Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Allan G Johnson

In fiction, writing on March 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Allan G Johnson

Allan G Johnson. Photo by Paul Johnson.

An introduction to sociologist and writer Allan G Johnson, whose latest novel is Nothing Left to Lose (Plain View Press, 2011). Johnson’s first novel was The First Thing and the Last, and his nonfiction books include The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, and Privilege, Power, and Difference. Since 1972, when he received his PhD in Sociology, Johnson has worked on issues of gender, race, and social justice.

Quick Facts on Allan G Johnson

  • Allan G. Johnson’s website
  • Home: A small town in the northwest hills of Connecticut.
  • Top reads: Jane Kenyon, Louise Erdrich, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
  • Current reads: Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

What are you working on at the moment?

Writing a new novel and finding a publisher for a novel I completed last fall.

Where did the idea for Nothing Left to Lose come from?

I’ve been working to understand men’s violence in all its forms for many years, first as a sociologist and now as a novelist, in this and my previous book, The First Thing and the Last, a story about domestic violence. In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, I saw a father and son interviewed on the nightly news in Detroit—the son was resisting the draft—and I suddenly became aware of how powerful the relationship between fathers and sons can be when it comes to masculinity and violence and war. I never forgot what I saw going between the young man and his father, how complex these situations are, and how important are the ties between parents and children making such profound moral choices about how to live and the kind of human being they will be, choices that echo across generations.

What do you hope readers will take away from Nothing Left to Lose?

A deeper sense of who we are, what it means to be a human being, what that calls on us to be and do. And to question what makes war possible—even inevitable—time after time, and the terrible toll it takes on people’s lives, the few we know about, the ones we see, and the many we do not.

“A deeper sense of who we are,

what it means to be a human being.”

 Who would you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Someone who appreciates literary fiction, not only the power of story but the beauty of the language used to tell it. Someone who believes in diving deep toward an understanding of the human condition, especially when that path takes us to places we might rather not go. 

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I always write first thing in the morning, before anything else has a chance of taking over my mind. I have a quiet writing room in a far corner of our house. It looks out into the woods. No phone, no internet, no distractions.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Right where I am. 

Do you listen to anything while you write?

Just the flow of the story and the voices of my characters. For years I’ve had a card sitting on my writing table with the word “Listen.”

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I write first because I love language, not only the power of what it can say, but also the sheer beauty of it, the rhythm and pace and arc of a line, as with music. And because there are stories that choose me as much as I choose them, that call on me to render them in the best way that I know how, as honestly and completely as I can.

How has your background as a sociologist influenced your fiction?

It’s had a lot to do with the kinds of stories I’ve felt called to write, although the novel I’ve just finished is farther from my sociological sensibility than the rest (I’ve written five, two of which have been published). At the same time, I learned early on to separate the sociology from the art so that I don’t fall into making a point or conveying a message rather than telling a story, which is my first obligation as a novelist. On a deeper level, of course, the two are inseparable since every character lives in some kind of social context that shapes who they are. All of which means that while I’m writing, I’m not thinking about the sociology of anything, and yet it cannot help but inform what I pay attention to and what I make of characters and their lives.

“While I’m writing, I’m not thinking about

the sociology of anything, and yet it cannot help

but inform what I pay attention to.”

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

The poet, Jane Kenyon, was once asked what the job of a poet is. I think her reply says as much about the writing of serious fiction as it does about poetry. “The poet’s job,” she said, “is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name.” That is what I’m always trying to do.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

I don’t think they have. My goal is best expressed by my response to the previous question, and I expect that will be my goal for as long as I write.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read the work of good writers and, of course, write, every day if you can. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time. Learn to love revising. “Words are not precious,” an editor once said to me. “There are plenty more where those came from.” So, cut, cut, cut. Also, writing poetry is good for developing a sense of what language can do and as a source of discipline. You learn to make every word count—earn its place or out it goes.

“Learn to love revising.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

In addition to the above, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” which I believe comes from G K Chesterton.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

When someone reads something I’ve written and calls on me to change it in ways that, at the time, I don’t believe I know how to do. I’ve learned to step back at times like that (and breathe) and then wait, because eventually I will come to see what needs to be done and how to do it. I know more than I think I do.

About Allan G Johnson (in his own words)

I was born in Washington, DC, in 1946 and lived for two years with my family in Norway. When I was eight we moved to New England where I did the rest of my growing up. I wrote my first (very) short story when I was ten years old. I wrote poetry and short fiction all through high school, winning awards for both in my senior year, and continued writing on into college. Going to graduate school and earning a PhD in Sociology was a detour away from my art that lasted a decade or so. I think I was trying to figure out who I was and what was happening in the world, which was in a lot of turmoil at the time with the war and the civil rights movement. I came back to fiction when I left full-time teaching in 1980, but I had to earn a living and so I wasn’t able to take it very far. I came back to my roots as a writer about 15 years ago when I started working on my first novel, The First Thing and the Last.

Finding a publisher for The First Thing and the Last was an ordeal not because publishers faulted the novel on its merits but because they were disturbed by its realistic portrayal of domestic violence. I had an agent in New York who stayed with it for almost six years and seventy submissions before giving up. It was a hard lesson in the way the publishing industry works and what it has become.

Buy Nothing Left to Lose, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Allan G Johnson.” Words With Writers (March 14, 2012),

Nothing Left to Lose

Nothing Left to Lose by Allan G Johnson (Plain View Press, 2011).

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