California Book Club: Dana Johnson Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Dana Johnson's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and guest Rasheeda Saka.

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David L. Ulin: Hello everyone, I'm David L. Ulin, I'm the books editor of Alta Journal and welcome to the August edition of Alta's California Book Club. I want to let you know, if you don't already know about Alta, we are a quarterly journal with an active online presence, focusing on the culture, on the history, the world of the American West. California Book Club is a monthly production of Alta, in which we spend an hour or so talking to some of the most prominent and interesting and compelling writers currently working in California. This evening, we will be having an interview with Dana Johnson, my friend and colleague, about her novel Elsewhere, California. Before we get to that interview, I want to introduce Alta's partners. We couldn't do this without them.

Our partners on this project are Book Passage; Books Inc.; Book Soup; Bookshop; DIESEL, a bookstore; the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West; the Los Angeles Public Library; the San Francisco Public Library; Vroman’s Bookstore; Narrative Magazine; and ZYZZYVA. Before we get started, a couple of housekeeping items: we have a sale for California Book Club Members. For just $50 you'll get a year of Alta Journal, you'll get this fantastic tote bag that I like to promote every chance I get, which is once a month, and you’ll also get one of our upcoming California Book Club books. You can find out the details on that and sign up at, and watch for tomorrow's thank you email for a link to the deal.

You can also visit the California Book Club Clubhouse to keep the conversation going. This is a space for California Book Club members to dig even deeper into Elsewhere, California, to share questions, to discuss tonight's event and upcoming California Book Club titles. You'll find links to the signup for the Clubhouse in the comment section and in tomorrow's email. And with that all said, let me turn this over to my colleague, John Freeman, who will be doing the interview with Dana. John, welcome to tonight's installment.

John Freeman: Thank you, David. Hello everybody. It's so nice to watch the running tally of where everyone is calling in from, from Medford, Mass. to Tampa, Florida, to Sacramento. I think in the beginning long ago, mapmakers were sometimes very dangerous to people who were in the territory that was being mapped. Of course, when parties went out to map a terrain, they often brought with them disease and other terrible things, which could not be taken back. And of course, once the territory was mapped, people went there and asked things of that territory that it wasn't meant to be provide.

But when it comes to books, I think we love our mapmakers, in part because sometimes we have to map the cities we actually already live in. We have to know and remember what it feels like to be alive in Sacramento or Tampa or Los Angeles sometimes because these cities are so big. And sometimes I think because we just need to remember what it feels like to fall asleep after a big dinner with wine, get onto a California freeway, say, in Los Angeles and wake up just before you get off at your exit.

This is a moment that occurs in one of Dana Johnson’s stories in her latest collection In the Not Quite Dark, a series of stories set in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which maps the city and the kind of impressions that you have when you live in a city that is constantly changing. LA is Dana Johnson's Dublin, the way that Joyce cracked open that city and made it his own. She's written three books set there. Her first collection is the Flannery O'Connor Award-winning Break Any Woman Down, which features two stories with the heroine of the book we're going to talk about tonight, Elsewhere, California’s Avery Arlington.

When we first meet her in Break Any Woman Down, Avery is about to move to West Covina, California from South LA. And she's about to see how big a difference exists in that 20 miles. When we catch up to her in this new novel, which was published in 2012 and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award, Avery is now a successful artist. She's living in the Hollywood Hills, with her glamorous, boisterous chain-smoking Italian husband and a beautiful house making art, but she's not happy. And the past keeps rushing back in, in part because memories of the past are rushing back in.

And so the book takes us back to Avery's childhood, growing up in West Covina, the move there, what it was like and how it changed. What happened when her cousin Keith came to live with them, and how all of these things are connected in the present day. It's a beautiful book. It's a book that is about home in a way. And it's a book about the intimacy of being known by people from where you're from, how that can never really be replaced, even with a lover. It's a book that maps LA, like I said, and it's a book also in love with the Dodgers, because I suspect that Dana Johnson is too. Anyway, it's a real treat to have her here and to talk to her about this book. Please join me in welcoming the fabulously talented, also a professor at USC, Dana Johnson.

Dana Johnson: Hi John, that was so beautiful. Thank you.

John Freeman: Oh my God. That is the best backdrop of any person we've had on here. And Walter Mosley had a lot of paint behind him when he came on. What is behind you?

Dana Johnson: These are my dad’s, he’s a rabid record collector, and these are albums that I stole from him. They’re actually dupes. He has copies upon copies of the same album. So that's Dina, Areetha and Ella Fitzgerald up there. And then this is Harry James Marshall, a little poster I got from his exhibit.

John Freeman: God, that's fabulous. So I was going to ask you something to begin with, but I'm going to jump to another question I had for you, because this is one of the best novels I've ever read about an artist. Not only because we get to know the artist so well, but we get to see her work. Looking at those album covers behind you and the image to your left, it made me wonder what your background in art is. And if before you became a writer, if you had interest in the visual arts?

Dana Johnson: You know I do, I'm not a scholar of the visual arts in any way. And so I'm just sort of a lay person who loves art, like anybody else. When I was thinking about the novel, I knew that I wanted to make Avery, an artist of some kind, but not a writer because I hate books that are fiction about writers written by writers. I just feel like I could have done better than that. So that's what I did. I wanted something about creativity and how this young woman's identity is formed by art, but not writing because that's what I do. So I took an art class to sort of gear up for writing this novel and I was terrible at it. One of the assignments was to draw a coffee mug. And to this day, my best friend sort of mocks me for the image that I showed her, which was basically like a two year old drew it. That's about as far as I got with my art exploration there.

John Freeman: Well, you wrote it down well. And this is a book about becoming an artist, it's sort of a bildungsroman in many ways. I wonder if you could talk about the importance of sort of writing that story in 2012, as a Black woman, if you had any models that were important to you, writers that came before you, that sort of wrote into their own work on the becoming of themselves. Lucille Clifton comes to mind. She's always sort of invoking the reader to come in, become with her, and I wonder if there's other writers that sort of stood out for you as models of the journey that Avery undergoes here.

Dana Johnson: The short answer to that, I guess I would say Zora Neale Hurston. Just when I became serious about being a writer, she was someone that I read over and over again, this idea of again, exploring a Black woman's identity, but there was a kind of...the language, the sort of vernacular that Zora Neale Hurston used and wrote with. That was something that I carried with me a lot. Just the idea that there is a sort of writerly voice. Everything's voiced. But I'm so interested in how people sound, how they speak diction, syntax, all of those things. And that's something that I saw a lot of, and Zora Neale Hurston's super inspiring to me as a writer. And so she was sort of in the back of my mind, in terms of being true to the voices in this novel, and there are a lot of different voices. Because there's like young Avery, old Avery, her parents, friends, all of these voices that she's being introduced to, and internalizing and/or rejecting all of that.

John Freeman: Yeah, because a voice isn't just the voice as spoken to Avery. It's the voice that she hears in her head of the person speaking, which is significant, especially when her family early in the book moves to West Covina, and she goes to school the first day, and she listens to a white teacher speaking to her mother. And you hear her hearing the woman's voice, who's speaking to her mother in a very clear way. Before we get into more about voice, this is sort of a pretty soundscaped novel. And so place is really important to that, and the acoustics of place and that move, I've referred to it and you mentioned it. That's a big sort of part of this book and it's a part of your other work as well. I wonder if you can talk about that move, if not for Avery, for you, yourself, your family also moved from South LA to West Covina. What was the significance of that?

Dana Johnson: Yeah, I was about eight or nine years old, like Avery, when we moved from 80th and Vermont, as Avery does in the book, to the San Gabriel Valley, to West Covina. And it was so astounding to me, of course, I had experienced white people in my life. I watched a lot of television and grew up on these shows, Leave It to Beaver and Partridge Family, or whatever, a lot of that stuff makes its way into the book. But there was something about living in an all Black neighborhood and then suddenly being transported to this other neighborhood where I was the only Black kid in my class earlier on. It was just very startling to me. I heard myself for the very first time as people do when you travel outside of your culture and you go somewhere else, you hear yourself differently.

And so I had a similar experience when I was a kid. It really blew my mind that I was hearing them differently, but more importantly, people were pointing out to me that I sounded different. And so, because I was a little kid, little kids just want to get along. And so part of my experience was like, how do I figure out how to speak so people will just leave me alone? I don't want to be the outsider. I don't want to be othered. I don't want to be picked on. So I sort of learned a way or practiced a way of speaking. That sounded more or less like everyone else around me, which is easy to do when you're little. You just sort of pick up accents. Every summer when I went to Tennessee, when I was a kid, I would come back with this really deep Southern accent that I would have to unlearn and reacquire my California accent.

And so it's something that I started out really practicing as a kid. But of course the older you get, the more it sort of just becomes who you are, what your voice is. Excluding code switching and all of that. There's a lot of different ways in which we all speak. That was part of my experience. And what’s stuck with me all these years is trying to figure out a way to write about that.

It's no small thing, this idea of assimilation and otherness, and I'm not the first person to have written about any of this stuff, but my goal and the novel was to sort of document it in ways that I hadn't seen before, which is why I chose the structure that I did, where you see the assimilation process happening throughout. But you're also constantly bumping up against the younger Avery's voice. So you can see that kind of schism, and that duality, and that sort of shift in her voice and therefore her identity. So that's what I was trying to do. And I don't think I'd seen it before, and I didn't want to write a linear novel, chapter one and two and three, et cetera, because I felt like that was getting away from, sort of, the documentation voice-wise and illustrating what that felt like and what that sounded like.

John Freeman: In your first story collection, Break Any Woman Down, there's a story about Avery, and it's about her going to school with her brother Owen, who, in that story, they're a little, I think they might be a little bit closer in age than they are in the novel. And there's this really heartbreaking quote at the end of the story, which goes "For the first time, I really heard what the kids in school heard when I spoke. Owen sounded strange to me, from someplace else. Using that word, part of a language I knew, but was already beginning to forget."

And you were talking about the juxtaposition within the structure of this novel, but juxtaposition is one of the constant plot devices of this novel. Because it's not just that Avery learns to assimilate by being with people not like her or her family, or new people that she meets, she learns by watching people interact with her family and with her brother, and with her cousin. And I wonder if you can talk about what that does for her as a person.

Dana Johnson: It's that sort of... You never leave, truly, I don't think you ever leave behind where you came from, no matter what sort of shifts you make in your life. And for me, it feels like this weird liminal space, where you're this person that you are, you're also the person that you were, but you're also this person in the middle, looking in both directions, right? And so, that was the process for Avery. Her brother says in that quote, "I'm not stuttin' these white people, Avery." And that is something that I wouldn't hear a white person say, to use that word, "I'm not stuttin' him, I'm not stuttin' her." And so, that was a word that was like, oh wow, that was her realization of, she's hearing it how others would hear it. She's understanding that that's what Black people would say, and not what white people would say.

But is that what she would say? Maybe, sometimes, not necessarily in this moment, who knows? It's kind of messy in that part of the book, in that short story around there. That's the first time I wrote about this character, Avery, and her change in identity. And yeah, just that idea of, as a, I guess, fifth grader she is in that story, it's called Melvin in the Sixth Grade, that epiphany of wow, this is how language works, and this is how language is identifying. This is how language informs so many things.

John Freeman: In so much of the novel, Avery's slightly off-kilter because she's adapting to people around her. But there are a few moments when there's this utterly complete connectedness. And one of them is when the family gets in the car and moves, and they're in the car together. And my family moved to California when I was 10, and I remember that car trip like it was yesterday. Five people and a dog in a car for 3,000 miles, of course I'd remember it. But I wonder if you could read from this section, because it's so beautiful, and it really kicks off this book in a big way.

Dana Johnson: Okay. Well, thank you. So yeah, this is when Avery and her family moves from South Central to West Covina. And I think that's pretty much all you need to know, it's around 1976.

All our stuff in the van, and Mama hugging folks and Daddy shaking hands, we packed and ready to go. We get in Daddy's Buick Wildcat and drive away from 932 West 80th Street, apartment eight. “I want to be prepared for my long journey,” I tell Daddy.

“Journey?” He say, “It ain't but 30 minutes up the road.”

I don't care. I take all kinds of books with me for the trip to the valley. Daddy say it's the San Gabriel Valley, and I never heard of that before, San Gabriel, but it sounded pretty to me. I never been to where we going, but I been to the desert and down South. It ain't as far as all them places, but it's far enough to read for a long time. I've been reading Little House in the Big Woods, about traveling far from where you're from.

Owen's seen the house before, Daddy took him to see it, and Mama too, but I ain't never seen where we going. Mama just say the house nice. There's going to be grass in the front yard and the backyard, and no guns.

I look out the window, before I read some more of my book. And after a while, LA start looking different. Don't see no trash in the street, no liquor stores, no Church's Chicken. We driving on a long highway, the signs say 60 with Pomona next to it. I see hills on both sides of the freeway, green and yellow, that's the color of the hills. And there's flowers in patches, yellow, white, and purple, and cows way off in the fields. Not a whole bunch, but cows anyway. "Look," I say, "Cows!" They make me happy, because I never see no animals before, never, not where I live. Not even hardly cats and dogs, except at the zoo. Got to be down South to see animals. But how can this be so close to LA and be so different? How come I never seen this before, if it's so close?

But it's not just the cows, they got a big old shopping center out there, Plenty Hills Mall, they call it mall. Mall, I say to myself, mall with a water slide and little cars you can drive with bumpers. A big place for a walk-in movies, where they play a whole lot of different movies all in one place, not just the drive-in where we used to go when I was little. They got more stuff to do out here, more places to go, it smell different and look different, and everything's going to be different. We headed West to West Covina in San Gabriel Valley. I say it to myself over and over again, WestCovinainSanGabrielValley, and it sound like a song.

John Freeman: I love that passage so much. I want to ask you Dana, one of the questions that came in was from Darell, and he asked you what inspired you to write this story? And how long did it take you to write it basically, from start to finish? And I wonder if I can add to that question by saying also, when did you realize that you could make West Covina the heart of a novel, the heart of an artistic project?

Dana Johnson: So, okay. The first part of the question is, because I'd written two stories about Avery in my collection, the first story we see her when she's young in elementary school, and then the last story bookends the collection when she's 40 and living with Massimo, and then there are all these unrelated stories in the middle of the collection. And I wanted to connect the dots. There's the beginning when she's little, and then when she's older and then there's mapping of how she got to be where she is, how she thinks, her shifting identity and all of that.

And so, not long after the short story collection came out, I started thinking about the novel form, and thinking that the story that I wanted to tell was better suited for a novel and not short stories. So, that's how it started. And because it was my first novel and I didn't know what I was doing, and it was so hard, and it was really... I was being ambitious, it had this kooky hypnotherapist part, and then it all took place in one day on the one hand, and then on the other hand, it was this whole trajectory from nine years old to the current moment, with a shifting assimilating voice throughout.

So, it was so crazy. And I just had a hard time, I had a hard time doing it. And my editor, Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint Press, was super helpful at helping me get rid of some things that weren't helpful, in terms of the shape of the novel. And so, I just went from there. And it was a long, long, long process, it took about 10 years from beginning to end because I just kept stopping. I just kept thinking, I don't think I can do this. And so, it's a lesson for me and other writers, when you think you can't, obviously you can, you just have to keep trying to figure out how. Because I almost didn't write this, which is so weird to me, I was in my own head about it in that way, that it just seemed too hard. Because I wanted to write it the way that I wanted to write it, and not just chapter one through 30 or whatever.

John Freeman: Presumably while you were doing this, the city itself was changing around you. And so, it must have slightly shifted what you could write about it, or through it.

Dana Johnson: Yeah. But I worked a lot from memory, because so much of this is set in the past. So, that part wasn't hard for me at all, the city changing. It was more difficult in In The Not Quite Dark, because I was really focused on downtown, and gentrification, and putting people in settings that were gone the next year, and named something else the following year, and then a parking lot three years later. So, a lot of the ways in which that collection was written, a lot of these places are just not even there anymore. So, that was more difficult in In The Not Quite Dark.

John Freeman: The first story in In The Not Quite Dark involves a home break-in, and at some point there's a home break-in Elsewhere, California. And I wonder if you can talk about the importance of homes in your work, apartments, interior spaces. Because even though you're mapping kind of laterally, and with sound in LA, you're doing a lot with interiors. And I'm curious what you think about that, as you're making them.

Dana Johnson: I grew up in apartments for most of my life, when I was a kid. And then we moved to a house, and that house was a huge move for my family to actually own a house. And so, then once I was there as a kid, you're entering other people's spaces, and all the people I was getting to know, different cultures. And I was just interested in inside people's homes. And that's really important to me, the idea of who's got money, who doesn't have money, what does that look like? And so, I'm always going to talk about that in some kind of way in the work. And so, that story that you're talking about, it's set in Moreno Valley, which is out past Riverside, and that's where a lot of upwardly mobile folks move to buy affordable houses.

But I was just thinking that no matter where you live, that kind of disparity, the have and have-nots, is going to catch up with you some kind of way. And so, that is the opening story, the brother says, and I'm paraphrasing, he says there are too many Black people moving into his neighborhood. And he's a Black man who's saying this, which I thought was really funny, and so I wanted to explore that. And so, part of the plot of that story is that there's these break-ins in the neighborhood, and all the neighborhoods are trying to figure out who's done it and why. And then meanwhile, there's a character, a younger brother who's kind of a lazy moocher, and he's stealing in his own ways. So, I just wanted to talk about the nuances of all of that. So back to your question, interiors, home spaces, places, all of that, is always important to me in my fiction.

John Freeman: I love the section when the family has just arrived, and you describe their home from the outside for the first time. And I wonder if you could just read very briefly from it.

Dana Johnson: Oh, from... Let's see.

John Freeman: I think that…

Dana Johnson: I was going to read from Avery and Massimo, is that the right section?

John Freeman: Sorry, yes. Yeah.

Dana Johnson: So yeah, it's one of those things where we just read about Avery's young vision of West Covina, and so now we're getting 40-something Avery, living in the Hollywood Hills with her partner Massimo. And he's got money, she doesn't. She's got money by proxy, so she's got the lifestyle and all of that, but she's a broke artist.

The house we live in is much too big for just Massimo and me. This house has embarrassed me with my family, miles and miles away from the suburbs and 932 West 80th Street where I lived as a young child. My mother calls it the crazy house, but it's just modern architecture, a knockoff of a Frank Gehry Schnabel House built in the late eighties. Even though it's too big for the two of us, this is not a very large house compared to some of the other houses on the hill. But it is the one that's the most unique, even if it copies another style. Stucco, cinder block, copper, wood, glass and lead, all come together to make a house the shape of cubes, pillars, and trapezoids. This is not what houses are supposed to look like. Houses are supposed to be recognizable as places to live and work, where children are supposed to play, like my beloved barn house that I grew up in. But I delighted in the puzzle when Massimo first brought me here, the playfulness of it, the oddness of it reminded me of Moreau. I was so relieved. I thought that Massimo did not take houses seriously, the having them, and getting them, and holding onto them. Why else would want to live in a house that didn't seem to make sense? But I was wrong every time, but he still cares about having and holding onto everything they have even if it doesn't make sense.

Mom and Owen were the first family to come see me. I like to think of this first time because it was the beginning, when I did not think much about anything and suddenly did. The past came pushing through to remind me of so much that I forgot. Like now, sitting on my bed, I see her. Mom is here wearing jeans and sneakers. She's at the door, hesitating at the threshold as though she doesn't know how to enter. And then Massimo is pulling her through, kissing her cheek, turning his head to kiss the other cheek. Mom does not know what to do with that. "Okay," Mom says nodding, looking at the puzzle all around her. "This is a house," she says. "No lawn or nothing, front or back," she says as if convincing herself and Owen says, "Shit, Massimo man. This is nice." But Mom is suspicious. "Any Black folks live around here?" she asks. Massimo slips his arm through Mom's waiting for me to answer because it is not a question he cares about either way. "What do you think mama?” Owen says, "What do you think?"

Mom turns up the corner of her mouth and lowers her eyes at me like she's about to tell me something that's funny, that's something that I've got to know nevertheless. "One or two of us," she says, "One or two of us might be around here. Got three of us now in this house, don't we?"

And there that day, the question sat next to me quietly waiting for me to consider it. Not, What do you think the answer is Avery? But, Remember why the answer is so.

Still, when Massimo's friends and acquaintances visit, I'm grateful to have this house as an accessory to hide behind. I can fade into the house serving cocktails and fancy glasses and dishing out Massimo's complicated meals on gorgeous, bright dishes that call to mind Kenneth Nolan's colored fields, vibrant concentric circles, inviting, and mesmerizing.

Now I lay out two dresses on our large antique bed, my favorite thing about the whole house, boxy and plain with distressed wood that looks as though it was retrieved from a shack. I can sleep for hours and days in this bed. I have.

John Freeman: Oh God. As you can tell from Dana's readings, this book is written in these beautiful bursts of prose and I love that phrase, "The past comes pushing through," and it was something also very well described in a piece that ran in Alta by Rasheeda Saka who has been one of the most brilliant things about this book club, having her guide our website for the last number of months and write her own pieces. And now she's leaving us. So it's been really nice to have her and she's going to join us at this moment. She's the outgoing assistant editor of the California Book Club and she's a graduate of Princeton and has been published in TriQuarterly and many other journals including Lit Hub. And she has some questions now to ask of Dana. So Rasheeda, why don't you come join us and take over for a bit?

Rasheeda Saka: Hello, hello everyone. Thanks for coming. Hi, Dana.

Dana Johnson: I'm excited to talk to you. You've been amazing.

Rasheeda Saka: Thank you. Thank you. So I guess I wanted to start off talking about sports which in fact I know very little of. But one of the things that I was really taken by about your novel was how forceful, how much baseball there was. Not only is it just like something that Avery loves to do, loves to follow and watch, and something that she also does with her father. But I was also just taken by the fact that the novel sort of opens with three epigraphs, one is an epigraph from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and the other is from Jackie Robinson. And I was curious too, because even when looking at reviews of your books, not many people engage with the baseball and I feel like it's such an important element of the text. Not only because it's a kind of quirk of Avery and it has personality, but of course there's also a lot of potential with metaphor, and even you write, "It's not just a game, ask anyone who cares. Look at what happens when you don't pay attention to the game."

So I guess I just had a question about the kind of literariness of baseball, but also even if there's some historical or even political context, like late 2000s, early 2010s, that you could offer us to sort of ground us in the novel.

Dana Johnson: Yeah. I'm so glad you asked me about baseball because you're so right, no one ever talks about that aspect of the novel and it makes me so mad. Because I feel like if I were a male writer, they'd be talking all about how baseball's a metaphor and all of that, but no one ever has. And so a couple of things I was trying to do with baseball. Of course, I’m a lifelong Dodger fan, raised on the Dodgers. And you can't see my office, but there's a Fernando bobble head over there and a Ron Cey bobblehead. So I'm just a fan and I grew up with it, and I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about, it's sort of obvious, but just baseball as a game for sort of America, and who gets ahead, who doesn't, how does one get ahead, who cheats at the game? Houston Astros. Who does that?

So that's just all I was trying to do. And I just felt like I couldn't write a novel about LA and not write about Dodger Stadium. I didn't go deep into the history, like the Chavez Ravine history and how that stadium came to be built by displacing folks. And if I would write this novel again, I would be sure to make space for that conversation because that's a huge part of the conversation. But yeah, that's what I was trying to do with the baseball metaphor.

Rasheeda Saka: Yeah. One thing too with baseball, I was just thinking about, this is quite basic, but just think about horizons and different kinds of perspectives or gazes or thinking of an elsewhere. And I guess I was also thinking a lot of the book is about, who is doing the looking, who's being gazed upon, what are the implications of that? Of course, because it's written through Avery's perspective, she is doing most of the looking and we were seeing the world through her perspective. But I guess I was really taken by certain moments when we come to see that there's a way in which she is doing most of the looking but there's not a sense of recognition.

I'm thinking towards the end of the novel when she's with Massimo and they're having a very intimate moment and she's sort of preoccupied with, "I hope I'm the kind of woman he wants. I want to fulfill this kind of role." But then there's a moment when he's like, "Please look at me." And I guess I'm thinking, I guess I'm just wondering, what kind of confrontation or what is the detriment of not being looked upon or being recognized, and how that fueled some of her dissatisfaction with herself and where she is in life.

Could you speak to what it is you were doing with being looked at, doing the looking, being looked upon? How she's unable to sort of meet people on the same terms, if that makes sense. And also this speaks to the title and I would love to hear more about the title just because she's not meeting people on the same terms, she's always thinking about an otherwise or an elsewhere. I'm just wondering, could you perhaps connect that to the title? Because in one way, Elsewhere, California, it's kind of romantic in a sense, it's almost as if it's this noble pursuit, but I feel like one thing that's so great about the novel it's that you never pin it down. There's a lot of ambivalence, and it can lead to isolation and alienation. So I guess I just wonder, can you talk about gazes but also how that perhaps connects to the title? I hope that made sense.

Dana Johnson: It does. And it's a really hard question so I'm going to try to answer it as thoroughly and clearly as I can. But you did pick up on, something that I'm interested in this novel is just of course Blackness in general, but as a Black girl and a Black woman, Avery, and I would argue Black women of course in our culture, I feel like we're looked at but not necessarily seen for who we are and all the complications, right? Thus, you could read a whole novel about baseball and never mention it because you got to focus on the Black stuff, right?

Rasheeda Saka: Right, right.

Dana Johnson: So I'm really interested in what Avery sees, but also what people don't see when they see her and the erroneous things they think they see when they see her, all the projections, and all of that. And so in some ways, when I'm thinking of the title it’s elsewhere in California, but also elsewhere in general. This idea of where we are in this space is not where we could end up, where we could be. There are these possibilities for understanding, and scope, and amplitude, and depth, and sort of race and identity that even in a place like California—which is of course my hometown and that kind of dream, that state, that fantasy of possibility—that even in California, there's a lot to be sort of examined and sort of unpacked and interrogated in terms of identity and Blackness and all of that. So I don't know if that answers your question but that's sort of how I was thinking about the novel.

Rasheeda Saka: Yeah. That's great. And I guess one thing, this might be a small question, but I was also curious. When reading the book, I feel like... Okay, some context and then I'll go to the book. I feel like when most people write about, in literature, moments of racial subjection, there's always a sense of bewilderment or even a kind of passive resignation. But one thing I was really curious about with your book is that there are moments when Avery's, even if she doesn't act outright, she's so angry and she wants to hit people.

Of course on the one hand that could be a product of being within an abusive environment and her parents own tumultuous relationship. But I was also just curious because these moments of anger are also followed by moments when she sort of becomes attuned to an artistic impulse. After she has the verbal spat with her roommate about the TV, she sits down and starts drawing. Or even after the apartheid protests, divestment at the university, she goes to her job and she sees a bunch of beautiful paintings and drawings and that becomes a moment of access. So I guess I was just really curious to hear how you were thinking about these moments of anger, but also in relation to art making and her.

Dana Johnson: Yeah. See, this is why I wanted to talk to you, you're so brilliant because that's what I was thinking about in two ways. Children have very little power. Children, in my generation anyway, you do what you were told, someone tells you, "Go sit down somewhere," you go sit out somewhere. Avery's world was very controlled, and so I was trying to talk about how when you have that anger and no place to put it, what do you do with it? How is it processed? And for Avery, it's processed in art and that's the beginning of her artistic expression. That anger as a little kid but also as an adult, that idea of sort of having to choose between respectability and not being the crazy loud, angry that people expect you to be because you're a Black woman, and just sort of being chill. Just chill even though there's this seething anger at sort of mistreatment and misperceptions and just racism basically.

But how do you channel that? You can't go and smack someone in the face. But you can write a chapter for your novel, or paint, or do whatever it is one needs to do, write a song, all of these things that help express these feelings. So yeah, that was there, that sort of sublimated anger and not being able to express it and putting it somewhere else, definitely.

Rasheeda Saka: Yeah. And another question, I think next year, your novel will turn 10. And I guess I just wonder, because your novel was published, I believe the summer after Trayvon Martin was killed. And also I think the year before arguably the official birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. And of course, many things have changed with our public discourse about race, structural inequality, Blackness, identity. And I guess I just wonder looking back now, and also before the Trump presidency, I guess, how do you relate to your work now? Many things in California have changed. What does that mean for your work then and now? And also I guess, how does that inform even your future work?

Dana Johnson: Yeah, it will inform the novel that I'm working on now. But what's weird about... I had written the scene with the nephew at the end of the novel before the Trayvon Martin incident and I remember thinking... And then it happened right after, but I remember thinking, maybe no kind of, like, rent-a-cop security guard guy would do that. So maybe there needs to be sort of a bigger moment. The Trayvon Martin thing happened where it was the same thing except outdoors, not indoors in the gallery.

Again, 10 years ago, none of this was new. This is historical. This is America. Right? So none of it was new. And yet I remember thinking maybe it doesn't need to be, I don't know, because it's too obvious to pat, and then that horrible thing happened. And I will continue to be interested in, again, the police state, racial disparity, racism in general, Blackness, and it's going to come out in my fiction in some kind of way.

So the novel that I'm working on now is sort of like a pre-Trump novel. My intent is to kind of examine how we got here, and it has far reaches into our distant, distant history. Right? Because again, I'm not the first person to write about these things, but I'm interested in how to write these things, how to talk about them in ways that are slant or illuminating in some way. That's a tall order. Everybody would like to do that. I don't know if I'm going to be able to, but that's what the attempt is and the art is to try and figure out a way to have these continued discussions in ways that open the discussion or eliminate the discussion in some way.

Rasheeda Saka: Right. Sounds amazing. We're almost out of time, but I just wanted to ask a final question. As John mentioned, tomorrow is my last day at Alta sadly, but I'm starting my MFA in the fall. I guess my final question would be, do you have any advice for young writers or people who are thinking about writing or starting to write, embarking on the first book, what have you?

Dana Johnson: Yeah, I would say stick to your truth and your vision. Because what can happen in MFA programs, and it almost happened to me, is that I got feedback from people not understanding how to read my work. Right. And the tendency is to think, Okay, so I guess I need to do it this way because they don't get it. So I'm going to have to spoon feed somebody some stuff. None of that. I'm so glad I went when I was older, I was coming up on 30 when I got my MFA. I was tempted to sort of change in some ways my writing, but I didn't. So that would be my main advice is just don't let these people who don't know how to read what you're doing get in your head and ruin your incredible voice. Yours or anyone else's.

Rasheeda Saka: Thank you, Dana. Thank you so much.

Dana Johnson: Thank you. I'm so pleased I got to talk to you, and good luck. I can't wait until your work is out in the world as well.

John Freeman: Thanks so much, Rasheeda. You can find some of her work obviously at Alta, but also at LitHub and TriQuarterly, and I'm sure there will be more to come. We're sort of winding down, but there have been a few questions, Dana, that have come in as we've been speaking. Some of them have to do with craft. I think the structure of this novel is so intricate. There's a question from Erica, who wanted to know, when did the structure become clear to you? Was it trial and error as you worked on the book, or did you know pretty early on that it was going to go forward and back in that way?

Dana Johnson: I knew early on that that's exactly what I wanted to do. I just didn't know how to do it. So that was the goal. But it only works when a previous, younger Avery moment is in conversation with an older Avery moment. At least, I try to do that as much as possible. So that was the hard part. It's like, well, why am I writing about 7-Eleven? So what? She goes to 7-Eleven with Brenna, her best friend. What does that have to do with the current Avery sitting by her swimming pool up in the Hollywood Hills? So trying to do that and also have a plot and also have, again, the assimilation going on. That was really hard, but that's what I wanted to do. I set out to do it and again, a lot of trial and a lot of error.

John Freeman: You have a lot of echoes across, not just in this book, which is how it's linked together. Sometimes scenes marry each other or sometimes it's a detail within a scene, but also across your books. Break Any Woman Down, there's a story about Bobby and LaDonna, and then they appear again in your second collection in which a little bit of time has passed. I love the way you do that. I wonder if that's the way your imagination works as a storyteller. David Mitchell once described this as sort of a casting issue. When he goes to write a new story, he doesn't necessarily think, I'll create someone new. He's like, I've got all these wonderful characters I can choose from. Or are there particular people who keep coming back to you for some reason?

Dana Johnson: Yes, they do. But I never know if I can kind of work with them again or do anything with them again. In that story, I felt like I didn't... That character LaDonna, she didn't sort of have the agency that I would have liked for her to have had in that first story. And I just liked the idea of, again, time passing and this same character having sort of epiphanies or realizations that she didn't have in that first story. But maybe she has been with Bobby for five years now and the rose colored glasses have been taken off. So I was really interested in that kind of shift in a character and what that would look like. So again, with Avery, that's why I wrote that first story when she was young and then that other story much, much later. I had time to really think about, what does it mean to have grown up in that way in those circumstances and those concerns and considerations and traumas?

I had a long time for that to sort of percolate. So sometimes that happens. I don't know when or how it will take. Maybe there's the collection that In The Not Quite Dark, there might be a story in there that I play with in some other way later. Usually, if it's just bugging me where I'm just like, I know I could have done better or differently, or I see it differently now, and I can do it this way now. I'm always on the lookout for that.

John Freeman: One of the things I really love about your work is how much of California life is in it and the little details. Damien in the comments writes the 7-Eleven scene is one of my favorites because that is California in the eighties and nineties.

Dana Johnson: I'm sorry, which scene?

John Freeman: The 7-Eleven scene.

Dana Johnson: Oh, yeah.

John Freeman: And breaking down on the way to the Dodgers game is just an incredible set piece, where Avery's father has to sort of accept help from this guy who looks like he belongs in a white power gang. But he actually is really kind to them and drives them in his truck to the game and they make it in time. Is there some sort of aspect of California—you must have just trunk fulls of things—but is there some sort of quintessence of your life in California that you haven't touched yet that you think, God, I really want to write a frozen yogurt scene, or, I really want to write…? Whatever it is. Is there some kind of set piece that you're dying to write that just hasn't yet come together?

Dana Johnson: This is weird because I'm not necessarily a nature person, but I hike a lot. When I hike, there's a lot going on in my imagination thinking about... Last night I went for a hike, and the night before I went for a hike, and I'm really interested in trying to capture that kind of nature of California and Los Angeles. It's always surprising to me when I'm up at Griffith Park and suddenly there's a rattlesnake or a coyote standing on the road daring you to keep coming toward it. And deer and like tarantulas and all this stuff happening. Then down on the street is just like traffic, noise, and madness. Right? I'm kind of interested in figuring out a way to write about the nature of Los Angeles, I'm not doing that yet, but I'm interested in that. And I'm interested in... I'm glad the 7-Eleven stuff and all of that, the quotidian that's sort of everyday California stuff is what I'm interested in.

John Freeman: One final question. And then I think I should bring David back on, which is also part of Darell's question. What made you happy and excited or proud about this book when you finally got it done and it came out? Was there one particular thing that you haven't thought about recently that when you picked up the book, you thought, All right, I got that down?

Dana Johnson: I talk about this a lot because it's so interesting to me that even as a native Californian, when I had written Elsewhere, California, I had never been to Palm Springs yet in my life. It was kind of like what people did when I was an undergrad here at USC. Other rich kids would go off to like Palm Springs or whatever for spring break or go skiing and all of this stuff. I as an adult hadn't been really... I hadn't been. So I was Googling images and just trying to figure out, what is it about that place and how can I talk about the significance of that place and the light and how it captures my imagination, had captured my imagination even though I'd never been there.

And I love that because people want to read my book as strictly an autobiography, but it's fiction. So yes, Avery, born in South Central moved to West Covina, that so much of this novel is fiction not experienced by me personally, but fictionalized. Like as writers do, you write stuff. You make up stuff. So I'm really proud of that Palm Springs spring break section because I never got to go to spring break in Palm Springs when I was in college. And there I did, I wrote it.

John Freeman: Well, it's a beautiful book, Dana. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you and having Rasheeda come on and having all of you dial in from parts of California to parts beyond California, which we won't hold against anybody. It's just an extraordinary piece of work. I can't wait for this next novel. David, do you want to come back on now and tell us what we need to know about what happens next?

David L. Ulin: Sure. Thanks, John. Thanks, Dana. That was fantastic. And thanks, Rasheeda. Really just a terrific, terrific event. I want to let everyone know that this interview has been recorded and will be available to be watched at Please come back next month on September 23rd. The California Book Club's guest will be Rebecca Solnit discussing her book, A Paradise Built in Hell. And a reminder, again, the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members go to Please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Don't forget about the California Book Club Clubhouse. And stay safe, everyone. Wear a mask. See you next month.•

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