You Can’t Do This Shit Alone: Toni Ann Johnson and Kate Maruyama Discuss Writing Friendships in the Long Game

Toni Ann Johnson and I were in the same MFA program but not at the same time. We met over email fourteen years ago when we both came to the defense of a mutual friend, and we bonded over our protective instincts for friends. As we got to know each other, we started exchanging work and sharing notes, and life stuff, and over the past fourteen years, a friendship has grown that I can’t imagine living or writing without. Toni is my first reader, the voice in my head, the cheerleader who keeps me going when the rejections pile up, and someone to touch base with as we careen around the sun on this ever-changing planet of ours. We also happened to be in the same lucky pile of Pushcart nods from The Coachella Review in 2021, me for my short story, “Café Drago,” her for “Daughtered Out.”

Toni’s latest publication is the linked story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, which Roxane Gay chose and then edited for the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award. Her novella, Homegoing (2021), won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest. Her novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel (2014), was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. Both Homegoing and Light Skin are fictional accounts set against the backdrop of Johnson’s upbringing in the very white small town of Monroe, New York. Light Skin follows the protagonist, Maddie, through her childhood of coping with the racism of that town and her parents’ refusal to acknowledge it. Maddie grows to learn of her parents’ complex life, her dad’s infidelities, and her own awkward role in their crumbling marriage. The short stories from this collection have appeared in The Emerson Review, Callaloo, Hunger Mountain Review, and elsewhere. She is also an award winning screenwriter and playwright.

Kate Maruyama: Can you tell us a little bit about the journey of your collection of short stories? When did you start writing them?

Toni Ann Johnson: I started thinking about them back in the late ’90s when I was working as a screenwriter on the movie Ruby Bridges, after an event on set where one of the child actors refused to call the young actress playing Ruby the N-word, which was in the script. He said it was mean and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. It reminded me of a friend who’d called me the N-word at that age without compunction. I didn’t actually write the story until 2007, when I was a student in Antioch University’s MFA program. That’s when the collection began. It was my final manuscript.

KM: Did you envision a collection when you started it? 

TAJ: I did. I was inspired by Sherman Alexie’s collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which I’d read while working with Alma Luz Villanueva.  

KM: How long did it take you to assemble a manuscript? 

TAJ: I had a good beginning when I finished the program in 2008 (five or six stories), but after school I received some criticism on the title story that dimmed my enthusiasm, and I put the whole book aside. I didn’t write for a while, and when I began again, I worked on my first novel instead of completing the collection. I got back to the stories in 2013 and began publishing them in literary journals. The work was slow. It took until 2017 to complete a draft. I was working with an agent who decided we should sell it as a novel rather than a collection. I revised based on that advice. It took until 2021 before that draft was ready. It went out as a novel and didn’t sell. 

KM: I remember that part of the book’s journey. It made no sense to me because it was such a beautiful collection. I think I told you once I’d read the stories that I could see it being taught in classrooms. It felt like an instant classic to me. When you won the Flannery O’Connor Award, it felt just right.

How did you happen on the Flannery O’Connor Award? 

TAJ: After developing the book with the agent for a number of years, and after the disappointment of its failure to sell, I set the book aside and was working on my next novel. I’d joined a writing group, and Cynthia Bond, who invited me to the group, recommended that I check out opportunities for submissions in Poets & Writers. I saw that Roxane Gay was the judge for the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award, and I decided to submit. My hope was that Ms. Gay would like my writing enough to be open to a submission via her imprint at Grove Atlantic. I didn’t expect to win. The word count limit for the FOC Award was 75,000. My book was almost twice that length. I cut out many of the stories I’d been encouraged to add to round it out into the novel. I prioritized the character Maddie and her parents, Phil and Velma, eliding stories from a number of other points of view. I also cut out the last novella and a novella in the middle, which took place during Maddie’s first year of college. 

KM: How do you feel about having an award in Flannery O’Connor’s name? Her portrayals of Black characters have been controversial and her writings and speeches outright racist.

TAJ: Because of what we know about Ms. O’Connor’s racism, this is complicated. I’m proud of winning the award, and I’m immensely grateful to UGA Press for publishing my book. It was the name Roxane Gay that compelled me to submit, however, not Flannery O’Connor. I admire O’Connor’s accomplishments as a woman writer, and at the same time, I reject her racism. In late 2021, I read her collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I found her depictions of Black people painful to read. It seemed she did not appreciate their humanity. This led me to research her views, and that’s when I read the New Yorker article by Paul Elie, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The answer is quite! Some of her direct quotes are shameful. That said, I admire UGA Press for moving forward and beyond O’Connor’s bigoted thinking and hiring a Black woman editor who took the opportunity to choose a Black woman, who wrote about a very specific Black experience, for the prize. That, in my opinion, is a kind of redress for the past and can be commended and celebrated.

KM: How was it working with Roxane Gay and the folks at UGA?

TAJ: Wonderful. I’ve loved everything about it. Ms. Gay asked questions that challenged me to go deeper into some of the stories and that have led to discoveries that, I think, have yielded a more mature version of the book than I began with. The editorial staff at UGA Press and its publicists have been fantastic and supportive.  

KM: Are they doing all the publicity for you? 

TAJ: Some. For example, they submitted to trade publications, including Publisher’s Weekly (only publishers can submit there), and thankfully the book was reviewed [by them]. That was the first PW review I’ve received, though this is my third book. 

I’ve also hired an independent publicist,  Alyssia Gonzalez, because I wanted someone whose focus was on my book as opposed to the PR team at the publisher that has a litany of books to promote. I didn’t want to annoy the press’s publicists by bugging them every day, so I hired someone who doesn’t mind me checking in frequently, asking questions, and making suggestions. UGA Press’s publicists have been generous in supporting Alicia and me, and it’s worked out well.

KM: You and I have shared work with each other for years. I completely rely on having your lens on my work before I send it in to gatekeepers or an agent. 

TAJ: Likewise! You are my first reader, and I am so grateful for you. 

KM: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of beta readers and friendly support? 

TAJ: Yes. I think it’s really important to have a reader (or readers) with whom you share mutual respect and that you know will be honest while also being supportive. I’ve enjoyed this with you for nearly a decade. I would not have had my first book published were it not for your encouragement. 

And I’m so glad that has finally come back around and benefitted you in the same way with your forthcoming novel Alterations! There have been a couple of times I know you were discouraged about the lack of response to the book, and yet I knew it would find its way, because it moved me so deeply. It moved me so much I am still moved when I think about it. I trusted that another reader would eventually feel what I experienced, and someone did. And I know readers are going to feel it. I feel like your book’s proud auntie. It’s your baby, but I love it too!

KM: I love how you answered that talking about my book! Very on brand for our friendship. I’m so grateful for your support for that book over the years. When my agent couldn’t sell it, and I had given up, you pushed me to submit to independent presses. When I’d gotten rounds of rejections on that, you said, “I believe in Adriana and Rose [the main characters], and I know they will find a home out there.” Honestly, Toni, every conversation I had with you on the topic boosted my belief in a book I loved so deeply but had given up on. This book would not be seeing the light of day without you.

TAJ: I’m so happy you did not give up!

KM: When I read Remedy for a Broken Angel, which you had put down due to failure to sell with an agent, due to criticism, I couldn’t believe you’d put such a stunning book away. And as you remember, I got defensive of that criticism: someone was treating my friend wrong, and it got my hackles up, which goes back to why we first met. The writing was crackerjack, the story was so intense, the characters so real. I’m so glad you picked it up and dug in again, and it’s gone a long way, including the NAACP Image Award nomination. As my mom said, “Living well is the best revenge.”

And on that, the question is implicit: Have you ever gotten feedback that has shut you down? 

TAJ: Ha. You know I have. You’ve talked me off the ledge, Kate. 

KM: Ditto, so many times. Can you talk about how to work past that?

TAJ: Sure. There have been many times I’ve been shut down by feedback, but the time you really saved me was when I was in a writing group right after getting my MFA. There was a wonderful writer in the group, a successful one, whose notes felt condescending and mean-spirited, and because this writer was doing well in the publishing world, I took those critiques in and began to believe that I wasn’t capable of doing the work I’d set out to do. I abandoned my stories, left the group, and did not write fiction regularly for a number of years. When I did return to writing, I still had that harsh, critical voice in my head. It took a while to quiet that voice. You were instrumental in that. 

Photo of Kate Maruyama and Toni Ann Johnson
Friends Kate Maruyama and Toni Ann Johnson. Photo courtesy of Kate Maruyama.

KM: I’m hoping writers out there reading this understand that faith in one’s work does waver, and you need friends who see your vision with you when you’re at your best so they can remind you of that faith when you’ve lost it. 

TAJ: I think “working past it” depends upon one’s individual nature. If you’re not confident in your own process, it’s easy to be vulnerable to criticism. Or if you were raised in a critical environment, it’s easy to be triggered by harsh criticism; the past comes up and you can be devastated by it. But I think the best way to work through it is to be determined to defeat it—to work anyway. Even if you do hear that critical voice as you put words on the page, put them down anyway and tell that voice to eff off. Keep writing. Even without a harsh voice telling you your work sucks, it will take draft after draft. You have to keep doing the work. But what will happen if you keep showing up to the page is that you’ll begin to engage with your work and find yourself in it, and it will become so unquestionably yours that the voice outside of you won’t matter because it’s not part of the work and it doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and you’ll stop hearing it. It’s an odd, tentative confidence, an alchemy that appears through practice.

KM: I love how you say that—when it becomes unquestionably yours and the outside voices recede. I feel like those paralyzing voices recede once I have a draft and go through it for the first time, that the story becomes itself. Like, my characters are their own people, and I have this job to make sure I’ve told their story all the way, that I’ve honored the animal that the book or story has become. Jeff VanderMeer has a great section in Wonderbook about how stories are their own animal and once they are evident, everything about them has to work in unison. You can’t suddenly put feathers on a cow, and if an aardvark is flying, you’ve done something wrong.

TAJ: That’s brilliant. He’s absolutely right.

KM: Your stories are based heavily on reality. What is the creative journey you take in transforming real things that happened to you to fiction? 

TAJ: The things that happen in life typically don’t have dramatic structure or identifiable setup and payoff. The things people say in life often don’t have the fun, verbal dexterity, or economy that dialogue needs. And ethically, when an event is based on real events and people, in some instances, I’m obliged to change characteristics enough to avoid violating someone’s privacy. I used real events as the inspiration for each story and I went beyond the events to play and create and imagine the world as fiction. A couple of the stories examine Phil and Velma’s marriage. There are things I know to be true about my parents’ marriage, but I wasn’t always privy to their conversations. I used what I knew, and the characters I’d created out of those people, and made their dialogue from what I understood about them as well as what I imagined.

Your question uses the word “transform,” and I think that’s precisely right. While these stories are inspired by real-life experience, they are life transformed through the lens of one person’s vision decades in the future. It’s no longer “real life.” It’s not objective. It’s my imagined version, enhanced, heightened, and using the tools of creative language, visual writing, and evoking a reader’s senses. 

In some cases, the stories are “voice” dependent. So I’m using real events while also creating characters based on real people but turning them into different people, characters, who speak in a cadence and vernacular that builds on them and is my own invention. 

KM: You’ve written in so many forms, from screenplays to short stories to your novella to your novels to a play you recently wrote and performed in at the [Carl] Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel [California]. Do you have any advice for folks writing from one medium to another? Would you encourage it?

TAJ: I would absolutely encourage it. With the help of my dramaturge and director Robin McKee, I’ve adapted one of the stories into a stage piece—a one-woman show. The piece lends itself to that. It’s written in monologue form. I started out first as an actress, then as a playwright, and my acting and dramatic writing background were at play in the creation of this piece, so it was an obvious thing to put it on stage.

One piece of advice I have for screenwriters who also write fiction is to consider using a screenplay as the spine or outline for a novel. I adapted a play into a screenplay and then, more recently, a screenplay into a novel. I enjoyed the process. I always knew where I was going—what beats I was writing towards while I was going deeper into a character’s thoughts and experience. 

I haven’t enjoyed trying to adapt my longer form work into screenplays. Scripts are necessarily so much shorter than novels. I might enjoy adapting a book into a limited series, but I’ve not done that yet. I imagine it’s a more satisfying way to dramatize novels. It seems to me that a six- to ten-episode show is similar to the structure of a novel. 

KM: Honestly I’d love to see Remedy in a series. That mother-daughter relationship is ripe for it. And, of course, great sex scenes.

TAJ: Haha. Blushing here . . .

KM: What is it you most hope for your book as it goes out? I honestly do think specific pieces from it should be in curriculums from junior high school to high school to college. I’m so happy it’s going out there because I’ve always felt like it should be in the world.

TAJ: I’d love to have the book shared in the academic realm. It would be a dream come true.  That is actually an idea that UGA Press’s publicist recommended. I’ve been encouraged to come up with some discussion questions surrounding the book.

I hope my audience expands exponentially. Thus far, I think I’ve sold about fifteen hundred books or fewer between my last two publications. Of course, I’d love to sell several times that. I’d like this book to make me a writer who can sell another book (preferably to a large press) and have that book taken seriously in the publishing world.

KM: As we wrap up, I want to tell writers: if the story lives in you, even if it’s been rejected but you can’t quit it, it likely needs to be out there. Change its form, sit with it again, ask yourself why you wrote it in the first place. That kernel is giving you life and will likely be contagious once it’s read by others. Also, get a writer friend like Toni you can call when those doubts and demons creep in.

So, Toni, a last piece of advice you think writers who are reading this could use?

TAJ: The advice I give to my own students. I ask them three questions I learned from the visual artist Charles White. In the beginning of the semester, he’d ask his art students: Where do you come from? Why are you creating the work you’re creating? How do you know who you are?

It took me decades to figure out that I was trying to answer these questions in my work. I hope seeing them will help some writers get there more quickly than I did.

Kate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by 47North and her novella Family Solstice, named Best Fiction Book of 2021 by Rue Morgue Magazine, is out from Omnium Gatherum Press. Her novella Halloween Beyond: A Gentleman’s Suit is out October 21 from Crystal Lake Publishing and her literary novel Alterations is forthcoming from Running Wild Press. Her short work has appeared in Asimov’s Magazine, Analog SF, Entropy, The Coachella Review, and in numerous anthologies, including December Tales, Winter Horror Days, and Halloween Carnival Three. She writes and teaches in Los Angeles, where she lives.