Alex Chambers: Leah Johnson gets to do what a lot of people only dream of. She writes books for a living. But you know what, it's not all milk and honey.
Leah Johnson: When a thing that you love and are passionate about becomes a thing that you rely on to survive, there is a pressure associated with it that is hard to untangle.
Alex Chambers: Dealing with that is tough but according to Leah--
Leah Johnson: It's also part of the work.
Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States, Leah Johnson on writing as a job, on making stories from mid-western black girls and her choice to write commercial fiction.
Alex Chambers: Leah Johnson got her first book deal a month after she finished her creative writing degree. The book that resulted, You Should See Me In A Crown, was the Stonewall Honor book, the inaugural Reese's Book Club Young Adult pick and it got on the list of The Times 100 Best Young Adult books of all time. Her second book is Rise To Sun and it's also a young adult book. Her latest came out on Tuesday, May 2nd. It's called Ellie Engle Saves Herself and it's not a YA book, it's a middle grade novel. In case you're not a librarian who pays attention to these distinctions, middle grade fiction is directed toward eight to 12 year olds, whereas the audience for young adult novels is more like 12 to 18. Ellie Engle Saves Herself is about a kid who ends up with special powers just when you least want them, right before starting middle school.
Alex Chambers: I met Leah at her house in Indianapolis and we talked about her new book. About how, when writing is your job, you actually have to get up and do it every day. We talked about money, writing commercial fiction in an MFA program and how it really feels to join the list of writers whose books have been banned. As we sat down though, we were chatting about the anti-trans bills that had been passing through the Indiana Legislature.
Leah Johnson: Before you showed up I was sitting here looking at, so Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick recently tweeted this video where they were talking about the drag bans and underneath the tweet there are so many bigoted idiotic responses about how kids shouldn't be exposed to any illustrations of gender or performance that are outside of the binary or whatever. And sometimes I can't believe that people are coming at this from a genuine point of view in that you legitimately believe that it's a drag that going to make a kid queer. Drag? Please, please. That's the thing; if you would about it. If you would open up a genuine conversation with these children about what it means to be a human who exists on a spectrum of gender and sexuality and all these things, then it's not going to make them queer. If they're going to be queer, they're queer. What it's going to do is make them happy and healthy and whole. I don't know, I feel like we're in the middle of a really aggressive and strange cultural battle right now, the likes of which I have not seen in my adult life. I feel like the children are the battleground we're fighting on and we're losing.
Alex Chambers: I was thinking about that too. Things have changed so much in the past 20 years I would say, and the fact that there's so much more queer visibility and I think kids are starting to actually feel like they can talk about how they actually feel and explore different options with who they want to be with or how they want to be in the world in relation to gender and sexuality and all that. It seems like it's becoming a threat and that is why people are clamping down. That's me trying to find something.
Leah Johnson: It's very Bloomington of you and I love that. You know what? I think because I live up here; I live in Indianapolis which doesn't seem like it's such a huge difference; it's only 45 minutes to an hour away, but the climate up here feels so aggressively different than it does when I go back to IU, which is my alma mater, or Sarah Lawrence which is where I went to grad school. Those are places where, for the first time in my life, I got the idea that it was okay to maybe be something other than what people had told me I was my entire life. And then I moved back here a couple of years ago and I noticed that all the stuff that I was running away from still exists here. I was changing, this place was standing still. So when I go to the far west side, which is much more rural, which is where I'm from, I walk around out there and think we are frozen in time. To you all, this discourse is still theoretical. To me, when you talk about what it means to be queer or drag shows which I think is such a ridiculous hill to die on but whatever. When we talk about that stuff, to them it's theoretical. It's a big behemoth. It's the thing lurking around every corner, these fanciful queers.
[00:05:40:19] But that's my real life, that's my real existence and so I think that out there especially, people are still operating on this whole idealogical playground but this is my lived experience and I realize that it's my ability to live freely and safely up here. It's still very much at risk because of these people who have never met a queer person before or have and then can't quite square the idea that the arguments that they're making actually apply to this real human. So I don't know. I don't know. I think we are a threat to them. I think anything that exists outside of the binary is a threat to them. But I also think that this is just another game of political theater and just like last year it was critical race theory, this year it's drag bands. Next year it will be another marginalized group whose rights they want to take away. To them this is all part of a larger scheme to maintain power. But to us, this is our ability to live freely and without fear.
Alex Chambers: So I'm really curious to talk about writing young adult novels in particular. But what I wanted to start with is did you always want to be a writer?
Leah Johnson: Yes. The long and short answer is that growing up, I didn't think that it was possible to be somebody who wrote books professionally. I think at the time, especially because you didn't have such easy access to the writers you admire, I didn't have any concept of this as a job. And so I knew that I had a pretty narrow set of skills. I was good at performing. I was good at talking my way out of trouble and I was good at making stuff up. And those all really come together to make a great writer, as it turns out. And so I knew that I wanted to tell stories but I couldn't wrap my head around what it would look like to write books and so I wanted to a be a journalist, that was goal. And so I was really into in high school. I was editor in chief of my school paper and then I went to IU and be in the J school which is now the media school. I had every intention of going on to work for NPR actually. That was my goal to work in public radio and do politics and I got to my last year of school and I was doing a lot of reporting on race relations. This was around the time of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin.
[00:08:32:09] We were in a flash point I think, in the way we talk about race in this country. Because it's Indiana, there's not that many black reporters. I felt like I was doing a lot of leg work of telling these stories over and over again. I was good at it, which is why I really leaned into it but it was costing me a great deal. I was so sad all the time. I was so anxious all the time. The last straw was I went to New York to do an internship at The Wall Street Journal and it's The Wall Street Journal so I got to work with some really cool people but I also was part of a machine that I didn't really believe in. So when I came back to school, I was like, this isn't going to work. I'm not going to be able to do this for the next 30 years of my life. So as a kind of Hail Mary, I thought just go back to the thing that got us to love stories in the first place, which is books. I applied to some MFA programs and got in and I was one of the first things smoking in New York. That was it.
Alex Chambers: So then you're in an MFA program and you're writing fiction. At what point do you realize that you want to write young adult fiction?
Leah Johnson: I knew, going into my program, that I was going to write YA. It was really clear to me. It felt really resonant with where I was in my life. YA was really the only thing I was interested in writing. I know a lot of people go into MFA programs and they're like, I'm going to write the next great American novel and I want to be the next David Foster Wallace. And I just want to tell stories about kids falling in love and going on adventures the summer before they go to college. I think part of that was because I was so young. I was one of the youngest people in my program. I was 21 going into my program. But the other part of it was that I was just beginning to navigate my own queerness and think about what that would look like for me in practice. And I think a lot of straight people especially, you get all your firsts out in high school. You get to have your first kiss, you get to have your first loves and your first heartbreaks and all this other stuff. But for queer people, a lot of that comes much later in life. Because at that point in my life I was just then beginning to experience what it feels like to fall in love and what it feels like to get your heart broken and to actually hold hands with somebody that you don't feel deeply anxious about holding hands with because you know it doesn't quite fit, do you know what I mean?
[00:11:08:13] Those feelings, all those experiences felt so closely tied to what it feels like to be 16 again. That it felt really natural to write those sorts of stories for that time in my life and so that's what I did from the moment I got there. And I think a lot of people couldn't quite wrap their head around why I would do that. I think YA especially in the era that I started writing it, it was still very much that people were holding on to this idea of the dystopian era. They were still thinking about YA being Twilight and the Hunger Games and Divergent which 100 per cent is what YA is. But also a lot of people on my program believed that there was an inherent value to telling stories that people didn't understand or were not accessible, or spoke to a really niche experience and was told in a way that was sort of highfalutin and I am just not interested in that. If I'm going to tell a story, I want to tell a story that people can see themselves in. They can find something to hold on to in it.
[00:12:24:04] The day I got there, the assistant director of my program at the time; they make you do an intake interview when you arrive. And she said what is it you want to accomplish in this program? And I said by the time I leave I want to have an agent, I want to get a book deal and I want to write full time. Those are my goals. I knew what I wanted. That's the thing. I think people don't like when somebody can clearly articulate their dreams. And not even their dreams, their goals. I knew I was going to do it. This is useful naivety. To me there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be published. I thought of course I am. Why else would I be here, do you know what I mean? And she said well, we don't really focus on that so much as we focus on the craft of writing. I said sure. Do I want to be a great writer? Of course I do. Do I want to know the ins and outs and the rules and the technicalities and do I want to engage with the work that's come before me? Sure.
[00:13:31:16] But also, I want to do this professionally. So my goals were very specific. She said okay, what is it you want to write? I said well, I want to do YA. And she said oh, so you want to make money? I said yeah, why is that some crazy concept? Or it makes me less of an artist because I want to do stories that reach a wider audience and also I want to be paid for it. I don't understand what the disconnect was. So let me use this example. Black folks, for example, always have to engage with white art in addition to knowing the Toni Morrisons and the Alice Walkers and the James Baldwins, I also have to know the e e cummings and the Whitmans and the David Foster Wallaces of the world. Whereas white people are not expected to engage with black art in the same way because it's not in the canon. And that's racism, obviously. But I felt similarly when I was in my grad program. I was doing this high wire act where I was trying to engage with white literary fiction that did not speak to my experience or my interests at all, while also trying to write young adult fiction for queer black kids in the mid-west.
[00:15:02:21] I felt like I was on an island. Nobody is really hearing me. Nobody is getting what I'm trying to do here and it wasn't until my second year when I thought I'm going to play the game that they want to play and I'm going to write what I write, but I'm going to do it in a way that feels like high brow literary fiction. And that was when people went oh my gosh, oh wow, she can write. I could always write. You guys just didn't have any respect for commercial fiction and so you weren't hearing it. After that point I know what I was dealing with here, I know what I'm working with.
Alex Chambers: Did you then keep doing that in the program? Or did you just do that for a minute to show them you could do it and then work on your actual plan?
Leah Johnson: You know what? I did both of them. When I had to submit something for a workshop, it was in that style, in that tone. And it was a great exercise for me in terms of trying to diversify my own voice as a writer and expand and stretch to see what I was capable of. So I found it really valuable and I was really good at it, as it turns out. But those were not the books that I wanted to publish and I knew that that wasn't what I was going to end up publishing. I got my first book deal a month after I left my program. It was for You Should See Me In A Crown. I had to shift gears pretty rapidly from let's go back to the kissing books, Leah. Let's get back in the zone because we've got a job to do now. It was a different ball game for sure, but all the tools that I learned in that program about voice and structure and having a tightly plotted story. All those things made their way into You Should See Me In A Crown.
[00:17:09:01] My first few years of writing, I was writing a book every six months. I was finishing a manuscript every six months. So I didn't have time for all that. I had to figure out how to get the plot, figure out what the story is, find the character and get them from point A to point B in 45,000 words. 60,000 words whatever. And that is not something they really shine at in literary fiction.
Alex Chambers: That's for sure.
Alex Chambers: Let's take a break. You're listening to an interview with author Leah Johnson. Her first middle grade novel, Ellie Engle Saves Herself, came out on Tuesday, May 2nd. This is Inner States. When we come back, Leah talks about the relationship between writing and money.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers and I'm talking today with author Leah Johnson. Her new book is Ellie Engle Saves Herself. When Leah got her first book deal, the schedule was for her to publish a book a year.
Leah Johnson: And so the first book came out in 2020, the second book came out in 2021 and in an ideal world, I would have put out a book last year, but I didn't because I was burned out. I didn't have anything left in the tank, especially navigating a global pandemic and just the cost of being a human. It was draining. I was scheduled and had signed contracts for I think four YA novels that were supposed to be published back to back to back. And my second book came out and the reception was not nearly as overwhelming as it was for my first book, which is fine. Sophomore books often go through that and also we were knee deep in a pandemic, so who was buying books? But I realized after that, man it took a lot out of me to write that book only for it to come out and for me to not feel like I was being supported by my publisher and feel like it wasn't reaching the audiences that I wanted it to reach or that I wrote it to reach. So I needed some time to figure out what I wanted to do next.
[00:19:31:20] Luckily by then I had signed with a new agent who had re-negotiated a lot of my contracts and had bought me some more time and also had gotten me paid so that I could afford to not write a book a year. and that was a Godsend. I feel like it gave me the space to really step back and examine what it is I'm trying to do and not for the sake of capitalism, not for the sake of paying my rent, but for the sake of doing the work because I'm passionate about the work.
Alex Chambers: I can't remember when you wrote that essay about writing and work, basically where you were talking about writing is work and I was thinking about we have these, those of us who dream of writing or making art or radio or whatever. It's hard not to imagine that there's a sense of disconnect from the money aspect. That you're going to be able to just create. You were writing in that essay about how writing is work for you and that's a really important thing for people to understand. And at the same time what you were just saying to me it was that you actually needed to also find a different relationship to it, it sounded like.
Leah Johnson: Yes. I mean it's worth noting that art and capitalism are intertwined and so there is no relationship to my work that can exist separately from my desire to build a life for myself that is stable. And I think a lot of times we don't consider creative pursuits labor in the way that we consider other jobs labor. And it's especially tough, if I'm thinking of the right essay. I also wrote about the fact that I come from a really humble background of working class people. A lot of educators in my family, a lot of people who have done manual labor jobs. Public servants, there's a lot of that. And so I think it was easy for me growing up and also entering into this business to think oh, my needs as a person aren't as important because the work that I'm doing is easier than the work these other people are doing.
Alex Chambers: You've got this lucky chance to be creative in your work and so maybe you shouldn't expect to get paid.
Leah Johnson: Yes. Oh and I shouldn't complain about how hard it is because at least I'm not on an assembly line like my uncle or I'm not in a classroom every day getting cussed out by kids like my brother. And the reality is the work looks very different and I'm really privileged to be able to do it and I think it's worth acknowledging that there is a great amount of privilege that comes along with being able to do creative work. But it also is work. And so figuring out how to prioritize your needs as an artist while also figuring out how can I make enough money to survive, while also having a personal life and also having a private life, despite the fact that the lines between the personal and the public are very blurry for somebody who has a public facing career. Figuring out how to navigate those things is really difficult and there's not a guidebook for it. It's not like this is such a common job that people can give you a blueprint. So yes, I needed money so I could buy myself time to figure it out.
Leah Johnson: Shout out the Mouse because if it weren't for Disney, who knows what I'd be doing right now? My book deal with Disney was worth seven figures and so when you make a million dollars for a couple of books you can be comfortable. And I don't shy away from talking about money because I was raised poor and I think when income inequity is shrouded in mystery, it makes it impossible for us to figure out where we're at and what other people are making and how we can get there and how we can financial plan and all this other stuff. So yes, my career is made possible by the fact that I got a huge influx of money which was part strategy and part luck. And that bought me a year where I could take some time to be creative without the specter of poverty hanging over my head.
Alex Chambers: I was talking with this friend. And a friend of his had said all you had to do is write some poems and you got this job or whatever. But the point is that it is actual work to write a book, to write something, to do creative work. You actually do have to sit down and struggle and push through and finish things.
Leah Johnson: Yes. I mean I have to show up every day, the same way anybody else does. I get a question a lot when I do school visits from kids who want to be writers when they grow up. They say, how do you deal with the writer's block? And I say well, just the same way anybody wakes up in the morning and sometimes does not feel motivated to go to work or doesn't feel like they have the wherewithal to show up as their full self once they get to work. It's the same thing with me. The difference is I'm my own boss and so there's nobody behind me saying pick it up. But the reality is I still have an obligation to show up to the work every day, even when I don't feel well equipped to do it. And part of that is because I'm on some pretty tight time-lines. And other people, it's different. You have longer between books, you get to languish in that state of not really knowing what you want to do and what you're doing. I don't have that. A lot of the work is writing garbage and hoping that in the revision stage I can be better than garbage. Or that my editor, she's coming to work. She's firing on all cylinders at all times. And so if I'm coming with not my best then there are other people around me who I can rely on who are also coming to work and doing what needs to be done. Yes, it's tough but it's a job. It's just that I do the job over a little keyboard and other people do their jobs out in the world. Can I say this really quick?
Alex Chambers: Yes.
Leah Johnson: You know honestly, if writing was the only part of my job that I had to do, I actually feel like this would be a different conversation. But this is the job. What we're doing now, this is work. When I go to schools and talk about my books and meet with kids and sign copies, that's work. When I go on tour in a few weeks, eight cities in 12 days, that's work. When I do Zooms with libraries in Nebraska, that's work. Social media for me is work now because it's all part of the brand. It's just different. It's hard to wrap your head around I think if it's not part of your life but I'm always on the clock. I think other people get to clock in and out. I'm always on. That too is one of those things that I am trying to square I think in my relationship with labor. How do I articulate this? When a thing that you love and are passionate about becomes a thing that you rely on to survive, there is a pressure associated with it that is hard to untangle. So figuring out how to navigate that is tough, but it's also part of the work.
Alex Chambers: I am curious to hear about the shift from writing the first two books which were more YA, to Ellie Engle which is middle grade and what did you have to think about differently? I felt like you totally had that baby gate panic energy. That totally came through in Ellie Engle also really wonderfully. But it's a very different book, it reads very differently.
Leah Johnson: Huge tonal shift. I'll say this about Ellie. I started working on it in Spring of 2021 and we were still in quarantine. I was so disillusioned with writing as a career. I was ready to tap out and go back to the classroom because I'm a professor when I'm not writing. I wasn't seeing a way forward and I was thinking I've got to work on something that's going to make me feel excited to sit down and write every day again. I thought I'm just going to do a nonsense little story about a queer kid from Indiana who gets super powers. And the goal was really just to have fun. I wanted to be able to play in the work again. Something that is true of romance, even when you're writing for young people, is that there are certain conventions of the genre that you have to adhere to otherwise it's not considered a romance, but it also is not going to check the boxes for the readers. Romance readers are very specific about what they want, and rightfully so. I get it. There's a science to it and I am a scientist. But I was a little exhausted of trying to hit those same beats at the time. I just wanted to do something goofy and play around a little bit and as is the Leah Johnson way, the goofiness gave way to a much more earnest story about a kid trying to understand their identity through super powers being sort of an allegory for getting a new life as a queer person when you come out.
[00:30:46:12] And I knew really early on this is going to be a book. I thought it was just going to be a little jokey joke. I was going to have a good time, just me and my little story. I worked on it for a weekend furiously and I sent the first 30 pages to my agent after two days which never happens and she said okay, I wasn't expecting this. I thought you were working on a YA novel, the one we talked about but I think we could sell this. Let's take it out next week. We took it out on proposal the next week truly and that was it. We went to auction with it and then within two weeks we had the deal for Ellie. Unbelievable and unprecedented. It has never happened to me like that before. I will say my most recent deal also had a similar sort of story. But who knows if it will happen again after that? That's the long answer to your question but the short answer is there is a playfulness in middle grade that I felt like I was losing when I was writing YA. That's not to say that YA is not playful because it is but the questions that 12 year olds are asking are very different than the questions a 17 year old is asking. And I like that space of curiosity without shame. I really value that in younger readers.
[00:32:31:21] My first goal is to make sure the people, black girls in particular, who are growing up where I grew up, can see themselves and their communities reflected accurately with super powers. And that is hard to explain to people sometimes, I think. But I've been really lucky that I get to do it. I'm interested in being a part of a canon of mid-western literature that really speaks to life in the mid-west in a way that is honest about our failures but also the beauty of what it means to be from here. I'm really honored that I get to do the work in the way that I do it and do it alongside so many other incredible [UNSURE OF WORD] writers.
Alex Chambers: I do want to talk about book bans.
Leah Johnson: This one is sure to be banned. Surely, positively, 100 per cent. No doubt about it.
Alex Chambers: I'm curious, not in terms of what it says about society, but in terms of you being in this group, is there an element of maybe it feels good?
Leah Johnson: This is a great question and I'm glad you asked it because there is this narrative that getting a book ban is a badge of honor and that it in turn results in higher book sales because people love controversy. So if your book gets banned, a lot of people are going to run out and buy it. They're going to go to Barnes and Noble and they're going to pick up a copy. The reality is much more insidious and that's that most people who get books banned, nobody ever hears about. You never see those books again. They go out of print, the authors are not famous, they are mid-list authors which are not getting huge resources from their publishers, they don't always have huge fan bases. So the books just disappear and that's it. And those authors don't always get another shot because our ability to sell books to publishers depends on our ability to get people to buy the books. So it's a really nasty cycle that is much less cool and sexy than I think a lot of people make it seem.
[00:35:00:11] My next YA is co-written with a friend of mine named George M Johnson who wrote the book, All Boys Aren't Blue, which was the second most banned book in the country this year. And George spent so much time talking about the importance of keeping books on shelves and making sure that young people have access to diverse literature. And George flies from city to city and they do all this really important work. But sometimes I think about this quote from Toni Morrison where she says that racism and talking about race, talking about why we deserve to be in any given space is a distraction. It serves as a distraction from our ability to actually do the work. And luckily, somebody like George, George is an activist. They are energized by this and all that manages to be channeled back into their work. But for people who are less popular than George, people for whom their books get banned and nobody ever talks about them again and they don't get invited to speak on panels and come do events. For those people, it's just a distraction from the work. It just makes it impossible to sit down and write the stories that you know you should be writing, knowing that they are going to be banned one day and nobody's going to read them and people are going to call you a groomer or a pedophile or you're going to get your invitations to schools canceled because they saw you said trans-rights matter or whatever on the Internet.
[00:36:40:22] There's a really nasty, nefarious side of the business. That's the long answer. The short answer is getting my book banned, I'm in the company of writers that I greatly admire and whose work got me here. It feels trite to say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, but I do. And so being able to look at my book on a list of books that are being considered indecent alongside Toni Morrison. If they think Toni Morrison is indecent, come on. I don't stand a chance. So in that way, I do know that my work is being banned because it's doing the work that they so want to silence and I am proud of that. I will be more proud if it wasn't getting banned but I am proud to know that I'm doing work that scares people.
Alex Chambers: You're writing books that are on some level especially for those of us don't necessarily feel scared of reading about queer black relationships, feel like classic romances.
Leah Johnson: Yes, they are classic romances. That's the thing. I am so deeply influenced by all of the greatest Rom-coms of our time which is why if you read You Should See Me In A Crown, it feels like a John Hughes movie because it was written to feel like a John Hughes movie because I want to be a part of the same canon, the same way we talk about Pretty in Pink, the same we talk about Never Been Kissed, the same way we talk about 13 going on 30, whatever. I believe that my book is right in line with that. Which is why when people slap labels on it to say it's indecent, I say what's indecent about it? Name it. You tell me what exactly is indecent about this? Because when you do, you're going to have to identify what you are actually talking about is queerness. The very existence of queer people is indecent to you. Because when we talk about banning books, we're not talking about taking books off the shelves. We're talking about the removal of queer people from public life. That is the ultimate goal here and that's the same thing we're talking about when we talk about drag bans, it's the same thing we're talking about when we say that trans kids should be outed to their parents and schools. What you're talking about is not about protecting children. You want queer people erased.
[00:39:14:13] So my work is intended to boldly assert that we are not going anywhere. We are your neighbors. We are your teachers, we are your politicians, we are the writers that shape the cultural conversation. We're not getting erased, no matter how many times you try to take out books off the shelves. So keep fighting but there's not a group of people in the world better equipped to take down fascists than marginalized people because we've been doing it for centuries.
Alex Chambers: That's pretty good, that was good. Alright. Thank you. Awesome. Okay now I can stop recording.
Alex Chambers: Author Leah Johnson. Her latest book, Ellie Engels Saves Herself, came out on May 2nd.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at WFIU.org/innerstates. Okay, We've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forest, Louanne Johnson, Jack Lindner, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Sad to say we're saying goodbye to Yane Sanchez Lopez who's moving on to a new position on campus. Yane, I'm immensely grateful for all the behind the scenes work you've done and I wish you the best in your new projects. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time for some found sound.
Alex Chambers: That was fourth and fifth graders eating lunch, recorded by Kayte Young. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.