By Leslie Lindsay
In sparse, biting, yet eloquent and compressed prose, Savannah Johnston reveals the truths, sorrow, and joys of the mundane and extraordinary in this collection of stories featuring Indigenous people of Oklahoma.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK|FICTION FRIDAY
Leslie Lindsay & Savannah Johnston in conversation
Savannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma living in NYC. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, HTML giant, and Gravel, among others. Rites: Stories is her debut collection of fiction, published by Jaded Ibis, a feminist press committed to sharing literature from voices of people of color, those with disabilities, and culturally marginalized voices.
ABOUT RITES: Stories:
Each of the stories in RITES presents a rich, complex interior life, encompassing the lives of a man newly released from prison as he attempts to reconnect with his family, a young well-endowed girl who becomes a sex worker, drunken feuds at motels, a son who must bury his father, and more. They are struggling, echoes and penumbras of society, and yet we can all disentangle the implications and see ourselves within.
Johnston presents all of her characters with a sort of sympathy, and yet they are marginalized, hurt and hurting, neglected, and still they sustain. To go into each story would almost be a disservice, and while they are not exactly interlined, they do present a cohesive nature in terms of theme, place, and overall disparity. Her prose is richly layered and descriptive, showcasing a strong sense of observation, of both the physical and emotional world.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Savannah Johnston to the author interview series.
Savannah, it’s wonderful to chat. Thank you for taking the time. I am so struck by this collection. It’s emotionally visceral, but also a physical palpation as well. I often like to ask about inspiration as one of my first questions, and that usually works when we’re talking about one story, as in a novel. Since RITES is a collection of stories, I can only imagine that your inspirations and motivations were varied. Can you talk about that, please?
When I started writing the stories, I was trying to show the kind of communities I grew up in and around, and the realities of life in Oklahoma. I was always writing stories from the time I could write, poems, short stories, et cetera, but I only began to take it really seriously in undergrad. I went to a very white, privileged university on a scholarship, and the disconnect between my home and this new space was incredibly jarring. My first night in the dorms, a new friend’s roommate drunkenly asked me how many floors my teepee had when he learned I am Indigenous and from Oklahoma. I wanted to drop out so badly for the first two years, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mom. In a way, I guess you could say I started writing about home because I wanted to go home.
As I got older and matured as a writer and a person, the project evolved to be a kind of study of life in and on the margins in Oklahoma, especially for Indigenous people. Oklahoma is a very diverse state, with many sovereign nations within its borders, and Indigenous people are straddling both worlds. I wanted to show the perseverance, humor, grace, and hopefully triumph of our stories.
As much as I intended to read RITES straight through, like I might a novel, or an essay, I found I had to sit it aside to ‘digest’ the stories. There was a bit of ‘mulling over,’ if you will. In fact, the book became water-logged in a rain storm because I kept it in a canvas bag and would read when I had a moment in the sun. Waterlogged. That’s what I think this collection is about: weathered lives. Can you expand on that, please?
I think it is difficult to be a person in general, but being Indigenous in North America has its own difficulties, and every nation has its own struggles and traumas to unpack. But they also have their own triumphs, as I said. As silly as it may sound, a throwaway punchline from Boy Meets World has actually stuck with me since I saw it as a kid:
“Life’s tough, get a helmet.”
And I think that is how my characters go through life. You make do, you make a joke, and you keep moving, and hope the next day is a little better. And if it isn’t? There’s always tomorrow.
With short stories, as a writer, I often find it a challenge to know when one ends. Things might not always be resolved, and that’s okay, I think. Personally, the nebulous shape of an ending keeps the characters moving forward. How do you recognize the end in your own work?
I don’t think stories ever really end, you just stop telling that part. In my stories, I like to end on an image, some moment of clarity or opacity, something of a gut punch, good or bad. I have always been a big reader and a big television fan, and I do think that my obsession with episodic television has informed how I end my short stories and how I visualize each story as an episode in that character’s life. There is always an implicit “To Be Continued” in my mind when I end a story, and I like having the option to revisit those worlds if I so choose.
What one or two things do you hope others take away from RITES?
I hope readers take away a sense of hope and a sense of humor. Some of my stories are dark, I understand that, but there is a little bit of hope and a little bit of joy in each one (sometimes both, sometimes not). And I think that’s how life is, or at least my understanding of it. I also want readers to leave the book with a better understanding of the many different lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Oklahoma. The place is more than a jaunty musical number.
What’s on your to-do list today? It doesn’t have to be literary.
I have tomorrow off work so I would love to clean my apartment. Perhaps get some drafting done on the novel I’m working on. I did a comic swap with a coworker so I’d like to get into that so we can talk about it when we work together next.
“These stories are raw postcards from an America that has found its chronicler. Unflinching and honest, Savannah Johnston’s compelling work, her necessary Choctaw voice, is an important addition to contemporary fiction.”
— Sabina Murray, PEN/Faulkner Award winning author of The Human Zoo and Valiant Gentlemen
Savannah, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. Is there anything I should have asked, but forgot, or something you’d like to ask me?
I feel very blessed at the kind and gracious reception the book has had so far, and I just to thank you for inviting me, and give a shout-out to all the people who have helped me along the way—you know who you are. I love you all. Thanks again ❤.
For more information, to connect with Savannah Johnston, or to purchase a copy of RITES: Stories, please visit:
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You might also like:
I was reminded, in part of the the work of John McCarthy, SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES (prose poetry) with a touch of Laura McHugh, particularly WHAT HAPPENS IN DARNESS (a novel, not a short story collection), and also perhaps the short stories of Elizabeth McCracken. Check out this fabulous Washington Post review about RITES.
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org
October will feature some fabulous fall titles, including speculative memoir in as well as highly-anticipated titles like Donald Antrim’s ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL: A Memoir of Suicide and Survival (the first week of October is Mental Illness Awareness Week, 10/10 is World Mental Health Day, and 10/14 marks National Depression Screening Day), A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS (Laraine Herring), a round-up of Maggie Smith’s poetry, Naomi Krupitsky’s THE FAMILY, and others.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Savannah Johnston is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, HTMLgiant, and Gravel, among others. She lives in New York City.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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Cover and author image courtesy of Jaded Ibis Press and used with permission.