There’s a very good chance that you’ll see a Facebook link or tweet that proclaims some bit of real life news is “not an Onion article” at some point during your day. That’s been the rallying cry over the last few years in a world where the lines are sometimes blurred between real news and satire. In Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson‘s new novel that buzzes with energy from the first page to the last, we get a book perfectly suited for these times.
Centering around a diverse group of college friends who plan an art prank on a southern town’s Civil War reenactment that doesn’t go according to plan, Johnson pulls off a tough balancing act, starting out like a rollicking hybrid of Barry Hannah, George Saunders, and Junot Díaz, and ending up with a tale that looks at (and at times skewers) youthful exuberance, history, race, and our Onion-headline world.
Vol.1 Brooklyn: How hard is it to find the balance between seriousness and humorous in your work?
T. Geronimo Johnson: Emotional plagiarism:
Seriousness and humor are often awkward twinned in life, one frequently being used as an antidote for a surfeit of the other. So while I guess the approach to this depends on one’s personality, I was acting as an emotional plagiarist – “borrowing” from the contours of life-as-lived. Besides, there is only so much of one or the other that a reader can absorb before becoming inured.
V1B: How do you find the perfect pacing when writing a novel?
TGJ: Gotta keep the princess in the bed:
I’m afraid I’ve not yet found “the perfect pacing,” but it is extremely important that the sentences (their pace, tempo, length, diction, etcy…) assume the shape of thought. That same principle applies to scenes, chapters, entire narratives. In other words, I’m always striving to bring the language closer to the contours of the relevant action. I’m now thinking about Gardner’s assertion that fiction must be an uninterrupted dream, and also thinking about the Princess and the Pea. Pace must match mood, and the sentences must be tuned to match emotion and thought, because each misstep is another pea, and too many will drive the princess mad, or, in the writer’s case, to an altogether different bed.
V1B: I read this George Saunders quote where he said, “I think a harsh truth can be compassionate,” when asked if satire can work it doesn’t come from a place of compassion. I feel like you could classify the 4 Little Indians performance/protest as satire, so I’m wondering if you’d agree with Saunders on satire. Are they doing what they do out of compassion and because they think the southern town’s celebration of the Civil War is wrong? Or is there something else behind it?
TGJ: I second Saunders, and would add that my interest in a work of fiction (or any narrative art) is rarely sustained if compassion and empathy aren’t the primary underwriters. As for the 4 Little Indians, I wouldn’t classify their performative intervention as satire, even though it’s at times filtered through a distinctly satirical lens. Their motivations would take several pages to completely unpack, but I’d say that their action is encouraged by an absence more than a presence. So it’s not a faith in satire, or even a trust reposed in the restorative powers of art, that spurs them. Instead, they are still young enough that their facility for wonder has not been compromised, and they are also young enough to be unencumbered by excess rationalization. They are willing to trust and follow their hearts, and their hearts insist that this event—the reenactment—deserves closer examination.
V1B: Something I found interesting was that the 4 Little Indians almost have their own way of speaking, and that’s something little cliques of friends tend to do, and it got me to thinking about writers who like to play with dialects and slang in their work. How do you go about getting that perfect voice for not just one character, but a group of them?
TGJ: What you talking ‘bout Willis?
I seeded their language in common experiences, which is how cliques develop their unique lexicons. In this book, like any, it was also important that their language evolve, splinter, fracture, and reconstitute alongside them, so I also thought of it as another energy in the story, a sentient energy sometimes contrary, sometimes collusive. Language is what they often find themselves wrestling with because Welcome to Braggsville is wrestling with the American idiom, and all the myriad ways we have devised to code, and thereby cloak, our national hostilities and contested histories.
V1B: You’re originally from the south but don’t live there any longer. Does being away from there change your perspective?
TGJ: Coach IS going to LA:
Until I left the south, I didn’t think of myself as southern. I have lived in the Midwest, on the west coast, in the southeast, and in Maryland – whose regional affiliation depends on who you ask. But the South is where I spent most of my formative years and young adulthood, and being away has only intensified my attachment to the region (cliché, I know), partly because only upon leaving the South did I discover how much of the rest of the U.S. underestimates and dismisses Southerners, for example, turning their nose up at the accent, which I find mellifluent, a kind of aural comfort food.