NWU Author Interview: J. Ivanel Johnson

J. Ivanel Johnson

Nothing Without Us is an own-voices, multi-genre collection of short stories where the protagonists identify as disabled, Deaf, neurodiverse, Spoonie, and/or manage mental illness.


Co-editor Talia Johnson interviews J. Ivanel Johnson (again, no relation), author of Iron Bone, which will appear in the Nothing Without Us anthology this fall.

Tell us a bit about yourself as an author. Do you have any published works? What sort of stories do you gravitate to as a writer? 

I have been writing, re-writing, and publishing dribs and drabs, starting in an upstairs garret room in my family’s eccentrically sprawling home, since I was in Grade 7—in fact for 45 years. My first two publications were in Toronto’s Annick Press anthologies when they were still Books By Kids in the mid 1970s!  Whilst publishing poems, articles and short stories, as well as producing original plays, my dream has been, since the age of five,  to be a proper novelist.  I have six full-length unedited manuscripts sitting in a large antique trunk in my living room. Also included in said trunk are four novel manuscripts my paternal grandmother Ivanel Johnson wrote and never attempted to publish (well, she submitted one in 1932 and was told even back then that she needed more “boudoir scenes.” She refused and from then on only wrote for her own enjoyment.)  It is one reason I use her name as my pen name now.

What was it about the Nothing Without Us anthology that made you want to submit to it?

For one, I am patriotic and think despite living and writing in four different countries, a Canadian should be first and foremost contributing to the Canadian arts. Secondly, two Governor General’s Literary Award-winners, Tim Wynne-Jones and Chris Scott, have been friends and mentors in my past, and I’d feel a bit of a traitor to their work with me if I submitted outside of Canada. Thirdly, there aren’t enough publications open to and featuring diversity, and as a former schoolteacher of English and Spec. Ed., I have seen the need for students to have more characters to whom they can directly relate, so I felt compelled to contribute!       

Your story Iron Bone has a humorous element to it, what role does humour play in your writing and life in general?

The older I get the more I see the need to not take ourselves so seriously.  I have always been sarcastic, which I prefer to think of as an Anglophile’s wit (although my mother just calls it rude), and I believe self-deprecating humour can actually attract more readers than a too-austere approach, especially to underlying issues we as authors may wish to proffer.

The protagonist in Iron Bone has led, and continues to lead, an interesting life while not shying away from talking about their birth, surgeries and rehabilitation. Is there anything more you would like to tell us about the character?

I like playing with the symbolisms of our lives. The protagonist in Iron Bone, Fiona, is always searching for the meanings behind everything, and perhaps we all should—up to a point.  If one is born breech as she was, it can represent a variety of metaphoric notions to both mother and child.  If one literally fals all the time, those falls and the aftermaths can symbolize how we may pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, carry on—or not. Either of which is acceptable. Fiona is an enigma and proud to be so. As long as she really isn’t responsible for the chaotic events of the world (her proximity to which she now necessarily believes are all nothing more than Coincidence, albeit with a capital ‘C’) she is happy to flaunt her eccentricity. As we all should.

There’s a common fallacy in fiction written by women, disabled folk, and other marginalized folk that all stories they write are more memoir than fiction, what are your thoughts on this pattern?

Often, the “crazier” the premise for a story, the more likely it is based in truth. The more the events in a story seem unlikely, the more likely they probably are. I believe the trendy pattern (especially with short stories) is more: “Does anyone want to read about what a character feels, thinks or does on a daily basis, in a generally-boring rotation of Earth?” And the trendy pattern’s answer always seems to be in the affirmative. Having said that, I do see that talent in anyone can be devalued by people saying, “Oh, the author just wrote about their own life; it didn’t take any real imagination and nothing much really HAPPENS in this story…”  So, we can hide behind the safer “fiction” genre, making just a few tweaks of hyperbole. For instance, how do we know that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wasn’t herself sitting on the floor experiencing mental instability and dissociative fugues as she watched her yellow wallpaper slowly creep and peel away? I’m betting the unnamed narrator was Charlotte, with some heightened creativity and imagination tangled up in the vines of the creepers!

What do you feel is missing in disability fiction, and mainstream stories about disability?

We have to keep impressing, in all literature, in all media, that one cannot just “snap out of it,” whether it be disability, mental or chronic pain/illness, sexual orientation/preferences, etc.  The  sun doesn’t always come up tomorrow. And knowing there are people in the world worse off than we are does not help us! (Sorry, Mom!) None of these people are victims  It’s okay to feel down, or to stay away from those who don’t make us feel comfortable or connected. We don’t have to be hilarious just because we’re overweight and people expect us to be jolly. We don’t have to have sunny dispositions just because we have Downs Syndrome. And we certainly don’t have to get cured or “conquer the challenge” just because others think there’s something wrong with us! This, above all, must be stressed again and again, but, as I’ve stated previously, I always find it best written in a humourous way (because I’m fat and jolly).

We’re so glad to have you as part of Nothing Without Us! Where can people follow you and learn more about your writing and other work?

I’m so pleased to be part of the Nothing Without Us anthology and look forward to helping promote it, especially in the Eastern provinces and perhaps even abroad, especially the countries in which I’ve lived previously and where I have contacts. Under my pen name, J. Ivanel Johnson, I can be found on Facebook, where there are current author-related updates, some fun and interesting bits of trivia, and relevant photos/links to be perused. I also write a regular blog (or I did until I recently became bedridden again) about how we live self-sufficiently on our farm in the Appalachians of New  Brunswick: http://www.bluebellmountainblog.wordpress.com. And I’ve just completed writing an all-Canadian musical that we hope to put into some workshop form this year. More on this here: http://www.rnmusical.wordpress.com


Book cover ID: Old russet brick wall with faded spray-painted colours in aqua, yellow, white, beige, and reds. Stencilled boldly in black: Nothing Without Us. (The list of editors and authors appears underneath.)
Nothing Without Us

Editors: Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson

With stories by:  Myriad Augustine, Carolyn Charron, Joanna Marsh, Elliott Dunstan, Jennifer Lee Rossman, Raymond Luczak, Nicole Zelniker, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jamieson Wolf, J. Ivanel Johnson, Tom Johnson, Tonya Liburd, Shannon Barnsley, Madonna Skaff, Maverick Smith, George Zancola, Diane Koerner, Laurie Stewart, Tasha Fierce, Nathan Caro Frechette, Emily Gillespie, Derek Newman-Stille

Publisher: Renaissance

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