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June1999
Scissors, Paper, Rock
by Fenton Johnson

Chat with Author Fenton Johnson

Log file opened at: 6/9/99 8:08:08 PM
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<chelak> Hello Everyone....Welcome to the chat with Kentucky author Fenton Johnson. Rhonda Moberly is typing for Fenton Johnson who is on speaker phone from New York.
<chelak> Mr. Johnson is in New York and will be joining us by phone, we're just getting him online now. If anyone has a question, go ahead and get ready to ask. Fenton's book "Scissors, Paper, Rock" was the June selection of the KET Bookclub
<chelak> Mr. Johnson is ready for questions.
<ewey> Has anyone ever told you that scissors, paper, rock was really depressing?
<FentonJohnson> ewey -- (laughs) Well, I don't think it's depressing. Because I think of it as about the love for each other -- people die in this book, but I'm sure it's no great revelation this fate awaits us all.. And I like to think that the love and affection characters have for each other dominate emotion of the book. The best thing a reviewer said of that book "Yes, it is about Death and Dying -- But in the same way that Birthday parties are about growing old." I thought that was pretty apt and I liked that.
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<sunni> Mr. Johnson.. I loved SPR... you could have been writing about my family. The book really meant a lot to me. I especially liked the aspect of memory and family memories that was explored ....
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well I think the book is about memory and how memory looks to bind us together. Which of course is another way of saying how stories work to bind us together. Because stories are our remembered lives.
<FentonJohnson> So yeah, that's the theme in every one of the stories. And by accident almost I was working with Appalshop in Eastern KY, they found a box of photos by a wandering photographer named "picture man" Owens. And none of the photos were identified. And that happened just as I was writing SPR, (what I call it or Scissors). And it struck me how photos are about memory -- they are past events...
<FentonJohnson> But they both support memory and they give lie to memory, because the photo becomes more real than the event itself. So that's why I wanted to add them to the book.
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<J> Mr. Johnson, I'd just like to tell you that I appreciate so much your grasp on what it means to be an emotional being. Beyond that, I also appreciated the care with which you spoke of non-biological families as bearing the same consequences as our families of origin.
<FentonJohnson> J -- I thank you. I think that's true. At the same time, that's it's true -- that blood has the power that can't be denied. That's also interesting to me. Even families that are dysfunctional still have powerful emotional and binding bonds. And that's really interesting to me... about blood and how strong it is.
<chelak> sunni....I have found in my family... that the memories we share are all very different, even of the same event.
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well of course that's true. And History is Myth that we collectively agree upon. But the distinction between fiction or story telling view and "fact" is artificial. As anybody has tried to establish "facts"...knows. And that's also of interest to me -- I write in nonfiction as a journalist....And what is "which is" more true. Directly asked in the book. The stories we tell or the "facts" that get reported. I would argue that there's more truth in the lies -- because you know stories are kind of a lie -- and exaggeration -- it's an interesting paradox that there's as much or more truths in these lies.
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<HenryA> Mr. Johnson, You're living in New York now. Tell us a bit about your life there. How different is it from San Francisco?
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- (laughs) New York is "BIG" city! I don't have a car -- which really transforms your way of being in the world. I like NY -- it's too big of a city for me and I'm leaving NY with regrets but ... NY is much more intense that SF. NY thrusts itself in your face. Let me put it this way. It's possible for a single person to embrace/ encompass SF. It's not possible for a single person to embrace and encompass NY.
<jc> There's a moment when Tom Hardin tells Rose Ella he didn't think she'd shoot the dog -- I think it was the first time I realized you were dealing with the damaging effects of confronting someone else with the truth -- could you talk a little about that?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Yeah, that's a tough question! Popular psychology these days says that the truth must always be told...I think that's true. But how the truth is told and how it is presented is the real challenge... And is it -- the questions gets asked -- How much reality can we accept to keep going? (which is asked in the book)...And that might be restated... How much truth can we accept and still keep going?
<HenryA> Can you tell us about your teaching and your students.
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- Well, Every class that I have taught has taught me more than I have taught them. They're different ways of seeing the world: their enthusiasm, the conflicts that have come up and having to deal with those as a teacher -- All of these have lessons in human nature which is to say lessons in writing.
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<HenryA> In the Sept. 1998 Harper's you wrote an article called, "Beyond Faith: A Skeptic Searches for an American Faith." Did you find that American faith? Can you tell us a bit about your own journey of faith?
<FentonJohnson> Henry A -- The piece was called "Beyond Belief" and I'm still searching which is the focus of my next book which is called "Keeping Faith". And it's contained -- it will contain my searching in Buddhist and Christian traditions to define what faith means to me. And so that's still happening.
<DancesWith> A lot depends on the motivation of the truth-teller! In the last chapter, Camilla's decision *not* to spread the "truth" in the form of the photographs is sort of a triumph of generosity over bitterness.
<FentonJohnson> Dances-- That's very perceptive! In that book, there is only one genuinely autobiographical character. And that is Miss Camilla. Not the gay son -- he's very different from me but Miss Camilla is very thinly disguised.
<jc> Speaking of faith -- and alternative faiths -- was the icon/image of Tom Hardin's "unturned block" a Zen thing?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Not consciously so.. But I had lived in CA for many years, and we all pick up influences from the culture around us -- and in CA eastern philosophy is more prevalent in CA but not consciously so.
<sunni> My brother is gay and HIV positive, he doing extremely well right now. I was thinking of giving him your book to read, but then had second thoughts -thinking it might be too depressing. What would you do?
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well if he likes to read -- give him the book. Perhaps "Geography of the Heart" would be better first choice. But I don't see it is depressing. Maybe I'm wrong to be asked -- But I always say give them the book and let them make up their own mind. Also Raphael, HIV positive son, is kind of a hero. So keep that in mind!
<momcat> Isn't he the seventh son
<FentonJohnson> momcat -- Raphael is the youngest -- he's not the seventh son -- He could well be the seventh child but there are two children's stories I don't tell -- And that just preparing the ground for the sequel.
<sunni> Can you tell us more about "Geography of the Heart?"
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well GOH is a memoir of my partner who died of HIV in 1990. But first and foremost it's a book about the power of love, because he taught me how to love. And it's about learning to except loss as a part of life!
<ewey> The Hardin's religious beliefs do not seem to provide much comfort to them. Where are you with your thinking about spiritual things??
<FentonJohnson> ewey -- Here's what I would say. I think the Hardin's religious beliefs provide them a great deal of comfort. On the other hand the church meaning the institution of the church does not provide the Hardin's very much comfort. And that's a distinction I wanted to make.
<FentonJohnson> Rose Ella -- Every person in that book are deeply spiritual I think. And their spirituality sustains them -- But the church does not sustain them.
<FentonJohnson> The last word in that book is LOVE! And that was very intentional. : Actually the last word is Life --- The last phrase is actually Love and Life -- I wanted the book to end with the words Love and Life and it does.
<jc> Would "Scissors, Paper, Rock" have been a different novel, had a different message, if Raphael were dying of something else -- cancer, or leukemia, or hepatitis -- instead of AIDS?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Hum! Yes and No! Uh, or maybe No and Yes! What's important is the fact of loss! And it doesn't matter what the occasion of loss -- However, the secrecy surrounding Raphael's would be hard to imagine in 1990 for any other disease. And that secrecy is important to the book -- that's the Yes part.
<HenryA> How much of your growing up in New Haven, KY, your large family, your Mom and Dad and siblings are reflected in SPR?
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- Well, all fiction is autobiographical and this book like all fiction is autobiographical. However, you know, I did not have a brother who died in VN. I am HIV negative, my mother is still alive. The differences are vastly, immeasurably great than the similarities. What's more, most autobiography is the experience of a family which struggles even as it is bound together by love. And that is true to my experience.
<momcat> I thought you may be trying to say that Raphael was a Christ figure
<FentonJohnson> momcat -- Well, Raphael is named after -- in my first novel "Crossing the River" .. the main character is Michael and in SPR the main character is Raphael and that is two of the three arc angels. I did call them Michael and Raphael consciously because I like arc angels. But I had no conscious or intention of Raphael as a Christ figure. That may be a perfectly valid reading -- but I didn't intend on it.
<sunni> In your experiences, is it fairly common for gay men to have difficulty communicating their lifestyle with older parents, especially fathers?
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well in my experience, Yes! But of course everyone's experience is different. But I would say younger gay men however experience the world and their families very differently than older gay men. I think that's true of lesbians too. The world has changed dramatically. And mostly for the better!.. It's important to keep in mind.
<sunni> what would you consider "older?"
<FentonJohnson> sunni -- Well I think HIV is the big dividing line so that gay men who were adults in 1982 have a different perspective than gay men who have come to adulthood since then.
<jc> How much of your outlook on life (death is not all bad, life is not all good) comes from your upbringing in the church, and how much is a function of your life in the gay community?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Hum, tough question. It's not possible to separate my upbringing in the Roman Catholic church from my growing up as a gay man. They are all part of the same package and they are all embodied and reflected in all my writing.
<jc> Was Raphael's initial voyage to California with Willy a journey of discovery, or of seduction?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- I think those two are closely connected.
<DancesWith> Do you think of yourself as a "gay writer" or as a writer who happens to be gay? Or sometimes one, sometimes the other?
<FentonJohnson> Dances -- I think of myself as a writer who is gay. I certainly -- I write much that is not explicitly gay -- many of the chapters of SPR have no gay characters concern no obvious gay issues but... it's still a gay writer who is writing them. I think that my affection for women characters and my desire from the first to write from women's points of view grows from my being gay.
<DancesWith> That's interesting! Because I think SPR is very insightful about women. (I'm female myself, by the way!)
<HenryA> Mr. Johnson, I'm interested in the "process" that a writer goes through to put words to paper. How much research do you do? How difficult is the writing process for you? Have you ever gotten writer's block?
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- My brother asked me once why I wrote and I told him that it was because it was the hardest thing that I knew how to do. That sentence has a lot of interpretations and I think all of them is true.
<FentonJohnson> As a I grow older I am doing more research. I am writing a novel that has as one of it's main characters a Buddhist and a Monk and part of my exploration into Buddhism and Monasteries is to find out more about those characters.
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- I don't think I have ever had writer's block. ...I have too many words but sometimes I have a lot of fear that what I write is not going to be as good as I want it to be and you just have to learn to ignore that.
<jc> Raphael's defining memory of Rose Ella turns out to be the moment she is awash in the misery of what might have been (going to California); and yet he is suffering from the misery of the "what is" resulting from the same dream (going to California). Is there hope somewhere beyond the desire to go and the reality of having gone?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- There is hope all right -- There's always hope -- for better or worse. There is always hope! I'm not sure I understand the question. I don't understand the question.
<FentonJohnson> HenryA -- suggestion for writer's block. If he is suffering from writer's block -- Pick a story that he really likes and give himself permission to write at story exactly like it. And he'll learn a lot in that process. And he can always tuck the story away at the end.
<chelak> Mr. Johnson, do you have anything that you would like to share with us? about upcoming books, etc.?
<FentonJohnson> chelak -- Well I'm writing "Keeping Faith," which is about a journey into Faith -- both western and eastern -- that's my next book. I'm working on a novel -- which doesn't yet have a title. But whose 3 main characters are a Trappist Monk, a Buddhist woman doctor, and a sexual outlaw renegade marijuana grower.
<ewey> I really liked Betty C and her old boyfriend. Is she based on a sister's experience or just the thought that "you can't go home again"
<FentonJohnson> ewey -- Well I say again -- all fiction is autobiographical and that Betty C grew out of my own fear of failure as a writer. And I made her an actress because it seemed to obvious to make her a writer --she's another dimension of me.
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<jc> Among the things you say you learned from your experience with Larry Rose is a "much better understanding of grief." Do you have any general advice for someone who is coping -- after the fact -- with the death of a close friend who died young and, seemingly, needlessly?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Yes, of course I always have advice. What do I say about grief -- Anybody who has lost someone they love is to experience it and by that I mean so often people say Oh, go back to work -- It will help you forget -- you have all heard that -- I say -- don't go back to work -- you will never remember or be with this person so vividly again. And don't rush to get out of that. It's OK to feel bad -- feel it as long as you want to.
<momcat> I'd like you to comment on why you chose this title. It seems perfect but I'd like your ideas. It's good to feel bad.
<chelak> Are you familiar with some of the Jewish traditions surrounding grieving? and sitting Shiva? and mourning for 7 days?
<FentonJohnson> chelak -- Familiar with -- not intimately knowledgeable. Yes I think that's a good tradition. The Greeks take a year -- I think that's a good tradition.
<FentonJohnson> momcat -- Mainly I like it because it appeals to the senses -- you can see it immediately, because many people remember the childhood game called Scissors, Paper, Rock and the book is about Memory and the title serves to evoke a memory for many people. That's probably the easiest -- there's more.
<chelak> This has been a very interesting and diverse discussion! <chelak> We've kept you for an hour and thank you so much for your time.
<chelak> Personally, I look forward to your next book and I'm going to get "Geography of the Heart" too.
<FentonJohnson> chelak -- Good!
<chelak> We'll post this chat in the next day or so..
<FentonJohnson> Mr. Johnson will take 2 more questions!
<chelak> Any more questions?
<DancesWith> Can you talk a little about Leola and her function in the book?
<FentonJohnson> Thank you all -- I have really enjoyed this!
<chelak> TO ALL: He is going to answer those questions... hold on.
<FentonJohnson> Dances -- Well, Leola I wanted to write an African American character -- currently as a memorial because African Americans have largely left the countryside -- not entirely but largely I think that's sad. She is a combination of several wonderful patient black women I knew growing up.
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<jc> Why did you allow Raphael to "open up" to his cousins, when he didn't speak so openly to his parents?
<FentonJohnson> jc -- Because of partly because they're his peers -- closer in age to him -- they are younger than he which makes it easier for him. But also because that's at the end of the day and I like to think that he's been affected and changed by the events.
<chelak> Thank you so much Fenton! Good night everyone!
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Log file closed at: 6/9/99 10:15:03 PM


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