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June1999
Scissors, Paper, Rock
by Fenton Johnson
 
This phone interview with Kentucky author Fenton Johnson and KET staff members Liz, Bill, and Terry was conducted on May 13, 1999. Fenton Johnson
 

Bill: Hi, Fenton, this is Bill.

Fenton: Hi.

Bill: Nice to talk with you.

Let’s begin. Tell us about growing up in Kentucky around where the location of your hometown is.

Fenton: Well, I grew up in New Haven, which is in southern Nelson County, right on the Nelson-Larue County line, about halfway between Hodgenville and Bardstown.

Bill: What was it like growing up in that small town?

Fenton: Well, as we all know [laughs], Kentucky has changed dramatically in the last 20 or 30 years. And I suppose one of the things that is the most remarkable change is that when I was growing up there, there was no library. The library ... My mother started the library in my hometown, largely with books contributed by the monks from the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, which is about three miles away. A few years later the county started the library, and now there is quite a good library in Nelson County, but there was no library [then].

Now you can drive to the airport in Louisville in less than an hour, and in those days to drive to Louisville was a slow, winding, two-hour drive over two-lane roads that you shared with tractors and large trucks and people. To go to Louisville was an unusual expedition. I was there once a year—highlight of my childhood to go to [laughs], to go to Louisville. It’s interesting and probably relevant to recall how as recently as the late ’50s and early ’60s Kentucky was really much more a place of very small and really largely very isolated towns.

We really had no television because the television signals weren’t yet strong enough to reach, except intermittently, out to the towns that were that far out from the city; so there was no television and not much in the way of movie theaters, because many of the small-town movie theaters had closed because of the arrival of television. So there was kind of a gap there where many of those small towns—certainly mine included—were not served either by television or by the movies. And there weren’t a lot in the way of books [laughs], so it was a pretty isolated environment, even though today it’s practically a suburb of Louisville. There are plenty of people who live in my hometown now who drive to Louisville regularly.

Bill: What about your education in New Haven—public schools, private? How long were you there before you left for college?

Fenton: Well, I went to Catholic grade schools because, as you may know, Nelson County is solidly Catholic, and certainly one of the formative aspects of my writing and the particular aspects of that part of the world is the juxtaposition of a part of the world that is very Catholic with the part of the world that is very typically Southern Protestant. My mother, in fact, was a convert from Protestantism and married into the very Catholic town that I grew up but in, but I went to Catholic elementary schools and one year at St. Joe prep in Bardstown, which was a Catholic high school, until it closed, and at that point my mother took her remaining children ...

I’m the youngest of nine children, and there were three of us still in high school at that point. And she took us all over to the public school system in Larue County because, frankly, at that point the Catholic schools were really on hard times, in the late ’60s. Public schools in Larue County were much better schools, and for me it was a joy. It was the best thing that ever happened to me: going to the public school system and entering for the first time a school system that really valued education and that had some books in the library and that had teachers who were really good teachers, who were really enthusiastic about what they were doing.

So I was there; I graduated from Larue County in 1971 and was not really certain what I was going to do. My father was a maintenance worker for Seagram’s, a local distillery. They had a scholarship for a son or daughter of a Seagram’s employee that paid everything anywhere you wanted to go to school; and I got that scholarship and said, “Well, I guess I’m going to California [laughs]. And I went to California. I went to Stanford. And in the process, completely unbeknownst to me—the process by which I even found out that Stanford existed was mysterious and strange—but as it turns out, there is a long and proud tradition of Kentucky people going to Stanford. Wendell Berry was a Stegner Fellow there. Gurney Norman was out there for a while; Ed McClanahan was out there for a while. Years later I became a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and so kind of stumbled by serendipity into a pattern that previous Kentucky writers had set for me.

Bill: Let me take you back to New Haven and your association with the monks at Gethsemani. How close were you to the order and the brothers and all of the monks there, and how did they influence your early life, and how do they influence your life today?

Fenton: Well, it was that odd period in American history that as I get older seems odder and stranger: the ’60s. Of course, when one grows up in a particular place, especially in a small town, one tends to assume that that place and that time are representative of all places and times—and of course that was not true. The monastery, like the rest of the world, was undergoing a lot of change in those days, and the monastery had more of a public presence. It had more business enterprises going on, most of which have since been eliminated. But then it had those, so the monks got out into the world fairly regularly. Virtually every day of my childhood, one or two or three or five of the monks would stop in my parents’ house and they would stay for supper. We would sit around the table and they would drink beer and smoke cigarettes and tell stories and [laughs] stay up until late at night and then go back over to the monastery.

I was named after a couple of those monks, because by the time my parents got to the ninth child, they had run out of names, and they said they just essentially gave me to the monastery and said, “Name this child.” And that’s how I came up with this not particularly ... not a family name, not a Kentucky name. It is actually the name of an 8th-century Irish saint, St. Fenton—spelled in the Gaelic fashion Fintan. There was a monk at the monastery named Brother Fenton who was one of the monks who came over to my parents’ house regularly. They were people who were educated. For the most part they were from exotic places like Cleveland and Detroit [laughs], New Jersey. And that to me seemed like the far side of the moon, and I was just fascinated by these remarkable people who had seen something of the world.

My mother loved in particular having them come, because my mother wanted her children to grow up and get out into the world, and she saw the presence of the monks as a means to that end—as a way of bringing culture and education into the household at a time when those things were not particularly easily come by. And so they were very formative in that sense. I suppose I should add that the book that I am working on now is a book about the nature and definition of faith in the late 20th century; and that the fact of faith—that the question of what constitutes faith; what is faith—concerns me so much must surely be traced in some way back to the presence of all those monks around the supper table.

Bill: Let’s talk a little bit about your writing and your approach to the task of writing. Does it just pour out of you? How does it come to you?

Fenton: Well, writing is always a matter of [laughs] ... It’s an agony and it’s an ecstasy [laughs]. I love writing. My brother asked me once why I wrote, and I told him that it was because it was the hardest thing I knew how to do. And I thought that was a good answer then, and I think it’s a good answer now. I felt that I had been given certain gifts—the very fact that I use the passive voice implies that there is a giver of those gifts; that there is some larger order that gave me those gifts—and that I had a responsibility to them and that responsibility meant that I should do something difficult and challenging. I hope that it contributes in some way toward the betterment of the world, I guess—if that’s not too hi-falutin’ to say.

That’s kind of a general philosophy of writing. In terms of actually how I get it done: I don’t know any other way to do it than to turn the answering machine on and sit down in front of the terrifying blank page with a pen and just try to make it happen. And sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. You know, I write 500 pages for every 50 pages that I use, and that’s fairly common. All of my books have been much longer in the process than in the length that they have ended up being published at. That’s something about the process. Another aspect of the process is just a sense of storytelling. Because of the isolation from media, I think, I grew up in a culture where storytelling was still very much valued. It was very central to the culture. I said just yesterday to a creative writing class that I was teaching that I was drawn to storytelling because for a man in that culture, there were really only two ways of getting real respect; and one was by some kind of means of violence—whether having a threatening and machismo, macho personality or gun—or another way was to be able to tell a really good story. And I had many occasions on which I witnessed men and women, in their different ways, holding rooms enthralled by telling stories, and that was something I aspired to do.

Bill: Scissors, Paper, Rock is often referred to as a novel, but in your remarks you have talked about it as “short stories and chapters, and some were published.” When did you decide that they were all to be a part of a single work?

Fenton: Well, I knew from the very first word I was going to write what I called to myself an interrelated collection of stories. I saw a book the other day that was called “a novel and 11 stories.” I have forgotten the title of the book, but I wished that it would have been appropriate to subtitle Scissors, Paper, Rock “a novel and 11 stories,” because that’s really what it is. They are ... The chapters, except for the later chapters, start to stand independently of each other, and yet I like to think that they are related to each other because some of the characters recur throughout. A minor character in one story will be the principal character in another story—or chapter; whichever word you prefer. I always wanted that approach, partly because I have been deeply influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s wonderful Winesburg, Ohio, which is something like that approach, and also because I grew up in a large family in a small town—a very social environment—and I was trying to figure out the challenge of how, in such a limited space, one could convey a sense of a populated community, but a tightly knit community. How was it possible to introduce a reader in an intimate way to a number of people? How was it possible to tie all those lives together with this and any narrative approach that involved only one character or two characters? Incidentally, my first novel, Crossing River, has really two principal characters. [It] seemed to me to limit the writer and the reader to those characters, and I wanted to expand what the book was dealing with. I wanted it to be larger, in some sense, than that, and so that was the reason. That was behind my approach. And as I say, I knew from the first that that was how ... that that was the approach I was going to take.

Bill: Tell us about some of the characters. Tell us about Tom and Raphael and Rose Ella and how you drew upon your past to create such wonderful, interesting people in the novel.

Fenton: Well, thank you for your kind words about them. There are some significantly autobiographical elements in the book. The book profiles the large family I come from, in a small town in the rural South, and I came from a small town in the rural South. Monks play a minor character role in the book, and incidentally they will play major roles in my next novel. I do have this fascination for monks. I said once that as the youngest male child of a large family, I would have become a monk. It would have been my fate to have become a monk in virtually any generation prior to my own, and I think that’s true. But they are not quite as autobiographical as they seem.

Everyone assumes that Rafe-e-el—which is how it’s pronounced where I grew up—everybody assumes that Rafael is the autobiographical character because he is a gay man and I am a gay man. But in fact I say, not at all jokingly, that there is only one genuine autobiographical character, and that’s Ms. Camilla, the little old lady who’s the next-door neighbor—who is, in fact, so autobiographical that at the end of the book, when her chapter came around, she insisted on speaking directly to the reader in the first person, in the “I” voice. I tried to write that chapter in a third-person voice, and it really would not write itself in a third. I cast it all in the third person and then eventually had to take it out of third person because she wanted to address the reader directly. She is really the place where I, the writer, in some sense or another step onto the stage.

Rafael—in what was a very difficult decision for me at the time—Rafael is an HIV-positive gay man. I am an HIV-negative gay man. Rafael dies in the course of the book; I am gratefully alive and kicking. It was a big decision for me because I absolutely believe in the writer’s ability and necessity of taking on voices which are not her or his own. At the time when one does that, I think, one has a tremendous responsibility to those voices, and I was not ... I had a great deal of terror that I would not be able to do justice to the voice of an HIV-positive gay man because that was not my experience. At the time I was living with a man who had HIV who later died. My third book, Geography of the Heart, is a memoir of him and his family. I discussed this at great lengths with him. The last chapters of the book that he read before he died were the chapters where Rafael, as an HIV-positive man, comes back to his family for a large extended-family picnic. I relied on my partner’s advice and counsel a great deal in casting that character.

The parents, Rose Ella and Tom Hardin, are matriarchal and patriarchal in a way that perhaps is not true much anymore for many small towns; but they have a kind of weight and presence born, in a way, of their isolation. Tom is a curmudgeonly old man, and certainly one of the themes of the book is the relationship between the current generation and the generations that precede it. I’m, you know, inevitably, and I think probably, very much connected to my Kentucky upbringing. I am very much engaged with issues of family. Family is very important in Kentucky. It still remains that way, I think, for lots of people. And so I love to write about the relationships. I’m fascinated by the relationships between generations: what they share and what changes across time. That is another theme of the book, I think.

Bill: Terry Tucker, who is with us and has done an excellent job—as he always does—of putting ideas and thoughts together in questions, says to me, “There are a lot of things that aren’t talked about in Scissors, Paper, Rock: Rafael’s situation, Tom Hardin’s health, Camilla’s past, the town’s past.” And toward that end, Rose Ella tells herself—this is from page 178; I won’t read all of it, but: ”Of all of them this was true. They had been less than honest with each other because they had not wanted to speak of these matters because none had wanted to hear what the other was willing to say.”

Terry also writes, “Both Rafael and Ms. Camilla seem to be telling the reader that the truth should be confronted openly, with Rafael’s final revelation to his nephews, made in the context of the Hopi Indian story, and Camilla’s directly addressing the reader in the context of the emperor’s goat ear story.” So Terry asks, “Do you think that kind of mutual silence about fundamental differences is healthy—even necessary—for maintaining a family or a community of diverse individuals?”

Fenton: That’s a great question [laughs], and that passage is one of the passages that I often read aloud. It’s one of my favorite sentences in the book. I think truth resides in paradox, and this is the paradox that I’m going to give in answer to that question. I think that the paradox that a community has to work out is in fact the paradox between what needs to be spoken aloud and what is to be ... and what is to be spoken in myth and what is to be spoken in reality, I guess is how I would put that. There are, I learn as I grow older, things that reside properly in myth rather than in the direct confrontation of one person with another.

Ironically, as a writer, as I grow older I learn what words can not say, and that oftentimes the best response to a situation may be in fact not words but silence. I think in the West we, in particular—I’m studying a lot of Eastern philosophy, and I suppose some of this grows out of that study—but in the West in particular we tend to think that words can solve all problems. And, of course, anybody who has been in any kind of a substantial relationship—and family relationships are necessarily substantial relationships—discovers/encounters a situation where words in fact may worsen a relationship rather than improve it.

And so what I like to point to is a con ... an apparent contradiction in that book which is Scissors, which is that, on one hand: Yes, Rafael speaks the truth about HIV to his nieces and nephews, and Camilla writes a letter, to whom we do not know, but she writes an extended letter about the truth of her past and the town’s past. I also point out that we don’t know the fate of that letter, we don’t ... We read it as readers, but we don’t know that anybody in the town ever saw it, and a sort of culminative gesture of the book in some way is when Rafael decides ... There is a box of photographs which Ms. Camilla has carried around her whole life that are photographic evidence of the town’s history. And Rafael is faced with a choice of whether to keep those photographs and perhaps to distribute them to the town or to throw them away. And he chooses to throw them away, and I’m not sure where that gesture came from.

I remember agonizing about it a lot in terms of trying to figure it out, but I think what I was trying to say is that sometimes storytelling ... sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are more valuable than the facts of the situation. And I think that, if I may use this word, I think that love arises out of the difficult decision of ... One place that love arises from is the difficult decision of choosing when to keep silence and when to speak. And a lot of the later chapters in that book do ... I think Terry is very observant to see that, that what I am trying to grapple with is the relationship between the need to speak the truth—the need to speak the facts; I’ll put it that way—the relationship between the need to speak the facts and the need to respect silence, and the dramatic tension that arises between those two courses.

Bill: If love often arises from silence, as it does, and death is the other prevailing emotion—if death is an emotion—that you write about in the novel ... It is that focusing on death with so many of the characters. And one of the most poignant and deep areas of the novel is the delivery of the message of Clark’s death—that wrenching and sorrowful episode with both Tom and Rose Ella was tearful and so deeply moving at the same time. The death aspect of your novel and in all the characters: Please talk a little bit about that.

Fenton: Well, I don’t often remember things that reviewers write about books or write about my books, but I remember this sentence very clearly. A reviewer wrote, “It’s about death in the same way that birthday parties are about getting older.” I thought that was a perceptive comment. One of the things that I like about Kentucky, about that smaller world, is that death is a part of life. I like to think that the book dwells more on love than it does on death, but at that particular point in my life ... I began the book not long after my father died; I ended the book just about the time that my partner died. So with those two deaths as bookends for the writing of the book, it’s not surprising that I would turn my attention to that—but I wanted to turn my attention to it ... I like to think I turn my attention to it in the context of life and love.

Someone has made the observation to me about the characters in that book that the feeling that they carried away from the book was how much these people loved each other, even when they were at loggerheads, even when they were fighting, even when they were not speaking to each other, even in their blindness and their stumbling about; that nonetheless, the emotion that prevailed was love, and I hope that that’s true. It was my ambition to make that true. The writer whom I think of in this respect—and is certainly one of my formative writers and one of my idols—is the Russian writer Chekov, whom one always feels loves all of his characters, even his characters who are venal and who are mean [laughs]. He still loves them because they are human beings. They are engaged in this difficult enterprise of trying to get through a life—[this] difficult and amazing and wonderful enterprise of trying to get through a life—and you ... and he loves them for that. And I like to think that that’s the attitude that I have about all of my characters, even when they are doing terrible things to each other or whatever.

Bill: You also mention that Wendell Berry has been an influence. Can you tell us how?

Fenton: Well, I think Wendell is ... I would love it if somebody would convey this to Wendell; I certainly—I think I have conveyed it to Wendell at some point. It’s hardly an original observation to say Wendell is the dean of the whole school of Kentucky writers who ascribe to his impeccable principles, his sense of honor, his superb crystalline prose style, his value for the written word, respect for the written word, respect for humanity. I really think that those values which Wendell encapsulates so vividly and wonderfully in his writing have influenced a whole generation of Kentucky writers. And I haven’t spoken to other writers about this, but I would suspect that people like—well, actually, I have spoken to some; I know Ed [McClanahan] and Barbara Kingsolver would both say they both agree with what I have just said, and I suspect that Bobbie Ann Mason and any number of Kentucky writers I could name, you know—would point to Wendell as at least a significant factor in their growth and development and their choice or path.

Bill: A couple of closing questions, if we can. [The first] goes to the title Scissors, Paper, Rock: Where did it come from? And then maybe a follow-up question to that.

Fenton: Well, titles ... I had a student yesterday who asked me, “How do you come by titles?” And I said, “Well, either titles are a gift—they fall out of the sky and they hit you in the head and you are grateful for it—or they are just agony, and you sit down and you write page after page after page and go to the thesaurus and dictionaries and your great-aunt Maude and whoever you can: people, strangers on the street, you know.” That title was a gift. I knew from the beginning of the book that it was going to be called that. It has no immediate and obvious relevance, which is why ... one of the reasons I liked it. I like that it’s a children’s hand game that exists, so far as I have been able to tell, in virtually every culture in the world in some fashion or another. It’s a game of about 90% chance and 10% choice. It’s really chance as to who wins it, but you can sort of look at your partner and think, “Well, they made a fist with their hands the last two times we did this, so maybe this time they will make a pair of scissors”—and you know, you can kind of psych out your partner. That relationship between 90% chance, 90% destiny, and 10% volition, 10% choice, seems to me about the way we lead our lives, you know—that we think we have a lot more choice than in fact we do. But we have about 90% [laughs] chance and 10% choice. And I liked it, you know: its evocation of chance and destiny, and also the sort of basic metaphor of life as a kind of game.

Bill: Here is another Terry question, about the title—interesting that he would ask that—if the title refers to the circular nature of the conflicts between the characters? And I can see where he gets that question, too.

Fenton: I like that idea. You know, one of the nice things about that title—one of the reasons that I like it—is that it’s evocative, and people come to me with “Where did you get the title?” and I’ll say, “What do you think?” and they come to me with ideas that I listen to and I think, yeah, that’s a pretty good idea [laughs]. I like that. And I like that theory. I think that he has clued into the game, you know. He has gotten the aspect of the game that is there and that’s really the critical aspect; that is the essential aspect of the title. I just like also its tangibility—the fact that it is three objects that you can immediately see, you know, and feel and touch, and I like that.

Bill: Then ... We’re Kentuckians, and we like to talk about Kentucky, and we’re boastful and proud; but this is another suggestion of a theme from Terry: that it’s a good place to be from for a while; it’s a good place to retire to. Since you’ve left, we’re curious about whether you will ever come back to Kentucky.

Fenton: Well, of course I come back a lot, and in the sense that ... My mother is aging, and I like to be back there with her. I have an intimate, close relationship with the monks at the Trappist Abbey which I value greatly. I have several close friends there. I love the landscape—it is imprinted upon me in a way.


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