The Rumpus Interview with Lee Clay Johnson
Nitro Mountain is a stunner of a book, one that remained with me long after I finished the last page. Johnson is a master of creating characters you’re immediately invested in, bringing them to life with just a few strokes. These are troubled folks, people whose choices never seem to bring them any sort of peace. Yet there is a kind of bleak divinity in the way they go about things; a serious, hopeful, resolute perseverance that makes for a story that’s tough to put down.
We spoke through email, and during our email conversation both of us ended up moving. I left Laramie, Wyoming for Bozeman, Montana, and Lee headed from Charlottesville, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri.
Lee Clay Johnson holds a BA from Bennington College and an MFA from the University of Virginia. His work has appeared in Lit Hub, the Oxford American, the Common, Appalachian Heritage, Salamander, and the Mississippi Review. Nitro Mountain is his first novel.
The Rumpus: You’re originally from outside of Nashville. What was growing up like for you? How was it roaming around with bluegrass musicians for parents, hanging around in bluegrass bars?
Lee Clay Johnson: We moved around a lot, rental to rental. Never bothered me much. I remember the sound of my parents practicing with their band in the living room at night while my sister and my brother and I fell asleep—or tried to. The rolling lines of my dad’s banjo kept me up. It was a beautiful, endless sound that had no beginning or end. One of my earlier memories is standing on the plywood floor of the Station Inn, a cloud of cigarette smoke above me, while my folks’ band played on stage. I remember reaching for a basket of popcorn on the table. An old-timer sitting there brought the basket down and said, “Grab you a kernel, young fellar.”
Rumpus: I can feel this, while reading Nitro Mountain. That you’ve long been a part of these kinds of shifting communities of musicians and the establishments they played in and the people frequenting those places. How did you get started writing the novel? Did you have a certain goal in mind when you set out?
Johnson: No goal in mind. That probably would’ve hindered me. I can’t even tell you when I actually set out. There were visions and voices I wanted to get down and get right, characters I wanted to follow just to see where they’d go. I think moving into an old house in the woods in Cobham, Virginia, was really the start of the novel, though I didn’t know it at the time. Living out there I began writing a lot. First it was a short story length thing, then something longer, and finally I realized what I had on the end of my line. The rod was bent to the water. Then something unexpected happened: the job I was working in town laid me off. Unemployment! It was like being awarded a grant. I took that time, broke and jobless, to finish my real work.
Rumpus: What was that old house like?
Johnson: It was big and somewhat neglected, and surrounded by over a hundred acres of white oak forest. The rooms were huge, the ceilings tall, lots of windows with wavy glass that warped the world outside. I’d never lived anywhere like it. Probably won’t again. I heated it with trees I felled, cut, hauled and split. My Grandpa Bear Fisher woodstove was the center of my life back then. In the winter I’d eat, sleep, and write around it. The house was beautiful, and funny enough, because of my landlord, Sydney Blair, it was the cheapest place I could find in the area. The rent hadn’t changed since the 1970s. I don’t think it was haunted, but there was definitely a strong Gothic quality about it all. Lots of hidden stories. My imagination roamed.
Rumpus: Did you draw a lot from Cobham in terms of setting and characters? Do you know a lot of folks there by now? And I’ve always loved Durty Misty’s, the bar where Leon plays some bass and meets Arnett, the psychopath with the Daffy Duck tattoo.
Johnson: That house and that land helped shape my imagination. I drew from some of the smaller things, but ultimately Cobham is gentle farmland in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, not nearly as jagged as Nitro Mountain.
Rumpus: I’m drawn to the idea of not attaching expectations to a project, especially at the beginning. What job were you working before you got laid off?
Johnson: I was working as a gardener for a homeless shelter in Charlottesville called The Haven. I was growing vegetables for the kitchen there. I’m not the best gardener, but I am a hard worker and I’ve always enjoyed working outside. Makes it easier to go back to the desk in the evening.
Rumpus: One thing I was wondering was, when Leon mentions that he works in a homeless shelter but always felt “closer to the other side of the desk,” whether this was something you’d felt before. It struck me as a very endearing detail about Leon, who clearly has some issues.
Johnson: Sure, I’ve felt that. Anybody who’s done social work has had that feeling, that moment where you realize how easy it would be to get caught in the undercurrent. And Leon is definitely caught in it. I put him in a situation I was familiar with, then just let him go.
Rumpus: The characters are part of what makes Nitro Mountain so fun to read. And there are Gothic qualities to them too—the gloomy, cursed feeling of the mountain itself, of the bars and inhabitants, of Arnett’s decaying old inn. All the roads and houses that “seemed to be crushed beneath the foothills, on the verge of burial.” I’m especially curious about Arnett. He’s such a fascinating, violent man, from the moment Leon sees the Daffy Duck tattoo on his neck. How did his character come about?
Johnson: Yes, the gloom and doom of the landscape, the feeling of the place. Arnett showed up and surprised me. I couldn’t look away. He put a kind of chaotic order to the world I was writing about. Where did he come from? I don’t really know. I wasn’t trying to be Gothic when writing any of this, not consciously. It’s just how my imagination works.
Rumpus: Did you meet people like him when you were playing in bands? I was talking with a friend who says he’s known maybe three true sociopaths his whole life. This seems to be true for me too, but I imagine there might be more characters like Arnett—those for whom there are few boundaries—in music scenes. Including some, who, like Arnett, believe themselves to be deeply and violently in love with women like Jennifer.
Johnson: Did I meet people like Arnett? Yes and no. Writing Arnett, I felt I was tapping into a deeper darker place of human potential. As wide open and awful as Arnett is, I don’t believe his actions are outside the scope of what people, under the right circumstances, are capable of. That’s a dark idea, but I think it’s true.
Rumpus: I’m also really curious about shifting the points of view throughout the book. I thought this was a surprising choice. As a reader, it felt freeing and exciting to move from Leon’s mind to others’. It also seems like the kind of thing some folks would give you trouble for. Did you encounter pushback from readers there? I’m more referring to people you trusted, rather than agents or editors you sent it to earlier on.
Johnson: Shifting perspectives between the sections felt natural. And everyone I trusted got what I was doing. I think the second section does open up and start breathing more than Leon’s section, but that’s made possible because of Leon. He’s the long fuse.
Rumpus: Were these shifts present from the first draft of the novel, or in the short story version, even? Or did these come later?
Johnson: I built the first section off of the short story, which didn’t have any perspective shifts. Then when I saw where it was heading, I knew I’d have to open it up. A small sketch I’d written before everything ended up influencing the last section. It’s good to hang on to everything you write. Even if it seems worthless at the time, it could be of use later.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel pressure to make this a lighter, happier novel?
Johnson: Yes, almost everywhere I turned. Even with it published now, people still share their thoughts with me on how to make it a happy little piece of candy. The first agent I showed it to said, “What’s the takeaway? The reader wants a takeaway!” She had ideas on how to make the book more marketable. I don’t know much about marketing, but I do know that a good story should be true to itself, and any other ending than the one that’s there now would not only have been untrue to Jennifer’s character and the circle she’s trying to break free from, but it would have traded in mystery for a false, ready-made contentment. Her struggle would have been cheapened. I’m lucky I found folks, an editor and eventually an agent, who really do get what I’m doing.
Rumpus: I’m glad you found people who could help you stay true to the story. That must be a little aggravating, hearing those kinds of comments.
Johnson: Yes, but it was also a good opportunity for me to scrutinize every detail and make sure things were holding up.
Rumpus: You’ve said in an interview for BOMB that Willie from the song “Pretty Polly” had some influence on your creation of Arnett. Are there other writers (songwriters or literary) you admire who had an influence on these characters?
Johnson: Many. All the older country artists mentioned in the book—Hylo Brown, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, etc.—all those singers and songs were a constant inspiration. An odd choice of music I was listening to over the winter while reworking the novel was the jazz pianist Bill Evans, particularly his album “Moonshadows.” I usually don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but that winter, with the snow coming down and my Grandpa Bear glowing and clicking, Evans’s songs quieted my mind. It was part of a simple tradition I made for myself every night. His songs are heartbreaking and hopelessly beautiful. “Heartbreaking” is an overused and misused word, I know, but not when it comes to Bill Evans.
As for writers, I could give you my standard, disorderly list—Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty—but one of the deeper moments for me was discovering Breece D’J Pancake. When I read “Trilobites,” it was like finding a perfectly intact skeleton of an animal I never knew existed. I studied with John Casey that same year at UVA and he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a writer: “Keep going.”
Rumpus: “Trilobites” is brilliant. And I thought a lot of Barry Hannah’s Airships when reading Nitro Mountain. Were there times when you thought you might prefer to stick with music? Or when you didn’t want to keep going with writing any more?
Johnson: I do love me some Airships. Ray is also excellent. Barry was able to capture the power of song. Any sane person would choose to stick with music, but I’ve never felt I had much of a choice. As a bass player you rarely get to lead, unless you’re Mingus. I’m a storyteller, and it’s nice having control over the whole band. I’ve felt lost and exhausted at times, but I’ve never thought about quitting.
Rumpus: I’ve heard Amy Hempel was a big supporter of your work. Did she have useful advice also?
Johnson: I showed the novel to Amy pretty early on, and her encouragement galvanized me. She has a sharp eye. She can move a comma and make you see the world differently. But for the novel she didn’t have a lot of specific advice. Just encouragement.
Rumpus: I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. She writes that she’s found “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” Do you agree? Were these moments of grace something you were consciously thinking about in this book?
Johnson: I know that quote and I love it, but I never thought about it while I was writing. Perhaps I’d intentionally forgotten it because I wanted to figure it out on my own, or at least put my own spin on it. Maybe in order to find that grace you can’t really know that’s what you’re looking for. And it’s possible that O’Connor is more optimistic than I am. Violence in my fiction brings out the elemental facts of a character. People are forced to make decisions, and that opens unexpected pathways.
Rumpus: Do you have any rules for yourself when writing about violence?
Johnson: I don’t have many rules for myself when writing period. Git ‘Er Done? It’s important to make sure your characters have real blood in them. And you have to earn that. The violence in Nitro Mountain is a blood-cycle being repeated, a generational wound reenacted and passed along. An atavistic, inescapable inheritance.
Rumpus: What’s next for you? Any new projects in the pipeline?
Johnson: One of the projects I’m working on feels like a novel. I can’t say much about it, other than there being a feral feeling of lifeness within it, and that’s the experience I write for.