Bret Anthony Johnston's haunting, evocative debut novel, Remember Me Like This, follows a family's agonizing journey toward a sense of unity after Justin, the first-born son, miraculously returns home four years after his kidnapping. His return, however, is tempered by the pain and grief each member of the family has experienced during Justin's absence.
I was able to chat with the immensely entertaining Johnston, who is also the Creative Writing Director at Harvard and an avid skateboarder, over a lunch of fried catfish at the Southern Festival of Books.
In Remember Me Like This, the reader is able to gain insight into all the main character’s thoughts, but not Justin's. What made you decide to keep his thoughts private and be vague about what happened to him during the kidnapping?
When people have asked me that before, they always follow it up with the idea that, by not telling the reader what happened to Justin and leaving his perspective out of it, it makes it all the more menacing and terrifying. Because what we’re going to imagine is far worse than what could be on the page. But that’s just not the case. We’re all imagining exactly what it is, and I don’t think you can make up something worse than what actually happened. I wasn’t trying to be coy or intensify anything. I was trying to put the reader in the position that the family members are in. They don’t feel like they can ask Justin directly what happened to him, and he’s not offering anything to them. I wanted us to be in that same kind of limbo, where we want to know what happened, but it’s not the right time for him to tell us. I wanted us to empathize with the other family members. And you know, this sounds dorky, but I wanted to respect Justin’s privacy. At no point in writing the book did it feel like he wanted to share anything. I didn’t want to pry. I wanted to respect that.
How long did you work on this novel?
I think the writing of the book took about six years. But in one way or another, I had been thinking about the characters, particularly Laura, for probably about 25 years.
What drew you so powerfully to the character of Justin's mother, Laura, who finds comfort after Justin's disappearance in her volunteer work rehabilitating an injured dolphin?
I grew up in South Texas, and one of the things that happens there—and also happens in the book—is that bottlenose dolphins will strand themselves on the beach. When I was in my late teens, that happened, and they put out a bulletin. They needed volunteers to sit with this dolphin and take notes. So I went, and I loved it.
I remember the rescue coordinators said that the hardest shifts to fill were the overnight shifts. Nobody wants to come out to the bad part of town alone in the middle of the night and sit in a warehouse for three hours with a dolphin. But I thought, 'Well, I don’t have anything going on.' And yet, every time I’d go to sign up for a night shift, they were always full. I could never get in there. Every couple of years I would just think, 'Who was that person taking all those shifts?' I'd sit with [different theories about] that for a few years . . . . But for the whole time I’d been thinking about this character, it had never crossed my mind that she had a kid. I always thought that she was married, she was signing up for shifts under her maiden name, she can’t sleep, but it had never crossed my mind that she had a kid. When that crystallized in my mind, I got really interested. Maybe the reason I hadn’t thought about her having a kid is because the kid was missing in her thoughts, too. That’s why she can’t sleep: Her kid’s gone missing.
I love the title Remember Me Like This. How did you decide on it?
That wasn’t the title until about two days before it went into galleys. For the entire six years I was writing it, it was always, without equivocation, The Unaccompanied. And if anyone is ever inclined, and they certainly should not be, to read the book again, they’ll notice how many ways being accompanied and unaccompanied shows up in this book. I worked my tail off to sew that into the book. And then the editor called and said we had to change the title for all these different reasons, and it kind of came down to Remember Me Like This or To Bring You My Love, which is in the epigraph of the book. I think the reason it won out is because they somehow didn’t like having 'you' in the title. They’d rather have 'me.' But I don’t really think of the book as The Unaccompanied anymore, I do think of it as Remember Me Like This. I’ve been lucky enough to have so many people respond to the title in such a way that it feels more like y’all’s title than mine. So I love it for that reason.
Since Remember Me Like This deals with such a difficult topic, did you do anything to unwind while writing the novel?
Not on a daily basis. But every Sunday morning, I would go skateboarding. That was almost like church for me. But on a daily basis, I just tried to stay in the thick of it, to occupy that space. I did a lot of research for the book. I’ve read countless accounts, scholarly texts and memoirs of people who have been through what Justin has been through, and you don’t have to read much of that before you feel it changing you. To spend so much time trying to get that right on the page, you come out of it feeling transformed. I really wanted to stay with it on a day-to-day basis. But by Sunday I would need to get out of there, and I’d go skate.
Do you think there’s any aspect of skateboarding that has helped you as a writer?
Oh my god, we’re going to run out of tape. I could hold forth for about five days on this. I think the biggest similarity between skaters and writers, and the thing that I absolutely have taken from skating and applied to my writing, is what might be summed up as resilience. I mean, I certainly get frustrated, confused, pissed off, frightened—all the typical things that writers feel towards their writing—but I don’t ever feel the impulse to quit. I don’t get discouraged just because I have to throw away 200 pages. I think that absolutely comes from skating. There are tricks I’ve been working on for 15 years that I still haven’t done, and I’m still trying to learn them. Once I’ve committed to the process, it doesn’t occur to me to stop.
And I think skaters, like writers, view the world differently. I think when someone who doesn’t skate is walking down the steps, they don’t notice how many cracks there are leading up to the handrail. But skaters do, and I think it’s the same thing with being a writer. I think we pay attention. A lot of the time, stories come from the smallest, smallest thing.
Are there any musicians that have influenced your work?
There’s a bunch. I think the clearest one Is PJ Harvey. I think her album “To Bring You My Love” is almost a soundtrack to the book. And Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, both of whom have cameos in the book, because the mice get named after them. I think the texture and tenor of their voices and some specific songs feel like background music to the book.
Are you going to see any musicians while you’re here in Nashville?
I wanted to go see Loretta Lynn, but I’ll be in the Literary Death Match that night!
(Author photo by Nina Subin)