a chance to redeem darker moments by finding humor in them.

People all have their flaws, and when two people marry, their flaws get married too. So it’s basically like agreeing to create a disaster with one particular person for the rest of your lives together.

In the end though, my worst moments, and my wife’s worst moments, are not definitive of who we are. They’re part of who we are, but they’re not all we are. Like this weekend, I lost the gas cap to my wife’s Honda Civic, and she was not all that thrilled about it. Neither was I. But am I only a guy who loses gas caps? No. Plus, my wife lost her driver’s license and debit card a few days later, so she could hardly be too mad at me about the gas cap. The best part is, I found her missing cards. So I got to be the hero. And in the end, two people who lose things cancel each other out. Neither is better than the other.

Nightmarriage is not a terribly serious book. It’s not a guide to marriage, or a seedy, gossipy kind of tell-all. It’s playful dark comedy, and it’s me looking back at the stories my wife Becki and I end up telling about ourselves to each other and the people in our lives that are privy to our dumber moments. It’s a compilation of blog entries, but I’ve gone back and reworked them and hopefully elevated them to book-writing status. (Emphasis on “hopefully.”)

In the end, I hope it entertains. But I also hope it gives other people permission to find humor in their own stories, no matter how awkward they are initially.

AA:  I also know that you are writing your first major work of fiction with a co-author who lives in Virginia.  You seem to have more of a natural proclivity for writing non-fiction pieces.  How difficult has it been to make the transition?  What have you been your biggest obstacles thus far?

CTJ:  My biggest obstacle has been, and remains, time. Time is eating my lunch. I want to write a lot more than I do, but it’s not an option if I want to spend adequate time with my family, get adequate sleep, function at my day job, and take care of my body.

I definitely do prefer non-fiction, but I had an idea for a fiction book, and I wanted to write a follow up to The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope that was less laborious and less of an Olympic exercise in navel-gazing.

The other thing is, I understand and appreciate when other writers succeed in dramatizing ideas, but it’s harder for me to do it myself. Coming up with ideas is no problem at all. But making it all hang together is a challenge.

I still prefer non-fiction simply because I feel most like myself when I am writing it. I consider myself an essayist above all other things when it comes to writing. I have accepted that.

AA:  I found myself in an opposite situation.  I started by writing and publishing short fiction, and then through a series of unusual circumstances, I ended up writing and self-publishing a full-length work of Biblically-based non-fiction with the Senior Pastor at my church.  Fortunately, in my situation, I was able to exercise the creative muscle in my brain by crafting anecdotes to illustrate the concepts in each chapter.  Now, I’m working on a companion Bible Study, which really doesn’t offer much in the way of creative liberties.  It’s going to be a challenge.  We’ll see how it turns out.
Speaking of co-authoring, how do you find writing a book with someone else?

CTJ: My co-author Amanda Lynch does a great job of developing characters, and I’m more of a concept guy. I have a hard time making nonexistent characters spring to life and remain consistent throughout the duration of a story. I think I am just mostly a nonfiction writer, and I had this idea for this book that is a Young Adult-ish supernatural fiction piece, and I thought Amanda would be a good fit for it.

She lays a lot of the groundwork, and I fill in the details. The project has been paused for awhile now, as Amanda had her second child only a few months after Becki and I had our one and only (so far). Babies make rigid writing schedules a little less feasible when other things like jobs, spouses, and other things get in the way. But so far, we’ve had a lot of fun together, making something out of nothing. We need to press our noses to the grindstone again.

AA:  I know that certainly as I develop as a writer (and continue to do so, although I have a long way to go), there are some egregious errors and habits that I’ve shed over the past few years during my maturity.  If you had access to the mythical “Doc Brown DeLorean” and could go back in time and tell your younger self (oh, say, 10 or 15 years ago) some really valuable piece of advice regarding writing or the business in general, what would it be?

CTJ:  I would tell my younger self that it’s okay if he doesn’t figure out his life direction until he’s almost 30. Some people just take longer to finish cooking than others. I know who I am and what I want to do now. I couldn’t say that for sure when I was 27, or even 28. I am a writer, and a hunter-gatherer of beautiful and bizarre things, and I catch them all in my butterfly net and write about my pretty prisoners. Then I set them free for the world to see, that God might be glorified. Repeat ad infinitum. Amen.

AA:  Amen, indeed.

Chad Thomas Johnston is a writer, blogger, artist, singer-songwriter, and publicist who resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines.  He is represented by Seattle-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, to publishing houses. He is a regular contributor to IMAGE Journal's "Good Letters" blog at  He has also written for The Baylor Lariat, and contributed a feature to ex-Melody Maker music journalist/Nirvana biographer Everett True's

His collection of essays, Nightmarriage, will be published by eLectio Publishing in late 2012.

JESSE S. GREEVER is "The Accidental Author" and CEO of eLectio Publishing, a digital publisher for Christian authors.  If you are a Christian author and have a manuscript that you think is worthy of publication, check out the submission guidelines and follow the directions for manuscript submissions.

Greever is also a co-author of the book, Learning to Give in a Getting World, and numerous fiction titles from Untreed Reads publishing.
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