Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tim Johnston joining Iowa City literary history

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 27, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

After reading Tim Johnston's short-story collection, "Irish Girl," I spent some time watching my 3-year-old daughter sleep, imagining the teenager and woman she would later become. Johnston's stories are filled with similarly quiet moments in which characters remember what was and imagine what might have been.

But Johnson, an Iowa City native, always seems to catch his families at some moment after their relationships have become irreparable -- after the door has been kicked down, after a body has been dug up, after the charges have been filed, after the shots have been fired.

"To predict where objects in space are going you need to know where they've been," Johnston's narrator, Richard Gorseman, writes in "Lucky Gorseman." "All I knew at twelve was that a young man could show up one day and start shooting people in the head, and that that was reason enough to go back to Canada, to leave your husband and son to fight for themselves."

In a phone interview Monday, Johnston said he had his own "pet theory" as to why the stories in his Katherine Anne Porter Prize-winning collection are so "dark": Because his first novel, "Never So Green" had been published as a young adult novel.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Johnson said. "But at the time, I had labored on a novel I hoped would be appreciated by adults. It was, but it just wasn't marketed that way. ... And I guess I was really trying my damnedest to not write another young adult work."

While trying to avoid being pigeon-holed in the young adult section, the 1980 West High graduate still has some of his strongest narrative voices come from his teenage and pre-teen characters. None of Johnston's characters allow the author to wrap up his stories in neat and tidy epiphanies, but the adolescents seem particularly aware that they can't be trusted and that they're not being honest with themselves, let alone with the reader.

Johnston said he was always aware of his hometown's literary history. His mother, in fact, had taken poetry classes in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. But by the time he decided he wanted to be a writer and to start applying for MFA programs, he thought it was time to get out of town and go somewhere else. In his case, he went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Yet Iowa City itself plays an extended role in "Lucky Gorseman." The shooting described in the quote above is none other than the Gang Lu shooting of 1991. Johnston said that he was back living in Iowa City at the time, but the story is told from the point of view of Gorseman as a 27-year-old in an creative writing class, who is remembering back to when he was 11 and when his physicist father, who happened to be in the bathroom at the time, barely escaped being killed by Lu.

"The story began having nothing to do with Iowa City," Johnston said. "Just a boy and his father traveling around."

Johnston said he wrote draft after draft without quite getting it right. But then he read an article about large-body objects in space and the potential for earth collisions.

"That struck a chord with me, and I began rewriting the story so that the father was a scientist," Johnston explained. "Suddenly I placed the scientist in Iowa City, and the random violence of a local nature seemed to connect with the violence of a celestial nature."

Because the 1991 shootings play such a small role in this story about a boy coming to terms with his father's imperfections, it's not likely to be compared to the other writings on the shootings, such as Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter" or Edwin Chen's "Deadly Scholarship." Nor is it a crass, insensitive exploitation of those tragic events, such as the 2007 film "Dark Matter."

But "Lucky Gorseman" and the other stories of this collection do show that Johnston now has become a part of his hometown's literary history.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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