Brianna Johnson’s stories have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine (online), and the Molotov Cocktail. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize nomination for work featured in Gigantic Sequins (Issue 9.2). An MFA graduate from the University of Tampa, she lives in Orlando, Florida, where she teaches and serves as managing editor of Burrow Press online journal Fantastic Floridas. An excerpt from her story “Black-Woman” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2020 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Black-Woman”?
I’m honestly not 100% sure. I know the story began while I was in the middle of a lecture during grad school. I admittedly wasn’t paying much attention, so I can’t remember what the lecture was about, but as I was doodling in my notebook I just jotted down the words “Black Woman.” Then I thought, “What if this was someone’s name?” and suddenly I saw her—this little black girl stuck with this odd name. I don’t even know why I thought of it as a name, but there she was and I was curious to figure out the impact this burden had on her.
There is a timeless quality to the story and the setting. Was this challenging to achieve? What would you tell other writers who aspire to write something that feels ageless?
Time is something I’ve struggled with/against for years, so I’m glad you think the story feels timeless. I think my general dislike of time made it easier to write a “timeless” story or rather one without a strict temporal setting. So, if I were to give other writers advice it would be don’t worry about it too much. Write what you want and include the details you want; if they turn out to be anachronistic or too contemporary . . . oh well! Let that be an issue for the reader not you. The past and the present coexist every day, so why not in our stories? Focus your energy on creating interesting characters and immersive physical settings; time will take care of itself. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction ignore all of this.
How has your writing changed since you started out?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a little girl, so I’d say my writing has gotten more self-conscious; however my grammar has definitely improved. I’ve also embraced writing about and for black people. When I first started taking writing seriously I stuck to generic descriptions of characters; they were blank canvases upon which readers could project themselves. Yet, why wouldn’t a nonblack reader be able to relate to a black character? So, I decided to stop trying to cater to everyone and write about the people I wanted to write about.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Everything is writing-related, but I’d say I’m influenced by three major things—my love of music, my love of movies, and my love of family. Every story I write has a song or songs that go with it. I approach my stories cinematically; if I can visualize each moment while I’m writing then I’m on the right track. And, of course I always want to write something that will make my family proud. They’re the readers I want to impress.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
A mentor once told me, “Don’t force the subtext.” I was trying to make my stories have some great meaning, but I became so focused on making my writing “deep” that I became bogged down in the subtext rather than focusing on the text itself. So, now I really try (emphasis on try) to focus on just telling the story and making sure it has a beginning, middle, and end. That’s it. Of course, I still hope it makes people consider larger themes, but whether they do or not isn’t my problem.
As for the worst piece of advice, I was once told to stop planning. I don’t plan every step of a story, but I don’t start writing unless I know the beginning and the end. This mentor thought I was limiting myself, but without those parameters I’d never finish anything.