An Interview with Lacy Johnson

Article by annalia

When she was twenty-one, Lacy M. Johnson was kidnapped, raped, and nearly murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Johnson's new memoir THE OTHER SIDE is her reconstruction of that time in her life—of the events leading up to and away from that harrowing act of domestic violence. Yet THE OTHER SIDE does something remarkable: Despite its disturbing content, it never wallows in despair. Instead, it becomes a moving, life-affirming work about learning to take control of one’s own story.

Johnson will read and sign books at Brazos on July 24, 7pm. She was nice enough to answer some questions for us in advance of her event.

BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: In an interview you did a couple years ago with PEBBLE LAKE REVIEW, you said THE OTHER SIDE was “a book I must write, and I must write it now, at this point in my life.” What was your motivation for finally writing it?
LACY M. JOHNSON: When I was twenty-one years old, just after I had graduated college, just as I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, I was kidnapped and raped by a man I used to live with. So as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve had this story weighing on me—maybe it’s even why I pursued writing. Over the years, I’ve tried to write about these events many different times and in many different ways—essays, poems, little things here and there. In none of them do I ever even say what happened. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough, or brave enough to tell the truth. Not until very recently. Writing TRESPASSES, in many ways, prepared me for the challenge of THE OTHER SIDE, because I learned very much about myself as a writer in the process—who I am, what I am capable of, what I am willing to say. The story I tell in THE OTHER SIDE is one that I’ve ever only told my very closest friends. On a personal level, I wanted to write it and get it out into the world so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to tell it anymore. As if I could write the story and be rid of it. The irony is, of course, that now I’m touring and doing interviews, so I’m telling the story more than ever, over and over, to thousands and thousands of people.

BB: You spent hours and days conducting interviews and then weeks and months transcribing, sifting, reworking, and filling in blanks when writing your first book, TRESPASSES. THE OTHER SIDE, by contrast, seems to be constructed mostly from memory, sometimes with whole pieces missing. In TRESPASSES, you refer without hesitation to real people by name, whereas you are the only character named in THE OTHER SIDE (everyone else receives nomenclatures like "My Good Friend" and "The Strange Man"). Were these decisions you made in the beginning or something that developed during the writing process? How did the form of the book change between your initial manuscript and its current state?
LJ: I don’t see my methods in the two books as being so very different. In TRESPASSES, I am writing about how public memory and shared memories define our identities. I looked for documents, written records, archives, and newspaper clippings, but none existed. I tried to go to the historical society in the county where my family has apparently lived for the last 170 years, and the place was a nightmare. There were cardboard boxes piled up to the ceiling against every wall in the whole place, and organized in no particular order I could decipher. That seems to me an apt metaphor for the past, which is indecipherable until it is ordered into the narrative of history. I did have my grandmother’s photo albums—stacks and stacks of them—and scraps of letters and journals. I started interviewing family members at first to learn about our family history, but no one seemed to be able to tell me anything more than I already knew. So instead I started asking them about their own lives, and in the process learned very much about where I come from—not only about the place as a geographical location, but also as a culture. I also learned about the relationship of stories to identity, and the role of silence in all of that, since what we won’t or can’t say determines who we are as much as the stories we do share. THE OTHER SIDE picks up this question—about the relationship of story and silence to identity—but it focuses on a single moment in my life when words completely failed me. The primary project of the book was, from the very beginning, to articulate the inarticulable, to speak the unspeakable, to give voice to a part of myself that had up to that point remained speechless.

BB: For TRESPASSES, University of Iowa Press sought you out and requested a manuscript. What sparked your relationship with Tin House?
LJ: My agent, the amazing and talented Ethan Bassoff of Lippincott Masie McQuilken, got in touch with Masie Cochran, a brave and brilliant editor at Tin House, which is a small indie press out of Portland. They also publish a magazine, TIN HOUSE, which I’ve admired for years. At the time we began a conversation with Tin House, we were also in conversations with editors at some of the larger presses. One day I had two phone calls, one with an editor at a large, reputable press in New York, and one with Masie at Tin House. The editor in NY expressed to me that she wanted me to really dial up the sexual tension in the book, like some kind of 50 SHADES gone wrong. I was so offended. I thought, Have you even read my book? But from the very first conversation that day with Masie at Tin House, I felt really impressed with the way she, and all of the folks there, showed their respect and admiration for the work. It was clear from the moment she began speaking that she shared my vision of what the book could be. It took a lot of courage on the part of Tin House to publish a book like this. I get choked up when I try to express how grateful I am to them for it.

BB: Earlier this year, you did a social-media interactive, location-based storytelling project called [the invisible city]. Could you talk more about that? Were you familiar with all the locations prior to the project?
LJ: [the invisible city] is a location-based storytelling platform that was launched during the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts’ inaugural CounterCurrent festival. I collaborated on the project with two other artists, Josh Okun (www.joshokun.com) and Rob Ray (http://robray.net/). The multiple stories in the project are geolocated, and readers have to move around the city to read the work, which can be accessed only from a GPS-enabled mobile device. It’s a sort of mix between the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook series, which was far more popular in the 1980s than it is now, and early text-based games like Zork. I started working on the project after I had finished THE OTHER SIDE, and really wanted to write something that was lighthearted and fun. I imagined writing a cyberpunk neo-noir novella that would have people running through the tunnels under downtown. I did research and scouted locations, and spent a lot of time drawing plot diagrams. But when I actually sat down and started to write, I found that the lighthearted, fun, neo-noir novella wasn’t the story I felt most compelled to tell about the city. What I ended up writing for the project is an essay called “The Invisible City”, which leads users on an hours-long exploration of Houston’s many social, economic, and political wards. It’s a work about gentrification, and economy, and environmental justice. It’s a very serious essay, and those who follow it to all the locations have a eye-opening, gut-wrenching experience, so it’s not at all the light-hearted palate-cleanser I had originally envisioned. But, my collaborators and I published it anyway as a kind of beta test for the platform, which works beautifully. Hooray! The current plan is to publish location-based stories, essays, games, and adventures twice a year, in April and October. We’re currently reading submissions for our October launch, and I’m really hoping someone will send me a cyberpunk neo-noir novella. We’ll do one more round of stories set only in Houston, and then we’ll start publishing in other locations as well. The format is open-ended, so we could potentially publish a story that takes users all the way around the world.

BB: When you moved to Houston ten years ago, you worried about “passing” as someone who belongs here, deserves to be taken seriously, is more complex than the stereotypes made about her hometown. You took a pilot interdisciplinary art class and now direct the program that offers it every year. How has Houston changed in your mind? What was it like adjusting to life in “the big city”?
LJ: I love Houston—I’ve loved it from the very beginning, when I first moved here in 2004 to attend the Creative Writing Program at UH. And even though I know there are millions of people living here, I’ve never really thought of it as “the big city”—more like an enormous, sprawling cluster of interconnected small towns. One of the things I most love about Houston is that it’s a great art city, though I don’t think outsiders give Houston much credit in that regard. Our art community tends to be tremendously supportive, and I think people who look in from the outside can’t even fathom a rigorous art scene that isn’t cut-throat and viscously competitive. What works in our favor is that we have a robust philanthropic community that gives very generously to the arts, so it never feels (from my perspective anyway) that we’re all competing for the same resources. There are plenty of galleries, and plenty of bookstores, and plenty of museums. Some of my favorite artists and writers are living and working right here in the city—creating brilliant work that garners attention and creates social change on a local and national scale—and as a Houstonian I take a lot of pride in that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like an impostor here as far as the city goes; I think my worry about “passing” had more to do with graduate school than with Houston itself.

BB: What are your current and upcoming projects, writing or otherwise?
LJ: I’m always working on a lot of things—right now a few essays, some cultural criticism, a bit of art writing. I’ll probably start working on my third book very soon, which will likely be another work of unconventional nonfiction. But it’s hard to even begin thinking about that because I’m not yet finished with the larger project of THE OTHER SIDE. Yes, the writing is done, and the book is nearly out in the world, but now I am touring and giving readings, speaking publicly and learning to do so without fear or shame. What I’ve learned so far in the conversations I’ve had about this book is that there are certain ways our culture reacts when women speak publicly about having been sexually assaulted—most of them are either offensive or unfortunate, and none of them actually change anything. In some ways this is the more important part of the project—the one in which I try to be a catalyst for change. I don’t know what that will look like yet; it’s only now just beginning.


The Other Side Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781935639831
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tin House Books - July 15th, 2014

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