Couri Johnson reached out to We Call Upon the Author to Explain when her first collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, came out a few months ago. Couri and I attended the same master’s program in northeast Ohio, and through this incredible fabulist collection of, as the title promises, eclectic love stories, there were themes of gritty realism mixed with magical realism and dark truths about life.
That is the kind of thing that I lose my shit for, frankly, the beauty of imagination along with the barroom candor and living that contrasts it so well. Couri’s first collection takes us through worlds with train stations at the very end of them, through the love story of The Queen of All Magic and her recently murdered soulmate, and through the end of the world more than once. Those looking for complicated narrative, multi-layered characters and stories, and a dose of the unbelievable along with emotions and thoughts they will recognize in themselves should pick this book up right now. I chatted with Couri about craft, Youngstown, OH, creating messy fabulism, and many more insights into her writing process. This interview and this book were both total delights.
Alex DiFrancesco: The first thing that struck me about this collection is how the mythology and fables it creates aren’t clean, aren’t watered-down. The lessons to be derived, when they’re there at all, are messy and often painful. Can you talk more about creating these sorts of myths as a writer?
Couri Johnson: I’ve always been heavily interested in fables, fairy tales, and myths and their relationship to one another, and those narratives relations to identity formation and folklore. When I was around maybe ten or eleven, my mother converted to Paganism after an emotional upheaval and a crisis of faith, or maybe, non-faith rather because beforehand we were only very performatively religious (Church on Easter, but not much else.) She became very interested in several pantheons, and as a result, I was exposed to a lot of myths at a young age that related to and complicated popular fairy tale types. Although I wasn’t thinking as actively about it as a child, I had some sense thanks to my mother that these tales were supposed to be symbols and explanations for how the world works, and there are key pieces and images that develop out of that that are shared and passed from tale to tale and form to form. In a way that makes the symbols themselves kind of flat, distant, and universal, but it also complicates and enriches them in a way that I think is appealing, and in a way that makes them ripe for subversion now, considering that the world that these tales were supposed to explain that had been unknowable at the time is now known. We’ve had science step in and tell us why the world gets cold for half the year, and why the earth shakes, and what the sparkling lights in the bog are. That’s not what we need myth and fairy tale and narrative for.
Now, I think the biggest mystery to us is often ourselves, who we are, and how we relate to one another, and how those other intimate relationships complicate our sense of selves. This complicates the language of fable, myth and fairytale because it often is so universal and distant. Characters do absurd things as if they are par-for-the-course, and are archetypes rather than individuals. Their challenges are often straight-forward, even in the complicated arena of love–get the apple of life, win the girl, ect. And, if I may say so, very passive when it comes to the female-coded characters, who are often acted upon rather than acting in their narratives. But I think that the distance, and the opaque absurdity of these forms, lends narratives of self and intimacy an interesting tension and, in a way, realism. When we examine ourselves, it often requires us to take a step back, to become a little distant, and the lens we use is often that of archetypes. We develop ourselves in relationship to others, our differences, and our similarities, and those often start as very 2-D representations. Often our own actions are absurd even to ourselves, in the moment or in hindsight. Often, we are looking at our lives in terms of how they stack up against the narratives we’ve been told of how things should be, and fairy tales and myths are still very much a part of that canon.
I think a good thesis for my collection on a whole is the first story “Tale Telling.” I felt kind of strange putting it up front, because when you really look at it, it’s actually realism–there’s nothing in it that may not occur in the real world. Elements of it are absurd, such as the Post Office for the Dead, and a roof lined with plastic dogs, but not necessarily unreal (I actually saw both of these things during my time in Japan and loved how strange they were and knew I had to use them in a story.) So, I felt like it was maybe misguiding reader’s expectations for what was to follow. But, at its heart, it is someone heavily influenced by narrative, specifically fairy tale and myth, trying to make sense of their relationships and self through that lens. As a result, the narrator acts out in ways that could read as absurd, but follows a kind of internal logic similar to that of fairytale, but our narrator’s story doesn’t end up with a happily-ever-after, because ultimately, their life isn’t a fairytale. That may be the lens they use to view the world, but ultimately it’s a story about how that kind of lens complicates our ability to function, our ability to know ourselves and others.
AD: Almost all the love stories here, too, have layers. There is almost never just the core love—it’s complicated by the stories told within it, by fantastical elements like the being at the center of the universe, or the train at the end of the world. Do you feel that this complexity helps drive these stories to another purpose? Could you tell a simple “boy meets girl” love story?
CJ: Honestly, I don’t know if I could tell a boy meets girl love story! One time I made an attempt to write a novel where that kind of story was happening as kind of the b-side to the major plot and I just absolutely did not find it interesting or engaging. Maybe that says something about me, and I don’t want to imply there isn’t a place or value to those stories. It’s just not what drives my interest in crafting a narrative. I think I tend to be more interested in endings, rather than beginnings. Of picking up after the Happily Ever After. I think that’s where you are most likely to see people’s sense of self crumbling or transforming in the most interesting way. For better or worse, I think intimacy, love, be it romantic, familial or platonic, affects our sense of self, and yet when you develop that sense of self based on your relationships, you’re essentially putting your being in someone else’s hands. You become dependent upon them to know who you are, and that can end disastrously in a way that is very unhealthy. This can happen to anyone, but I think that our cultural narratives lay a heavy emphasis of love-as-identity on female-socialized people, and I’m interested in exploring the effects of that in a big way. I don’t know if that manifests as much in I’ll Tell You a Love Story—perhaps a little in “Dancing Girls” and “Curlew” where the protagonists are very clearly female-identifying, and that identity has a direct impact on the narrative. In other stories, I wanted to leave the gender more off the page, to make it more universal, and also make queer-readings more accessible. But it’s become a fixation of mine in my current work and the collection I’m putting together—the mix of gender, intimacy, and identity. While I’ll Tell You a Love Story is thematically centered on love, I think that the real drive behind the narratives tends to be the effects love has on our sense of self, particularly, what loss of love looks like.
AD: We graduated from the same MFA program! The acknowledgements shout out Chris Barczak, a speculative writer, and Imad Rahman, an absurdist. Can you talk about any specifics you learned from these writers and professors?
CJ: NeoMFA represent, haha. I studied under Chris Barzak for a long time, from my undergraduate to my masters and beyond and learned a lot from him in terms of crafting a narrative, teaching, and living abroad in Japan. I’ve really depended upon him and bothered him so much over the years, I probably wouldn’t be close to what I am now had I not known him. He taught me a lot, but one of the things, I think, that stuck with me the most was identifying the emotional core of a story, and learning how to develop it. It doesn’t matter how strange you get, or how far you depart from the real, as long as your story has that emotional core that will essentially humanize the strange, and give readers a place to ground themselves. I think, overall, I learned from him that the primary and important function of a story is to illicit feeling and connection with your audience. Working under him, I also learned that sometimes the best way to illicit that feeling is through metaphor and atmosphere rather than directly—that the core should be there, but like our hearts, it’s never fully knowable, but you can hear the beat of it steadily working.
Imad helped reinforce that, and gave me one of my favorite bits of advice about formation of narrative and theme. He told the class once that a narrative should ride the same horse from beginning to end. The horse may be wearing different gear, so to speak, but throughout the narrative, the horse you came in on should be the horse you end the journey with. So this means thematically you want to set the reader’s expectations up, but you can do that in an in-direct way. Say killing a cockroach in the first line sets up a tale that’s about the death of a marriage. It’s the same horse you’re riding but the tack has changed in an unexpected way that makes the narrative’s journey a satisfying one overall. It impressed upon me the need, I think, to make every small thing work towards a greater thematic goal, and set me up to think about in-direct and surprising connections that could be made to establish that goal.
I still reference the emotional heart and the horse you’re riding all the time when reading my own work, or participating in workshops.
AD: There is a lot of grit here, too. Would you say growing up in Youngstown provided that perspective, despite the fabulism and fantasy found here?
CJ: Most definitely. In fact, I’d say that Youngstown is responsible for both the grit and the fabulism/fantasy. It’s a strange place, kind of a hybrid place, where you have a lot of remnants from a once-thriving city gone to ruin due to the steel-mill collapse, and then a beautiful, expansive park, the second biggest metro-park in the U.S., right alongside it. So you have closed down factories, abandoned buildings, and kind of a miasma of desperation right alongside verdant green forests, and running rivers, and fairy tale-esque bridges, and I grew up very exposed to both. My mother was a taxi-driver, and she worked afternoon to evening when I was out of school. To spend time together, a lot of the time she would take me along to work, and we spent hours driving around the city and picking this or that person—a lot of them down on their luck-up. During that time, my mom, who was a Youngstown native, filled me in on a lot of the history of the place. The very real—economic depression, the closing of the factories, the political corruption, the influx of the mob, ect.—and sometimes the more paranormal; the houses she lived in that were haunted, local legends, and so on. She also loved the park, so she would cut through it every chance she got. So one moment we would be in a neighborhood that was the victim of economic collapse, and she’d be telling me about how she lived in an old Victorian that was converted to studio apartments once the family fled the area, and how the whole place reeked of catshit, etc., then the next we would be in the forest, and she’d be pointing out the supposedly-haunted amusement park that burned down, telling me how fairies lived in the trees and messed with travelers, and that’s why your hair raises on the back of your arms in certain areas of the woods, or how a woman who was accused of witchcraft was thrown from this bridge and you can see her at night. Things like that. So living in Youngstown and riding through it with my mother I think directly connected grit and myth in my mind.
AD: I can’t think of a single love story told here that isn’t extremely painful. Is there any way to tell a love story without the inverse of love’s elation?
CJ: I think that goes back, a little, to the discussion on if writing the typical “boy meets girl” story is possible for me. There are stories, I think, that do it. Fairytales do, often enough, and so does Disney. But those stories feel like fluff. Not that fluff doesn’t serve a purpose in terms of entertainment, but for me it’s not a narrative point of interest when I sit down to write, and also doesn’t reflect our reality. There’s no relationship that goes untouched by conflict, no up without a down, and no beginning without an end. We all know this by the time we reach adolescence, if not earlier. I think, due to a friend of mine passing away when we were both at a very young age, I grew extremely fixated on the inevitable end of things pretty early in. So even in stories that kind of only focus on the beginning of, say, a romance, and the good of it, I’ve always kind of imagined that after the curtain comes down, there’s more to it—another end that’s a real end. I guess also in a broader sense, a love story without conflict of some sort kind of falls flat—there’s nothing at stake, nothing to change, and another thing that Imad taught me as a writer is that narrative is essentially the tracking of a change; it could be small and subtle, but that it’s centered on something shifting or metamorphizing. Maybe the change happened right before the narrative began and it’s dealing with the effects of that change, or maybe it happens during the course of the story. Two people falling in love, I guess, is a change, but I think that to be interesting it has to require some conflict or hurdle that hampers the transformation, be it an internal or external one.
AD: These stories continually undermine their own seriousness with humor. What’s the role of humor to you as a writer, in telling a sad/gritty story?
CJ: I often worry that sometimes I am too melodramatic for my own good in my writing and also as a person, haha. In a sense, I think that what we might call heavy emotions have the potential for more interesting stories, but at the same time, I think there’s a danger there of bogging the narrative down with clichés, with a tendency to be too self-important, or to take oneself or the narrative too seriously that will turn readers off, and ultimately stand in the way of the heart of the story. I think this worry is partially what also drives me to write Fabulism. I think a lot of my characters, if they were plucked out of the magical or paranormal conceit, would mostly dwell too much on their depressive states in such a way that it would become suffocating to read. There are a lot of people and a lot of narratives that do that already, and as a friend of mine says, once the mini-violins start playing, the audience starts to tune out. So adding a talking bear to a divorce narrative, in a sense, is my way of trying to give that narrative a breath of air. I try to use humor the same way. If the narrative is heavy the whole time, that heaviness is going to lose its impact unless you give the reader a moment to rest their arms. I also think it is extremely typical of my generation to undercut sorrow with humor, and to use humor as an indirect way of enunciating sorrow. Also, I just like to make myself laugh. A lot of moves I make in a narrative that are more humorous are the moments where I’m kind of allowing myself to cut loose and just trying to entertain myself. I think that an author should always form a narrative with an audience in mind because why else are we writing to publish, but I also think every now and then you have to let yourself play around a little.
AD: One of my favorite stories is “Wolf’s Wake,” where the Queen of All Magic throws a party to commemorate her cheating soulmate. How much of this story is about finding our joy, love, and happiness in imperfection?
CJ: When I think about this collection—especially when I was ordering the stories for publication, I went through several different logical stackings of the story, and at one point I was trying to do so by rating the “happy vs. unhappy” narratives, which became kind of difficult, because those concepts are kind of muddled throughout the stories. There was one, maybe two, where I was like “this is a happy story, more or less,” and that was “Wolf’s Wake” and “The Center of Everything.” I think “Wolf’s Wake” made the cut for a few reasons. First, between Wolf and Queen, we have an example of actual, unconditional love. It’s a relationship that maybe many on the outside wouldn’t understand, but that suits them, and they balance one another, and it’s one that many people will interpret differently based on their own expectations and experiences of relationships. For instance, I don’t know if I would call Wolf a cheater, at least in the sense of him and Queen’s relationship. There’s a kind of understanding there that they can move as they like without it impacting their love for one another. But he also does this in a way that’s not completely ethical, in terms of seducing or sleeping with someone who doesn’t have the same kind of arrangement.
Queen and Wolf’s relationship and this dynamic forms the thrust of the narrative, and I think a lot of attention is focused on how that love looks, and how it isn’t perfect from a societal point-of-view, but a source of consistency and magic for them. But my major point of interest in that story was actually the narrator, the little girl who is telling us this story, and how her love for Queen and her place in this neighborhood shapes the way she looks at the world. For me, when I was writing it, the coming-of-age story and the loss of an important maternal figure, and how that figure shaped the character’s world view was my primary concern. Not that that’s the only way to read it, of course. The author is long dead, and I love when people see things in my stories that I didn’t see, or focus on bits that were not my primary focus. But for me, the most important thrust was this girl’s loss, and how despite that loss, she continued the narrative of magic, of wonder, and in that way, kept a hold of her childhood and mentor despite the loss.
AD: There is often a semi-anonymous narrator telling us these stories. Do you envision these narrators as the same person? In these stories, there’s a “you,” as well. Are we to do the work to figure out who “you” is, can we use ourselves as a stand-in, or was the “you” character something you deeply developed but didn’t put on the page?
CJ: There are so many semi-anonymous narrators, yes! I love a good semi-anonymous narrator! I think that when it’s done right, it can add so much depth to a story. I am hugely interested, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times now, in identity, narrative and intimacy, and how these things play off one another. One of the ways I try to play with these three moving parts is to have someone telling a story to someone else, because at least for me, that always generates an extra layer of interest. You have to ask yourself who is telling this story, who are they telling it to, and why? Why this story? What are they trying to say?
I think the level I employ this varies from story to story.
Some stories, such as “The Center of Everything,” and “This is Where You Leave Me,” I employed it to make things feel more intimate and also to open it up to queer-readings. It allows gender to be kind of side-stepped in a lot of instances, and as someone who identifies as non-binary and whose relationship to gender is always kind of shifting, it felt freeing to sometimes not have to inhabit a gendered body within a narrative, and especially relevant for “The Center of Everything” where we have characters inhabiting a countless amount of bodies, or no body at all. The narratives themselves don’t confront queer or non-binary issues head on in the way that I sometimes confront gender-issues centered on having a female-body and the societal expectations surrounding that, but a lot of times it’s my intention to create a queer or genderless space of intimacy, and the narrator speaking to a “you” can help with that.
Other stories, I do it specifically for character driven reasons or to pose questions about narrative, identity, and intimacy to varying degrees. For instance, in “Wolf’s Wake” I feel that the narrator’s audience isn’t so important. That she is just giving kind of context to an important moment in her life and how that shaped her view of the world from her perspective. She might tell that story to anyone, the important thing is she is relating to the world an aspect of herself through narrative. You can ask yourself if her narrative is completely factual, or if it isn’t in some way tinged by the eyes of a child, and those questions could be valid to ask. But I think the narrative also kind of gestures that if you’re going to ask those questions, then you ask why it’s important she’s telling it that way.
In other’s the audience is very important. In “I’ll Tell You a Love Story,” and “Miloslav” those are stories being told to someone for a reason; the narratives have a function, and what’s being told, and how, and to who, creates an extra layer to them that (hopefully, haha) creates an extra layer of interest in the readers. You could ask, of course, if these narratives are true—if the narrator from “Miloslav” really knew a talking bear, just as you could ask if the Queen of All Magic is really the Queen of All Magic. A lot of times when people who are used to primarily realist stories are workshopping my stories that have fantastic elements being related by a first-person narrator, that’s ultimately where they think the tension could lay: “Did this really happen or is our narrator unreliable/ imagining things/ out of their mind?” They want to know what’s real or not real, if we can trust the narrator or not, ect. But I think there are more interesting questions that can be asked. All narrators are unreliable, frankly, because all of our narratives are formed by our perception of the world, our relationship to our audience, and our purpose in telling the tale. If this person really knew a talking bear or not is not the heart of the story, the heart of the story is who they are telling this to and why?
I think those stories are so fun to read and to write because it requires a balance of the background story—the who and why—and the fantastical foreground story. You have to give enough answers and relevance to the background as to justify its being there, but you don’t want to tip your hand and make it too obvious. It’s much more effective and satisfying to imply that someone is an asshole through an extended metaphor than to come right out and say it, at least to me. But in all seriousness, I think that a frame like that can open up more questions and depth to a narrative, specifically about the construction of narrative and the influence of identity and relationships on those constructions and vice-versa. It’s also an invitation for the audience to become a more active part of the narrative by asking and supplying the answers to those questions, or even being invited into the conversation by-direct address, such as the one at the end of “Dancing Girls.” It’s one of my favorite things to do, but it’s not always successful. “My Darling, Where Have You Gone?” was initially framed this way—with a narrator addressing a you—but I took that to a workshop with Chris Barzak and from the audience response figured out the frame was distracting from the story more than adding to it. Thinking about it, I think that was the first time I ever tried something like that, and at the time, it was more influenced by a stylistic endeavor to emulate the voice of fairy tales. During that session, Chris Barzak taught me that to really develop meaning behind that kind of direct address, it helped to have a reason behind why the person telling the story was telling it, and to who, and that kicked off these kind of questions in my writing in a big way, but ultimately that frame got cut from My Darling for the most part.
As to if the narrator is the same or not,, for the most part I imagine them as separate, but I could see in certain stories potential through lines where an argument could be made for one narrator recurring as the voice of another narrative. After all, in a sense, all of them spring from me and sometimes I get on thematic, obsessive kicks where patterns begin repeating that I may not even notice at the time.
AD: The title of this interview series comes from one of my favorite songs, which also contains the line, “Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix.” So the last question here is always, if you had to cut one thing from this book, from a word or phrase, up to a story or scene, what would it be?
CJ: What an interesting question. I think, since thematically the stories are largely linked by love and the impact of loss of love, it would be interesting to rewrite the stories without ever actually using that word. Instead of directly stating “love” in the narratives, I was forced to dance around it and elude to it, since most of the stories involve trying to pursue it.
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts currently attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for a PhD in Creative Writing. For more information about her work check www.courijohnson.com
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.