Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Q&A with Lauren Kay Johnson




Lauren Kay Johnson is the author of the new memoir The Fine Art of Camouflage. She served in the military in Afghanistan. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post.  Johnson lives in the Seattle area.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir about your military service and that of your mother?


A: The writing began as a need to explore and attempt to understand my military experiences.


Why was I so affected by my time in Afghanistan, even though I was in a relatively safe position and made it home in one piece? Why did I join the military in the first place after my mom deployed with the Army when I was seven years old? I was devastated when she left!


As a military public affairs officer, I was trained to communicate in a very clear, concise way. But when people asked me what I did in Afghanistan or what my experience was like, I couldn’t sum it up in a tidy sound bite.


I had to try to wrap my brain around this big, complicated thing I’d been a part of, and the way I sort through things is by writing.


As I wrote more and developed the ideas in my MFA program and as I talked to my mom, the work started shaping itself into a memoir. What really propelled me forward was recognizing that my story could mean something to other people.


I started talking with other veterans and discovering commonalities in our experiences, or swapping stories with civilian friends and finding they could relate to a description of feeling totally alone and out of my element, or forging a deep bond with someone through a challenging situation.


In order to write a book, you really need to be obsessed with your subject matter, and that was what fascinated me—the common threads that run through all war stories and all stories of trauma, and struggle, and growing up and realizing the world isn’t perfect: these elements that make us all human.


Q: The writer Joanna Rakoff said of the book, “An astonishing glimpse into the daily life of America’s military women. A moving chronicle of a mother-daughter relationship. A powerful coming-of-age tale. Johnson has pulled off a hat trick with her haunting debut." What do you think of that description?


A: First, it’s insanely flattering. I’m very grateful to Joanna for taking the time to read and share such kind words. I appreciate this description because it speaks to the different dimensions of my story.


The book centers on my experience with the military, but it’s not just about the military; it’s also about what it means to be a daughter, a mother, an American, a young, impressionable person, a human. Because war and the military are such huge, politically charged topics, it’s easy to lose sight of the individual, nuanced stories playing out at the ground level.


The fact that Joanna connected with the coming-of-age element is particularly meaningful, since she wrote one of the modern classics of coming-of-age narratives with My Salinger Year.


Q: How was the memoir's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: As the book really started to come together, a major theme that emerged was communication: how we communicate, or fail to communicate, as individuals and as a society, and how we’re shaped by that communication, or lack thereof.


As a public affairs officer in the military, my job was to communicate, but in a very targeted manner—specific messages, shared in specific ways, aiming to elicit specific responses. I started thinking about the ways the military projects itself through the stories it tells, and how we all do that.


My own life has been so shaped by stories: family lore of my grandfathers’ WWII-era military service, stories from my mom’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, stories about the military and war in the media and Hollywood, stories I heard at school and in church.


Camouflage obviously has significance in the military. To blend in. To hide. To be part of a larger whole. Those ideas extend into military culture as well. When you join, you surrender a degree of your individuality: You become a soldier.


But, military or not, we all have our own versions of camouflage, especially as young people seeking a sense of belonging. The way we project ourselves to the world is rarely the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so much of our perspectives are shaped by communication.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Writing a memoir is like a really intense extended therapy session. To do it in a meaningful way, you have to eviscerate yourself. It’s painful.


But then sometimes you have a deep psychological realization about your narrator and then you realize, “Hey, that’s me!” That’s pretty cool. I can’t say I’ve totally made peace with my experience, but I’ve come to a place where I can accept falling short of making peace.


I hope readers will take away a new perspective about what it means to be in the military and a greater understanding of the vast spectrum of military experiences.


I also hope it encourages people to think critically about the stories in their lives, the ones they’re consuming and the ones they’re telling.


I hope someday my daughters will read the book and understand more about this woman who became their mother, in all her shades of grey.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I always read interviews where authors are asked this question and they talk about their next book coming out in a few months, or the multiple manuscripts they’re polishing, or the cool multimedia collaboration with [insert famous person’s name].


I have nothing to brag about, but I’m OK with that. Going through the book publication process while growing/birthing/raising twin babies and working full-time (in a pandemic, to boot) has been a good reality check for me.


I’m human. I live in a world where days are measured in 24 hours. Most of my reading the past two years has been board books covered in drool. I scrape together a few hours here and there where I chip away at essays I’ve been working on for longer than I like to admit.


I have variety of ideas—a second memoir, a middle grade novel loosely based on my grandmother’s life during World War II, a nonfiction book about some amazing men I met in the military who climbed the seven summits, a couple children’s stories.


I have a document for each idea, and sometimes I scribble sentences in those documents. Eventually I’ll make some brain space to focus in on something, or something will gnaw at me until it becomes an obsession I can’t ignore. This book took me 12 years to write and publish. So maybe circle back in a decade for an update?

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m really excited about the new wave of veteran writing. For so long the genre has felt dominated by cis-white male, combat stories, but there’s so much fresh stuff coming out.


I always hate listing names because I know I’m forgetting people, but here’s a few writers to check out: Jerri Bell, Anuradha Bhagwati, Pamela Brodman, Tracy Crow, Maurice Decaul, Ryan Leigh Doste, ML Doyle, Teresa Fazio, Dewaine Farria, Lauren Hough, Mariette Kalinwoski, Brooke King, Tenley Lozano, Anthony Moll, Jenny Pacanowski, Shannon Huffman Polson, Kristen L. Rouse, and Kayla Williams.


There’s also some great literary journals working to expand the conversation around the military and war, like Consequence magazine, Collateral Journal, O-Dark-Thirty, The War Horse, and Wrath-Bearing Tree, where I’m honored to be part of the editorial team.


My publisher, MilSpeak Books, is doing amazing work to elevate fresh voices from the military community.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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