Litchat with Fenton Johnson

With "Geography of the Heart," novelist Fenton Johnson ("Scissors, Paper, Rock") entered new territory: memoir.

By Salon Magazine
Published September 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

With "Geography of the Heart," novelist Fenton Johnson ("Scissors, Paper, Rock") entered new territory: memoir. The person responsible for that journey, Larry Rose, had also brought Johnson to another kind of new turf, his first experience of deep, romantic love. From the beginning, Johnson knew that Larry, who was HIV positive, would die before him. How Johnson came to love Larry in spite of this terrible, impending loss; how he learned to recognize the transcendant joys of everyday life; and how he ultimately came to echo Larry, who, devasted by AIDS, turned to him in the courtyard of the Picasso Museum in Paris and said, "I'm so lucky," is the terrain that "Geography of the Heart" maps. Recently, Johnson met with Salon to discuss grief, life and the art of the memoir.

How did you come to the decision to write this book?

The book impelled its own writing. While Larry was alive, I really did not think about writing a memoir at all. I wish that I had thought about it a little more, because I would have kept more careful notes. But it was on the plane back from France, Larry had died in Paris and his parents did not want a memorial service, I'm not sure why, but I couldn't imagine someone passing from the world whom I loved without remarking upon that in some way or another. And so I persuaded them to have a memorial service in Los Angeles, and once I did that I felt that I had to be the centerpiece of that service, that they were going to be so overwhelmed with grief that they couldn't do it. So I wrote a eulogy on the plane on the way home, and as I was writing that eulogy I realized that this was the beginning of a book.

Did you have any qualms about going from a fictional mode to an autobiographical mode?

"Qualms" isn't the right word. It was more an aesthetic challenge. Writing covers a spectrum, and at one end of the spectrum is the 750-word piece on the front of the New York Times, and at the other end of the spectrum is a wildly experimental work, but it's all fiction. It is all observations that we make of the world and then interpret for someone else. And the challenge here was to go from a medium -- story-telling, novel-writing -- with one set of conventions, to a different medium, memoir-writing, with a very different set of conventions.

When I say that all writing is fiction people say, "That means you must have made up things that happened in the book," and the answer to that is absolutely not. I mean, the convention of the memoir is that at least the facts that you report correspond to the best construction you are able to make of the literal facts of the event. But there's still a measure of observations, analysis, construction of a narrative line. It's a story that has to be told, and as anyone knows, nothing would be more boring than a three-year verbatim rendition of that time together. I had to make choices about what to put in the book, what to leave out, how much emphasis to put on something, and all of those are artistic choices.

Your book, obviously, addresses the issue of death. How did it feel to deal with that issue in your writing?

We have a culture that is relentlessly optimistic, and as a result of that we have no place for illness and death and dying in our culture. But I think of American culture as coming to a kind of maturation, and part of that maturation is that for the first time in modern history, I think we're really beginning to deal significantly with issues of grief and loss and death. There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is the fact that the baby boom generation is aging and as it ages, our parents are dying, some of our own peers are beginning to die, and all of us are gaining an acute sense of mortality as we progress into our '40s and '50s.

But I also like to think that there's some kind of wisdom that is accruing which recognizes that death is not ugly and bad, and life is not necessarily beautiful and good, that these are a continuum, each a part of the other, and one cannot be said to have a healthy attitude about life unless one also has a healthy attitude about death. I think that I have been brought to some kind of wisdom around it by Larry's death and by the illness and death of so many people whom I know.
And I think that is also something of note, that gay men have often been at the cutting edge of culture. I think the degree to which gay men are at the cutting edge of culture is almost always underestimated or deliberately ignored by the culture at large. In a very sad and unfortunate way, I think we are once again at the cutting edge of culture here, because we have been forced to confront and experience illness and death in such a profound way.

Part of what I was getting at when I asked you that question about dealing with the topic of death in your writing, is that I know that when I try to write about a past experience, especially with a lot of strong emotional content, it tends to come flooding back.

Yeah. Well, I'd written enough fiction to know that when you have a weak story, your task is to figure out how to pump it up into a good story. When you have a powerful story, a story that's inherently powerful, your task as a writer is to get out of the way, and to let the story tell itself as much as possible. And I resolved from the moment that I wrote the first word of this, from the moment I was writing the eulogy on the plane, that I could not overtly set out to convey my emotion to the reader, because that would immediately overpower the story.
That was my task throughout the writing of this book, and it was a very hard task whose cost to me as a person -- whose cost and, I have to say, whose benefit to me as a person, I'm only now beginning to realize.

What do you mean?

The cost was that I have lived with Larry much longer and more intensely than I think I would have done otherwise. I know that that's the case. I mean, for a number of years, my task every day was to get up and think and relive this relationship as thoroughly and carefully as I could, and as truthfully as I could, and that definitely slowed the process of moving on, of incorporating that grief in my life and moving on to the future. I feel a kind of independence and a kind of joy in my life these days that I haven't felt in a long time, and I think that it's because this book has been hanging over my head.
However, the gift that I have been given as a result of that discipline -- and discipline is exactly the right word, it took an enormous amount of self-control to get up every day and not to allow myself to just pour it out onto the page -- is that I think I have a much greater understanding of the workings of grief in myself and in other people, and the ability to write about that in a way that I previously did not have.

Would you say that there is some particular connection between the act of writing and the experience of loss or of realizing your own mortality?

Well, that's a profound and wonderful question. Why do we have art? Why do people make art? And surely the answer to that question is that it is a statement of birth and life in the face of death and mortality. It is saying that I'm here and I'm making my mark in the world, even as anybody who has any understanding of the workings of the world knows that that mark is impermanent, and the most permanent of human marks is impermanent. The memoir is the most emphatic statement of that kind that a writer can make, because it is an artistic rendering of the memory of someone else. I would say that remembering lies at the heart of writing, because writing is about contemplation and then rendering of contemplation into prose.

Now that you've had the experience you write about in your book, in what way do things look different to you?
Well, I use butter in cooking. That's a fact. And I have dessert after almost every meal. There are many ways that Larry changed my life, and those are metaphors, you know? They do represent larger things. I live much more in the moment than I did prior to knowing Larry. Sometimes in a way that's a little terrifying for people whom I encounter, who haven't had that experience.

Can you give me an example?

Well, in dating men, which I have done occasionally since Larry died, I certainly have noticed that there's a dramatic difference between those who have had the experience of losing a lover and those who have not. There's a dramatic difference between the men whom I know who are HIV-positive and the men who are not. It's interesting to talk to men who are HIV-negative who have lost lovers, and I've had very profound conversations with such men, because we kind of occupy an intervening space. We're not as completely and totally immersed in the moment as HIV-positive men often are, and yet we are not as cheerfully oblivious as HIV-negative men often are.

I would also say that I think oblivion as a state of being is allowed mostly to men in general and straight white men in particular, because it's only if you're in power that you're allowed the luxury of obliviousness.

Obliviousness to the consequences of things?

Obliviousness to the existence of death and sorrow and uncertainty in life. One of the things that underscored gay men's outrage in the mid-1980s was the government's absolutely reprehensible refusal to act in the face of this health crisis, and I hope that Ronald Reagan's reputation is forever stained in history by his deliberate choosing to be ignorant about this phenomenon that was happening in the nation that he was supposedly leading.

On the other hand, there was another aspect of that rage, and that was the fact that people who had been really raised to think of themselves as immortal, white men, were having to confront death. It was as if we were living in a kind of paradise, and all of a sudden somebody said, "Oh, by the way, there's a catch. You die." Men in power have obliviousness as a state of being that is allowed to them, and even white gay men are allowed that measure of obliviousness that is not allowed to people of color or to women.

Any examples?

Here's one. One of the friends of a group of close friends died, a long-term partner of someone in this group, and the rest of us got together for a picnic, coincidentally, two, three, four weeks later. And one of the friends who I think of as, what can I say, the most "Californian" of the crowd, we were having a conversation and the name of the dead person happened to come up, and this friend said, "Oh gee, I never sent you a condolence note. Oh well. I'm sorry." And that was the end of it. And I thought, boy, you know? Can't you recognize that this was someone who was in this other person's life for 20 years, and you're treating this so casually, you know? First of all, why didn't you send a condolence note, and secondly, how can you be so cavalier about it now?

Or just have the shame not to say anything about it, rather than acting as if your apology is sufficient.

Right. And also to apologize in such a cursory way. Now partly that's because we don't have ritual in this culture, and so what gay men -- and not just gay men but all of us, we've all been robbed of ritual by a complex interaction of factors, including mobility, Hollywood, whatever -- are doing is trying to re-create those rituals on our own. And the rituals are not complicated and difficult. I think most people are overwhelmed by the fact that they think that the rituals surrounding death must be something complex and it has to involve going out to Mount Tamalpais at dawn and dressing in sackcloth and ashes and building a fire with 13 stones that faces west and blah blah blah. You know, making a pot of chicken soup and dropping it by somebody's house is what I'm talking about. Very few people did that for me when Larry died, and I think it was because it was relatively early, and people had not figured out that this is a ritual that needs to be done.

And it can be a small gesture. Little things that people do really do mean a lot.

And it is also the very realistic fact, that I can testify to from personal experience, that for the first month or so following a loss of such magnitude, it's really hard just to get the basics together. It's really hard to put one foot in front of the other. It is hard to worry about food. You can say, "Oh, it's a big city, you can order out." But you don't even want to deal with that. You're trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together again, and for someone to bring over this quintessential statement of life and plop it on your table and say, "Here, I'm going to keep you alive for another couple of days," because that's what it boils down to, is a really wonderful and necessary thing.

I want to ask you about the role of Larry in your life, how you think of him. You wrote in the book that you don't dream of him, and that makes you sad. Is that still true?

It is still true. I'm sure it will change, but it seems obvious to me that he's so thoroughly permeated my conscious life that my subconscious is not particularly concerned with him. And I'm sure that after a period of time passes that will change.

Sometimes when people lose someone that they were close to, they often feel almost as if that person was still there, in a certain way. Do you feel that way?

Larry is present in my life every day, in all of the choices and decisions that I make. But it's been so long since he died, at this point I even forget -- I call his mother still, regularly. We have conversations that last two or three minutes and that's all. I call her a couple times a week, you know, that's no big deal. I don't think that I would have done that prior to Larry's death, and now I have a quite different attitude about it. So it's ten minutes a week out of your life and two dollars. I mean, come on, give me a break, you know? That brings some happiness into her life and thereby into mine. It's well worth any minimal expenditure of time and effort.

Oh, I know what story I was telling. I called his mother on Larry's birthday and she said, "Oh, you're so thoughtful to call on his birthday this year," and I thought, "Is it Larry's birthday?" And I was happy that I had forgotten that fact, I thought it was a good sign. It doesn't mean that I have put him out of my life, it's just a sign of moving on.

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