Corpus native Bret Anthony Johnston returns to launch 'Remember Me Like This'
May 7, 2014 at 12:07 a.m.
Corpus Christi native Bret Anthony Johnston returns home Saturday for the official Texas launch of his new novel, "Remember Me Like This." Johnston appeared in 2010 at the University of Houston-Victoria American Book Review reading series. Advocate Editor Chris Cobler interviewed the author.
Q. I find I'm drawn most to literature that turns the setting of the novel into an important character. For your two books, Corpus Christi is that fascinating character. Some who grew up there as you did would say it's a dull Gulf Coast city lacking the excitement and sophistication of the East Coast, where you live now. What makes it more than that for you?
A. I find South Texas endlessly fascinating, and the longer I'm away from the area, the more fascinating it becomes. It's a rich and complex character. There are stories that can only happen in that part of the country, and yet those stories matter and resonate with readers around the world. Those are the stories I want to tell.
Q. I read your beautiful piece in The New York Times in 2007 about how you sort of stumbled into attending Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at age 22. Knowing that background, I must ask: How in the world did a skater boy from Corpus end up as an award-winning author and creative writing director at Harvard?
A. People from South Texas know how to work. If you work at the Naval Air Station, the oil refineries or on a shrimping boat, you get up early and come home late. I treat writing and teaching the same way. I don't romanticize the job at all. I log the hours the same way I would if I were raising cattle. The good fortune that I've had in my career hasn't happened in spite of where and how I grew up; it's the result of where and how I grew up.
Q. In both "Corpus Christi: Stories" and "Remember Me Like This," you take the readers to dark, troubling corners of the human psyche. What draws you to such places? Why do you want to take readers there?
A. I think you find out who someone really is when they're in trouble, so that's what I'm trying to do: Find out who people are. I want the readers to have a dynamic and memorable experience, and I want them to be surprised along the way. My stories can be dark and intense, but I hope they surprise the reader with their hopefulness, with the light that breaks through the clouds not after the storm but during it.
Q. Where did you get the inspiration to write about a boy's kidnapping that forever changed his family? Did you read a newspaper article or hear about some incident like this when you were growing up?
A. Like so much of my fiction, "Remember Me Like This" started in an unexpected way. Like one of the characters in the novel, I'd volunteered to help in a dolphin rescue, and I remember seeing an inflatable beach toy that someone had brought in for the dolphin. This was in Corpus, almost two decades ago. For years, I wondered about the air inside that toy, who had blown it up. About six years ago, I realized the woman who had brought it in was the mother of a missing boy, and the breath inside the toy was his. I realized she was trying to save the dolphin because she thought she'd failed to save him. I wrote the novel to find out what would happen next.
Q. I was enthralled with the excerpt you read from "Remember Me Like This" at your American Book Review appearance in April 2010. After that, I'd go by the "J's" in every bookstore I visited to see whether your new book had arrived yet. Tell me about your writing process.
A. I'm a very slow writer, and I try to work every day. I tend to write the whole draft without ever rereading it until I'm done, then I go back and cut out everything that isn't working, everything that I needed to get to the second draft but won't need to get to the third. All of my fiction goes through multiple drafts. I'm as patient as I am stubborn. I refuse to rush because I don't think anyone wants to read a book that was written quickly. I know I don't.
Q. My memory could be faulty after four years, but I don't recall the description of the Corpus Christi flea market you read in Victoria being used in "Remember Me Like This." Why not?
A. You're absolutely right! This is a perfect example of what I'm mentioned earlier. I needed to write that scene to get to the next draft, but finally, the book didn't require that moment to be dramatized in the pages. The event is still referenced a number of times, and I (and you) know exactly how it happened, but the scene itself is gone. The characters lived through it off the page, and it helped the book become what it is. I don't see that as wasted effort or time at all.
Q. What authors do you look for when you're browsing in a bookstore?
A. That depends on my reading mood. Right now, I'm researching two future projects, so most of my reading consists of books on the siege of the compound in Waco in 1993 and anything and everything about chupacabras.
Q. How often do you return to Corpus Christi? When you come May 10 for the official Texas launch of your book, what else do you plan to do? What's your favorite place to go when you're home?
A. Over the years, I've taken a few trips to Corpus for research, but I don't get back there as often as I'd like. One of the things I'm looking forward to when I head down for the Literary Reading Series is spending time in the area and soaking up more stories. And I plan on eating a lot of Whataburgers, carne guisada and fried shrimp. I like to go to Half Price Books, and I like to drive around the area and get lost. If I go look for stories, I never find them, but if I get lost, they tend to find me just fine.
Q. What is your next project? I know authors hate to put a deadline on their work, but do we have to wait another four years for your next novel?
A. I'm just a couple of stories away from having another collection of stories, tentatively titled "Encounters with Unexpected Animals," and I'm starting to move toward a new novel. I've also been contacted about adapting "Remember Me Like This" for film, so I may work on that. I'm a slow writer, but I'm also always working. I don't know how long it will take for the next thing, but I promise to do my best to make it worth the wait.