In her debut novel, Elsewhere, California, Dana Johnson returns to Avery, who first appeared in her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning short story collection, Break Any Woman Down.
Did you always know that you wanted to keep following Avery around?
I knew when I wrote the first story about her, “Melvin in the Sixth Grade,” that there was so much more to say. Elsewhere, California is an attempt to fill in the gaps and explore questions of race, class, gender, and place. In the novel, I also wanted breadth beyond coming-of-age. I wanted to explore American identity as a whole. I also wanted to talk about California. I was born and raised there, and so many novels set in Southern California do not illustrate a California that is recognizable, to me, as the complicated place that it is.
Part of what’s so vibrant in this book is the adolescent perspective on popular culture and how important rock stars are to a kid trying to negotiate her own identity. Seeing David Bowie on Soul Train, Avery couldn’t believe he was white. Did you have similar experiences while you were growing up?
When I was growing up, Soul Train was just IT. As a kid, I was struck by the idea that if white people were on Soul Train, then there must be something intangible and special that made them similar to the [black] folks on Soul Train and, by extension, me. The show affirmed their coolness and artistry and also illustrated how an aesthetic or sensibility could defy race. Seeing people like David Bowie and Elton John on the show planted a seed of imagination. I realized that just because this person comes from “here” and this other person comes from “there,” that doesn’t mean there is no point of connection. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing interesting about that person’s culture that speaks to you. This has shaped my own identity. I was always being asked stuff like, “Why are you listening to that?” Or “Why are you wearing that?” To this day, I swear I have to fight people over my love of country music.
Are there other aspects of yourself that reflect in Avery?
Like Avery, when I was growing up, I needed a place to put my observations and renditions of those observations. She is an artist and I write. She often feels invisible, so she’s free to observe and reflect on a canvas or through a collage. My thing was writing. I tried to write as a kid and I was a journalism major as an undergrad, which was good training for paying attention to details and voice. This is always a tricky question for me, because Avery is close to me as a character, but so are all my other characters, in some kooky way. When I wrote the short story “Clay’s Thinking,” about a white punk musician in love with a girl he can’t have, there was something of me in that character as well, but I imagine that no one has ever asked me if there were reflections of myself in that character because, in physical description—male and white—he appears to be so different from me.
Can you talk a bit about how, over the course of the book, Avery’s language changes?
I wanted to document how language is connected to assimilation. Avery’s voice is very young in the beginning, steeped in the black vernacular. As the novel progresses, and after Avery moves to the suburbs, her voice takes on the slang of her white classmates, then eventually the affect of her college friends. Her voice is informed by her age and education until, finally, she’s dropped all the slang of her youth.
But this isn’t a linear story; readers are introduced to Avery after she’s already made her journey. On a craft level, this was difficult to render on the page because I had to think of Avery’s age and whatever decade she was experiencing at the time. Simultaneously, I was having to switch back to adult Avery, keeping her voice as plain as possible and what I thought the indicators of “black” vernacular were. Simultaneously, I was having to switch back to adult Avery and be mindful to keep her voice as plain as possible.
Avery’s best friend, Brenna, seems like a foil to Avery in many ways. How does writing about female friendship affect your perspective of it?
Brenna was a fun character to write because she gets to say the craziest things and get away with it. Yet she is grounding for Avery because she doesn’t have the same filters that Avery has. Like Avery, Brenna’s parents don’t have money and she’s just as young as Avery, but she has the ability to cut through a lot of stuff because she’s white. Her actions and decisions aren’t being informed by the same things that Avery’s are. On the other hand, we see how Brenna’s disregard for certain rules can get her into trouble and how Avery’s caution has been beneficial. I’m so pleased that I got to write about girls and their friendship in a way that is real: their friendship is messy, antagonistic at times, often supportive and instructional.
At the end of the day, I’m asking the reader to join me in imagining identities that are far more complicated than we tend to want them to be.