By Joshua Madden
Chad Thomas Johnston is, in many ways, a renaissance man. There aren’t too many forms of art that Johnston hasn’t worked with and I was able to interview him and discuss his books and other works of art.
Question: You seem to dabble in just about everything – literature, music, physical art, Web development even. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you describe it?
Johnston: I take the kitchen sink approach to creativity because I am interested in all of those forms you mentioned, and probably more as well. In the end, I’m not very good at leaving any creative stones unturned. I am like a kid who cannot help but pick up his mom’s lipstick and draw a picture of a stegosaurus on the living room wall.
In terms of descriptors, my work tends to be whimsical, weird, ecstatic and all-encompassing. I like the post-modern notion of pulling disparate elements from a variety of sources and synchronizing them and make them part of the same thing. That pretty much informs my approach to any project I undertake. No ingredient is too ridiculous to be incorporated into my work.
I primarily create early in the morning around 5 a.m., and the only problem with that is sometimes I get so excited about my projects that I end up waking up even earlier than that, which is absurd. But since I have a day job, a wife and a baby on the way, it’s the only way for me to find time for creativity.
My daily creative pursuits usually include a mix of blogging, tweeting, doodling, adding to or revising a manuscript, planning publicity for my projects, mixing music (I never record anything at 5 a.m. though, as my wife sleeps in and would flay me with a carrot peeler if I ever attempted any such shenanigans), and good, old-fashioned brainstorming. I like a good brain tsunami.
Question: Your first book, “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind,” is currently being marketed to publishing houses. What would you tell people about the book if you could tell them whatever you wanted?
Johnston: I would tell them to buy copies of my book for all of their naughty loved ones as Christmas stocking stuffers instead of lumps of coal. But since it’s not in print yet, or even available as an eBook, it would be difficult for them to obey my command.
If I were going to describe the book to them, I would say “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope” is an essay-driven creative memoir that looks at life through a lens that has been shaped by equal parts pop culture, theology and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Question: How did you first get started on writing your book?
Johnston: I was working on a Ph.D. in film studies at the University of Kansas and, during my first and only year there, it occurred to me that, at most, a paltry five people would ever read my dissertation, and I would be spending years writing the blasted thing. It was either going to be about P. T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” or Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” In the end, I figured if I wrote a book, I could almost certainly net six readers. And thus, I became a Ph.D. dropout.
Since completing my manuscript, which took me three years to write, I have achieved my goal. It may be that an astonishing seven people have read my book, although they may all regret doing so.
Question: How do you balance creating daily content on your website with more long-standing creations like your books?
Johnston: I can keep enough plates spinning at once, but I’m far from a circus performer in that department. For example, I’m writing my second book with a collaborator – Amanda Lynch – who lives in Virginia.
We’ve been about 20,000 words deep into it for about four months now. We would be farther along, but I have so many other projects, and I have been really distracted by them. Really, I think I just needed a break from being imprisoned in my brain with only one project after writing “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope” for three straight years. I needed a vacation from epic things.
I needed a project I could start and finish within the span of a weekend, just for my sanity’s sake. So it’s been good to have smaller, less intimidating projects going – smaller plates spinning…I think it will be worth the wait for all seven people who are somewhat eagerly awaiting the follow-up to “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope.”
Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I’m not that great at keeping a multitude of plates spinning. Balance is not really my forte. About half of my spinning plates end up on the ground, smashed to bits. I am probably fine china’s worst nightmare.
Question: There’s certainly a religious aspect to your works. How do you relate your religious beliefs to the process of creating art?
Johnston: I’m the son of a minister, and I grew up listening to a lot of wonderfully weird and now, sadly, out-of-print underground Christian records (these things actually exist). For a long time, I thought a book or a song or a piece of music was only sacred if it mentioned Jesus, God, or Moses. But my adult slant on that is very different. I became a Christian when I was 9, and I remain a Christian now. But I have come to see the creative act itself as something rooted in being made in the image of the creator.
I just find great joy and purpose in creating, and it is rooted in that religious idea. God made the narwhal, and I see this as an invitation to make things that are likewise absurd, fascinating and marvelous. Whether I succeed or not I don’t know, but I certainly try.
Question: You also bring an autobiographical element to the table in your writing. How do you balance figuring out what to share and what to keep private?
Johnston: For better or worse, I do think most of my cards are on the table. I only leave things out of my writing if I suspect they will hurt or embarrass other people who already have a predisposition for being hurt or embarrassed. I am fairly sensitive myself, but I’m not shy, so I tell whatever stories I can with a certain amount of discretion.
Occasionally I’ll post a story from home and my wife will make me take it down, but she usually gets a kick out of what I write about our life together. At the moment, she’s getting more kicks than usual out of our life together, as she’s almost nine months pregnant, and our indwelling daughter has apparently decided that kicking her way out of my wife’s stomach is a suitable exit strategy.
With regard to what information I share, if an experience can make someone laugh or find meaning in an otherwise seemingly meaningless situation, I am happy to share. Of course, whenever I write I assume people will be interested in whatever I’m writing about, which is ridiculous. But if seven people like my stories, maybe it’s not as ridiculous as I think it is.
Question: You’re already working on future books. Can you tell me about them?
Johnston: Well, I don’t want to let the literary cat out of the bag, and I also don’t want to tell people I’m writing something that I very well may abandon later. The project I am absolutely dedicated to right now with regard to long-term writing is my book with Amanda Lynch. It’s a young adult supernatural fantasy book of sorts, and the central, defining quality of the book is whimsicality.
I should emphasize that it is not fantasy in the sense that J. R. R. Tolkien is. There are no dwarves in it, although Amanda is currently pregnant with her second boy, and right now he does happen to be very small. But I was reading a review of Werner Herzog’s film “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans,” and the writer described it as “deliriously unhinged.”
I think that phrase fits what Amanda and I are creating in our collaboration together, although that phrase means something very different with regard to our writing than it does when applied to a Werner Herzog film. There is, after all, only one Werner Herzog. The spirits of Dr. Seuss and Madeleine L’Engle are definitely in what we’re doing, too.
Question: Any other plans for the future?
Let’s see … I want to survive and even excel at fatherhood. Get “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope” published and get it in the hands of an eighth reader – I have faith in my agent on that front. Successfully avoid toxoplasmosis despite cleaning multiple litter pans on a daily basis for our five cats. Finish my book with Amanda Lynch. Continue to assault the world with asinine blog entries and terrifying tweets. I think that pretty much covers it.
For Johnston’s full interview, including links to some of the works of his collaborators, check out the Lariat online at baylorlariat.com.