Drunk On Ink Q & A with Savannah Johnston and ‘Rites’, short stories
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Zohn: The Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book
Vanessa Hua, A River of Stars, novel
Chaitli Sen, The Pathless Sky, novel
Sonya Huber, Pain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir
Kathy Wilson Florence, Three of Cups, a novel
Sara Luce Look, Charis Books and More, independent book store
S J Sindu, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel
Rosalie Morales Kearns, Kingdom of Men, a novel
Saadia Faruqi, Meet Yasmin, children’s literature
Rene Denfeld: The Child Finder, a novel
Jamie Brenner, The Husband Hour, a novel
Sara Marchant, The Driveway has Two Sides, memoir
Kirsten Imani Kasai, The House of Erzulie, a novel
Thrity Umrigar, The 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 Bathena, A Girl Like That, YA novel