Houston writer Jennifer Staff Johnson gives first public reading
October 12, 2016, by Charlotte Wyatt
The Gulf Coast Journal’s Reading Series presents writers from the University of Houston’s nationally acclaimed Creative Writing Program, as well as renowned writers whose work has appeared in the magazine. This Friday, the Series presents Lisa Olstein, Henk Rossouw, Corey Campbell, and Jennifer Staff Johnson at Rudyard’s Pub in Montrose. Reading starts at 7 pm.
This week marks the very first public reading for Jennifer, who is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at UH. She sat down with Inprint blogger Charlotte Wyatt to discuss her work and how Houston has shaped her writing.
CHARLOTTE: This is your first — okay, alright, second reading ever, but your first reading was Wednesday night as part of the Poetry & Prose series through UH. How did you choose what pieces to read this week? How did you prepare?
JENNIFER: I’ve chosen a couple of flash pieces, just so I could start and finish a piece in one reading. I’ve been practicing reading out loud a bit, which I’ve discovered is also an outstanding revision tool. For the Gulf Coast reading on Friday at Rudyard’s, I’m going to read a short piece about a pair of performance artist cowboys who meet with calamity on their way to a show in Dallas.
CHARLOTTE: Performance artist cowboys?
JENNIFER: That’s something I made up, in the course of thinking about past and present myths about Texas, but don’t you think that’s something that ought to exist, if it doesn’t?
CHARLOTTE : Absolutely! You’ve lived in Houston for most of your life. What about the city feeds your writing?
JENNIFER: Houston is a place that wields a lot of power and influence, nationally and internationally, because of the range of enterprises people here are engaged in. Consider the medical center, NASA, the petroleum industry, the visual art community, the port, the politicians we’ve exported to Washington; I could go on. Houstonians from so many diverse backgrounds generate political, economic, and cultural capital on a huge scale, and often with a nonchalance I find fascinating. In my days as a journalist I felt I was failing to get at the scope of it, and fiction feels in some ways like a better tool for the job. It helps that the city doesn’t feel closed off—you can regularly wander in and out of these many worlds, just like you can in a good novel.
It helps that the city doesn’t feel closed off—you can regularly wander in and out of these many worlds, just like you can in a good novel.
CHARLOTTE : You’re at work on a novel about Houston, and I’ve had the privilege to read an excerpt–your style has a beautiful expansiveness to it that seems so appropriate to the Lone Star State. Is there a literary tradition around the city, or maybe Texas overall, that you’ve drawn from as you develop your voice?
JENNIFER: My Houston heroes include Larry McMurtry and Donald Barthelme, two writers who, while very different in style, both processed their Texas experience through idiosyncratic and acute intellects. I also read a lot of newspapers growing up, taking special note of the columnists. People like Molly Ivins and Maxine Mesinger introduced me to the riches of character and personality that are to be found here, a treasure trove that is a writer’s dream come true.
I associate Texas, and Houston especially, with tremendous ambition and competence, but also with a sense of humor about things, which is key to a clear-eyed perspective. I think that shows up in the literature. As the diversity of our population expands and our literary scene continues to mature, I expect to see a great number of works produced in and featuring Houston that reflect this depth and diversity. It’s an exciting time to be writing here.
It’s an exciting time to be writing here.
Jennifer Staff Johnson’s fiction and essays have appeared in publications including Tin House’s Open Bar, New Dead Families, and Literary Mothers. Come see her and Gulf Coast’s amazing line-up Friday night!