Johnson, Fenton 1953–
Johnson, Fenton 1953–
(John Fenton Johnson)
CAREER: Novelist, short fiction writer, essayist, critic, and journalist. U.S. Representative Ron Mazzoli, Washington, DC, legislative assistant/press secretary, 1975–77; San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, adjunct faculty, 1988–96; Columbia University Program in Writing, New York, NY, adjunct assistant professor, 1996–98; New York University, adjunct assistant professor, 1997–99; Sarah Lawrence College, adjunct assistant professor, 1999–2000; University of Arizona, Tucson, associate professor, 2000– University of California-Davis, visiting distinguished professor of creative writing, 2003, 2005. Guest lecturer at St. Petersburg College, FL, 2005, and Cleveland State University, OH, 2006. Streetside Stories, volunteer at writing workshops with the elderly and with AIDS/HIV students, 1990–94; Santa Clara University, visiting faculty, 1992; San Francisco State University, summer faculty, 1992; Napa Valley Writer's Conference, fiction faculty, 1995; Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, summer session teacher, 1997. Commentator on National Public Radio (NPR). Served as freelance consultant, writer, and editor on grantmaking/evaluation panels for the Rockefeller Foundation, 1987, National Endowment for the Arts, 1989, and the Knight Foundation, 1993; served as judge, Jackson/Phelan Literary Awards, 1996, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian fiction competition, 1988. Member of board of directors, Frameline/San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, 1987–90; member of board of directors, Mercury House (literary press), 1994–98.
MEMBER: PEN-America, National Writers Union, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association, Authors Guild, PEN-West.
AWARDS, HONORS: Michener fellowship, Iowa Writers Workshop, 1982–83; Wallace Stegner fellowship in fiction, Stanford University Program in Creative Writing, 1985–86; Joseph Henry Jackson Award for outstanding fiction by a California writer, 1986; Chicago Tribune/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, 1986; Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award, 1986; fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts in literature, 1989, and creative nonfiction, 1995; fellow, MacDowell Colony, 1991 and 2001; nominations for best fiction, San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers, Boston Book Review Fisk Award, American Library Association, Lambda Review Book Awards, all 1993, all for Scissors, Paper, Rock; residency, Headlands Center for the Arts, 1994–95; Lambda Literary Award, 2004, Kentucky Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, 2005, both for Keeping Faith; American Library Association Award and Lambda Literary Award, both for Geography of the Heart.
Crossing the River: A Novel, Carol Publishing Group (New York, NY), 1989.
Scissors, Paper, Rock, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Geography of the Heart: A Memoir, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of scripts for Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentaries and for interactive CD-ROM projects. Contributor of fiction to anthologies, including Best of the West, Peregrine Smith Books (Salt Lake City, UT), 1989. Contributor of nonfiction to books, including How We Live Now, St. Martin's/Bedford Books (New York, NY), 1992; Writers for Life, Persea Books (New York, NY), 1994; Wrestling with the Angel: Gay Men Write on Religion, edited by Brian Bouldrey, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1995; The Writer's Journal, Bantam/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996; and A Free Library in This City, Peter Wiley, 1996. Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Out, American Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury, San Francisco Review of Books, Washington Post, Louisville Courier-Journal, Louisville Courier-Journal, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Turnstile Quarterly, Sewanee Review, Greensboro Review, and Fiction Network. Member of editorial board, San Francisco Review of Books, 1983–88; editor, Release Print, 1983–85.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Man Who Loved Birds: A Novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Fenton Johnson is a writer whose novels have earned praise for their detailed evocation of the land and people of the Appalachian mountains. In addition, his memoir of life with a lover dying of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is considered a moving tribute to love and loss. According to reviewers, Johnson—the youngest of nine children born to a Catholic family in Kentucky—exhibits in his writings an intimate knowledge of Appalachian culture, with its emphasis on family ties and stories of the past. Though occasionally faulted for relying on an overly episodic framework, especially in his second novel, Scissors, Paper, Rock, Johnson is also recognized as a gifted storyteller whose works display wisdom and compassion.
Crossing the River: A Novel, Johnson's first novel, centers on Martha Bragg Pickett, who on a dare crosses the river that separates her fundamentalist Baptist community from the town of Catholics on the other side in order to buy beer. There she instantly falls in love with Bernie Miracle, the town's innkeeper. She finds herself twenty years later in a life as stifling in its own way as the one she had impetuously abandoned in her youth. At the graduation party for Martha and Bernie's son, Martha meets and falls in love with a Yankee contractor who is building a bridge that will span the two communities. "This is essentially the story of a woman's awakening, not so much sexually as in terms of her identity," noted Sybil Steinberg in Publishers Weekly. Steinberg added praise for Johnson's "sly humor" in relaying the foibles of his Kentucky characters. Leita Kaldi, a contributor to the Bloomsbury Review, had some reservations about the work, stating that, with the exception of Martha, most of Johnson's characters are less vivid than his setting. "The delightful descriptions of the two rural towns linked by a fragile bridge and the river that separates them, are as important as the characters portrayed," Kaldi contended.
Johnson returned to Kentucky for the setting of his second novel, Scissors, Paper, Rock. The book is "less a novel than a series of linked short stories," according to Charles Solomon in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. When Raphael Hardin returns to his rural hometown of Strang Knob to reconcile with his dying father, he is determined to hide the fact of his own impending death from AIDS. Subsequent chapters skip backward and forward in time, focusing on Raphael's siblings and parents, the author "less interested in how one incident leads to another than in how one memory leads to another," David Morgan observed in Rapport. Although some reviewers reacted to Scissors, Paper, Rock as an AIDS novel, New York Times Book Review contributor Lauren Picker noted that the novel's structure gives it an added theme—"the ways in which truth is reshaped and memory custom fitted to create the myths that families live by." The book was widely admired, not least for its stylistic and tonal adroitness. "Almost as if he is whispering in your ear," according to Morgan, Johnson "subtly evoke[s] all the complexities of family and community both past and present."
In 1990, Johnson's lover of three years, Larry Rose, died of complications arising from AIDS. The author wrote Geography of the Heart: A Memoir as a tribute to Rose, who was a teacher, and as a document of what Johnson learned about love and living from him. Continuing his emphasis on roots and family, Johnson's memoir details the two men's diverse family histories—Rose was the late-born child of Holocaust survivors, Johnson the product of a large Catholic family brought up in rural Appalachia. The two met at the funeral for a mutual friend and began a love affair that in its earliest stages found Rose the pursuer, the one more certain of his feelings. David L. Kirp, who reviewed the book for the Nation, pronounced Johnson's account of his romance with Rose the most successful portion of the memoir, as the author successfully avoids the pitfalls of writing about love. "In fact," Kirp remarked, "the greatest strength of the book is its persistent rejection of the cliches of romance, its insistence on acknowledging ambiguities and imperfections of character." Ted Loos, contributor to the New York Times Book Review, noted the presence of Johnson's novelistic skills in this "lyrical memoir" which "marries his eye for detail with graceful writing to tell the story of a survivor." Indeed, "this is a remarkable memoir," echoed Genevieve Stuttaford in Publishers Weekly, "touching, searing, eloquent, beautifully alive."
Johnson once again turns to nonfiction with a personal element in Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey. The book chronicles Johnson's "personal journey to rise from institutionally enforced belief to the realization of personal faith," noted reviewer Sven Davisson in the Lambda Book Report. Johnson grew up in a rural Kentucky community that housed the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. Though Johnson and his family were Catholic, they had considerable contact with the Gethsemani monks as community members, neighbors, and friends. When Johnson left home to pursue his writing career, he also broke with his religion, motivated in large part by the deeply entrenched homophobia he saw within Catholicism. Some years later, after the death of his lover, Johnson returned to his Kentucky home.
There, he was invited by one of the Gethsemani monks to attend a symposium of Buddhist and Christian monks. While there, he begins to recognize the anger he has long held toward Catholicism and religion in general. However, he also begins to realize what he may have lost over the years by living without faith. His experience sends him on a journey to examine monasticism, both from a historical perspective and in terms of how it is practiced today. He studies both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist monasticism, focusing on the Gethsemani Abbey at the San Francisco Zen Cente, where he tries living the monastic life to gain a deeper understanding from within the traditions. Eventually, he begins to see both the earthly reality and humanity of religion as well as the deeper spiritual benefits of a life strengthened by faith, which allows him to overcome his anger at religion and recover the father he had perhaps never lost, but had long ignored. A Kirkus Reviews critic also praised Johnson's honesty, stating that "like the best writers on religion, Johnson never flinches at describing his own doubts, anger, and skepticism about its practices, but he is also scrupulously fair and open-minded." A Publishers Weekly contributor also named the account "exceedingly refreshing and pure in its honesty." "Johnson's ease as a writer and his gift for aphorisms keeps his narrative moving smoothly," commented a reviewer in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "His historical and theological analyses are testimony to his intellectual depth and range," the reviewer continued. Johnson is "a brutally honest writer who faces his own demons and names them," remarked William A. Barry in America, who called Keeping Faith "an important book."
Johnson told CA: "I began writing for the same reason that at bottom motivates all writers—to save myself. Then one word led to another, and that in turn led to another…. Writing is so symbiotic with life that I have difficulty separating them, which is, at least for the writer of literary work, probably how it should be. Finally one sings because one must; and because in the response of my audience, I hear and feel anew what it means to be alive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, November 3, 2003, William A. Barry, "Rooted Once More"; review of Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey, p. 24.
Bloomsbury Review, July 1990, review of Crossing the River: A Novel, p. 29.
Booklist, March 15, 2003, June Sawyers, review of Keeping Faith, p. 1257.
Entertainment Weekly, August 13, 1993, D.A. Ball, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 69.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, July-August, 2003, Amanda Laughtland, "Monastic Voyage," review of Keeping Faith, p. 42.
Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), May 3, 2003, review of Keeping Faith, p. 1.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2003, review of Keeping Faith, p. 126.
Lambda Book Report, August-September, 2004, Sven Davisson, "Experiential Study," review of Keeping Faith, p. 32.
Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, KY), May 9, 2003, Art Jester, review of Keeping Faith.
Library Journal, July, 1989, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of Crossing the River, p. 109.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 10, 1994, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 12.
Nation, July 15, 1996, David L. Kirp, review of Geography of the Heart: A Memoir, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, August 15, 1993, Lauren Picker, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 18; September 11, 1994, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 44; September 22, 1996, Ted Loos, review of Geography of the Heart, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, June 16, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of Crossing the River, p. 56; May 17, 1993, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 63; April 15, 1996, review of Geography of the Heart, p. 57; March 3, 2003, review of Keeping Faith, p. 71.
Rapport, September 1993, review of Scissors, Paper, Rock, p. 26.
Fenton Johnson Home Page, http://www.fentonjohnson.com (April 17, 2006).
Gay Spirituality & Culture Web site, http://www.gayspirituality.typepad.com/ (June 28, 2004), "Fenton Johnson's Keeping Faith Wins Lammy."
Houghton Mifflin Books Web site, http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (February 6, 2006), interview with Fenton Johnson.
University of Arizona Creative Writing Program Web site, http://web.arizona.edu/∼cwp/ (February 6, 2006), biography of Fenton Johnson.