The Chat with Harold R. Johnson

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In our first conversation of 2019, we chat with acclaimed writer Harold Johnson, author of the genre-bending memoir Clifford: A Memoir, A Fiction, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment (House of Anansi).

Of the book, the Toronto Star says, “the story’s meditations on loss, family, and fateful actions prove absorbing from the opening page.”

Harold R. Johnson is the author of five works of fiction and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. Born and raised in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and a Cree mother, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School and managed a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor. Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and lives in the north end of Saskatchewan, with his wife, Joan.

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THE CHAT WITH HAROLD R. JOHNSON

Trevor Corkum: Clifford is a moving, deeply engaging memoir that explores your relationship with your older brother. Can you tell us about why and when you began writing it?

HRJ: There is never a single reason to do anything. I wanted to honour an older brother. I wanted to tell a story about growing up in northern Saskatchewan, and I wanted to explore some science. I usually start writing a book at the beginning and work progressively to an ending and then do a little edit and send what is pretty much a first draft to the publisher. Clifford didn’t happen that way. I wrote a manuscript that I knew was not quite right, there was something wrong with it but I wasn’t sure what that something was, so I sent it to a friend to read. He came back and told me I had written three books and that I should break it apart. Clifford is the first of those three books, the others are my mother’s biography and my autobiography.

Even after breaking down the first manuscript, Clifford was not complete. It needed something more. There is a scene when I find out that my brother was killed that I originally placed at the end. My agent recommended moving it to the beginning. So I did. And it worked. By letting the reader know my brother had been killed allowed me to grieve throughout the work because the end wasn’t a secret anymore. Then when I was working with House of Anansi editor Janie Yoon, we moved that scene to the back of the book again, but we left in all the grieving. From when I sat down to write the first manuscript until I had a copy of Clifford in my hand took more than five years.

By letting the reader know my brother had been killed allowed me to grieve throughout the work because the end wasn’t a secret anymore. Then when I was working with House of Anansi editor Janie Yoon, we moved that scene to the back of the book again, but we left in all the grieving.

TC: You don’t call it a memoir per se, but “a memoir, a fiction, a fantasy, and a thought experiment.” Why the genre-bending and why is it so important to your brother’s story?

HRJ: I did not restrict Clifford to any strict genre because I am a storyteller. Genre is an artificial categorization that someone made up. Its only purpose is to arrange books on a shelf in a book store or in the publisher’s catalogue.  When storytellers confine themselves to genre categories they limit themselves and their stories suffer.

The difference between fiction and non-fiction is quite minimal. All fiction relies upon actual events and all non-fiction writers write from a personal perspective.

If we didn’t include actual events in our fiction the reader would not have anything to grasp onto. Pure fiction, I suspect, would be impossible to write. The writer would have the task of completely making up every aspect of the story. They could not use people in the story because humans with two arms and two legs are derived from actuality. They couldn’t use the colour brown or blue because colours, likewise, are real.

When a non-fiction writer selects a word to include, they use it in a particular sense. But the reader might give that word, or that phrase or that sentence or the overall tenor of the work, a different meaning based upon the reader’s own perspective. So, no matter how hard the non-fiction writer tries to tell the truth, they have no control over the meaning the reader might make of their work.

I chose to write Clifford outside of strict categorization because to tell his story any other way would minimize who he was. He was an older brother, someone I looked up to. From my childhood perspective, he was larger than life, a hero, a guru, a teacher, a philosopher, a scientist. But if I simply told the reader what we did and how we spoke, that sense of who he was in my mind would not come through. So, I fictionalized him, wrote him as the fantasy that exists not only in my head, but also in my heart. I wrote him the way I experienced him, the way I remember him.

I chose to write Clifford outside of strict categorization because to tell his story any other way would minimize who he was. He was an older brother, someone I looked up to. From my childhood perspective, he was larger than life, a hero, a guru, a teacher, a philosopher, a scientist.

TC: One of Clifford’s great loves is science. Through superb storytelling, you share some great conversations. Together, the two of you riff on time, energy, and other issues of cosmos and being. Is there a particular among Clifford’s science stories that’s a personal favourite for you?

HRJ: Clifford and I had many conversations over the years. We rarely spoke about current events, or politics. Mostly we talked about ideas, his and mine. Then he was gone and the conversations stopped. But I continued to have ideas, only I no longer had anyone to talk to them about. That’s what I missed the most about him, having someone to bounce ideas around with.

The science in Clifford is mostly my ideas and writing it this way allowed me to have those conversations with my brother. The science all fits together into one idea; if space is something then there must be voids that are nothing. Both space and voids have unique qualities. Space makes having a position possible and in a void there is no position. Voids explain the uncertainty principle and entanglement. Together voids and space explain gravity, the circular motion of the planets and the galaxy and eliminate the need for a big bang theory. In its place we have a constant state universe that is continuously being created and destroyed at the same time.

TC: Through the book, you explore the impacts and legacy of family trauma, but also share experiences of deep family love and humour. How has your family reacted to your writing career generally, and to Clifford in particular?  

HRJ: When Clifford was alive, we were a typical family in a typical time. It was a family of mostly brothers and we were hard rock miners and loggers in an industrial frontier environment. We were hard asses. We talked and acted tough and we were tough on each other, and especially tough on Clifford. Then he suddenly died and we couldn’t take back our harsh words. It was too late to say “I’m sorry.” My family changed dramatically. Following his death, we quit being tough on each other, we quit trying to modify each other’s behaviours. We learned the hard way to live and let live.

We talked and acted tough and we were tough on each other, and especially tough on Clifford. Then he suddenly died and we couldn’t take back our harsh words. It was too late to say “I’m sorry.” My family changed dramatically.

My family has reacted to my writing career with full support and shared pride. Because we have learned to never criticize each other, I have never heard anything from my family other than praise. It’s a good feeling, knowing my family has my back. It has given me much of the confidence required to achieve all that I have.

TC: What do you think Clifford would make of the book?

HRJ: He was an avid reader of everything with a special love for science fiction. I think he would chuckle at being written like an Isaac Asimov character, in a Ray Bradbury story, with an Orson Welles plot.

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Excerpt from Clifford: A Memoir, A Fiction, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment

Clifford showed me how the knights in the old days jousted.

“See this.” It was a post he’d dug into the ground a little taller than my five-year-old self, with a board nailed to the top at right angles. One nail — because nails were precious and not to be wasted ¾ and a bit of plywood on one end. The other end of the board, an eight-foot two-by-four, that he didn’t trim off, either because he didn’t want to spend time sawing it, or because he would get in trouble for wasting wood, was left jutting out on the other side of the post. “That piece of plywood is the shield. Now I’m going to come down the hill on that bicycle. That's my horse. And this” — a pole about six feet long — “is my lance.”

“You watch.” He took me by the shoulders and stood me off to the side. “Now you’re going to see how it was done.”

He came off that bit of hill on that bicycle that didn’t have any tires, just bare metal rims that rattled as he picked up speed. The hill, because the bicycle didn’t have any petals and he needed the assistance of gravity. One end of his lance tucked up under his arm, the other end — “You have to hit the shield right dead centre. That’s the way they did it”— out in front of the bicycle that had a fair bit of hurry as he came past me.

And he did it.

I was the witness.

The lance did hit the shield right dead centre. A solid hit.

The shield spun away, pivoted on the single nail driven into the top of the post, and the other end of the board spun around, exactly like he planned it, exactly like he told me it was going to work. Except I don’t think he expected the long end of the two-by-four to come around so quickly and catch him on the back of the head.

I pick up the hoop. That’s all it is, a piece of plastic tubing, big enough to fit over a five- — maybe I was six or seven — year-old boy.

Clifford’s bubble maker.

Excerpted from Clifford: A Memoir, A Fiction, A Fantasy, A Thought Experiment, copyright © 2018 by Harold R. Johnson. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com

January 8, 2019
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