Alabama Márquez: An Interview with Caleb Johnson

by Zackary Vernon Issue: Spring/Summer 2019

Boone Saloon. Boone, NC.

March 8, 2019

If literary fans and scholars fret, as I sometimes do, that MFA programs have tamed the innovative spirit of young writers, instead privileging the well-wrought, but staid and sellable in contemporary fiction, then Caleb Johnson’s ambitious debut novel Treeborne may go a long way in assuaging such concerns. With an imagination wholly unfettered, Johnson has created a novel that is wildly unorthodox.

Treeborne is not a beach read, nor is it likely to be a favorite amongst book-of-the-month clubs. Populated with a vast array of complex and sometimes enigmatic characters, suffused with magical realism, told through a third-person perspective in the vernacular of Johnson’s native rural Alabama, and structured with a looping and unpredictable nonlinearity, the novel requires sober and sustained focus. But if one is willing to devote the time and energy that it demands, Treeborne is remarkably vivid, revelatory, and rewarding—not a page-turner, but a book to savor.

The novel opens with a young man interviewing an older woman named Janie Treeborne, whose home in north Alabama is threatened with an imminent flood when a dam is decommissioned and its river and backwaters are returned to their natural state. This frame gives shape to the oral histories—Janie’s and others’—that convey the story of Elberta, Alabama. The narratives revolve principally around two years: 1929 and 1958. The former highlights the story of Janie’s grandfather Hugh, who helps build the aforementioned dam, and his courtship with his eventual wife Maybelle, the town’s postmaster, as well as his compulsive desire to chronicle Elberta’s history through the creation of “assemblies,” a hybrid art form consisting of natural and man-made objects found in the rural Alabama landscape; and the latter year, 1958, focuses on Janie’s adolescent struggle to understand her identity both in and independent of Elberta’s human and ecological communities. It is the death of Maybelle, Janie’s beloved grandmother, that sends Janie and much of the town into disarray, as her death reveals many of Elberta’s most closely kept secrets, including a still-taboo interracial relationship, various failing marriages, sundry existential crises, mental pathologies, and even a cache of mysterious, inexplicable dead bodies.

Burdened and enlivened by the past, the characters in the novel struggle with memory in ways both debilitating and productive. Treeborne explores how a family and a wider community become inextricably bound to a place generation after generation. Since this place, in the novel’s present, is about to be inundated by a nearly biblical flood, Treeborne also asks us to consider what happens to people who are displaced, how a forced diaspora unmakes a community. Johnson’s novel stands as a monument to Elberta, regardless of whether this place and this people ever actually existed.

While Treeborne’s plot is difficult to grasp, so too is his literary lineage hard to pin down, to categorize within past or present literary traditions. This is precisely because it is something new and very old, innovative and yet deeply indebted to canonical figures, most notably writers like William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, both known for their complex and often conflicted characters, intricate nonlinear narratives, and rhetorical innovations. Johnson has on a number of occasions publicly noted his admiration of Márquez. And comparisons between him and Faulkner are inevitable given Johnson’s personal background in and literary focus on the Deep South. However, I see more Flannery O’Connor in Treeborne than Faulkner. The novel has O’Connor’s fascination with the gothic and grotesque in southern life, and it also contains a heaping helping of O’Connor’s sardonic humor. Perhaps if O’Connor and Márquez had somehow had a baby, it might have written, on a good day, a bit like Caleb Johnson.

But whether it was Márquez, O’Connor, Faulkner, or even Lewis Nordan (whom Johnson mentions in this interview) that impacted him most deeply, it’s clear that Johnson is steeped in southern literature as well as other literary traditions south of South.

Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Treeborne is full of the fantastical, and like Márquez, Johnson is a conjurer of myth and magic. Treeborne defies expectations, astonishes with the unanticipated, refusing to allow readers to become comfortable or complacent. Instead the novel demands attention and close scrutiny. The setting of the novel is both visceral and knowable, and yet at the same time Johnson’s story is surreal and to believe in it, to suspend disbelief, is to allow oneself to be swept up into a world that is not our own, an otherworldly world that if it brings us closer to some kind of truth does so precisely by stripping us of truths known and ordinary. In other words, Treeborne pushes us toward new truths rather than merely confirming what we knew about the world before cracking its cover. Throughout the novel, elements of the quotidian, even the tedious become transfigured in delightful and horrifying, but always unforeseen ways.

With Treeborne, Caleb Johnson, undoubtedly at the beginning of a significant career, has given us an entrancing novel that is paradoxically believable and mythic, about a place one feels one has been all the while knowing one could never go.

• • •

Zackary Vernon: Before we get into our discussion about Treeborne, I first wanted to ask you to describe your background and your family’s background. What is your family’s history in Alabama? What was it like for you growing up specifically in Arley, Alabama?  

Caleb Johnson: When I was little, a lot of what my weekends involved was traveling around and doing detective work on my family’s genealogy. Well, I wasn’t doing it exactly; my mom and her mom, my grandma, were. They were really into it, so we would go to libraries all over, and they would look at microfilm for hours. We’d also go to cemeteries where they believed ancestors might be buried, lost family members. Or we’d drive to places where they’d found deeds to property that might be related to the family somehow.

To be honest, as a kid, it was sometimes kind of annoying to be with my mom and grandma for hours and hours on the weekend instead of playing with my friends. But now I know a lot about my family based on these trips. For example, I know that my family came to Alabama in the late 1700s, not long after the Revolutionary War. We’ve even traced the history back enough to know the exact place in Alabama where the first of our family lived. That was on the eastern side of the state, and now most of my family lives in northwest Alabama, primarily in or around Winston County.

Winston County is extremely rural. As a kid I played in the woods all the time. I’m the oldest grandchild, so I was sort of an only child for a while. So I had those years of my childhood when it was just me and all the adults in my family. When we all got together, for example, for Sunday dinner, I would always get bored and go play outside. This was usually at my grandma’s house, and I’d roam for hours by myself in the woods. Then when I got back, my mom or grandma or my aunts would sit me down and say, “What have you been doing?” At first I’d respond with something like, “Playing in the woods.” This was true; that’s what I had been doing. But I soon realized that this is not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear a story, something that happened or something that I imagined. I realized this because they had modeled storytelling for me for as long as I can remember: ghost stories, family stories, comedic stories. That’s what they did all the time when they were together. So in the woods behind my grandma’s house, I learned how to be a storyteller. The woods felt wild and remote and untouched to me. It was only 40 acres, but it seemed enormous. When I’d get back to my grandma’s house, I’d tell the stories that I’d thought up in the woods, hoping to impress my mom and grandma and aunts. And in doing so I became part of their storytelling tradition, learning it from them and then carrying it on.

ZV: Was it the women in your family who were primarily the storytellers and who later became the audience for your own stories?

CJ: The women were everything in my family. Most, not all, but most of the men in my family were dead, drunk, or divorced. And the ones who were around generally worked jobs that didn’t allow them to spend much time with the family.

ZV: What was your dad’s occupation?

CJ: My dad was a coal miner. He worked in an underground coal mine for more than 30 years, six nights a week, and driving an hour and a half one way to get there. So I saw him only for an hour or two on weekdays and then for the evening on Saturdays before he went to bed. Then on Sundays he would often work a double, so he’d leave on Sunday morning and not come back until Monday.

That was the case with a lot of the men in my family, because they worked these kinds of blue-collar jobs. There were never many opportunities in the county, just coal mining and a few manufacturing jobs.

ZV: Is your dad still working in the mines?

CJ: The mine went bankrupt a few years ago, and during the bankruptcy proceedings, it was more fiscally prudent for him to take his retirement. He had already put in the years required to retire. He just kept working because he loved it and wouldn’t have known what to do with himself if he wasn’t doing it. But he only stayed retired for a year after leaving the mine. He was driving my mom and himself crazy. So now he works manufacturing those big trailers used for hauling things. He loves it, and he has hilarious stories about the people he works with.

ZV: Does your mom work?

CJ: She didn’t when we were kids. She raised my sister and me. But later she went back to school and finished her teaching certificate. Since then she has taught in the elementary school that I went to back home.

ZV: You studied journalism at the University of Alabama and later got your MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming? Why did you start with journalism and then move toward fiction? Also, does your background in journalism inform your fiction in any way?

CJ: I got a lot of positive reinforcement from my family for my storytelling. Then in school I always did really well in English. I mean, overall I was a good student. But the English and writing classes always came naturally to me compared to my other classes.

However, coming from a working-class background, it seemed unimaginable that being a writer could be a job. Even my parents who were very encouraging told me once that people don’t write books for a living. And yet my dad was a big reader of local newspapers back home, and he’d always share his favorite stories that he read each day. So to me working for a newspaper seemed like a more realistic job, and that’s why I decided to pursue journalism. But even in college I always knew that I wanted to do more. I wanted to write longer works and focus on narrative rather than just reporting.

I graduated from college during the recession, when newspapers were downsizing and magazines were cutting their staffs. There weren’t many opportunities to write long-form journalism and make a living at it. I had a professor at Alabama, Rick Bragg, who came of age at a time when newspaper reporters could make a living working at a features desk and have months to report a story and win prizes and live in interesting places. It seemed like an amazing lifestyle. So I wanted to be like him, but it wasn’t until I graduated and tried to make it while the recession was happening that I realized that lifestyle is pretty much nonexistent now.

I don’t think journalism informs my style in fiction—my language and syntax—but it definitely informs my process. It taught me to work on a deadline and how to be edited, how to see and understand edits, rather than just getting upset or mad by other people’s criticisms. Journalism also taught me that writing is a job that you go to every day and you do like you do anything else. You show up for it. You put in the hours.

ZV: Did you want to go to Wyoming specifically to work with Brad Watson?

CJ: Yeah, I definitely wanted to study with Brad. I love his books. But I also wanted to try living outside the South. I mean, I love the South, and it informs a lot of what I do in my writing and in my personal life. But I’d never lived outside the South or even outside of Alabama. I knew that graduate school was a great opportunity to live my life for a time outside of the South. And it was like another world, going to Wyoming and living in the Rocky Mountains.

ZV: What about working with Brad Watson impacted you the most?

CJ: Brad taught me that you have to aim for perfection, even though it’s obviously not going to happen. I guess some books and stories reach that point. None of mine. But I’ve read things that I thought were about as close to perfection as we can get. Brad taught me that you have to aim for that or there’s no point. Why bother if you’re not going to strive to make the most perfect thing you can make?

ZV: When and why did you begin Treeborne? Did the novel grow out of something you started in your MFA program?

CJ: I knew that I wanted to write a novel while I was in Wyoming. I had two years in the program, and I knew I couldn’t mess around. I knew I needed to come out of the process with some kind of product, something to show for my time. Maybe it’s my working-class background, but I knew I’d feel guilty if I didn’t use my time wisely. I wanted to honor my parents and the opportunities they’d given me in life by writing a novel.

I also knew that I needed to write a novel and not short stories for the sake of marketability. I mean, no one reads short stories except other fiction writers and academics.  

ZV: I’m interested in the way that MFA programs impact writers’ stylistic choices. Not content, not the stories that are told, but rather the way in which they are told, the way that novels are crafted. I feel like a lot of contemporary fiction, especially so-called MFA fiction, is not experimental in the way that Treeborne is. Why do you think that is? Why is there so little experimentation these days as compared to, for instance, the high modernist works of the first half of the twentieth century, with their inexorable emphasis on making it new, or the postmodern works of the second half of the century, with their use of fragmented forms, pastiche, and playful irony? Is it a matter of marketability and readers’ tastes, or do you think it has to do with what is taught in MFA programs these days?

CJ: I guess it largely depends on the MFA program and who is teaching within the program. There are often different aesthetic expectations even within a single program.

When it comes to the reader, I do think there is a certain formula, a certain structure that works. Some writers figure out the formula that readers expect and they don’t deviate from it. And some journals and magazines are looking for that kind of neat and tidy fiction that provides all the answers, because it’s satisfying to readers.

For me, as I was writing Treeborne, which was my first novel, I tried to take the best advice I got from professors and from other students. But ultimately I had to figure the novel out on my own. And the experimentation was what I figured out needed to be there to tell this story.

ZV: Did you ever feel like that sort of experimentation was dangerous because it might not be marketable? Or did you ever feel any pressure from agents or editors to tone down the experimental facets of the book? I ask this question, because the book is quite difficult to read. I study twentieth-century American literature and I focus on a lot of modernist novels, and even I struggled while reading the book for the first time. The number of characters, the nonlinear narrative, the magical realism, the use of vernacular narration—all of these things make Treeborne a challenging read. The first time I read the novel I was impressed and interested, but also overwhelmed. It wasn’t until my second reading that I felt I could let the story wash over me and be truly lost in it. I also don’t think I full appreciated the beauty of the language until the second reading, simply because I was initially so busy trying to grasp who the characters are, what their relationships are to one another, and what is happening to them throughout the narrative. I’ve read some comments online, too, in which people say that the novel can be “frustrating.” I’m wondering if this was a worry for you or your publisher. Most readers, other than academics and fellow writers, don’t seem to want to be challenged in this way.

CJ: No, I didn’t worry about those things. I had this image in my head of what I wanted the novel to look like, and I was always writing to get it as close to that image as possible.

I’m constantly surprised by the reactions that I get from the novel. The good and the bad. I wasn’t sure that it would be published, so I was surprised when Brad Watson read a draft and said he thought I’ve got a book on my hands. I was surprised when my agent read it and liked, and when the publisher read it and liked it.

But along the way we also got negative responses from publishers. Some said that the structure and the lack of chronology was a problem, and they passed on the novel, because they thought those things would turn readers off.

After Picador bought the book was really the first time that I had thought about how readers would respond to it. Before that I was always focused on writing the story the best way I possibly could, and to do that, I knew the novel had to contain some of these experimental elements.

To generalize a bit, I think most readers are stressed and don’t have much time on their hands. Plus, the world is pretty shitty in many ways at the moment. So in this context, not all readers want novels that require slow, careful reading. But I’m okay with that. Not all narratives have to be for everyone.

ZV: I see Treeborne’s innovative approach to language and narrative construction as its greatest asset. When I survey the contemporary literary scene, especially in the US South, I don’t see much experimentation, particularly amongst best-selling southern authors. I wonder if you ever feel any pressure to write a novel more like those by, say, Kathryn Stockett or Pat Conroy that would probably have an enormous audience.

CJ: No. Not at all. Just because that’s not the kind of novel I want to write.

There are two primary things that I think can frustrate readers. The structure and the resolution (or lack thereof) of a novel. If those two things are handled in a way that’s unfamiliar, then that can be troubling. For me as a reader, I don’t want all the answers. Part of why I go to books is to have more, rather than fewer, questions when I’m done with them. But I think some readers want to be told an easily understandable story, and by the end of it, they want to have most, if not all, of the answers.  

ZV: What writers influenced Treeborne the most?

CJ: Lewis Nordan and Gabriel García Márquez. For both of those, the influence mainly has to do with the magical elements of their books. You also see in both of their works, the influence of the oral tradition on their prose. This is probably true of Márquez even more than Nordan.

The oral quality of their novels and the magical elements were very familiar in my family’s stories, but I hadn’t seen those qualities in print. I think the literatures of Latin America and the American South share these fascinations with oral storytelling and magic. I wanted to contribute to these legacies in whatever small way I could.

ZV: So your family’s stories growing up would have magical elements?

CJ: Definitely. They told lots of ghost stories and stories full of premonitions. Plus growing up in Christianity, I heard lots of biblical stories, and those have all kinds of magical elements.

ZV: Perhaps that explains why Márquez’s work resonates so profoundly with you. You mention in your essay in The Paris Review Daily that Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude struck you as being southern? Why do you think that is?

CJ: I think there are three reasons. It’s the magical and the supernatural, the oral storytelling, and the emphasis on landscape and place. I realize there are literary traditions all over the world that also contain these qualities, but I just happened to come across Márquez at precisely the time that I was thinking about these things in my own writing.

ZV: Another tradition that Treeborne contributes to is flood narratives and even more specifically TVA narratives. From beginning to end, Treeborne is a water-obsessed novel. In fact, the very first sentence of the book begins, “The water was coming…” Various characters are employed in water-related occupations, such as Tammy who works for the county water department and Ren who works at a dam; the narrative even starts with the creation of a flood-control dam project and ends with the destruction of that dam and the subsequent re-flooding of the valley. In the novel, a group called The Authority in 1929 creates the dam. I’m wondering if this group is supposed to be or at least evoke the idea of the Tennessee Valley Authority. If so, I’m wondering about the timeline of the novel; the TVA was created in 1933, but your dam building operation is occurring in 1929. Why is that?

CJ: This may sound like bunk given that the group is called The Authority, but I didn’t want this group to be the TVA. There were a lot of different regional power authorities that completely altered the landscape of the South and in doing so also altered the culture of the South by bringing, to a certain degree, modernity to the region. In the novel, I wanted The Authority to have a mythology that couldn’t be pinned down to any actual historical group. So one reason to place that narrative before the creation of the TVA was because I didn’t want it to seem just like the TVA.

I didn’t grow up on TVA lake, but I did grow up on an Alabama Power lake. I was always fascinated by the lake and how it came to be. As a kid, I was shocked to learn that the lake was man-made, that it hadn’t always been there. My grandma told me lots of stories about the dam and the time before it existed. That interested me as a kid, and later it interested me as a writer when I started the book. My characters are obsessed with the dam, because I’m obsessed with it, too.

ZV: By alluding to the TVA, your novel is part of a long legacy of novels in the US and especially in the South that are concerned with floods, water management, and dam building. You cite John Grave’s Goodbye to a River as an epigraph, but other texts in this tradition could include William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars, Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove, Madison Jones’s A Buried Land, Robert Penn Warren’s Flood, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden, Dot Jackson’s Refuge, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. How do you see your novel fitting into this tradition?

CJ: A lot of those books, even the ones in the South, take place north of Alabama. I wanted to demonstrate that this was a major part of the history of Alabama as well.

ZV: Also, Treeborne seems unique in this tradition of flood narratives, because it’s about the decommission of a dam, rather than merely the building of a dam, which is the case with every other book that I can think of. In the US, the current rate of decommission is higher than the rate of construction of new dams. Is the fact that your novel features a dam’s decommission based solely on this reality, or is there a more significant symbolic reason for this?

CJ: The main thing that I wanted to examine in this book is the tradition of displaced people in the South, whether that’s Native Americans who are displaced from the southeast, or slaves who are displaced from Africa and brought to the South, or early settlers and criminals who come to the South and are later displaced by wealthier, more powerful people. The groups like the TVA also displaced groups of people. Perhaps these displacements are relatively small, but it certainly is still difficult for those displaced, even if it’s one town or even just a single-family farm.

Additionally, the creation and destruction of the dam offered a useful framing device for the novel. I wanted the dam to provide bookends for the novel and its many narrative threads.

ZV: In Treeborne, we see many of the locals feeling uneasy both with the supposed progress that The Authority brings and with the environmental destruction that it wreaks. There is even a mention of some locals plotting to blow up the dam. This sounds very familiar to real-life environmentalists (or some would say ecoterrorists) such as Edward Abbey who have threatened to blow up dams in order to restore rivers to their wild, free-flowing state. Was this parallel intentional?

CJ: I wasn’t necessarily thinking about Edward Abbey. But I am definitely interested in what forms of activism might be used in such matters. I’m often fed up with my people and how they still don’t understand how much the environment matters to our existence. I’m fed up with, for instance, the fact that coal ash is polluting the river near my family’s home; this is the same river that they use for drinking water. I’m fed up with people like my dad who worked for years to the detriment of his health and his family’s under a mythology of nobleness that seems to surround the coal industry. In reality, what the coal industry did was ruin the bodies of southerners and ruin the land, and then as soon as it wasn’t profitable for them to mine in north Alabama, the industry left that place and left its people high and dry. I’m tired of my people voting against their interests.

Tradition is always fool-headed if you think that it is unchanging. Traditions change and evolve. The tradition of southerners being good environmentalists has been damaged in this ridiculous mode of capitalism and industry that is harmful to everyone.

ZV: Lots of the characters in Treeborne have very complex environmental philosophies that lead them to engage in environmental activism. Janie, for example, learns about ecology from her grandmother Maybelle and later she tries all sorts of tactics to save The Seven, her family’s seven hundred acres of Alabama wilderness. We also see this sort of environmental dedication in Janie’s grandfather Hugh, who seems to indirectly impact the way Janie views the natural world. Hugh creates artworks called “assemblies” based, in many cases, on the landscape of The Seven. To me, it seems like the descriptions of the “assemblies” are metafictional. Hugh’s pieces of art are created from “what the land offered and what he saw in his head.” Hugh “Felt like the land was offering up things, urging him to make art.” Is this supposed to parallel how you feel as a writer converting your Alabama home and its landscape into art?

CJ: Hugh and his best friend, a blues musician named Lee Malone, are at times fictional stand-ins for conversations that a musician buddy of mine and I often have. We’re both concerned about what responsibilities we have as artists, particularly artists from the South. So a lot of those metafictional parts of the novel come from my real-life conversations, and I wanted to have those present in the book.

Hugh also grew out of a genuine interest of mine in outsider artists or self-trained artists in the South. Howard Finster, for example, is one of the most popular ones. Thornton Dial was another artist whose work influenced Hugh’s “assemblies.”

Hugh creates art not only out of natural materials but also from man-made things that he finds in the landscape. He deals in his art with this duality. No one lives in a totally natural state or a totally man-made state, so his art has to parallel the situation that we find ourselves in. You can’t erase human’s fingerprint on the land, and you can’t go back to a time before this fingerprint existed. So the question is: what do we do now with this world in its current condition? For Hugh, he makes hybrid art out of the elements of this world, good and bad, natural and man-made.

ZV: Hugh’s artistic “masterpiece” is a “dirt boy” named Crusoe, who is a sort of doll made from clay (98). And yet Crusoe is able to think and feel and act, and several members of the Treeborne family can see him doing these very human things. I really want to know what is going on with this “dirt boy.” What are we supposed to make of this “assembly” that is also somehow magically a character?

CJ: You can make of him whatever you want to make of him. That might be an unsatisfactory answer, though.

For me, Crusoe is a character, and I want readers to take him as seriously as they do any of the human characters. To me, Crusoe is integral because, like I said earlier, I wanted to participate in this tradition of magical realism. Crusoe is also quite literally the earth animated. He is dirt, clay, rotted leaves, all brought to life. He’s also important on a symbolic level because Hugh and his family are trying to understand their changing environment. Crusoe is a physical totem of the landscape that they carry around with them.

ZV: Why then does Janie find it necessary to leave Crusoe behind at the end of her story in 1958? Leaving Crusoe seems to be an important step in her maturation process. Why is that?

CJ: This gets back to what I was saying earlier about how traditions must change and evolve, instead of remaining static. Janie has come to terms with her people and her landscape, so she no longer has to tote around this doll to remind her of her past and inform her future.

ZV: The development of Janie’s character is central to the novel, and much of it is told by or through her. I wanted to ask you about Janie’s relationship to the narrative and indeed the narrator. Other than the frame narrative in which an older Janie is doing an oral history with a young researcher, the novel is told in third-person omniscient, and it often has an oral quality in that it features lots of colloquial turns of phrase as well as vernacular irregularities or even grammatical mistakes. In addition, terminology is often employed that is not politically correct, including use of the n-word, not in dialogue amongst characters but in the actual third-person narration. A lot of reviewers have suggested that Janie is the narrator of the story, telling it in third-person. This doesn’t seem quite right to me. Janie is telling the story to the young man in the frame narrative, but the third-person narrator seems to be someone or something else. Perhaps the young man in the frame narrative may even be writing the novel, using the vocabulary, rhythms, cadence, and rhetorical peculiarities of Janie and, more broadly, the rural Deep South.

CJ: It could be Janie or it could be the young man. The important part is that it could be anyone from this place, who would speak this way. I’m not concerned about who exactly is speaking. For this book I was concerned about my vernacular tradition being represented on the page and in literature. I wanted the novel to sound exactly how my people talk in north Alabama. I wanted to capture that in the way that Zora Neale Hurston captured the way her community spoke in Florida.

ZV: What’s interesting to me is that you wanted your book to be told in third-person with an accent, rather than first-person with an accent, which seems far more common. I can’t think of many novels that seek to capture the vernacular of a particular time and place in third-, not first-person. It’s almost as if an unnamed, unidentified member of the community is telling the story about the protagonists.

CJ: My hope in doing that was that anyone in my hometown could read the novel and feel like it was them or their aunt or their grandma telling the story. I did get a few notes from people who said that when they read the novel they heard their great-aunt or their granddad talking.

ZV: So you don’t want the narrator to be able to be pinned down specifically to Janie or the young man in the frame story?

CJ: I want the narrator to be able to be any member of the community in the fictional town of Elberta or any real community that would speak like this and tell stories like this. I also really wanted the narrator to feel present on every page of the novel. I didn’t want to write the kind of third-person narrator that is merely a window through which the action is viewed. So my narrator is a person in the community, just not a specific person.  

ZV: Did you ever feel like it was risky to write in third-person while also be writing in a particularly problematic vernacular? For instance, do you think it was risky to have the narrator use the n-word multiple times throughout the novel?

CJ: Yes. For me, a white dude from Alabama to be using the n-word in 2018, it is possible that someone will be upset about that. However, I think that it would be inaccurate not to have that word present in a narrative that takes place in rural Alabama in 1929 and 1958. I believe it would have been a form a whitewashing not to include that word in this narrative. But I was very intentional in determining when that word and others come up in the narrative and why. In other words, there’s intentionality there; it’s not a gimmick.  

ZV: I wonder if you’re comfortable with being labeled a southern writer? Do you see any potential dangers or positive opportunities that come from being a southern novelist? Do you feel a pressure, for instance, to adhere to or defy readers’ expectations that may still be informed by a kind of local color nostalgia?

CJ: I’m a southern writer, and I think I always will be. I wear that identity proudly and want to be part of the many traditions in southern literature. I want my voice to be part of that conversation.

The downside when it comes to publishing is that publishers often don’t know what to do with southern writers, unless you’re writing narratives about racial reconciliation. This kind of story makes some of us feel good. In the end we get to feel like we’ve witnessed progress being made.

I’m just not interested in writing those kinds of stories, not for political reasons, but I just don’t think it’s interesting or complex enough to capture more difficult chapters of our history.

ZV: Readers of southern literature seem uniquely obsessed with the idea of authenticity, and many reviewers of Treeborne have touched on your authority in regards to southern culture and southern vernacular. The dust jacket of your book both mentions where in the South you’re from and the various jobs you’ve done, including being a janitor and butcher. This, I believe, is meant to establish your Rough South bona fides, which is something that has historically been done by publishers and marketers of writers like Larry Brown and Harry Crews. Do you find this problematic in any way? More broadly, how do you feel about the popular and often overlapping subgenres of southern literature: Grit Lit and Rough South literature? Do you think you fit within these subgenres?

CJ: I don’t think I fit with Grit Lit or Rough South literature, although I do admire a lot of the writers who often get stuck with those labels. I think I’m too tender toward the characters in my writing to be considered Grit Lit. Perhaps I’m also not as masculine as some of those writers to fit in. I’m not quite sure where I fit.

I’m interested in what you’re saying about my bio and how it might position me as a writer. I think about these sorts of things a lot. One benefit to me of mentioning where exactly I’m from and what jobs I’ve done in the past is that some other kid may one day see me and think that he or she may also be able to do what I’ve done. That’s exactly the kind of light bulb moment I had when I heard about Larry Brown and his background the first time.

ZV: Can you describe The Smith Lake School and the work that it does?

CJ: The Smith Lake School is a free creative writing workshop for high school students in Arley, Alabama, where I’m from. We get together at the local library, and we read and write creative pieces. The high schools in and around Arley don’t offer creative writing courses, and yet there are lots of students who really want to pursue writing. The Smith Lake School offers them a way to explore these creative endeavors with other like-minded students. I wish this sort of thing existed when I was in high school; I’m trying to give these students the opportunity to study writing that I never had at their age. I’ve participated in the workshop for the past two summers, and I’m going back again to Alabama this summer.

ZV: What’s your next project going to be? Will you be returning to Alabama for the next novel?

CJ: I don’t want to say too much about it because it keeps changing. It’s a novel set in another fictional Alabama town, and takes place in the present. It’s about a group of people and how decisions they make culminate in one particular tragedy.

 

Citation:

Johnson, Caleb. Treeborne. Picador, 2018.



Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel Treeborne— an honorable mention for the 2019 Southern Book Prize. Johnson grew up in Arley, AL, studied journalism at The University of Alabama and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Wyoming. His writing is forthcoming or can be found in Southern Living, The Paris Review Daily, The Bitter Southerner, Lit Hub, Gravy, Southbound, and other publications. Johnson has earned fellowships and grants from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Jentel Writing Residency, and the University of Wyoming. His previous jobs include newspaper reporter, janitor, and whole-animal butcher. Currently, Johnson teaches writing at Appalachian State University and lives on a former horse farm near Boone, NC, with his wife, Irina, and their dog, Hugo.

Zackary Vernon is assistant professor of English at Appalachian State University. His teaching and writing focus on American literature, film, and environmental studies, and he has an abiding interest in the material and cultural histories of Appalachia and the US South. His research has appeared in a range of scholarly books and journals including Mississippi Quarterly, Southern Cultures, and Journal of American Studies. He is coeditor with Randall Wilhelm of Summoning
the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash
(University of South Carolina Press 2018) and the editor of Ecocriticism and the Future of Southern Studies (Louisiana State University Press 2019).