“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who decide to fulfill their dreams on their own terms.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson has been a public school art teacher for 20 years, but she’s not in her elementary class this fall in Charlottesville, Va. Her first collection, “My Monticello” – The novel – five short stories and the title of the book – will be published on October 5. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead called “My Monticello” “agile, knowing, and electrifying”, and Sir Named “My Monticello”, published by Henry Holt, is one of the best books of the fall, writing that it “announces the arrival of an electric new literary voice.”
To top it off, Netflix There are plans to convert the book’s title novel into a film. In the novel, which is set in the near future, a young woman who is descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and a band of largely black and brown survivors, shelter white supremacists in Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Takes.
The book is exceptional for another reason. Ms. Johnson is 50 years old, not the average age of your typical debut writer. To be more clear, the publishing industry is often viewed as young writers by some trade observers, so while 50 is considered relatively young in many circles, it is rare for a first-time writer to find his way onto the grand stage.
The author, who lives in Charlottesville with her husband, a software engineer and photographer, and their 15-year-old son, is excited to be outside the book in the world but she’s also a little nervous. “As an art teacher I can tell myself these kinds of things that I would absolutely tell my students,” she said. “You created something, but it’s not you.” (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
When did you first start writing?
Writing and art were my main interests from a very young age. I recently found this book which I wrote in fourth grade. We had to write a story, illustrate and tie it, and my name was “prom queen.” It has a lot of vengeance, which surprised me. Then, when I was a teenager, I read “The Outsiders” by SE Hinton, a coming-of-age story. And I found out that Hinton was published when I was 18, so I decided to write a novel, and I did it. I wrote a book at the age of 16. I still have copies of that book in a drawer.
When were you first published?
As a teenager, I put the idea of publishing a book on the back burner until much later in life. But I loved writing – I wrote all that time – when I was young when I wasn’t taking steps toward publishing my work.
In 2017 I submitted a short story about a college professor who was secretly using his son for a research experiment about racism,”black control,” to Guernica, and I was delighted when I found out they were going to publish it. It was then tweeted by Roxanne Gay, who selected it for Best American Short Stories, a prestigious annual collection which he edited that year. I would say it was the perfect start to this book, my first film, “My Monticello,” which would mark my 50-year-old literary debut.
Tell us about your life before this book?
I have taught public school art for 20 years. Anyone who has taught public school will know that this is a very strong job. Very time consuming work. This is a job you are truly committed to.
I was like the Mister Rogers of teachers: standing at my door with a chime and a cardigan, welcoming this very wide and diverse group of students that we have into my class here in Charlottesville.
What would you consider as the first step you took towards publishing this collection?
I had a moment after publishing “Control Negro” where I realized how connected the story and other stories I was working on were connected. And that was through this idea of place, through this idea of Virginia. and through the lens of racial and environmental concern. So that’s when I realized I wanted to publish a collection.
How did you find the courage and strength to take that initial step?
The first step that led to this book – reaching out to me – came naturally to me as I had been sending my work for so many years. So I got used to trying. I used to persevere and try – without any expectations, in what I think is a good place to live. An acquaintance with rejection.
Do you remember your first reaction when you found out you sold the collection? that it was about to be published?
I was literally teaching at home because of the pandemic. It was June 2020 – the end of the 2020 school year.
It was really exciting but also a little scary. A lot of writers, myself included, are introverts. And you work really hard to get your book out into the world, but with that comes a vulnerability. So I sat down in that moment, and then I took a walk around the block with my husband and we had a debrief. Because we could see our lives changing. I had to decide whether I would continue teaching or not. I finally decided, in the midst of the book deal and the pandemic, to take a break from class.
What were the biggest challenges in your journey to publishing?
I love to write, but it’s not all that enjoyable. You can see what you want, but it takes a lot of time and experience – and luck – to get your writing where you want it. You fail often. You come up against your limits.
I was writing about things that meant a lot to me. The things that were difficult for our community here in Charlottesville. The collection is partly inspired by the deadly Unite the Right rally that took place here, as well as this country’s troubled history going back to the time of the Founding Fathers. I wanted to make sure I did the best I could to be honest about my approach. To write something that is hopefully useful and engaging to people.
Do you wish you had done this book sooner or do you think it was at the right time?
I am very happy that this book is my first film. It covers a lot of my life experience and my life and my aspirations and my hopes.
What are your plans for the future?
Apparently I’m going to write a second book – because I’m under contract to write another book. I’ve told myself many times throughout my life, “I think I’ll take a break from writing.” But I’m always writing. So I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next and how to re-manage my expectations as I set out. Because every book has its own project.
What would you tell people who feel trapped and want to make a difference?
Try something small. Do something different that is manageable. But start over. That’s what I would tell the students. You have to start somewhere. Find support. Search community. And start small.
Has this experience made you a different person?
I think we are constantly changing, and I think we should change. I am now a different person from the teacher who greeted the students at his door, or even the person who writes “My Monticello.” And it’s exciting.
Would you like to share a little more about the trajectory that led you here?
People help you along the way. Even people who don’t say “yes”. Your first book doesn’t get published. And your second book doesn’t get published. Maybe your third one isn’t. But it kind of creates the conditions for what happens next. The difficulties along the way make it all the more satisfying in the end.
What lessons can people learn from your experience?
Embrace rejection and find your people.
We’re looking for people who decide that it’s never too late to change gears, change their lives, and chase dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? share your story Here.