Chatting with Virginia's "dark, drastic" new novelist

Lee Clay Johnson. Photo courtesy Eric Wallace.

On May 26 Charlottesville, Virginia transplant and UVA Master of Fine Arts alumnus Lee Clay Johnson’s debut novel, Nitro Mountain, was released by Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Penguin/Random House). Described in Kirkus Reviews as “Appalachian noir at its darkest and most deranged,” the book has received rave nods from a number of knowledgeable folks.

“It’s appallingly funny,” novelist David Gates wrote in a review. “The sort of reckless, dangerous comedy Flannery O’Conner might have written if she’d known more about drink, drugs and country music... Johnson is a writer with abundant and scary gifts and consummate skill.”
And if that blurb wasn’t enough to set the hairs on the back of your neck tingling, here’s another:

“A terrific novel, crack-the-whip funny and then darker and drastic,” said John Casey, whose Spartina took the National Book Award in 1989. “[LCJ] writes so well that the whole story is one electric current.”

Wanting to catch up with the man many are calling literature’s next Denis Johnson, Scalawag phoned Lee Clay Johnson, who was hunched over a radial dial telephone in his small cabin home just outside of Charlottesville.

The cover of Nitro Mountain

Scalawag Magazine: First off, what’s up with the cabin? It makes me think of Hunter S. Thompson locking himself away in the mountains and writing letters to his friends, ‘I’m not coming down until I have a book!’

Lee Clay Johnson: I like living and having space to imagine. I like hiking through the woods, watching my dog chase squirrels. Fishing whenever I feel like it. When this place opened up a couple of years back, it was a place I wanted to be. It gave me the space, time and quiet to write and start imagining. I don’t think I was—when I started writing Nitro Mountain I don’t think I was so brave as to call it a book. I mean, what if you say you’re writing a book and you don’t wind up doing it, what then? That’s rough. So, in a sense, by moving into the cabin I was just giving myself the permission to write.

SM: When did you realize that you had a legitimate book on your hands? Was there some sudden moment, or…?

LCJ: After I graduated from the University of Virginia’s MFA program, I continued working with the short stories I’d written during that time. That work sort of prefigured some of the characters that wound up driving Nitro Mountain. But to be clear, I wasn’t really working on the book proper. Mostly, I was just writing stories and essays and some of those never found a home. But I liked and felt attached to the work and knew I wanted to do something with it.

Meanwhile, after teaching awhile at Piedmont Community College, I needed a change. The teaching thing wasn’t working, so I took a job as a gardener. More specifically, I was managing a garden for The Haven, which is a social resource center and shelter in Charlottesville. This was 2012. So I was managing that and doing everything I could for money—I had a big truck and I was hauling trash, doing odd jobs and whatever. And when the cabin opened up, I sort of just made this decision that I was going to do something with those old stories.

So, to get back to your question, at that point—when I leased the cabin—I realized that I had something I was going to put time into; I knew I had to invest and give myself to it totally and fully. It was a lot of hard work. I was working for eight hours a day at The Haven and then, when I came home, I’d try to match that effort. [Laughs.]

Mostly, it didn’t work. I fell asleep at the desk a lot. But then, sometimes, I’d work all night and it would just be this great thrill—I was having so much fun. You know, because it truly meant something… What I mean by that is: There was no guarantee this would work. I didn’t know that what I was writing was going to become something that was published. Sure, I hoped, but publishing wasn’t the ultimate goal. I simply had to do something other than a job. I distinguish a difference between ‘a job’ and work—the latter is important. It was good work and put form to chaos. It was something that was mine. No one could take it away. Whereas jobs come and go. I’ve never had a job that I could rely on for any stable period of time. Work is different. It’s always there. Always waiting for you to come home and pick it up again. And I fell in love with that. I miss having that book to come home to…

At any rate, initially I conceived of the Nitro Mountain idea as simply a story. Then more than a story—a novella. And then, at some point, the seams just busted and I realized I had a novel.

SM: You just described the thrill and pleasure and enjoyment of writing. And yet, for me, reading Nitro Mountain damn near pummeled me into a lasting depression. I find it interesting how dark and yet, simultaneously, how funny the book is…

LCJ: I was just excited and interested to see where I could take it and where it could take me. This idea of worrying about what you’re putting down, that’s really foreign to me and, I think, a really destructive way of looking at it.

I mean, when I was on tour every night there was the Q/A and I find it interesting talking with people about all this—people calling the book grotesque, dark and so on. It’s because I think these terms are often misapplied. What the mainstream calls ‘dark’ is often simply a fact that is hard to acknowledge and recognize—what we try to hide. And I think it’s the fiction writer’s job to dig that stuff up, bring it to the surface. It’s not my job to reaffirm to the book buying public that everything is happy. What I’m getting at is how Flannery O’Connor writes in her essays about the moral vision of the fiction writer—that you have to be sharp enough to see the wounds.

I’ve learned and I’m still learning that you have to tune your vision to the world that you’re creating to where you’re more open and sensitive to things that could be of use to you. You know, there’s so much material. And maybe I approach it as a song-writer—like, I’m always looking for that line, being open to using anything really...

In the end, I just want to make the work as compelling as possible and take people to places they’ve never quite been or perhaps even would never consider going. I’m not looking to shock people, but sometimes that’s what happens when you have as much fun as possible on the page.

SM: The book is infused with so much music and Appalachian culture and I know that you’re a bass player with a penchant for dive-bars. How much of the material is informed by your own experience?

LCJ: I do pepper my fiction with my life experiences, but I certainly didn’t live any of the stuff in Nitro Mountain.

I mean, my dad is a banjo player and mom’s a guitar player. I moved around a lot as a kid, but always around Nashville, Tennessee. I think certainly my early experiences growing up in bluegrass bars—the tunes, murder ballads, and listening to all that—it certainly shaped a vision of mine.

Then, moving to Charlottesville for grad school gave me a love for the mountains. And especially the area between here and Nashville, which is the kind of rougher coal area. The people I was living with, musicians I was picking with—I thought about all that and just let myself imagine.

SM: I hear you play music with David Gates? How’d that happen?

LCJ: So as an undergrad I transferred to Bennington College. Afterward, I had no idea what to do, so I stuck around and started working as an Audio Visual tech for the college, which ended up leading me to stick around for the summer writer’s residency. How I met David was, I was doing sound for events and a poet heard I was an upright bass player and asked me to get on stage and do some free jazz stuff behind him as he read some poetry. Afterward, Gates comes up to me and asks: “You don’t happen to like country music, do you?” I replied, “Shit yeah!”

Since then, we’ve been getting together once or twice a year. It was funny though, because we were just hanging out playing music for a good while before he even knew I was a writer. The first short story I showed to him he said, “I’ll tell you what I think,” and never got back to me.

However, when I first thought Nitro Mountain was done, he was the first one I showed it too. And he had some thoughts that were very helpful. He’s got very sharp eyes. He’s a very good editor.

SM: So what’s next?

LCJ: I’m working on—yep, I’m going to just say it—another novel. In the meantime though, I’m going to try and play as much music as possible.

Lee Clay Johnson is presently working on his second novel. Nitro Mountain is available at major booksellers across the U.S. and also online.

Eric J. Wallace is a freelance writer. He can be reached via email at drericjwallace@gmail.com