An Interview with Fiction Editor Timston Johnston
by Michael Giddings & Matthew Weinkam
“There’s been a change of plans,” says Tim.
I’m at the front table in Babycakes, a local bakery in downtown Marquette, my notepad filled with my tiny, unsavory questions. Tim Johnston—five-year managing editor and current fiction editor of Passages North—enters and seats himself across from me. “Change of plans?” I ask.
“The interview is on hold. We have to go pants shopping. As soon as Matt gets here.” Tim has been shoveling snow off a colleague’s roof and his jeans have sprung a leak in the crotch. “I’ve sewed them before, but this might be the end. I don’t want to be popping out all through this thing,” says Tim. It’s a legitimate concern. The hole reaches from the crotch halfway to the knee.
Matt arrives and we crowd into Tim’s litter-filled pickup to go shopping. I suggest an 80s style fashion montage, but Tim is all business: “I can’t decide between Target or Wal-Mart.”
Matt and I offer to weigh the pros and cons.
“I’m thinking Wal-Mart,” Tim says. “Because I’m going to be changing pants in the parking lot. Wal-Mart is more comfortable with that sort of thing.”
Over the course of the evening Tim will buy new jeans and take us on a guided tour of Marquette, complete with donut shops, French onion soup, a wedding reception at the Ore Dock, and a sky lounge view of Lake Superior. We will also learn a bit about Tim’s history as a writer, editor, maintenance worker, and Negaunee resident.
After Tim is fully dressed we pile back into his truck and head to Huron Mountain, a quiet coffee and donuts bakery near Lake Superior. We grab a table by the window and start as far back as we can go.
I. Origin Story
Mike Giddings: I’m interested in your origin story. Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Tim Johnston: First story?
Mike: Yeah, or I guess it doesn’t have to be a story. I want to see the very beginning.
Tim: Yeah. Okay, I’m not used to this kind of thing. It’s all about me. I just like conversation.
I think the first thing I ever wrote—and if you were a girl I was dating, my mother would tell you this—the first thing she recollects me writing is my own name on a box. I thought I was writing Timmy, turns out I was writing Time.
Mike: So you had a cardboard box that said Time on it? Like in Calvin and Hobbes?
Tim: Something like Calvin and Hobbes.
Matt Weinkam: But you thought it said Timmy.
Tim: But I thought it said Timmy, so maybe I was talking to myself.
Matt: There’s something deep there. We’ll figure it out.
Mike: Do you remember any of the conversations you had with your cardboard self?
Tim: My brother says there was a face I drew on it but I have no memory of drawing a face. But no, no recollection. I did write something called “The War” in first grade, second grade.
Matt: Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. What was “The War” about?
Tim: We were watching a lot of M*A*S*H back then. And I decided to write a story that featured me and my friends. We were in a war I guess. That was the deal of it. From what I remember specifically, we were all sleeping in our tent or whatever and there was a missile coming. And I told everyone we got to get out of here. And we got out of there.
Mike and Matt: [laughter]
Tim: And the day was saved.
Mike and Matt: [laughter]
Tim: But I don’t know who sent the missile. I only knew it was coming. And we left the tent and we were saved and I guess the war was over.
Matt: Well, we missed them. End of the war. That’s fantastic. So were you a kid who wrote stories when you were younger?
Tim: No. I don’t remember much of it. I just remember wanting to write. In sixth grade we had to write stories to go to this young authors competition and I completely ripped off The Gingerbread Man. It was The Bubblegum Man. He eventually ended up melting or somehow got stuck. I don’t remember. But my teacher said, We’ll send it to the state competition. I think that may have been the first conscious story that I wrote.
Matt: Did it win?
Tim: Oh, no. It did not win. For the kids that did win, Ferris State’s undergraduate program would act out these kids’ stories and we sat there and watched the stories being acted out. Which was kind of cool. I’d hate doing it if I was an undergrad. But as a sixth grader it was like, Oh, they didn’t choose my story.
Mike: So there are no plans for a stage adaption of The Bubblegum Man?
Tim: No. I don’t even know where that story is anymore. I’ll have to find it just so my mother can pull it out next time I have a girlfriend home.
II. Welcome to Negaunee
It’s getting dark. The air is cold and no one particularly wants to go home. Tim says that the French onion soup at The Vierling—a restaurant-brewery and former gentlemen’s club—is life-changing so that’s our next stop.
Matt: You’re from downstate Michigan. Was that a big move at all? Coming to Marquette?
Tim: I guess because I had a brother up here, it wasn’t that big a deal. When I was in high school I made the trip up a couple of times and it’s a really long drive. Six hours. Honestly, it took me about five years to get used to it up here. And now I live in Negaunee [a small town fifteen minutes outside of Marquette].
Mike: You’ve said before that the move to Negaunee was the best decision you ever made?
Tim: That was sarcastic. The first day that I was about to move into my new apartment, there are two locks on my door and I didn’t lock the deadbolt because the door is warped to the point where the deadbolt doesn’t really work. So, I just leave the door locked. Turns out the door didn’t latch. So, the door was left open. I had some of my stuff moved in before and I’m coming back with a box of stuff and there’s this neighbor kid just in my apartment.
Matt: Just in the apartment?
Tim: Yeah. I barely had anything moved in at that point, but I came back and he was just there.
Matt: How old was this kid?
Tim: I don’t know. Old enough to know better than just going into someone’s apartment.
Mike: You have an age range for him?
Tim: Probably around thirteen. Again, I didn’t really have anything in the house. Some books, clothes and my kitchen stuff. If he took my KitchenAid I probably would have called the cops. But he was just looking around. I mean, it’s Negaunee. It wasn’t school time. He was probably bored as hell. I get it.
Matt: So, when you opened the door—did he have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction?
Tim: I opened the door and I knew someone was in there because I could hear him, but I also knew they were doing maintenance. I thought it was weird that they were still around. But, no, it’s just this weird, little twitchy kid running to my backyard door. To escape. I was like, What is this? And he was like, The door was open. And I was like, What is this? He didn’t even answer. He just opened the patio door—which is hard to open, so he’s struggling with that—and he finally makes it to the patio and he just jumps off the patio and bushed it. Am I allowed to draw on this? Just to give an idea?
This is my apartment. This is where you walk in. There’s other stuff here that’s not important. This is where my precious KitchenAid is. When I walk in I’m just standing here—and here’s the patio door.
Mike: Wait. [Hands Tim a pen and napkin] Draw yourself.
Tim: [Drawing]Here’s me: the X. Here’s my neighbor’s apartment, the kid’s apartment, across the hall. So, he runs, jumps off the patio and I’m still standing in my doorway, trying to process what just happened, and he just kind of loops around and comes into the front door… While I’m still standing right here. He just bolts into his apartment, and I’m like, Okay, this is my first day.
Matt: Welcome to Negaunee.
Tim: I just let it go in the end. I’ve run into that kid four or five times since I’ve moved in and he’s still ashamed. Poor kid. He wasn’t doing anything malicious. He was just bored as hell in Negaunee. The closest thing is the Super-One and it’s about an hour walk. And he doesn’t lace up his shoes so I imagine walking is a problem.
That was my first day in Negaunee and I haven’t had a good day since.
Mike: Have you been able to cultivate a writer’s lair in that apartment?
Tim: No. I’m more or less distracted by the unmanageable mildew. It’s kind of hard to write with that. However, I do read better there.
Matt: You write mostly in the office then?
Tim: Yeah. I do a little editing at home, but most of my stuff is done at the Passages office.
Mike: Desk writer or other?
Tim: The couch is kind of hard to write on. Too comfy. I guess I sit at my desk with my legs up, laptop on my lap. It will probably give me testicular cancer. That’s the least of my worries right now.
III. Forgivable Unforgivables
The soup is indeed fantastic. Reenergized after dinner, we decide to finish the night with a beer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company. Entering the busy second-floor space we become conscious that we stand out in the crowd.
“This is a wedding reception,” Tim realizes slowly. “This is, oh Lord, this is Angie’s wedding reception.”
Angie works in the English Department office. She had invited us all to her reception but everyone present can tell by the way we are dressed and the surprised looks on our faces that we have completely forgotten.
Tim leads the way over to the newlyweds and gives them his congratulations before we slink back out to the street.
“Okay, we’ve crashed a wedding. Where to next?”
Matt and I look at one another.
“Ah, I know,” says Tim. “It’s one of my favorite places in town.”
The upstairs lounge at the Landmark Inn affords a stunning view of Marquette’s Lower Harbor and the city lights.
“It’s great up here because not many people know about it, so you’ll usually have the place to yourself,” Tim says. “Keep it a secret.”
Mike: What do you look for in a Passages submission?
Tim: What do I look for? Coherency. Ha. This is the worst answer I can give in terms of a reader but if I feel like I’m not reading something or I’m just kind of taking it in then that’s a pretty good sign that’s something we need to publish.
The old system used to be if I get so excited about a piece that I have to go pee then it’s a definite yes. That’s the old system. But I haven’t had that experience in a while so I’ve maybe moved on. Not that we don’t get good stuff.
Mike: Are there any literary tropes that especially make you cringe when you see them?
Tim: Writers who write about writing. Writers whose narrator is a writer who is writing about not being able to write. Or writing so well.
Mike and Matt: [laughter]
Tim: There’s different variations. I’m such a terrible writer! And then you got the writers that are like, I’m such a good writer! And fuck you! Here’s my story!
Matt: Can you tell after reading the first page of a submission whether or not it will be a no?
Tim: First paragraph usually. There’s a lot of clichés everyone is using now. If I had more time I might start a checklist in terms of first page drafts that will never make it beyond the first page by, I don’t know, using the world actually. Try to avoid that one. Don’t say cunt in the first paragraph or the first sentence. I usually won’t get beyond that.
Matt: There should be a whole craft book about that.
Tim: There should. And the first entry is don’t use the word cunt in the first paragraph. I don’t know, you read so many submissions that after a while you have a hard time telling them apart.
Matt: Exactly, so how do you know what stands out? If you are reading a whole bunch of these and they all seem to be doing the same sort of things...
Tim: Voice. It’s always voice. If you’ve got a narrator who has got a personality and who reads like a real person, that’s a pretty good indication that’s a real writer, usually a writer that’s in touch with himself or herself. It’s true. We get these stories and you email the author and you get the email back from them and they are basically writing to you in the voice of that narrator. That’s the problem is that many people are just trying to write and they’re not telling their story through themselves.
There are lots of problems. Font is a big one.
Matt: They are just indicators that this person has never...
Tim: Like chiller font in the title. That’s stuff you do in high school and feel really cool about because you just discovered fonts. You were straight out of your first day looking through fonts and you come across chiller and get a hard on for it.
Matt: Do you just read fiction?
Tim: No, I go through the nonfiction too. I try poetry but it’s not for me. It’s not for anybody. It’s not even for poets. I don’t know how they do this. I think they just take a stack and throw it up in the air and just pick one off the ground and call it good.
Matt: Sitting in the poetry meeting was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Tim: I don’t like the way they do it. They’re so confident now of what is bad that you’d think they should take a little more time. They have their unforgivables mapped out and I guess it’s really easy for them to see how quickly these things come through. But whatever they’re doing it’s working. I think at the end of every meeting they have four or five to give off to Bev [Beverly Matherne] and Bev always comes back with two or three exceptions. And that’s rare. Rare for them to be so in tune with what Bev is looking for, it’s the most efficient I’ve ever seen the poets since Lisa [previous editor] was doing it on her own.
Mike: Do you think voice is the key to occasionally making the unforgivable forgivable?
Tim: I don’t know.
Mike: Like if you have a strong voice can you be a writer writing about writing well?
Tim: I haven’t seen it come through yet but you got these books, these novelists who are doing it, and I’m kind of getting tired of that too, because I just read Love Me, Garrison Keillor. It’s kind of like the anti-novelists novel. He writes this fantastic novel, gets invited to go to the New Yorker, and then can’t write a sentence afterwards and ends up writing advice columns. But that’s forgivable. Mostly because it’s Garrison Keillor and I can read it in his voice. He could read me the phone book and I would think it’s fantastic. That man is the perfect definition of forgiving the unforgivables. He does so much wrong and I don’t care.
Matt and Mike: [laughter]
Matt: Who are your people? Who are the writers you turn to? Either now or when you started.
Tim: David Feherty is a good example of forgiving the unforgivable. He is the golf commentator, the Irish guy on CBS sports. He wrote a column every month for Golf Magazine where he was just this Irish guy talking about golf and being hilarious.
I just got into Junot Diaz a couple years ago. I think everything he’s done that I have read has been phenomenal. Even—speaking of forgivable unforgivables—the Oscar Wao book. The whole first opening chapter is nothing but footnotes. But you read through it and it’s kind of boring but you don’t care. But then the book turns into something much different than that. So I’ve gotten into him a lot now. I still haven’t read his latest.
I’ve been trying to read Infinite Jest for years now. Can’t get past the first hundred pages but I want to. Reading him is like trying to get back on a running schedule. You stop running for like a year and your first time back you’re like, I’m going to do a mile in nine minutes. And you can’t do it. That’s what reading him is like. You’re diggin’ what you’re doing but, you know, you have other things to do. I haven’t cleaned the tub in a while. But I will get it eventually.
Mike: What’s the best book you’ve read all year? It doesn’t have to be anything new.
Tim: Books or short stories?
Mike: Either. Whatever jumps out.
Tim: Melissa Goodrich. I’ve been trying to solicit her for a while now. I read a piece of hers in Phoebe. She finally sent us a piece through Submittable and we didn’t get to it. She sent in on Friday and it was withdrawn on Sunday. Somebody else had taken it. It was this piece you could tell she was thinking about Breaking Bad. It’s a story about a guy who is smuggling angels to slaughter so they can sell them in supermarkets. It got withdrawn in three days and I didn’t get a chance to get to it. I would have accepted it right then. It was such a good story. She wrote it in the voice of a man. It was so damn convincing in the voice of a man. To see her get away with that is amazing. In the next ten years this woman is going to be up there with the best contemporary writers.
Brandon Davis Jennings. Everything I’ve come across by him has been gold. I have his chapbook, it’s fiction. His fiction is good but his nonfiction is phenomenal. I think he’s just finishing his PhD so he should have a book out soon and if he does I’ll grab it up.
IV. The Chinese Zodiac
Soon Matt, Tim, and I will head our separate ways outside the Landmark Inn. The walk home will be lonely but not too long. The warmth of drinks and company will wear off and I will be left thinking of the lofty goal of becoming a “real person,” of getting in touch with myself. But before we go:
Mike: Let’s talk about some of your projects that you’re working on. What are you writing right now?
Tim: My Master’s thesis.
Matt: Which is?
Tim: Words. In no logical order. My theme is escape. I don’t know if that is ironic or not.
Matt: Stories and not a novel?
Tim: No. I was thinking of doing a novella but that’s too hard. Now they’re just interlinking short stories. The piece I read last night [at the Graduate Writers Association reading], the girl from that shows up in another piece, they’re going to float by in another piece. It’s going to be all connected somehow. The thesis is there is an asteroid coming and it’s the end of the world and here’s the last couple years before everything gets destroyed and people just go on with their lives. I have to figure it out in a month. I’ve had two and a half years and now I’m just getting started.
Mike: How many stories do you have so far?
Tim: I don’t know. We have the rabbit piece, we’ve got the mantis piece, the horse piece--they’re all animal based.
Matt: Is this the Chinese Zodiac?
Tim: No. [laughs] I have maybe seven pieces. I have one I wrote last week that I have to revise. This one is in the style of a parody of a New Yorker profile. About advertising. About a religious group that the asteroid is coming and this stoner had a vision of Jesus coming to them as a surfer trying to go to cape Presidio out in California and meet them there. That’s how it ends. It’s about four thousands words right now and I need to add another five or six thousand to have it seem like a real New Yorker piece. Have it go on ungodly long.
Matt: What is the interest in animals?
Tim: I think it is just the way it came out. It was never intentional. I guess the first piece I wrote was the rabbit piece, which I wrote years ago, and is the first piece Matt [Frank] actually responded to. And then after that I just found weird things to obsess on. I forgot how I first heard that a praying mantis would eat its mate, which is just a random fact that everybody knows. I went into other weird facts.
Mike: What did you find out about praying mantis?
Tim: Well the reason they eat the heads of the mate is to get as much protein as possible but also so that the mate lasts longer and doesn’t try to get away. They’re good at evading bats. Their echolocation is so great they know where the bat is and stop dead in air to avoid them. They have good hearing in one ear. They can see a hundred yards fairly well.
Mike: Last question. One of your unofficial jobs, or maybe it is one of your official jobs, is making sure everyone in the department gets along with one another. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tim: Not everyone has to like one another or get along with each other, but it’s more efficient when they do.
Mike: Any tricks for making that happen?
Tim: No. Desperately pleading. I think I say be the adult, please a lot. Just go with it. I don’t care. Or maybe: Just get it done.