I met Chad Thomas Johnston through our mutual friend Jennifer Luitweiler, and for a couple of years now, I’ve enjoyed his insights, his quirky tweets, and his honest writing . . . plus, he posts the cutest pictures of his adorable daughter. Chad is one of those writers who doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about what he is (or isn’t) doing; instead, he just writes. I love that. . . and I think you’ll love this interview.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
I have three current projects:
The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, a 100K+ word book that is currently in the hands of Puget Sound-based editor Cathy Warner, who manages Image Journal‘s blog, “Good Letters.” It’s an essay-driven work of creative nonfiction—a memoir—that explores a variety of topics through the lenses of theology, pop culture, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I began writing it in October of 2007, and my agent shopped it around for two years (2011-2012) with no takers. After some feedback from a few houses, I realized it was essentially an overgrown shrub of a book that need pruning desperately. Enter Cathy Warner. We’ll see what transpires.
Nightmarriage, a 30K+ word book I intend to finish editing this month. It’s a whimsical memoir about my marriage, and it features all sorts of unhinged stories, including a riff on how a famous African-American celebrity dies every time my wife and I try to celebrate our anniversary. I did cover art for it a few months back, and opted for a mixed media approach with the usual—you know, knives, black wire twisted into a circular, cursive rendering of my name, and a font made out of all the cutlery we own—that kind of thing.
Best of all with this book, I hope to redeem the good name of the e-book, which I think most people view as something disposable. There are links to all sorts of freebies, appendices featuring recipes, original art by Kansas City-based Danny Joe Gibson, and a pile of other goodies. It’s like Christmas morning, but without a creepy guy in a red suit breaking into your house to bring it to you.
Read the synopsis here (https://www.
My third project is my ongoing essays for IMAGE Journal‘s blog at Patheos.com. I wrote sixteen 1,000-word essays for them in the past year alongside film critic Jeff Overstreet, former NPR All Things Considered guru Caroline Langston, and lots of other people whose résumés are quite enviable, and whose writings are ridiculously amazing. I hope to publish a book of these essays after I knock out 50-75 of them.
Read my collected, published online works here: http://
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I wrote little books and bound them with cardboard and Christmas paper when I was in the third and fourth grade, and my classmates checked them out from me. I have never been a terribly avid reader, but I have always written, and I always steep myself in culture, whether it be books, films, music, podcasts, radio, etc. So there is always something percolating in my brain for new writings.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I try to write 2-3 hours a day, and that’s honestly about all I can do. The way I write is sort of ridiculous. I must think way too hard or something, because the steam starts to come out my ears after awhile, and all those happy neurotransmitters that say “Create! Create! Create!” deplete and leave me deflated like an old, popped balloon.
I generally sit down at my desk early in the morning if I can. I used to write everyday at 5 a.m., but then I became a stay-at-home-dad, and now I’m lucky to get a word count of any kind before I begin counting dirty diapers. I write when I can, and I make myself do it regardless of how I feel. I write on my desktop computer with two desklamps and two overhead lights on, usually without music, and usually with coffee nearby and a cat or two on my lap.
4. Who are you reading now?
Jesse S. Greever’s The Perdition of Zephyr Hopkins
Susannah Calahan’s Brain of Fire—I sent her a tweet on Twitter and she was kind enough to write me back. I love it when authors comport themselves with that kind of grace.
Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town—I have long been a fan of ’90s Seattle music. This is an oral history, and a great one at that, with quotes from all the major and minor players in the big, dirty drama.Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—My friend Brandon, who owns the ax on the cover of Nightmarriage (and who wields it in an essay in the book), turned me on to this. It’s cyberpunk from 1992, pre-Internet (at least in the widespread usage sense), very post-modern, and very creative. Brandon is very cerebral, and so is the book. Connecting with the characters is difficult in a way because they are not written to have “heart” as much as they are written to be cool participants in this big, cerebral drama. I need to finish it. I’m over halfway through it now.
Philip Yancey’s I—I have read most of his books, and after Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook shooting and too many other tragedies, I turn to Yancey for wisdom.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
I sent D. T. Max a tweet this week telling him how much I loved The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, and I can say that’s one that has stayed with me for years. It’s about this extremely rare medical disorder called Fatal Familial Insomnia, and it’s just fascinating. Reading it is like watching a magician pull not one or two or three handkerchiefs out of his sleeve, but fifty!
I loved Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and his sci-fi trilogy (which I think is very underrated).
Anything by Flannery O’Connor. I adore her black humor, her extreme caricatures, her spare prose, and the way she manages to extract grace from the most graceless characters and situations.
Katherine Willis Pershey‘s Any Day a Beautiful Change was a really beautiful memoir I read and reviewed last year. I recommend it for any women who are interested in the ministry.
I haven’t really answered your question exactly, but I also don’t really have three favorite books, I suppose. (Was it obvious?)
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Not very well anymore. When my daughter was born, I was able to keep my blog running for awhile. But then I realized I’d rather connect with people on Twitter, write polished pieces like my IMAGE Journal blogs, and promote them via my blog and social media. I have stopped caring about trying to blog with any consistency, as that kind of writing detracts from what I really want to do, which is to craft these polished pieces that kind of all belong to the same tonal, topical family. I have cut down all detractors and really just focused on this now.
7.What is a typical day like for you?
Chaotic. Cleaning up cat poop, pee, and vomit. Changing diapers. Cleaning the house and scraping food of the kitchen and living room floors after my daughter Evie wreaks havoc upon them. Writing 2-3 hours. Treadmilling 4 miles if I can make myself do it. Spending time in the evening with the wife and baby. Watching movies when I can. Corresponding with other authors, friends, other creative types (artists, etc.), tweeting terrible puns, gulping coffee (both caffeinated and decaf), reading a few chapters of a book or two, cooking dinner, and cleaning again after Evie plunders the house yet again. It’s about as fragmented and mental as it gets.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
No people in it. No noises. Just my five cats, coffee, and a clone of myself that can keep writing after I tire. Also, I want my office to be located behind a waterfall. In Iceland. And I want Björk to visit me sometimes, like when I need a break. And I guess Evie can come along as long as she doesn’t smash any macaroni and cheese into the carpet. She’s pretty adorable.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
One of the publishing houses said The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope was overwritten, and that confused me. I intended for it to be overwritten. I wanted it to be this overblown, explosive manuscript overstuffed with ideas. I crammed as much in there as I could and treated it like a suitcase that needed to be sat on before it could be zipped up.
I thought, “How can I change the book since that was at the heart of what I intended to do all along? I overwrote on purpose, didn’t I? I think?” But then I read parts of it and realized they were right/write. I edited a few pieces from the book for publication via IMAGE’s blog and ended up cutting literally half of what I’d originally written for SGK. It was humbling. So I guess my 100K+ word book might be more like a 50K+ word book by the time Cathy Warner is done slaughtering my literary lamb.
People tend to handle critiquing me with kid gloves because I have OCD, and I’m very sensitive. But in the past year, having finally written publicly on a regular basis, I no longer believe I need to wag my finger at people and say, “You just don’t understand how good my writing is! Let me show you! You just don’t know what you’re talking about, you Great Deflator of Dreams!” Now I know my limitations better, and I ask for help more than before, and I accept the flaws in my pieces with a bit more grace. I don’t have the mastery over the craft I believed I did, and it took writing in public to disabuse me of that belief. But I love writing more than ever, and it drives me crazy more than ever too, because I am really giving it a proper go, and it’s not something I find easy.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
It’s okay to hate your writing, as long as you know you’ll probably love it (or at least like it) if you give it a few days and sleep on it. I always have to remember that.
Also, just because someone is way better than you doesn’t mean your talents are not needed in the world.
Write because you want to, and not because you need a feather in your cap or a publication on your CV. Do it for the love of the game, as people who play games say. I don’t play games, really. That’s more my wife’s territory. She loves board games and cards. I digress.
Be sure to follow Chad on Twitter, where you’ll find his as @saint_upid.