#WritersRead - Bret Anthony Johnston

Article by ben

Early in Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, a teenage boy hides shirts in the back of his closet. He does this as a barrier against parental snooping: he knows his mom will enter his room at some point, unauthorized, searching for young adult contraband. But he hides the shirts not because he shouldn’t have them, but because he doesn’t want his mom to see them. See, the shirts used to belong to his older brother, who disappeared four years earlier. This teenager doesn’t want his mother to see a reminder unexpectedly and break down in tears.

This is a small moment, passed over quickly, but I describe it to demonstrate the remarkable way this novel makes the reader feel, even in the most insignificant-seeming details, the pulse of life in this family--the sly way a young man knows his mother well enough to anticipate an invasion of privacy, and the heartbreaking way he knows to forgive her this trespass and, instead, protect her from harm.

The protagonists in Johnston’s novel--the Campbells--live in south Texas, near Corpus Christi, a sprawling, humid landscape of Whataburgers and HEBs and odd local businesses like a place called Pampered Pets. For years, Eric and Laura have tried to get on with their lives while still searching for their missing son, Justin, but a shocking turn of events--the discovery of the kidnapped boy, alive, living one town over--upends their lives again, delivering a sort of happy ending. Starting with this event, which happens early in the novel, Johnston unpacks the notion of happiness and fulfilled wishes, blending tropes of crime fiction with penetrating psychological realism, showing how the most difficult thing of all might be learning to forgive.

But again, the small moments speak loudly--especially this dialogue between Eric and Laura as they lie together in bed, drawing words with their fingers on each other’s backs:

“He wrote: I’m sorry.

“‘I didn’t get it,’ she said. ‘Write it again.’”

I asked Johnston about his terrific novel and also his habits as a writer and reader in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: How is REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS specifically a Texas novel? In other words, what about the story could happen only around Corpus Christi?
Bret Anthony Johnston: In many ways, my goal was to write a novel that could only happen in Texas, but for it to be more than a Texas novel. I wanted the unique and uniquely oppressive Texas heat to exert itself on the characters, and I wanted the Gulf to become a kind of character in its own right. I always knew that Justin would have been less than an hour away, and I wanted his family to see the same thing he did on a daily basis: the bay. I wanted that knowledge to serve as a comfort and evolve into a kind of torment. Likewise, I wanted the heat to prove inescapable, just as what the family faces is inescapable. And, of course, I’m fascinated by so many of the Texas oddities that show up in the book—the Shrimporee, a stranded dolphin, the reticence of the people down there. Maybe someone could say the storm that comes ashore is specific to Texas, but I was less interested in the storm than what is left in its wake. As a whole, the novel is concerned with aftermath.

BB: You delve into numerous scenes of highly charged (almost suffocating) emotion--Justin's return early in the novel comes to mind. How do you keep scenes like this from tipping into melodrama?
BAJ: I suspect the first twenty or fifty drafts of those scenes were soaked in melodrama, but I took each moment in the book through countless drafts, and in each one, I was often working to rinse the prose of unearned or overwrought emotion. For me, the antidote to melodrama is empathy. In each of those scenes, and in the whole novel really, I worked hard to experience the moments through the characters’ perspectives. I didn’t want to impose my fears or judgments or emotions on their lives, as I think that kind of distance results in what we’re calling melodrama. With every revision of every sentence, I aimed to collapse the distance between me and the characters. If I was able to fully inhabit each of their perspectives, then I trusted that the only emotions left on the page would be the ones the characters had earned, the one the readers would find authentic and rewarding.

BB: Much of the book focuses on the details of Justin's captivity, including some that might surprise readers accustomed to watching lurid news coverage of these crimes (e.g. the aspects of relative normalcy--friends, a girlfriend, a pet--that, in part, defined his captivity). How much did you pull these details from nonfiction accounts of kidnappings versus from your own imagination?
BAJ: I did a huge amount of research for the book—certainly about kidnapping and family reunification, but also about Texas history, dry-cleaning, dolphins, pawnshops, etc.—but the research was there only to build a foundation that would support my imagination. Each of the details you mention was a revelation to me, and those surprises fueled the book. Every time I discovered something new in a writing session, the detail would beget ten more details, a hundred more. Justin’s snake, for example, was a kind of Russian doll that kept offering new possibilities. What if he’d once been afraid of snakes? How long before the snake started to shed? What if the snake escaped? What would happen if someone recognized him buying mice one month? Each of the details offered that same kind of cascade, and when I landed on one, the whole hideous and debasingly difficult labor of writing fiction seemed worthwhile.

BB: What are some of your most memorable experiences in bookstores?
BAJ: There are so many! When I worked in a used bookstore, I bought some books from a woman named Fancy, a name that I couldn’t shake and eventually put in my first book [the short story collection CORPUS CHRISTI]. Another time, I saw the heavy metal rocker Glenn Danzig browsing a religion section. He was wearing a baseball hat, which didn’t do much for his demon-ness. Years ago, I did a reading, and there was a flatteringly long line to get books signed. I’d noticed a man biding his time, waiting until everyone had gone ahead of him. I thought he wanted to share something with me, maybe talk about how much my book had meant to him or some such, but really he just wanted to know if I would tell him the name of the young woman who’d gotten her book signed near the end of the line. He wasn’t buying a book and seemed pretty sketchy, so I lied and told him I couldn’t remember. Incidentally, her name was Virginia.

BB: Can you recommend three other books that might interest fans of REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, or that might better acquaint readers with your personal canon?
BAJ: A few books that I’ve loved recently are: STONER by John WilliamsGOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright, and TRACKING THE CHUPACABRA by Benjamin Radford.

BB: You have no idea whom I’ll talk to for the next installment of #WritersRead, but never mind. What would you like me to ask him or her?
BAJ: Where’s that money you owe me, punk?

Bret Anthony Johnston presents REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS on Thursday, September 11 at 7PM. Reserve your copy of the novel by adding it to your cart right now. Choose Pay In Store/Pick up in Store to retrieve your book at the event.

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