Danny Johnson is the author of the new novel The Last Road Home. His stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including Fox Chase Review and South Writ Large, and he lives in North Carolina.
Q: How did you come up with your characters Junebug, Fancy, and Lightning, and why did you choose to set the book in the 1950s and '60s?
A: I grew up during that era, and the setting of the book came from my own childhood of spending every summer on the farm with my grandparents, who were tobacco farmers.
I lived in a city housing project until I was around 15, where it could get a little dicey much of the time, and tell folks the two things I learned best was the value of friends and how to be the fastest white boy in the project.
But, as soon as summer came, I looked forward to spending it on the farm, enjoying the peace of the slow life, watching how the natural world interacted, and I loved being alone.
My grandmother taught me to read at an early age, and she was an avid reader, letting me read the books she would get from the book-mobile when it came around every couple of weeks. My great grandmother also lived with them and taught me to count by sitting me on her lap as a small child and counting my knuckles.
I made friends with a couple of black kids around the community because there were no white kids, and we spent hours playing, me learning from them and them from me. I loved it.
As for Junebug, Fancy, and Lightning, one of the things I used to do when I had no ideas, was sit in front of my computer and simply begin typing the first words that came to mind, eventually making them into flash fiction stories or short stories and not caring if they sucked or not…somewhere in the mix of that, Fancy and Lightning came to me, like they wanted me to tell their story somehow.
I trusted my instincts and tried to do that, including Junebug as some version of myself as I pictured the sights, sounds, and smells of the farm life.
The thing that always bothered me was that black families and white families would work and sweat in the tobacco field, yet when it came time for lunch, they were always separated.
The particular family that lived close by I always called “Uncle Cliff” and “Miss Pearl” and he taught me so many things…yet, when they and any other black folks were spoken about, it was always “niggers”, and I simply could not reconcile the two.
Q: Can you say more about why you chose to include racial issues among the themes in your novel, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I included racial issues because they were a fact of life, and I thought a damn sorry fact of life. My grandmother always quietly encouraged my way of thinking. What I always try to write about is the most disenfranchised among us, and they certainly were that.
What I want folks to take away from the book is the appreciation of the humanity of each of us, that there is no difference, that a person can love another person, and I wanted Fancy to come through as a wonderful, daring, loving, unafraid human being who captures the reader’s heart and they root like heck for her…I often tell people if I’d known more about the mind of a black woman, she would have been the protagonist…
I take all efforts to present them as courageous and strong, which they were, and never be condescending, even if they turn out to be like Lightning and not a good person, I try to go deeper into him, to understand what it’s like to live in his skin.
If you will notice the dedication of the book is to a wonderful African American friend of mine in the military, Dot Dorsey. Dot was the kindest, most gentle man one could ever meet, and a much better human being than me...
On the night we got our orders for Vietnam, we sat on a stone wall overlooking a bay in Japan drinking a bottle of scotch, and talking about all the things we would do when we got home. He turned to me and said, “You realize if we were home right now, we couldn’t even go anywhere together and eat supper.”
That hit me so hard, that even though I had known him all those years, I really had no idea of his reality in the world. It was a sobering thought I have never forgotten, and it made me determined that someday I would try and find a way to thank him, and I hope this book does that in some small way. I came home from the war and he did not and is buried in Arlington.
Q: The blurbs on your website describe your book as "Southern literature." How would you define Southern literature, and how do you see your novel fitting into that tradition?
A: Southern Literature is character-driven story telling. Look at any of the greats such as Harry Crews, Rick Bragg, Ron Rash, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and William Gay, plus many others, it’s about the characters, with a heavy dose of place…no crazy concepts, no Freudian thinking, it’s presenting characters you hope will find a place in the reader’s heart, to demonstrate the concept of overcoming circumstances, to represent a people who have great pride, even though it has been misdirected at times…
The South has always been a population of story tellers, mostly because they were uneducated and passed them down orally through the generations…
It’s a pride I don’t know if I can explain…to represent what I think of most times when reading Southern fiction is a line I saw many years ago and cannot remember who wrote it..the sentence began: “Why, you’re dumber than a sack of assholes.”
That, to me, is the essence of southern fiction. I have workshopped, read, studied with every single successful Southern writer I could possibly get around, because the work touches me in a way no other does.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?
A: I had no idea how the book would end, and barely knew how it would start…all I knew is I had these characters who wanted me to tell their story, so I mostly simply observed their actions, sidled up to doorways and peeped in to see what they were doing, and wrote the story to the end, letting it tell itself.
I made many changes, thanks in most part to the wonderful writers group I belong to in Chapel Hill, N.C., and is led by Laurel Goldman who has been heading these groups for over 20 years…I always knew I had stories to tell, but that group taught me how to write…I owe them everything.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel with the preliminary title of “Cotton”…It’s about an albino drug dealer in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and is told from his cell in the three days prior to his execution.
Again, don’t ask me where he came from, all I can tell you is he showed up one day and wanted me to write his story :) The objective with him is to demonstrate his humanity even though he was forced to become vicious in order to survive. He’s a great character.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It may interest folks to know I wrote my first story at 62, and the reason I mention it is because one should never give up on their dreams…that I entered all the contest possible when I began writing, and never won a single one :)
That I got rejected by at least 20+ agents before I got incredibly lucky and found a person who had appreciation for my particular type of work, and she found a publisher, Kensington, who also had a similar appreciation…I consider myself very fortunate indeed.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb