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D. Herrle Tea Interviews - Carolyn Howard-Johnson 

Welcome to the Tea Interviews.

I devised this feature to edify fellow artists and to share that edification with you readers/participants.  I've seldom met an artist, particularly a writer, who didn't tend to gab or spill opinions or offer musings on his/her own work and worldview.  Therefore I'm tapping into this common tendency.  

(Most of the questions are tailored toward the featured interviewee.)


 Tea Interview with Carolyn Howard-Johnson


D: I refer to a rather strongly stated dedication in your most recent book, Harkening, A Collection of Stories Remembered: "To Utah, Nurturer And Devastator And To The Women Who Live and Have Lived There". Please tell us the significance of such a dedication.

I think an excerpted poem from This is the Place might best describe the essence of this dedication. The poem is written by young Sky Eccles, the protagonist in that novel, as she sits in a library trying to make sense of what she is learning about herself from the women in her family who went before her.

"Utah's Song" (excerpt from This Is The Place)

Aspens quiver message of gold
Cottonwoods silently wisp cascades of fluff
Snows hum a quiet melody in rhythmic drifts
Or a polar staccato on cheeks and nose.
There is a quiet harmony here.
A rhythm of solace
In the pulse of the canyon winds
The hush of gurgling creeks
The sway of clouds moving high.
A symphony of silence,
Hangs in the air
The bars, staffs, and whole notes
For tranquil self-destruction.

I believe, from my own experience, that the place we are from may cause us enough pain to develop not only our character but also our talent. Moments of devastation create as readily as flights of extreme happiness.

D: Do you think women have generally improved in the way of public respect, professionalism, and in men's perception since the uncertain "old days" when women didn't seem to have much clout? Has organized "feminism" helped or hindered women?

Without a doubt, the lot of women in the West have changed. The ground we tread with men is still more hilly on the women's side of the track. That makes "feminist" causes - including feminist literature - just as important today as it was when N.O.W. was brashly - but nonviolently - making an issue of the plight of women with the hope that this generation, as well as theirs, would be the better for it.

The trouble is that so many only remember the bra-burning and don't remember the repression that led to it at all. In fact, I worry that the work my generation did in the [19]70s will fall in disrepair in the face of neglect from my daughter's generation.

By the way, not one woman I know who will admit to being a feminist is interested in the superiority of one sex over another. Equality has absolutely nothing to do with superiority or intolerance.

D: Share your favorite author(s) and book(s) and why.

My favorites vary from day to day. I love most of the classics and really would like to write something where the author is allowed to float in and out and around point of views as they [authors] once did. I am probably in a feminist mode because of your former question, David, but I love a new author named Leora G. Krygier, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Cunningham - for his portrayal of women and his understanding of Virginia Wolf.


D: In Harkening's Introduction you ask, "In some sense, isn't a writer's truth more truthful than fact?" Interesting. Care to elaborate on that question?

It is one of the themes that run through much of my writing. I get so blessed tired of seeing "based on a true story" plastered across movie screens and book covers. It suggests to audiences that nothing is of any value unless it is "true."  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was "true" but she is a darn good example of how much more valuable fiction can be in terms of exposing the human condition than many a memoir that is here today and gone tomorrow.

"Based on a true story," also perpetuates a myth as surely as it sells product. The other day a friend assured me that she only reads "nonfiction." She thought that I, as a "serious" writer, would approve because she equated "fiction" only with light romances or mysteries. Sad, huh? Think of the entertainment value in "light romances"!  I would love to see more people vary what they read, quaff up the possibilities that all kinds of reading offer.


D: What was Harkening's primary inspiration?

My mother calls me an equal opportunity daughter. She complained that This is the Place was based on the legends from my father's side of the family. She may have been a little dismayed when I revealed the secrets in creative nonfiction about hers! Most of the stories in Harkening I head at my mother's knee. She is my inspiration and so is Utah.

D: William Somerset Maugham, one of my favorite authors, repeatedly emphasized that he thought "the aim of art is to please". This held for the novelist, as well, in his mind: "The aim of the writer of fiction is not to instruct, but to please." He considered didactic novels to be outside of art.

I strongly disagree with dear Maugham on this point. What are your thoughts on his assertion? Should novels do both: please and instruct?

I personally prefer novels that leave me with something more than a wisp of emotion when I close the cover. Having said that, I don't think a novel should whop it's reader on the head with hard facts. A reader can learn from great characterization and from a memorable setting. When people read my books I want them to be caught up in the story, but when they close them I don't mind at all if they feel they learned something, too.

D: One of my favorite pieces in Harkening is "Through A Window". The narrator addresses a childhood memory of her mother crying about Daddy having been drafted. As a child, the narrator couldn't grasp the concept, but she sensed its import, imagining her doll buggy being stolen by this windy thing called "the draft", etc.

Can you share what inspired this piece?

I was about three when this [the scene above] happened to me. I didn't remember it until I lay on a bed in a pension in Prague after a full day tramping the city with my fellow students. A breeze from my window moved the Quaker lace curtains across my face. It's funny how our memories are triggered - from an unidentified odor in the air to the unexpected touch of an inanimate object.

D: Author Robert Heinlein wrote: "...the draft is involuntary servitude, immoral, and unconstitutional no matter what the Supreme Court says." Do you agree with conscription: the State being able to decide a man's fate with threat of imprisonment? Or is it as Heinlein asserts?

We are all genetically programmed to fight for our basic necessities and that includes the [propogation] of our genetic code. If we are truly threatened, then, it follows that no conscription is necessary.

D: When/how did you decide to pursue writing?

Maybe it was when my mother read me nursery rhymes. I loved the frilly ones like Miss Muffet and Daffy Down Dilly. Maybe it was when I became infatuated with the bylines I got in my school newspaper.  Maybe it was just part of loving to talk. When I brought home my low citizenship grades for gabbing in class my father - dare I mention it - said I had "diarrhea of the mouth."

D: Are you working on any projects at present?

I'm sure as heck trying to. It is another cross-genre. Sort of a mainstream/crime/courtroom drama with an aura of Greek Mythology about it. It's also set in Los Angeles. Don't ask. I know it sounds just awful but I am eager to press toward something new for me and maybe even new in general. I'm also trying to find a home for my new book of poetry.

D: You are quite outspoken on the volatile subject of intolerance, particularly between Protestants and Mormons. What do you think is the fundamental source of intolerance in general, beyond religion?

I believe that we are born with the equipment to generalize. That's how we learn when we're young. If coffee steams when it's hot, then we may very well avoid a burn when the tea kettle spews mist into the air. It is a very useful tool at that stage in our lives. As we mature we need to unlearn it in order to be open - even accepting - of new ideas and differences. It's a tall order and one I believe can't be perfected. That's why we must always be on guard. And even learn to be tolerant of ourselves when we slip.

D: I see the entire matter as problematic if we're not insightful, because often intolerance is simply a convenient PC buzzword to shut down discussion or to squelch opinion/ethical differences---while those making the indictment of intolerance are being intolerant. However, intolerance based on race, religion, and the like is what I would classify as tribalism.

I can't argue with that. Intolerant people are often the first to use the word to squelch ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.

Thoughts on these statements?

One of the questions I like to ask myself when I feel intolerance buzzing about is, what motivates it? Often it is grounded in low self esteem, the urge to prove one group -- "MY group" - is better than yours. The similarities of this kind of intolerance to tribalism are apparent. It would probably take a 7,000 word essay to explore them and the dissimlarities in order to do them justice.

D: Carolyn, I'm pleased to have become acquainted with you over the past year or so. You've shared useful and kind advice and you've proven to be a hopeful, driven, and dynamic person. I find your prose to be warm, sensitive to atypical detail, and very attuned to the storytelling tradition. I wish you blessings on your path.

Any parting words for readers/fans?

I am pleased to have found you, too. I find that the writers and readers I have come to know since my books were published are an unexpected treasure. Thanks to all of you.





Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Awards-winning author of This is the Place
and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered
Learn more at




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