Welcome to The Pitch, a regular series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to fiction writer Will Johnson about his novel, This Is How You Talk to Strangers, due out from The Porcupine’s Quill in Fall 2016.
OK, pitch away.
This Is How You Talk to Strangers revolves around three main characters—Paisley Troutman, a dread-locked gypsy folk singer, Neil Solomon, a heroin addict turned cult leader, and Trent Stonehouse, a Christian youth pastor accused of child molestation and languishing in a Mexican penitentiary. Comprised of 21 linked narratives, This Is How You Talk to Strangers takes the reader from the fictional west coast town of Garibaldi, situated on the Sea to Sky Highway, out to Gulf Island refuges populated by pious hippies and up to the Yukon's Midnight Sun Hotel and back down to a drug motel on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. It’s a music-heavy, Ecclesiastes-themed novel that stretches over decades, spans continents and features misfits, exiles and fuck-ups grappling with religious disillusionment, substance abuse and the long-term consequences of institutionalized shame.
What makes how you deal with religion different than the way the subject is usually handled in fiction?
Ecclesiastes tells us “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but as Christian rapper John Reuben sang to me as a teenager “I’m just trying to do it like it’s never been done.”
One aspect I explore is the idea of public testimony, which was a large part of my Christian upbringing. At summer camp we routinely gathered around the fire pit to hear seasoned Christians tell carefully craftted stories about how they were “saved” by Jesus. When I became a camp counsellor as a teenager, we were taught how best to construct these narratives to make them convincing and compelling for our youthful audiences. Later, when I left the church, I wondered about the anti-testimonies: what about the people who used to believe in God and now don’t? Who accepted Jesus as their saviour and then decided it was all bullshit? What about those people? Shouldn’t they tell their stories too?
In a sense my book is 21 anti-testimonies, characters grappling with the contradictions and failings of religion, unable to fill the “God-shaped hole” evangelical Christians describe.
What’s the structural advantage of linked narratives—how does it help you tell your story of disillusionment, abuse and shame?
There was a point, as a teenage bible camp counselor, where I realized I had radically different identities within the different social groups in my life. Christians viewed me a rebel, engaging in horrifying and sinful behaviour, while the heathen kids considered me a hopeless, hilariously naive virgin. How could both be true? It was one of the first times I grappled with the idea of variant identities, and felt the freedom that comes from realizing that other people don't dictate your “truth.” In this novel, you see the main characters' lives through a variety of unreliable narrators, each uniquely positioned to experience a different aspect of that person's life. The story Neil Solomon's younger brother Cody will tell about him, for instance, will be significantly different than the narrative offered by his gypsy folk musician girlfriend Paisley, or his best friend Tyler. And the form changes as well—I have stories in first, second and third person, while some are antiphonal or fragmented or told through ekphrasis--which is my way of trying to channel the multitude of voices and perspectives I've created.
The book appears to have a lot of moving parts. Are you partial to maximalist fiction—fiction that tries to do and say (and show!) more rather than less?
Yes. I’m a David Mitchell acolyte and an George R. R. Martin aficionado. I love the idea of world-building, and as a writer I get a real kick out of concocting family histories and complex, specific societies. (My partner Darby bought me blackboard paint for my bedroom wall, and that’s where I do a lot of this invention work.) When people read my book I want them to feel like they’re engaging with a multi-faceted universe and to get the sense that they’re only experiencing the iceberg-tip of that reality.
Excerpt: "The Kings"
The Kings moved to Garibaldi, into the house over our back fence, during the summer of 1988. It wasn’t long before Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson got caught doping in the the South Korean Olympics. There’s no reason why I should remember this event—I was a precocious four-year-old at the time—but two weeks later my younger brother Neil was born and ever since I’ve felt as if the two events were linked somehow, silly as that may sound. My mother Pam, who had originally vowed never to conceive again after the 36-hour labour she endured producing me, had reluctantly settled into her housebound existence and was at least feigning happiness at her second pregnancy when the scandal happened. Her next child was supposed to be named Benjamin, in honour of her brother who was killed when she was a little girl, but after the weeks-long spectacle over Johnson’s humiliation my father Bruce convinced her there was no way they could give their next child the same moniker as the internationally disgraced athlete. Instead she named my little brother Neil, after the astronaut. He coincidentally ended up sharing his name with both Mr. King and his toddler son.
Neil King Jr. was a runty blond introvert who still used a soother at three-years-old. I spied him through the cracked slats of our back fence a few days after the moving truck arrived, playing in the knee-high morning grass, and decided he seemed like a suitable playmate. The Kings had a square orange trampoline in their backyard with the words SUNDANCE twirling in curlicues around the perimeter. During the years that Neil and I were kid-paired he taught me how to bum drop, how to back flip and how to crack the egg. On hot days we positioned the sprinkler underneath and giggled screaming as we splashed through the mesh mist. Neil’s penis was the first I ever saw, a pink nubbin wrinkled and withdrawn after an afternoon water fight. We were about six years old at the time.
“Looks like a pinkie,” I said.
“If you rub it really hard with a towel it points straight up.”
He agreed to satisfy my curiosity about his body as long as I was willing to reciprocate, and there on our suburban trampoline we wriggled out of our clothes and felt that first illicit rush of deviance. Our experimentations were innocent and playful, but somehow we both understood we were doing something taboo, forbidden. When I lost my virginity to a lust-crazed stoner from my high school drama class years later his forceful six-minute performance was a sickening disappointment compared to Neil’s tender exploration.
Neil was the one who insisted we interrogate his mother about the logistics of sex. Together we learned the basics while cross-legged on the carpet at her feet.
“Remember, though, it’s only for grown-ups who are married,” she told us. “And you have to be in love.”
“But is it true?” Neil asked, pumping his fist against his leg. He’d previously described the sexual act in the crudest possible terms, which had sent his mother into a blushing fit.
“Yes, that’s how it works.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
Her eyes darted in my direction, as if she were noticing me for the first time.
“Yes,” she said. “Sometimes.”
WILL JOHNSON's debut novel, This Is How You Talk to Strangers, is forthcoming in the fall of 2016.
CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor.
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