Interview With Erik T. Johnson

Erik T. Johnson
Erik T. Johnson

Erik T. Johnson’s tale “Labrusca Cognatus” appears in Shimmer Issue #13 .  He lives in New York with his wife, son, and a little dog too. His stories have appeared in Underworlds Magazine, New York Stories, Trunk Stories, Sein und Werden, Saucytooth’s Webthology, and the Midnighters Club anthology, among other places. More of his writing is forthcoming in Electric Velocipede, New Horizons, Morpheus Tales, Black Ink Horror, Golden Visions, Dead But Dreaming 2, The Zombie Chronicles Volume One, and Best New Zombie Tales Volume Three. His website is www.eriktjohnson.net.

Tell us how “Labrusca Cognatus” came to be.
This story is probably longer than Labrusca Cognatus itself, but I’ll abridge it. I created a character named Dr. Julius Jonsson, who is a Cryptobotanist from an indeterminate time and place, who wanders about modern-day Brooklyn looking for undiscovered and legendary plants and herbs that he finds at the edges of highways and other urban locations, where your average neighborhood resident doesn’t notice them. He first appeared in a story in Trunk Stories issue #1; the story was later reprinted in Sein und Werden’s print edition in Winter 2010.

Anyway, I really liked this character and began to think about writing a longer work with him as the protagonist. I started a novel but never finished it. But there were some scenes I felt had good resonance and stood well on their own. “Labrusca Cognatus” grew out of one such scene.

It was partly to explain how Dr. Jonsson became drawn to Cryptobotany after the experience with his father recounted in this story (incidentally, Dr. Jonsson has since found a place as a recurring side-character in my Martin Box series of detective/supernatural stories, one of which, Brain Scram, will be appearing in Space & Time in 2011).

I’m very happy with the way “Labrusca Cognatus” came out. I was reading a Borges essay recently where he suggested (and I’m paraphrasing badly) that the successful aesthetic experience is the sense of the “imminence of an unrealized revelation”. I think he might be right, and I think this story gave me that feeling, which is why I’m so grateful that Shimmer has accepted it for publication. I think it works and I have no idea why. That’s always my goal when I write.

Which authors, if any, have had an influence on your own writing?
Plenty but the ones that come to mind are: Italo Calvino (especially Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and his short stories), H.P. Lovecraft (more for mood and themes than actual language), Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast Trilogy), Guy de Maupassant’s short horror stories, Stefan Grabinski (one book of short stories but it had a huge effect), Thomas Pynchon (especially V.), Thomas Ligotti (everything; he seems to have taken what Lovecraft aimed for and actually achieved it), Lord Dunsany (almost everything), William Burroughs (especially his late work–The Western Lands trilogy), James Branch Cabell (especially Jurgen, The High Place, The Silver Stallion, and The Cream of the Jest), Samuel Delaney (only Dahlgren really), Clark Ashton Smith (for mood and some occasionally masterful use of language), George MacDonald (for Lilith), Arthur Machen (The Hill of Dreams, The Three Impostors), Shirley Jackson (short stories), Mikhail Bulgakov (for The Master and Margarita), Herman Melville (Moby Dick, Pierre, and the short stories), and J.G. Ballard (High Rise and Concrete Island in particular). I have also really enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut’s style of writing longer works through a series of very short, episodic scenes that can stand alone, and I admire and sometimes try to rip off such Noir writers as Dashiell Hammet and Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock).

As a child, did you want to be a writer, or did you have different aspirations?
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. So at least since I was 30.

When did you know you were a writer?
When I was able to let go of ego and dreams of popularity and to write what I truly want to write without restrictions, without considering any particular market or audience, to do the work because I have to do it, not to earn money or acclaim. It took at least 10 years to get to that point (very recently).

If you could choose any five literary people — real or imagined, living or not, friends or otherwise — for a gathering (lunch, tea party, etc)… who would they be?

This is a tough one, but here’s a list of attendees I’d probably enjoy: 1) Tom Waits; 2) William Burroughs; 3) Woody Allen; 4) Ambrose Bierce; 5) Leonard Cohen.

Favorite book that you’ve read recently?
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (I just discovered him and I am tearing through his amazing novels).

Favorite book from your childhood?
Alfred goes House Hunting by Bill Binzen, which is photographic children’s book from 1974 about a teddy bear in search of a place to live, and which I recently found a copy of and realized that I’ve spent much of my adult life building on the themes I first encountered through this simple book.

What makes you laugh?
Among many things: Louis C.K., John Waters, Lewis Black, Adventure Time, South Park, my co-workers, my best friends.

If you could have written any short story or novel in the world, which would it be?
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, which I think is an example of a completely perfect novel. I can’t imagine any improvements to it.

If you were stranded on a desert island, which ice cream (or other sweet) would you want to have with you?
Some crazy Ben and Jerry’s mishmash involving chocolate, cheesecake, fudge, cookie dough, and cherries.

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