Q&A with Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson is back with a new Summit novella, “Bury Me in the Rainbow,” in the current issue on sale now. In a chat with us, he reveals how the story came together and teases some of his upcoming projects.


Asimov’s Editors: Bill, some our long-time readers may recognize some of the characters in this story—what is their history in your writing and in Asimov’s?

Bill Johnson: In 1997, I wrote a novelette “We Will Drink A Fish Together.” It was published in Asimov’s and won the Hugo in 1998.

I was born and raised in very rural parts of South Dakota and Iowa (and now live in Chicago), and I’ve always been struck by the difference in attitudes between very rural areas and cities. They are—in many ways—completely alien to each other.

I had just gone back to Dakota for a funeral and when I got back to Chicago I started to write about this difference. I have “real” aliens in the story but the true aliens are the different people, their cultures, and how they interact. It’s not a matter of political differences—many small town people are quite liberal and many city dwellers are very conservative—but in how they view the world, each other, and their different approaches to the same problem.

Fish is, to me, an introduction to the town of Summit and the real problem the town faces: the imminent extermination of their way of life by the flatlanders, the people from big cities who are attracted to their area by the cheap land, unspoiled scenery, and relaxed lifestyle. The same problem faced by residents in many different areas (the Hamptons, much of Michigan, Idaho, etc.). In the case of the people of Summit, however, they do have an option.

Do they leave Earth?

Which is a very complicated decision.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

BJ: A quiet, demographic extermination is underway in many parts of the world. In the rural areas around the world, mechanization of agriculture and the demise of traditional mining, retail, and other economic activities is driving out the young people. The small towns of both the developed and undeveloped world are shrinking in population, and the only people left are rapidly aging.

In Dakota, on my last visit, I drove by the community church. At least, I tried to drive by the church. It was now an empty lot.

Turned out, there weren’t enough people left to support the parish. The young people were gone, and the old people were too feeble (physically) to maintain the building. So the church was de-consecrated, and the altar and stained glass windows and statues removed.

The church was then burned, and bulldozers pushed the rubble into the basement, filled it in, and leveled the lot.

Later that day, I was up at the cemetery, looking at the old graves on the edge of the prairie. I found, hidden inside a copse of trees, the church altar and windows, carefully placed to catch the sun so the colors would stream across the graves and the statues would seem to bless the dead.

“Bury Me In The Rainbow” came from that.

 

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

BJ: In the “Summit” stories, I am really the outside observer. A reviewer once claimed I simply took the characters for “Fish” from a stock of rural stereotypes, mixed them together, and wrote them out.

The answer, quite simply, is no.

Many of the characters are based on actual people. Buddy the dog and Limbo are, well, real. Limbo really did not think it was right to bury his dog.

The first time I heard those chains brush against each other like a heavy metal wind chime and then looked up was quite . . . surprising.

Chuck the bartender, Brother Stephanie, Oly, Mother Lu. Perhaps they are combinations of people, but they’re quite real.

My wife—after her first visit up north—told me she thought I made up all my stories about Dakota.

She apologized.

 

AE: How much or how little do current events impact your writing?

BJ: I was a journalist, in the technology industry, and a corporate strategist. Current events and trends were the air I breathed. All of them influenced my writing.

One thing I try to do, though, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Much of what we think of as current events are chaff, unimportant incidents that seem pivotal at the time but are really just fluff.

In my writing I try to look ahead, at what I think will be the real, meaningful, impacts of the current underlying trends. Demographics, for example, may take a generation to play out, but they will have a real impact. Basic scientific advances (or blockages) don’t impact the present day but—thirty years from now—will make a difference.

 

AE: How do you deal with writer’s block?

BJ: I went to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 1975. Our teachers were Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Joe Haldeman, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. I can’t even count how many Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards they’ve won. They all gave us—independently—the same writing advice:

Sit down—every day—and stare at the screen for at least three hours. Do not do anything else, do not get up, just sit there and do your three hours of writing.

It sounds trite, but it’s true. If you have no other distractions (no music, no videos, no texts, no Google, no Instagram), nothing else to do but to sit down and stare at a screen or a piece of paper for three hours, sheer boredom will force you to write. It might not be what you planned to write, you might go off on a tangent, but you’ll write. And if you write, you’ll find you like some of what you wrote. You’ll keep it and either use it later, or it will trigger something in your head that will lead to a story.

Personally, I go to the library. I find a study carrel in the back corner, typically in the foreign language section or by the sports books (not a big fan of the history of golf) and sit there.

I’ve written a lot of crap over the years. Some of it I looked at later and decided to re-use. But I’ve written and sold almost three dozen stories using this technique.

 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

BJ: Several. One is a series of time travel stories (I’ve sold four). Another involves a universe set far, far in the future with people from now who survived the Alzheimers War. And the next episode in the Summit series. Summit is a challenge for me. Fish and Bury Me came out almost twenty years apart. In my head, they could have come out a month apart. I know what happens, what the Ship is, where it comes from, where it goes, about the other . . .

Well, let’s just say I know what happens.

The thing is, knowing what happens in Summit meant it just wasn’t as urgent for me to complete. I knew what happened. It must be obvious to everyone else. So I’ll do something else.

Nope.

So, I’m working on the next Summit right now. And, again, we start the very next day after the vote.


AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

BJ: A lot to pick from! If I got to choose, I’d pick one of my own, obviously, because it would be fun to see everything come to life. Outside of that, we have the classics (Foundation, LOTR, Known Space, etc.), but right now I kind of like the St. Mary’s universe. A nice mix of history, fantasy, humor, and real-life. And Jodi Taylor even slides into a parallel universe just for fun.


AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

BJ: Faster Than Light travel. I’d use it as a time machine as well as a travel tool.

For example, something fundamental happened in the Universe five billion years ago. The gradual slowing of the expansion of our observable Universe stopped and reversed. Expansion began to accelerate. What the heck happened?

And the inflation era. Did it really stop or just keep going outside of our observable Universe? And what’s outside our observable Universe?

What is the dark flow flowing toward? Do the same physical laws apply everywhere, or just around here?

And—slightly twisted—I’d like to see the night sky from a planet orbiting the tube galaxies in the center of the Bootes Supervoid. To watch absolute blackness and then—rising into the night sky—a tube of stars cross the horizon from end to end, framed by more of that ultimate black.

 

AE: Do you have any other advice for up and coming writers?

BJ: First of all, write. Lock yourself away from distractions and write.

Second of all, write against the crowd. If everyone else is writing young adult novels about dystopian futures, write something different. If everyone else is writing sword and sorcery, write something different. If everyone else is writing alternate history, write something different. No one was writing fantasy when Tolkien published LOTR. No one was writing fantasy historical fiction when George published Game of Thrones. No one was writing SF war stories when Joe Haldeman wrote “Forever War.”

Do something different.

Third, do your research. Make your writing consistent and accurate. Frankly, it’s easier to keep things consistent that way and easier to do your plots. Even if it’s fantasy (I put Westworld, for example, in that category), make the rules consistent for that time and place.


Bill Johnson was born in South Dakota, then moved into civilization. He met Joe and Gay Haldeman in the Midwest and learned to write, then went to Clarion with Gregory Frost and got the arrogance about what a great writer he was beaten out of him by people like Chip Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. Nothing like twenty-five people in a circle ripping your beloved story to pieces to chip away at your pride! Bill is married to a wonderful person who has two separate Bachelor’s degrees, one in Business and one in Nursing.

Bill Johnson

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