Monday, November 1, 2010

Denis Edwards on Stephanie Johnson

The 24th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue.

The intro read:
It’s Stephanie Johnson month, with a new play at the Watershed and a new novel in the shops. Her writing is sharp, penetrating, witty and restless – and as Denis Edwards discovers, so is she.
If there is such a thing as a writer’s blackjack, Stephanie Johnson has just drawn the perfect hand. First off the dealer’s stack is a picture card, the stage play Folie A Deux, which she co-wrote with Stuart Hoar. It sees life on the boards on March 7 at Auckland’s Watershed Theatre. Following that is the ace, making up the blackjack and guaranteeing that the house pays out – the publication of her second novel The Heart’s Wild Surf, her rolling, spinning tale of little Olive McNab’s life and times in Fiji towards the end of this century’s second decade.
Random has bet the house on it. It has the best production values seen in a local paperback in years, a big print run of 10,000, and it’s being distributed in three countries: New Zealand, Australia and England. Random’s New York office has asked for a look-see for the US market, and her Australian agent, Rose Cresswell, is said to have trawled the book past those arbiters of tasteful moviemaking, and generators of vast amounts of money, Merchant Ivory.
These would be enough to make most writer’s swell up and sit back, secure they’d made it. For Stephanie Johnson they are the latest chapters in a career of startling success.
There’s the stage play, Accidental Phantasies, which won her the prestigious Bruce Mason Award for 1985. There’s the poetry, 1987’s The Bleeding Ballerina, and the short-story collections, 1988’s The Glass Whittler and 1993’s All The Tenderness Left In The World. Then there’s the first novel Crimes Of Passion, shortlisted for the Wattie Book Awards in 1993.
There’s the journalism (she interviewed Salman Rushdie for February’s Quote Unquote), the reviewing of both books and movies, and there’s the acting. She had a part in the Australian movie Dogs In Space, in which she did a turn as a punkish lesbian.
Throw in the radio plays and the television scripts for Marlin Bay, Shortland Street and Riding High – and words like “seriously talented” and “unbelievably successful” come to mind.
This isn’t quite how Stephanie. Johnson sees things. At least it isn’t on a hot February afternoon, after her partner Tim Woodhouse, a television documentary editor, has taken their three young children to the Point Erin pool. She hasn’t been looking forward to our chat at her Grey Lynn villa: “I should have organised it for first thing in the morning, and then I wouldn’t have had to worry about it all day,” she says.
“I don’t really see myself as a huge success or anything. I’m just a writer. I sit in a room and write all the time. Honestly, there are times when I would have loved to have travelled and done all sorts of things, like other people.”
That theme comes up frequently throughout the conversation – that she isn’t like other people, or that she is an outsider; the preferred vantage point for a writer, watching for the cracks in either character or the established order of things. It’s territory she is comfortable with, producing work that is sharp, penetrating, witty and restless. This could also serve as a working description of Stephanie Johnson.
Her outsider stance goes back to childhood, when she arrived in the world 34 years ago with serious problems with her feet. There were lots and lots of operations. Add the resulting calipers, a scowl and being sent along to Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls. “I was in trouble a lot and not at all witty or clever. I was just unlikable.”
Looking back, it’s the first road sign to Stephanie Johnson the adult with “attitude” and ready to have her say without particularly worrying whether or not it is acceptable in terms of political correctness.
For example, she was an early defender of playwright and drama teacher Mervyn Thompson after he was physically attacked by feminists accusing him of sexual harassment. Technically hers wasn’t the most correct of stances, which worried Stephanie Johnson not at all. Then she took a well-publicised chip at the Listener Women’s Book Festival, querying the need for it at all. Fiona Kidman led the chorus of rebuttal, branding Johnson, then 30, a callow youth.
Her play Dancing Out Of Time was on the brink of stage production, but stalled, because Johnson insisted that a disabled person play the lead, since the subject matter was disability.
It didn’t become a movie either. But then, and this is another glimpse into Johnson’s persistence and attitude, that wasn’t for want of trying. She showed it to a film producer. Much excitement, followed by a descent down scriptwriter’s levels of inferno. She did 11 drafts, being paid for each draft before the project went into “further development”, the dark valley where scripts go to die.
Her subsequent Australian experience was important, wrenching her from “what had so far been a sheltered and academic existence”. “I got a BA with a major in English, and lots of history papers as well, as a straight C student.”
Arriving in Australia in 1985 meant surviving away from the network of friends, grants, PEP schemes etc. “I went along to business college and turned myself into a wee secretary.” The attitude came with her. One employer felt the acid which had isolated her from the Clearasil crowd at Diocesan. “He started out calling me to ‘get a cup of tea for me, girlie’.” Not long after he was calling her Miss Johnson.
In 1989 the Australian sojourn ended with her having met Tim, partnering up and eventually producing their first child. They came back to New Zealand, buying the Grey Lynn house, and they’ve been here ever since, visits to the Australian relatives excepted. She dabbled successfully with stand-up comedy, specialising in a nice line in mimicry, but problems with her feet, the ones which helped nourish her independent outsider stand towards the world, have forced her to call it quits on her acting.
Life since has been a mix of two more babies and writing, writing, writing. “I once found myself standing on the porch at the front of the house, with my head spinning from having all these made-up people in my head. They outnumbered the real people, and it was a very strange feeling.”
That’s why she doesn’t watch too much television. “I keep getting this feeling of being overloaded. My brain feels completely scrambled.”
There’s nothing scrambled about her brain when she’s being interviewed. “I’d sooner be the interviewer,” she says. She gets her chance. There is a lull in the conversation, while I try to think of the next question. Johnson quickly turns the tables.
She discovers that I don’t have children. Her reaction, of wonder at how strange that must feel, becomes a glimpse at the workings of a successful writer’s mind. It quickly becomes a musing on the emotional impact of being a sperm donor walking down the street and seeing one of his children.
Difficult to describe in print, it is quick, seamless and brilliant. In a few seconds she’s got a workable story constructed, complete with emotional resonance. It’s sobering to see how quickly it happened – story-development on steroids.
Don’t bet against a radio play in, say, 1997 about a sperm donor who meets one of his children. Or a character in a book, or a stage play. She has a lot of options for placing a usable story.
She’s looking to curb her ferocious work rate. Once her youngest, currently two, is on her way to school, Johnson aims to head back out into the world.
“Before I went to Australia, I did work on a part-time basis. I had a job where I used to work on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, looking after intellectually handicapped adults. You feel good at the end of the day after a job like that. You feel as if you have done something concrete. My leg has deteriorated a bit since then and I don’t think I could do the heavy lifting. But I want to do something like that again. Get out and be doing something outside, working with my imagination all the time.”
From there, things flick back to the interviewer’s family. I admit to having five brothers and sisters. “I would have liked to have come from a big family!”
It’s another story beginning. It’s run up for inspection, for development or rejecting. It’s another moment in the life of Stephanie Johnson, writer.

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