Diane talks with Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter on the podcast "How To Save A Planet," and a former climate reporter for the New York Times.
Best-selling author and philosopher Charles Johnson has been writing and teaching for more than three decades. His novel, “Middle Passage,” about a freed slave who unknowingly boards an American slave ship, won the National Book Award in 1990. Johnson’s work spans multiple genres, including dozens of screen and teleplays as well as several short-story collections like his 2011 work, “Doctor King’s Refrigerator.” In a new memoir, Johnson writes about his childhood growing up in Evanston, Illinois, his early career as an illustrator and his years teaching writing at the University of Washington.
- Charles Johnson Novelist, essayist, MacArthur Fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Washington; author of "Middle Passage" and "Dr. King's Refrigerator"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Author and philosopher, Charles Johnson is best known for his award-winning novel "Middle Passage" about a freed slave who unknowingly boards an American slave ship. But Johnson has also written dozens of screen and teleplays and recently, a children's book series in collaboration with his daughter. Now, in a new memoir, Johnson writes about growing up in Evanston, Illinois, his early career as a cartoonist and what he's learned in 33 years of teaching the craft of writing.
MS. DIANE REHMHis book is titled "The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling." Author and McArthur fellow, Charles Johnson, joins me from a studio in Seattle. You are always invited to be part of the program so give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Charles Johnson, it's good to meet you.
MR. CHARLES JOHNSONThank you for having me on your show again.
REHMIt's my pleasure. You know, you worked for about a year with a dear friend of mine, Ethelbert Miller.
REHMAnd I want to know what that relationship was like and how it inspired you to write this book.
JOHNSONWell, in 2010, Ethelbert approached me with an idea. He wanted to interview me for an entire year. And so I said okay. We started in January 2011 and he asked me 400 questions.
JOHNSONHe read all my novels, my stories, my essays, everything I've written and threw questions at me about fatherhood, about being a teacher, about everything, literally. And this worked out pretty well because we're only two years apart in age. I'm two years older than he so we have traversed the same American landscape intellectually and politically and racially since the late '40s and the '50s. We have a lot in common. And he posted my answers.
JOHNSONI answered about 218 of his 400 questions.
JOHNSONAs essays, you know, as essays and he posted them. Then, last year, that exchange, email exchange, was published as a book called "The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson," by Dzanc Books. And some people read the book and they read my sections on the craft of writing and they said, you know, I'm learning a lot by reading what you're saying here about voice and about vision, about craft and revision and it would make an interesting book by itself.
JOHNSONSo I said, you know, I think that's correct. And Ethelbert also thought the same way. So that produced this book. So our exchange produced two books, the first book was "The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson" and the second book is this one, "The Way of the Writer: Reflection on the Art and Craft of Storytelling."
REHMTell me what you felt was one or several of the most difficult, the most penetrating questions that Ethelbert asked.
JOHNSONThe most penetrating questions does he ask. I think the most penetrating questions would be about why write? Why, you know, why do we create in the first place, right? He's a poet and he's also a political activist as well, an arts activist. And we've been doing this for a long, long time. You know, we've been involved in the book world for a long time. This is my 51st year of publishing, you know, continuously and steadily and he's been a teacher as well. And so why do this and why do we teach it to others?
JOHNSONWell, I think the reason is because it's love. We love art. We love all kinds of art. And the creative process itself is something that we need. He's a poet. But also other friends of mine who are artists as well, like the late August Wilson, my colleague at the University of Washington, the late painter Jacob Lawrence. We need the creative process, the way people need food and the way people, you know, need air in order to be happy, in order to be fulfilled. Because with every creative project that you work on, it's different.
JOHNSONEvery one is about two things, in my opinion, discovery and problem-solving. And the longer you work, you find more ways to solve problems and that's what you hale students with as a teacher. But the joy comes from the act -- the experience of discovery with each and every new work, whether it's a novel or a short story, a drawing or an essay.
REHMWhat about personal questions? What most interested Ethelbert and you about your personal life
JOHNSONAbout my personal life? That's a difficult question. You know, I got to think a little bit to see what that might -- how that might play out within the book itself. Again, for an artist, let me sort of reiterate this, what is most personal for us is the act of creating. That's what we live for. At least that's what I live for on a daily basis.
REHMAnd you really work all night, don't you?
JOHNSONI do, in fact, work all night, yes. I work from...
REHMSo the fact that you're talking with me at this hour is rather special. Wouldn't you normally be asleep?
REHMThat's what I thought.
JOHNSONI would be asleep.
REHMOh, my gosh.
JOHNSONYeah, I didn't go to bed last night because the opportunity to talk to you is something that one cannot pass by. It's absolutely crucial. So yeah, I didn't go to bed last night.
REHMWell, it's lovely to talk to you. Having taught for so long, I have always heard writers say it's not possible to teach people how to write, that what is happening is that what you're doing is taking on the aura and the professionalism and the manner of a teacher, rather than learning how to write. How do you teach young people how to write?
JOHNSONI don't think I actually teach them how to write. I think I -- for 33 years, I think I guided them with the things that they wanted to write. You know, we have over 300 creative writing programs in America. There are a lot of fine teachers out there working with students on all levels, beginning, intermediate, you know, advanced, graduate work and so forth. But we're kind of unique in America in the sense that we have all these writing programs.
JOHNSONEuropeans I've talked to say, for example, how can you possibly teach writing? How can you teach imagination? How can you teach vision? And the answer, of course, is you can't. You can't teach talent. You can't teach vision or imagination. Those are things that a young writer or an old writer has to show up with when they walk in the door. But once they walk in the door and they have the story to tell, you could help them shape that story in the way that will be most effective as a work of entertainment and also enlightenment.
JOHNSONSo we can teach technique and that's what I did, in fact, teach for 33 years.
REHMSo what they do is come to you with that urge, that drive, that vision of their own and what you're saying is you help them to shape it.
JOHNSONYes. And what they need, what young writers need mainly is one thing and that is somebody who's a little bit more experienced, right, maybe a little bit more older that they can bounce their ideas off of, that they can present a manuscript to and get good quality feedback on. This is the relationship -- I never took a creative writing class on the college level, but that's the relationship that I had with the man who was America's best teacher of creative writing in the '70s. That's John Gardner.
JOHNSONI could bring him a manuscript, like my first published novel, the 7th novel I wrote, "Faith and the Good Thing," and he would come back at me with, you know, years and years of experience, you know, both as a literary scholar and as a practicing artist. And that was what was valuable. To be perfectly honest, I think that's essentially what you need. You need somebody you can trust, who you can bounce ideas off of.
JOHNSONAnd if you can't find anybody in your neighborhood or your family, then you can get into a creative writing program and you could have several people on the faculty who will bounce, you know, ideas back at you on the basis of what you're creating.
REHMTell me where the idea came from for the book "Middle Passage."
JOHNSONOh, my goodness. "Middle Passage." Well, yeah, I have to take you back in time in order to do that one. In the late '60s, I was a member of that wave of black college students who went to college, right, in large numbers in the '60s, to previously white colleges. And we had no black professors at the time. We had no black teachers. We had no black studies. So the campus I was on was one where we created a black studies course. As an undergraduate, I was discussion group leader and for this survey course in black American history.
JOHNSONThe graduate students were the teachers, the lecturers. And I remember one afternoon, a history graduate student put on the overhead projector that cross section of an image of a slave ship with -- it's a cross section of the hold where the slaves are belly to -- you know, silhouetted belly to buttock. And that just engrained itself in my mind. That was the beginning of "Middle Passage."
REHMCharles Johnson. We're talking about his brand-new book, "The Way of the Writer." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. People are always wondering about writers, how they got where they got, how they did what they did, where the impetus came from. In today's interview, Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his book, "Middle Passage," who became a MacArthur Fellow, has written a book of reflections on what it is to become -- to be a writer. And in some sense, the title is rather mystical. He calls it "The Way of the Writer: And Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling." You have been trained in philosophy. And that very much imbues your work, does it not?
JOHNSONPhilosophy is very much an important part of my work and my life, yes. I didn't know, I hadn't thought that perhaps the title was mystical, "The Way of the Writer." But I'm also Buddhist, so that appeals to me that, yes, being an artist is a way. But let me put it this way. Being an artist is a way of being in the world. This is something you commit yourself to 24 hours a day, you know, seven days a week for as long as we are blessed to be on this earth and have the privilege of creating. So yeah, yeah. There is a slightly spiritual and a slightly philosophical dimension to the title of the book.
REHMWould you read for us from the page 3, titled "In the Beginning."
JOHNSONI will be happy to do so. Let me preface it by saying that my editor, my fine editor John Glynn, got me to write this little autobiographical section that begins the book. It's called, "In the Beginning."
JOHNSON"People sometimes wonder what a writer was like before he or she became a writer. What was that person's childhood like? In my case, I imagine that my being an only child growing up in the 1950s in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., in the shadow of Northwestern University, shaped my life in more ways than I can imagine. I was born on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, 1948, at a place I described in my novel, "Dreamer," Community Hospital. It was an all-black facility. In my novel, I renamed this important institution Neighborhood Hospital and called the woman who spearheaded its creation, Dr. Elizabeth Hill, by the fictionalized name, Jennifer Hale.
JOHNSON"In the late 1940s, Dr. Hill, one of Evanston's first black physicians, was barred by segregation from taking her patients to all-white Evanston Hospital. Instead, she was forced to take them to a hospital on the South Side of Chicago. And quite a few of her patients died in the ambulance on the way. Almost single-handedly -- or so I was told as a child -- Dr. Hill organized black Evanstonians and some sympathetic whites to create a black hospital.
JOHNSON"Our family patriarch, my Great Uncle William Johnson, whose all black construction company, the Johnson Construction Company -- which this book honors on its title page -- built churches, apartment buildings and residences all over the North Shore area, he would go nowhere else for treatment, even after Evanston Hospital was integrated in the 1950s. And every black baby born to my generation in Evanston came into the world there. My classmates and I all had in common the fact that we had been delivered by Elizabeth Hill. She considered us her children. Even when I was in my early 20s, she knew me by sight and would ask what I'd been up to since I last saw her."
REHM...a very fortunate childhood, in that, your mother adored books. She worked...
REHM...at the university. Tell us about her work and what she did.
JOHNSONWell, my mother was a remarkable woman in many ways. She had the soul of an actress. She wanted to be a teacher. We actually went to the same high school. She went to Evanston Township High School in the '30s. So it was integrated that early in the 20th century. And she wanted to be a teacher but she could not because she had severe asthma. And back then, or so she told me, a teacher had to pass a swimming test. And she couldn't do that.
JOHNSONSo, in effect, she made me her student. I was there to share books with her. She was in several book clubs all the time -- filled our house with books, filled our house with art objects -- inexpensive art objects, that fascinated me as a child. She had a biting wit. And she -- liked -- she loved art. That was my mother, yeah.
REHMDidn't she work part time at the university and bring back books?
JOHNSONWell, what my mom did -- my dad worked three jobs to, you know, to make sure we never missed a meal. He was a very hard-working man. So my mom didn't have to work. She was a housewife. But sometimes on the holidays, she would take a part-time job at Northwestern University, you know, helping to clean up after the sorority girls in one sorority left, you know, for the Christmas break, for example. And they would throw out their books. They would throw out their copies of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and Shakespeare's, you know, tragedies, and my mom would bring them home.
JOHNSONAnd I, naturally, read those books, because I had an attitude back then, like I probably still do now, that I wanted to make sure those girls in this segregated sorority didn't know something that their holiday cleaning woman's son didn't know.
REHMAnd, in fact, that Northwestern University chapter of that sorority had a policy that said, no blacks or Jews would ever be admitted into its ivied halls.
JOHNSONThat's what my mother told me. Yep.
REHMAnd yet she managed to bring those books home to you. What did those books mean to you?
JOHNSONWell, as I said, I was an only child. I didn't have brothers or sisters or, you know, siblings. So books were my friends. I retreated into reading as a young person, the same way I retreated into drawing. My passion was not to be a writer in the '50s when I was a kid and then, you know, in the '60s when I was in my teens. My passion was to be an artist -- a visual artist and an illustrator and a cartoonist, and a political cartoonist, right? That was what I really wanted to do. So I would retreat into drawing. And books and stories would feed my imagination for visual art.
JOHNSONI should probably tell you, I don't call myself a writer. I don't do that. I call myself an artist. And some days when I get up, I might be doing visual art. I might be doing a drawing, an illustration, perhaps for, you know, the children's book series that I do -- co-write with my daughter Elisheba. I do the illustrations for that. Or I might wake up and I might do literary art. I might write -- work on a short story or a non-fiction essay. Or it might be martial arts, because I work out with old buddies every Wednesday night, that I've been working out with since 1981. So I say, yeah, I'm an artist. And the art that I do depends upon the day of the week.
JOHNSONAnd one of those forms of art, yeah, is as a writer. But I don't conceptualize myself as a writer. I conceptualize myself as a storyteller.
JOHNSONFirst and foremost, a storyteller. That's how I see myself.
REHMTell us about your work schedule, which I find just fascinating.
JOHNSONMy work schedule?
JOHNSONOh, goodness. Well, you know, I'm always working. That's all I all I do is really work, especially now, seven years that I've been retired from the University of Washington, all I do is work on creative projects that dovetail. They dovetail, one after the other. And that's how I love living. It's all about discovery, you know, one project after another. And I work, as you have pointed out, in the wee hours of the morning, when there's no phone ringing, there's no errands to run. It's just me up and our two dogs in my study. And I can putter around and do the research that I knew for -- you know, I need to do for hours on end, without interruption.
JOHNSONSo I got in that habit probably because when my kids were young, I didn't want to start work until they had, you know, gotten in bed, you know, they were taken care of, you know, they had no needs, around 10 or 11 at night. And then I could work all night long. The trick was when I first started teaching at the University of Washington, they gave me 8:00 a.m. classes.
JOHNSONSo I never went to bed until noon. And then I talked them out of that, so my classes were always mid-afternoon or evening classes.
REHMSo you've maintained that schedule even now...
JOHNSONYeah, yeah, except when...
REHM...working during the night?
REHMWorking during the night?
JOHNSONOh, I work, yeah, I work at night. I'm a vampire. I'm a night person. I'm up when everybody else is sleeping. Yeah, that's how I live.
REHMBut what does that mean for your relationships with other people?
JOHNSONWell, it means I make adjustments. For example, I'm talking to you right now when I would normally be sleeping. And when I'm on the road, for example, that schedule goes right out the window. I'm on somebody else's schedule, if I'm giving a, you know, a speaking engagement at a college or a university, that changes. And then when I come back home again, I ease back into my regular all-night working schedule.
REHMAha. Charles Johnson, you talked about the fact that your real first passion was drawing. You drew for your high school newspaper. And your first professional job, at 17, was drawing for the catalog of the Magic Trick Company in Chicago.
REHMTalk about that.
JOHNSONRight, right, right. Well, when I was, oh, gosh, about 14 years old, I was a student of cartoonist, mystery writer, Lawrence Lariar. And he was a very prolific man. He published about a hundred books. Some of them were mystery novels under two or three pseudonyms that he used. But he also taught a correspondence course, we would probably call it distance learning today, on comic art. And so I took it, when I was in high school. And then I would travel to see him on Long Island.
JOHNSONI would take the bus and stay with my relatives in Brooklyn and pound the pavement as a teenager, actually, from one editor's office to another looking for work. And then I'd go out and see Lariar on Long Island. And he'd give me art, you know, that he'd done in the past and so forth and so on. So I was passionate about becoming a professional cartoonist and illustrator and sold my first several illustrations to Magic Company's catalog in Chicago. And I still have that dollar. I still have the dollar that I made, framed in my study, because for me that was a transitional moment when I became a professional. I got paid, finally, for doing art.
JOHNSONAnd there have been times when I was broke and wanted to spend that dollar and I just never did. I'm happy I never did. But, you know, when I was in high school, I got two second-place awards from the Columbia -- scholar, you know, national contest for high school cartoonists. And then I drew all the way through high -- through college, every conceivable sort of thing, for a newspaper in southern Illinois, for my college paper, for the Chicago Tribune, when I interned there as a young journalist.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Charles Johnson is with me. We're talking about his brand new book. It's titled, "The Way of the Writer: Reflections On the Art and Craft of Storytelling." If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
REHMHere's an email from D.J. in North Carolina, who says, I was taught throughout my education to, quote, "write like you speak." That advice has served me well. But what does Mr. Johnson say regarding that advice? I see a problem with the way so many young people speak today.
JOHNSONWell, I think, generally, that's very good advice to give to someone. Don't take an artificial voice, but try to understand your own natural voice and use that when you write. The problem is finding your voice. That's the problem, I think. That's what you have to do. And sometimes you have to find your own vision, in order to find your own voice, right? You have to understand how you see the world. But generally speaking, I think that's very good advice. You should write like you talk. But you should always be improving, it seems to me, on your expressive capabilities with language.
REHMAll right. And we have a caller from Bowie, Md. Nabi, you're on the air.
NABIYes. Good morning, Diane Rehm.
NABIYeah, your show is excellent.
NABIYeah. And from an African perspective, I've been following you since I moved down here from Boston.
REHMI'm so glad.
NABIMy question is, we seem to have a similar background. I come from a small town called Kambia, a northern province of Sierra Leone.
NABIAnd I'm an only son, an only child of my mother and the only son of my parent. I didn't have the opportunity that Professor Charles Johnson has here. My mother was only telling me stories. There was no library in my hometown. No books to go to except the books that they give us in primary school to read. But my environment, my -- the milieu that I grew up is filled with cultural environment. So I had to be -- as a child, I was very curious -- I had to observe keenly what the goings on in the town and what my mother was telling me, only stories. And the only stories I read were stories from your primary school, like, (word?) "Robin Hood" and (word?) or "Kidnapped," and -- or Charles Dickens and so forth.
REHMNabi, let's have...
NABIMy question now, Professor Johnson, who was your first audience and how did you use -- apart from the textbook, how did you use your observation as a writer to tell your stories?
JOHNSONThat's a great question. I told you my mom was a very spirited and unusual lady, with the soul of an actress. When I was 12 years old, she suggested to me that I keep a diary.
JOHNSONAnd write down my thoughts and feeling. And she knew me very well. I loved drawing. I mean, for me, the blank page is seductive. So here she's offering me a diary, in which I can put my thoughts and feelings, right? And so I fell to that eagerly. And I didn't realize what her real motivation was until until we were at dinner one day and I said -- she said, why don't you like your Uncle so and so? And I thought, oh, my god, she can read my mind. But, no, she was reading my diary is what it was.
REHMAha. I love it.
JOHNSONAnd so, yeah, she got -- but I was hooked. I had to keep writing in a diary.
REHMCharles Johnson, winner of the National Book Award. His new book is titled, "The Way of the Writer." Short break. Right back.
REHMWelcome back. National Book Award winner and MacArthur fellow Charles Johnson is with me. He's been teaching creative writing at the University of Washington at Seattle for many, many years. Now he has a new book titled "The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling." And in it, Charles Johnson, you write about your interest in Buddhism. Talk about how that began and what that has meant for your writing.
JOHNSONWell that's a very important question. I published two books so far on the subject of the Buddha Dharma. One was last -- two years ago. It was called "Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race and Spiritual Practice" and a book earlier than that called Taming -- excuse me, called "Turning the Wheel." I first practiced meditation when I was 14 years old, and it was the most incredible 30 minutes of my life.
JOHNSONAnd so I spent a great deal of my life studying Eastern philosophy and along with Western philosophy and practicing Buddhist practice. So yes, it infuses absolutely every aspect of my life and my day.
REHMCan you tell me how you practice Buddhism?
JOHNSONHow do I practice Buddhism?
JOHNSONWell, how do I practice Buddhism? About seven years ago I took my formal vows as a lay Buddhist and Upasaka in the Soto Zen tradition with Mendicant Monk Claude Anshin Thomas. Those 10 vows or precepts I try to live by. They are universal across almost all Buddhist traditions. The first five are, you know, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no getting drunk for example.
JOHNSONThe next five are also very interesting, don't elevate yourself above others, don't dwell on the faults of others, don't get angry, be generous and don't do anything that will cause harm to the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I sat in meditation before I came over to the studio today to speak with you. I would not do any public event or teach a class unless I first sat in order to quiet my mind, to make sure that I'm not thinking about the past, I'm not thinking about the future that won't come, I'm not thinking oh, well, after I get the interview done, I've got to do this, or why didn't I do that yesterday. I have to be right here, right now, present for you 100 percent.
JOHNSONAnd so yes, I practice meditation all day long, really, in one form or another.
REHMNow how does what you do with Buddhism and those 10 precepts that are so important to you, how does that enter into your teaching of students and then into your own writing?
JOHNSONWell what it means is I put others first. I try to approach all others with two thoughts in mind, that all sentient beings simply want two things in this life, all sentient beings. What they want is happiness as they define it, and they want freedom from suffering. That is everybody. That's my students, that's my colleagues, that's people you meet on the street.
JOHNSONOne of the things we do as Buddhists is we understand the illusion of the self, which is basically a social construct, and we don't let that and the ego, the so-called ego, get in the way of our social relations with others. We put others first and try to help them achieve happiness and freedom from suffering.
REHMAll right, I'm going to give you an opportunity to do just that. Let's go to David in Indianapolis, you're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning, Dr. Johnson and Diane. Diane, I would be remiss if I didn't say you are going to be missed, and I certainly have been -- you have been a big part of my life for 10 years. So thank you for all you've done.
REHMThank you so much.
DAVIDYou're welcome. And Dr. Johnson, I am -- I guess -- I guess I'm what you'd call an amateur writer. I write a lot of things. Writing is built into me since I was a child, a Catholic school boy who was taught English, real English as opposed to what other teachers allow young black men to do, and writing is stuck in me. I never had formal training, but I love to write. And people who read my writing go, man, you should be writing, and I'm like -- and I just can't seem to get started.
DAVIDWhat would be -- what would you suggest to a person whose writing is in them, and you can't -- and you don't know exactly how to get it out?
JOHNSONWell I would say make it a daily habit. You know, I was talking a little bit earlier about the diary that my mother got me to keep. And, yeah, I have a filing cabinet full of diaries and journals that I kept all the way through my teens, when I was in college, and they evolved. You know they evolved. It isn't just about what happened to me today, it's about how do I, you know, interpret what happened to me today.
JOHNSONIn other words I would write essays to myself. I'd write poetry to myself. And that's -- and that was for my eyes only. It wasn't for anybody else, and it wasn't for publication. You may just need a repository for your thoughts and feelings, and a diary, a journal is one way of collecting that and not losing it. That's one recommendation I would make.
JOHNSONAnd all writers -- this is my recommendation to my students for 30 years, keep writers' workbooks. You should not let thoughts you have or feelings or observations that you make, you know, escape you. You should transcribe them, write them down, and later when you're revising a story or something, that -- what you write down will be useful to you as a memory aid.
REHMThat's just great advice, I really, really enjoyed hearing that from you. Let's go now to Sean, who is here in Washington, D.C., you're on the air.
SEANThanks, Diane, great show as usual.
SEANMr. Johnson, the little talk you just made about the speaking -- writing as one speaks when the caller said, like, oh, you should write the way you speak, I always thought that you should write the way you read. And so I'm wondering in those wee hours, when you're wandering around doing what all writers do, which appears to other people as if you're doing nothing, and you're just sitting there thinking about things and just contemplating where to go next, do you turn to any other stylists, or do you turn to any other substances, substantive writing, whether it's about the Arctic or Camus? What do you turn to when your mind is sort of not really getting on the tracks, and it's 5:00 am, and you've got to get something done?
JOHNSONYeah, yeah, yeah, let me -- let me put it this way for you. In the book, "The Way of the Writer," I do talk about voice in a couple of chapters. When I write a short story, it's very often the case that I adopt a voice not my own for the telling of that tale. If it's the protagonist, for example, who is telling the story, he might be an academic and talk, you know, like an academic, or he might be a street kid in Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago, and talk like a street kid.
JOHNSONAnd all of those voices in the stories that I write, right, they're -- it's ironic. They're not my voice, and yet they become my voice. We have lots of voices in us. And so for the purpose of literary art, we often adopt a voice, right, to -- as a vehicle for that story. Now when I write nonfiction, I tend to rely on the voice that you hear me speaking with right now. This is my natural speaking voice. These are my natural rhythms.
JOHNSONAnd so for nonfiction, when I'm not putting on a mask, so to speak, as I do in fiction, this is -- this is how I sound. I hope I sound okay.
REHMI think you sound just fine. We have an email from Deborah in Maryland, who says one of the first books I listened to on audio was "Middle Passage." It was not read by you, but I did enjoy it. How important is it for you to decide who is reading and whether they're reading it in the manner in which you intended?
JOHNSONThat's a -- that's an excellent question. The audio version that this person read was indeed performed by not me but an actor. However, the first audio version of the book, I read.
JOHNSONBased on -- I read it here in Seattle. I spent three days in a studio working with a woman who had been married to one of the performers in the Firesign Theater, Firesign Theater, right. And it was three days. So I read it, all the character parts I had to talk like Captain Falcon.
JOHNSONI had to talk like Rutherford Calhoun. And that was fun. But now with the new version that's out with actors, I find it interesting to hear how they perform. Now I should tell you this right now, "Middle Passage" has been adapted as a play that was onstage all last month in Chicago courtesy of Pegasus Theater. And the -- I saw it twice. I saw the preview, and I saw the premiere, the play on the night it premiered. The actors were fantastic.
JOHNSONSo I actually learned something as I watched -- you know, as I listened to them speak the lines of dialogue that I had written. It was quite an experience. It was very enlightening.
REHMI think it should be a movie.
JOHNSONSo do I. So do I. We've been at two studios in the last 25 years, but bear in mind this is an epic. This novel starts out, as one of my colleagues said, as a picaresque, because the main character is a picaro, a rogue, it becomes an epic on the water when we have the revolt of slaves taken onto that slave ship, The Republic, and it ends up as a romance. It goes through three genres in a very compressed narrative, but it would cost about $100 million to do it right.
JOHNSONIt's a costume drama, right, that's one thing, and you have to shoot on the water, and controlling the elements like that of the water is not easy. But it would take -- it would take 100 million bucks, and that's a big -- that's a big risk for any studio, right, 100 million bucks. You've got to get people to come and see it.
JOHNSONI trust one day it will be made as a film, but I don't want it made until it can be made right. I don't want it done on the cheap. I want it done with the most professional actors and crew and all of that that one can bring together.
REHMI must say I found some of the passages in "Middle Passage" difficult to read, and I'm sure you intended exactly that, the conditions in which those slaves were in that boat.
JOHNSONYes, some -- those conditions were horrific, and I wanted to deliver, for the first time really in our literature, what it was like to be on those ships and in the hold of that ship right on -- during a voyage that took several months. So you're exposed to all of the horror that the slaves experienced on that ship.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A tweet, let's see, from Lesla. Is writing -- let's see, is writing a form, or is it a job? I'm asking is it something that's grown, or is it worked on?
JOHNSONThat's an interesting question.
REHMI should say.
JOHNSONShe made a distinction between is it a form, she said, or a job? How did she phrase that?
REHMYeah, yeah, yeah, do you see it as a job, or do you see it as something that simple grows out of who and what you are?
JOHNSONI see it as both. I see it as both. As a professional writer, I take on lots of different assignments, right, from different magazines and publications over the years. I mean, I've written for God knows how many publications, New York Times, Washington Post, you know, magazines, Smithsonian, blah, blah, blah. Those are assignments, right, so it's a job.
JOHNSONAnd one's goal is to perform that job professionally. You want to get that work done and get it done on time or before time and professionally. But then there's also this sense in which writing is a joy. As I said, it's about discovery. So even with an assignment, I discover something that I did not know before I began the assignment.
REHMAnd an email from Ann, who says, I noticed that devices such as phones have shown me, a former editor, the decline in correct grammar. This really disturbs me. What do you think about this, Mr. Johnson, in relation to correct writing?
JOHNSONWell, I think that the way we speak as a people is extremely important. The way we use language as a people is extremely important. So when I see the truncated language we get in Twitter, for example, and the misspellings, it drives me crazy. You know, anything that is poor use of language drives me crazy, and you can find that in the academy as well as in our political discourse, very often in our political discourse.
JOHNSONSo writing well is the same thing as thinking well. Let me repeat that. Writing well is the same thing as thinking well. This is how we express our thoughts and our feelings. We want to do that with clarity, economy. When I read something, I want to be ambushed by its beauty, whether it's nonfiction or fiction. I want to be ambushed by its beauty. I want the writer to have such a command over the English tongue that he or she teaches me how to use English better. That's what I want in the things that I read.
JOHNSONAnd so yeah, when I'm online reading something, an article, and I see typos, it hasn't been edited, that really upsets me a great deal.
REHMAnd grammar seems to have gone from so much that's published online.
JOHNSONYou're right. Unfortunately you're so right about that.
REHMAnd it's people like you, Charles Johnson, who are going to have to continue to teach through your own writing. How?
JOHNSONWell, I'll do it. I'll do it.
REHMAnd why we write. Thank you so much for taking the time today to be with me.
JOHNSONThank you for allowing me to be with you. You are going to be missed, believe me, that person was absolutely right.
REHMThank you so much.
JOHNSONThank you for all that you've done, Diane.
REHMThank you. Charles Johnson, his latest book is titled "The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling." Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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