Bret Anthony Johnston is the director of the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. Johnston is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Remember Me Like This, and the winner of the 2015 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize. His story “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” won the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, “the world’s richest and most prestigious prize for a single short story,” and was published by American Short Fiction. Johnston is also the author of the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work appears in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Best American Short Stories, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts.
Thao Votang: For the last 11 years, you have been Director of Creative Writing at Harvard. What were some things you weighed before accepting the position at the Michener Center?
Bret Anthony Johnston: I can be an intensely logical person, sometimes to a fault, so I weighed, you know, basically everything. Then I weighed it a hundred more times. I looked at the opportunity from every conceivable angle, applied pressure to every potential soft spot. What ultimately sealed the deal, though, were the Michener Center students. I’m not simply talking about their gifts as writers, the depth and breadth of which cannot be overstated, but rather their abiding commitment to their craft, to this vocation. They’re taking a huge risk for their art, and I admire such courage to no end. I wanted to be part of their journey. It’s my firm belief that the work coming out of the Michener Center for Writers, both by students and faculty, is shaping the culture of literary art in all its genres. And I believe the Center’s influence will only grow in the future. I want to be part of that shift. It’s humbling, inspiring, selfish.
TV: What are you most looking forward to experiencing in Austin? In your essay “Ode to Giant Cowboy Boots,” you mention skipping school and driving out to Austin to skateboard. Have you been back to Austin between skateboarding as a kid and considering the Michener position?
BAJ: I’ve spent a lot of time in Austin over the years — BookPeople, Brushy Creek Skatepark, Waterloo Records, Gordough’s Donuts, Citywide Garage Sales, No Comply skate shop. I was part of the team who did the documentary film Waiting for Lightning, which premiered at SXSW, and I’ve seen some amazing music there. One of my absolute favorite bands is The Sword, and they’re out of Austin. They did a New Year’s Eve show at Emo’s a few years ago, and I got the singer’s setlist. It’s framed on my bookshelf. Austin has always been a special place for me. That I’ll be within driving distance of all of these things is an embarrassment of riches. Plus, Whataburger. Plus, Willie.
TV: So we know you write and teach. What do you like to do in your spare time? Any hobbies or obsessions?
BAJ: I skate a lot. Like, a lot.
TV: In a previous interview, you talk about how you approach writing like work. How do you stay inspired?
BAJ: I don’t really trust inspiration. The idea lacks ballast for me. What feels truer is that I tend to stay very curious — about situations, about people, about consequences, about choices, about language. The daily work, the long and slow labor, cultivates that curiosity. I’m fascinated and comforted by how changing a single word can send a sentence, character, or novel caroming into a different direction. Each word is freighted with the distinct potential to surprise. So, no, I don’t worry about staying inspired. I feel lucky to show up for work each morning.
TV: How do you navigate marketing yourself? Do you think emerging/early career writers are facing a different market than you faced when you were starting out? (I noticed you didn’t seem to be on social media…or have hidden them!)
BAJ: There’s no question that writers are facing a different market. Whether it’s tougher than when I was starting out is, I think, a coin toss. The reality is that the world has always made it exceedingly difficult to be a writer, and I’ve always taken that difficulty as a given, the price of admission. I’ve never expected any aspect of this life to be easy or profitable. And yes, I’m fairly allergic to marketing myself, and that’s caused some friction with my publisher, but I also try to accommodate those requests that don’t leave me feeling I’m selling jars of snake oil.
TV: Do you have writing rituals — or perhaps strange or mundane superstitions?
BAJ: I tend to generate new material before lunch, then revise in the afternoon and evening. I wish I had superstitions. I’d be a far more interesting person if I put faith in shooting stars.
TV: You were very passionate in your remarks to the Austin Chronicle about supporting the fellows at the Michener Center. How has mentoring and teaching impacted you and your writing?
BAJ: I’ve had a number of teachers who opened up the world for me, and the same is true for emerging writers I’ve taught, so I’ve benefited from mentoring on both sides. When a teacher that I admired took an interest in my work, I felt as though I’d been given a rare kind of permission. Permission to explore more, to push deeper into the writing, to take the stupid thing through another draft — permission to keep at this whole vexing and inefficient business for a while longer. I hope my students feel some version of that, a sense that what they’re doing matters. You’d have to ask them. I just know that I come away feeling bolstered by their excitement, by their beliefs and hopes for their projects, by their commitment to twenty-six letters and their infinite combinations.
TV: What are you reading, listening to, or looking at right now?
BAJ: I’m reading Paul Yoon’s beautiful new collection THE MOUNTAIN, listening to a San Antonio band called One More Hour and Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals’ CALL IT WHAT IT IS, and looking at a bunch of books and skateboards that need to be packed before I move to Texas. Things could be much, much worse.
Photos by Bill Driver.