Will Johnson, the painter, famed Denton indie musician, Conor Oberst collaborator and raspy-voiced troubadour behind 29 albums says: “It’s the most psychedelic job you’ll ever participate in.” He is not, however, talking about music, painting, or even writing, his latest creative expression. He’s talking about parenting.
Johnson is 49 (though he “doesn’t feel a day over 48”) and he’s a father to a 15-year-old boy and two girls: a 10-year-old and a 2-year-old. The 15-year-old will start driving soon, but even though Johnson admits it feels “surreal,” he’s not worried.
“I’ve learned that you just can’t keep your grip super tight all the time,” he says. “There are stages of loosening that grip, and I’m in one of those stages right now.”
In other words, raising children is a little bit like writing a book. You can’t force every issue, the whole ordeal will stretch your patience beyond what you thought possible, and, of course, it’s really tough work. Most important, the acts of raising and writing can also bring you indescribable joy. Johnson learned this while writing If or When I Call, a novel published by the Denton-based Goliad Media in mid-March.
The novel follows a family fractured by addiction, disease and suffering, yet like many songs by the hauntingly talented Johnson, it gives just enough space for hope and beauty to rise through the cracks.
While the singer-songwriter can knock out a tune in 20 or 30 minutes, If or When I Call took a few years to produce.
“With a book,” Johnson says, “you have to recalibrate your mind and realize it might take a while. There’s a lot of running into cul-de-sacs and backing out. It’s really unglamorous, but if the ditch is worth digging, it’s gotta be done.”
He was in Mexico when he realized this particular ditch was worth the dig. While south of the border, Johnson penned a short story called “Renewal.” It was only eight pages, but it served as a kind of primer for a larger work. When he returned from his trip, Johnson realized he wanted to learn more about some of the characters he had just dreamed up.
“I had an agreement with Goliad to publish something, and they were giving me a ton of freedom,” he says. “They told me, ‘It can be fiction, short stories, pictures, anything.’ There were no lines in the sand, which was amazing, but also a little anxiety-inducing.”
So he dove back into the world he had started with “Renewal,” a world not that different from the one he grew up in. The artist was raised in the poverty-wracked Kennett, Missouri, a place he likens to “the many small American towns that are just dying from the inside.”
Recently, Johnson visited some of those towns, including Kennett. If or When I Call draws a lot of inspiration from his childhood, and he wanted to make sure he was getting his geography right. He confirmed that the town’s layout was indeed what he remembered, but he also discovered something jarring.
“Looking back at my childhood through the lens of this book, I got a clearer vision of how my life wasn’t always romantic,” he says. “It wasn’t Norman Rockwell stuff all the time. You don’t really notice the pain and the poverty and the folly when you’re growing up, and as an adult, that’s a really disturbing thing to realize.”
Some of the book is directly autobiographical, including a scene in which a young boy wants to play catch with his mother’s new boyfriend. The boy is quickly rebuked; the man tells him to go outside, throw the ball up in the air and catch it himself. After all, the character (who is aptly named “Chad”) argues, that’s essentially the same thing as playing catch.
As he recounts this scene, Johnson lets out a raucous, shaking laugh. Even though that exact scenario played out between him and one of his childhood father figures, he can’t help but find the humor in it.
“It’s just so fucking funny to me that I was told to go out in the yard and play catch with myself,” he says between laughs. “I have to laugh about that stuff, you know? And I promise I would never do that to my own kids.”
While crafting his debut novel, Johnson often felt pangs of guilt. Here he was, locked in a room and staring at a computer screen while his young children were growing up outside.
“I tried to pick the windows late at night where I knew I wasn’t shirking responsibility,” he says.
If the book reads like it was written when the world was dark and only the weary were still toiling, well, that’s because it was.
Earlier this month, Johnson signed some copies of his book before shipping them off to family and friends. He was happy that this multi-year journey had reached a satisfying conclusion, that, in his words, “it was finally out there.” He had something else on his mind, though, something far more important.
“After so much time spent working like I was, I’m simply trying to be the best husband I can be,” he says. “I want to be the best partner possible, and the best, most composed parent I can be for my kids.”
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