It's a novel approach:
Man commits to 'marriage' with his book
Interview by William E. Robbins
Photo by Paul Williams
The Kenosha News
February 17, 1993
Twelve years ago, Michael Craft Johnson penned his first novel—and it was “soundly and roundly rejected by everyone,” he says. “I had enough sense to realize the manuscript didn’t have what it took. But it did get me over that first hurdle: I knew I could put myself through the mechanics of putting that many words on paper, that I was willing to commit myself to a novel, to marry it for a while.”
So he said “I do” to a second novel. And now it’s time for a honeymoon. A decade after it was written, Rehearsing at last is reaching literary daylight. It’s being published this month.
“But only on the day I sold it did I get up the nerve to count how many rejection letters from agents and publishers I’d received for it—there were 28,” he says.
A combination of literary talent and unflagging persistence has paid off for Johnson, 42, whose book is a witty, thoroughly entertaining character study with a serious philosophical message. Rehearsing, a trade paperback that explores the relationship between a single woman of 50 and a gay man 10 years her junior, is published by Los Hombres Press, a small house in San Diego, California, that specializes in gay literature.
“The book works on parallel levels,” says Johnson. “First, there’s a surface plot—basically ‘what happens.’ And I hope I’ve provided a good yarn. Readers want and deserve that. Second, there’s a thematic plot, the message of the book.” A thematic plot distinguishes “genre fiction from literature,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in writing literature. I daresay I tried.”
The book’s central character, a famous Broadway theatrical director named Claire Gray, decides to take a year’s sabbatical as a visiting professor at her alma mater, a small New England college, where she also plans to write a play. She meets a young gay actor, George, and the two “have an affair,” says Johnson. “Each seduces the other as a means to a private end. Ultimately, the unconventional relationship proves to work for one of them and not the other.”
Though the book’s message won’t be revealed here, it is harmonious with the philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand, who “profoundly influenced” Johnson’s decision to write novels. Rand, whose books include Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, championed objectivism, a system of beliefs emphasizing rational thought and self-interest. It stresses “man’s reliance on his own reasoning capacities to judge the world around him and to make decisions for his actions,” Johnson says. “Thematically, my book is not far from Rand at all.”
He wrote much of Rehearsing while commuting by train from Kenosha to Chicago, where for 10 years he worked as an editorial art director at the Chicago Tribune. “I wanted to find something to do to fill all that useless time,” he says. “Writing was perfect.”
And his position at [a local manufacturer], which he assumed in 1987, has also played a role in Rehearsing.
“I’m a word person there. Much of the job is editing other people’s writing. It’s taught me to be far more critical of my own writing. I’ve learned to go back to my own work, flip a switch and tell myself, ‘OK, this just landed on my desk—make it better.’ That’s a big step. Creative writers tend to get emotionally attached to their words. They get defensive. I’ve reached a point where I realize this stuff (what he’s written) isn’t precious. Cutting out a paragraph is not equivalent to cutting off your left arm.”
Johnson says Rehearsing is accessible to a broad readership. “Even though it’s a story that contains a gay character and it’s published by a gay press and it’s written by a gay author, it’s not a gay novel,” he says.
“In fact, at least two gay presses rejected it, calling ‘not gay enough.’ I really feel one reason I had trouble selling it is that it couldn’t be categorized as having a ready-made market. But in the 10 years since I’ve written the book, there’s much more general interest among society at large in gay people’s issues.
“The fact that there’s a gay character in my book does not exclude it from a general readership. If anything, it’ll help it. I just wish the book were about gays in the military! I could sell a million copies.”
Johnson writes under the pen name Michael Craft. “We felt ‘Michael Johnson’ was too ordinary,” he says. “Craft is my mother’s family name; my full name is Michael Craft Johnson. It’s a marketing device, not an attempt to hide my identity.”
The book, which features two alternating first-person narrators—an unusual structure—is not autobiographical, says Johnson, whose prose is at once elegant and economical and, by turns, amusing, ironic and reflective. “No one character is me,” he says of the book. “At the same time, I’m in every character.”
His next project? He is completely overhauling his first novel, which is about newspaper people.
“After getting Rehearsing published, I hope that getting this one into print will be a little easier. My first novel will be my second.”
© 1993 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Reproduced with permission