by Carolyn Blais
Don’t let its title deceive you, Irish Girl, Tim Johnston’s latest book is a collection of eight short stories that explore life and happenings in small town USA. Hailing from Iowa, Johnston knows a thing or two about the ugly secrets that can often exist buried within the confines of a seemingly sleepy, small town. While the stories within Irish Girl vary in plot and theme, they do share similar small town settings in which such things as murders, love affairs, and lies are uncovered and dispersed from one gossiping townsperson to the next.
Upon arriving at Book Soup on Thursday, December 10, I was quickly greeted by the man of the hour himself, Tim Johnston. I had traveled to the trendy bookstore on Sunset Boulevard for a special night of readings from Johnston’s Irish Girl. The event was hosted by The New Short Fiction Series with Sally Shore. Shore, a spoken-word artist and actress, began this series 14 years ago and it continues to be a creative showcase for not only authors and their works, but also for actors. On this particular evening, Shore read an expert from “Water,” the second story from Irish Girl. As producer of the series, Shore picks works of fiction that possess a “voice that jumps out” from the page. As an actor, Shore’s job is therefore made easy as this voice is able to articulate her motivation. A second reading was given by Matthew Thomas Lange who read from “Dirtmen”, the first story in the collection which tells the morbid tale of a group of men who uncover the remains of a woman while working at a Biopark. What’s perhaps more disturbing is the way in which it is alluded to how the body came to be there. The suspense, intriguing characterization and descriptive imagery of Johnston’s writings were brilliantly portrayed through the two readings.
For Johnston, writing fiction is all about creating a story that “sentence by sentence, makes you pay attention.” The sometimes carpenter, other times award winning author, is pleasant and laidback as he fills me in on his work process. It all begins with reading, Johnston informs me. Before he sits down to write anything he gets “charged up by language” by re-visiting some of his favorite novels by authors like Cormac McCarthy and William Trevor. To read is in fact the answer Johnston gives when I ask if he has any advice for young writers. “Don’t try to be a writer without reading” he says, along with “be willing to fail” and “hang in there if you do.” When I ask what serves as inspiration in order to start the creative juices flowing, Johnston reveals that most of his ideas come from a visual scene or scenario that pops into his head. From this visual, the author is able to develop characters and gain a sense of setting and situation. Personal experience often comes into play in terms of setting as seen by the many rural locales in Johnston’s stories. Growing up in Iowa City Johnston knows first hand the kind of mentality that can exist within small towns and how tragic events can seem that much more dramatic on a small scale. Often tragic events are depicted in Johnston’s stories, though he does not necessarily set out with an exact storyline. Forgoing the confines of outlines, Johnston usually has a sense of where the story is going, but admits that it often doesn’t get there as different characters or plots can take precedence midway through. Sometimes writing just a paragraph a day, other times hammering out a completed short story in two and a half days, Johnston’s writing schedule fluctuates. Always writing one story at a time however, Johnston’s use of language is perfectly crafted by his attention to even the minutest detail. Irish Girl is surely a testament of success in Johnston’s original goal of making readers pay attention sentence by sentence.
Lucky for us, Johnston is in the midst of writing a new novel which tells “the story of the Courtlands, a young family from Wisconsin who, while on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, suffers the unthinkable when a teenage son and daughter go up into the mountains, but only the son comes back down.” Until its debut on a bookstore shelf, one can enjoy Johnston’s Irish Girl, and also his first novel Never So Green. To learn more about Tim Johnston visit his website at http://www.timjohnston.net/ or to catch a sneak peak excerpt from his next novel go to http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/stories-week-2009-2010/two-years. As for The New Short Fiction Series with Sally Shore, look for more readings next year at their new location at Barnsdall Park (http://www.newshortfictionseries.com/). I know I look forward to Johnston and Shore hopefully teaming up again in the future to produce another event ripe with both literary and theatrical flair.
What: Tim Johnston Reading hosted by the New Short Fiction Series with
Sally Shore and Book Soup
Where: Book Soup 8818 West Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90069-2125
When: Thursday, December 10, 2009 7pm