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Drunk On Ink Q & A with Savannah Johnston and ‘Rites’, short stories

Drunk on Ink is an interview series by Soniah Kamal author of  the novel Unmarriageable, a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan.

Savannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, HTMLgiant, and Gravel, among others. She lives in New York City.

About Rites:

In this collection of short stories that focuses on the modern-day experiences of Indigenous people living in Oklahoma, Johnston documents the quiet sorrow of everyday life as her characters traverse the normalized, heartbreaking rites of passage such as burying your grandfather, mother, or husband, becoming a sex worker, or reconnecting with your family after prison; the effects are subtle, yet loud, and always enduring. Whether Johnston’s characters are coming of age and/or grappling with complex family dynamics, Johnston delivers the economy of loss and resilience that marks this post-colonial collection with biting, captivating prose that demands to be read from start to finish.

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?

SAVANNAH JOHNSTON: I had a very strong love for The Wizard of Oz and Alice In Wonderland as a child. I suppose that says a lot about me and how reading was a literal escape for me to a different world. I was not blonde, white, or small (I was always super tall for my age until I maxed out when I was in sixth grade at 5’10) but I really identified with the feeling of being out of place and the idea of going to a new world and discovering my own power really spoke to me.

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Water! Chai if we are feeling like we need a hug. For some reason chai brings me comfort, I can’t explain it.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading? Why?

I really do love The Way To Rainy Mountain. It was one of the first adult-oriented NDN stories I read and it really has a special place in my heart. And knowing that N. Scott Momaday was from where I was, that meant a lot.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

I think I would have appreciated Great Expectations more in middle school, when I abandoned it, than when I powered through in college. It has all the drama I wanted as a middle schooler, and as a college student I just found myself cackling like, “This woman is just hanging out in her crumbling manor waltzing around in a WEDDING DRESS training a literal child as some kind of long con revenge? YES PLEASE but also, what the hell, Charles?”

 Favorite book to film? And why?

I’m going to go with Winter’s Bone. (book) Why? It managed to capture the spirit of the book and didn’t compromise for happy endings or any glossing over of the book’s core themes. The trauma is there and it is raw and on the screen.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

I love Books of Wonder despite not being a child or a YA author! Their shop is just delightful and the collectible books they have are to die for. I could never afford one but I just like looking at them.

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I was a bit of an obsessive perfectionist for a long time (I like to think I’ve relaxed), and I wish I’d known how important it is to believe in and trust yourself. SOMEONE out there needs your voice, and part of the process is refining that voice and making the effort to get that voice out there.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

This is my first book, so I’m not sure yet! I gave my mom the one contributor copy I got when I published my first story, and her dog ate it when she moved houses, so that is lost to the sands of time. I want to think it will get easier but I have an anxiety disorder, so that seems unlikely.

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dog and cat! My partner and I adopted our beloved Bruce one year after we lost our 14-year-old dog Charles. Bruce was only a bit over a year old when the pandemic hit, so he became really codependent on one or both of us being home all the time. My partner is a school teacher and my job takes me out of the house, so we essentially got our dog a kitten. Enter Diana! She and he bonded immediately and they are the best of friends. They tear up our apartment daily.

Ideal vacation?

My ideal vacation is anywhere with a river. I don’t trust lakes and the last time I was in the ocean a manatee zoomed by and my immediate thought was, “What is she running from?” I would like to see my murderer, thank you very much.

Favorite book cover?

I love the cover of the edition of Alice my middle school library had. It was probably printed in the 60s or 70s and had the original artwork of her glowering at the table with the Mad Hatter. I haven’t ever found a similar edition.

Favorite song?

This minute? Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U.” In general? My Chemical Romance, literally anything from their first album. Like pick a track, they are all iconic! When I was a kid, my sister and I used to drive around dumpster diving and listening to MCR and Panic (my car, my emo).

Favorite painting/ work of art?

“Melancholia” by Dürer. Hashtag same, Albrecht.

Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?

I’m not sure I have fans, per se. My grandma did tell me my book was dreary the day before she died. I said thank you.

Do you have a favorite film, or two, or three?

I love TV and movies. Anyone who really knows me will tell you my second best friend is TV. I can watch The Wizard of Oz, Empire Records, and any Mel Brooks film and you’ve got me happy for 90 minutes. Use your time accordingly.

What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation? Why?

This is embarrassing, because I don’t have a favorite film adaptation. Pride and Prejudice is my very obvious choice for favorite novel, but my visceral dislike of Gwyneth Paltrow ruined Emma for me. As a counter offer I submit Julie Taymor’s Titus.

Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?

Submit to Puerto del Sol! I worked on the magazine as a grad student and I can’t say enough about how great the team is!

Last impulse book buy and why?

The Maple Murders: A Riverdale Mystery. Because Riverdale.

Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker.  Soniah’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and she has delivered numerous keynotes addreses. ‘We are the Ink’, her address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about immigrants and the real American Dreams, her keynote at the Jane Austen Festival is about universality across time and cultures and she’s given keynotes at Writers Conferences. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School, Apartment Therapy and more.
She’s on twitter and instagram @soniahkamal

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Savannah Johnston, Rites, short story collection

Sonora Jha, How To Raise a Feminist Son, non-fiction essays

Ilana Masad, All My Mother’s Lovers, a novel

Eman Quotah, Bride of the Sea, a novel

Awais Khan, No Honor, a novel

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society, a novel

M. J. Irving, Nova’s Quest for the Enchanted Chalice, YA novel

Saumya Dave, Well Behaved Indian Women, a novel

Aruni Kashyap, There is No Good Time for Bad New, poetry collection

Gayatri Sethi, Unbelonging, a memoir

Jenny Bhatt, Each of Us Killers, short story collection

Nancy Johnson, The Kindest Lie, a novel

Yousra Imran, Hijab and Red Lipstick, a novel

Sejal Shah, This Is One Way To Dance, memoir

Madi Sinha: The White Coat Diaries, a novel

Chika Unigwe, Better Late Than Never, short story collection

Anju Gattani: Duty and Desire, a novel

Christopher Swann: Never Turn Back, a novel

Zetta Elliott: A Place Inside of Me, middle grade fiction

Veena Rao: Purple Lotus, a novel

Tara Coyt: Real Talk About LGBTQIAP, non fiction

Maureen Joyce Connelly: Little Lovely Things, a novel

Molly Greeley: The Heiress, historical fiction novel

Donna Miscolta: Living Color, short stories

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel



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