Q&A with Rob Johnson

A square photograph of Rob Johnson is set against a banner, with a patterned black and grey design of a zoomed-in photograph of weeds. Rob wears a blue shirt, has light brown hair and dark eyes, and faces out from the frame, smiling. ‘Weeds, an interview with Rob Johnson’ is written on the banner, to the right of Rob’s image. The letters of ‘Weeds’ are capitalised, and filled in with the photographed lacework of Maggie Hensel-Brown that is featured on this issue’s cover.

ROB JOHNSON is a writer and actor from Sydney. His fiction has been published by Overland, Aniko Press and Underground, and his non-fiction by Audrey Journal, Aniko Press and Switched On Media. He was the winner of the 2020 Albury City Short Story Award and the 2018 Hal Porter Short Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers. He will also be a featured artist at the 2022 National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle. As an actor, some of his credits include The Boomkak Panto (Belvoir), The Torrents (Sydney Theatre Company), and Rosehaven (ABC).

Our Intern, Svetlana Sterlin, talks to Rob about his fiction piece, ‘View Vigilance’, published in #27: WEEDS

Your story, ‘View Vigilance’, has such a wonderful and chilling full-circle moment tying the beginning and end together. Did you have the ending in mind when planning and writing the story, and do you always write towards a planned conclusion?

I’m very glad the plot of View Vigilance came together the way it did, because I didn’t really know what it was going to be until I wrote it. This whole story developed in a kind of accidental way (as most do, I suppose). I had the idea of two people in a house being spooked by a man standing outside, and I wanted them to find a reason to invite him in—and that was the extent of my planning. I didn’t even think the story was going to be fantastical, I just found myself going that way. I was also thinking the story would end with the narrator running out of the house and away and leaving things a bit more open-ended, but then I decided that I’d made the plot so bonkers already I might as well see if the climax could be more fun than ‘I ran away’. Plus the narrator is such a frustrating guy I wanted to see how it would feel to trap him a bit more, and hopefully play with readers’ sympathies/understanding of what the hell is going on. 

I don’t normally write towards a conclusion, because plotting doesn’t come very naturally to me. Often my stories end up having clear(ish) plots, but they’re more a result of trying to tease out an emotion, or a relationship, which comes more easily to me when writing. I then wait (and hope) for an ending to occur to me during the process. This often happens while I’m out walking—highly recommend!

Do you often find yourself drawn towards magical realism and the uncanny? What is it about the surreal and fantastical that you find appealing?

I do find myself drawn to that kind of material, but that also feels accidental sometimes. It’s almost like a trick to get me to write. If I feel that I need to describe something real or operate within certain boundaries of plot, tone etc I get bad impostor syndrome and give up. Twisting things slightly makes me feel more confident/playful. If I’m writing a world that’s unhinged, or even just a bit weird, who can question the creative choices I’m making? Not me, that’s for sure. I also write a lot of stories from the perspective of children for this same reason.

In saying that, I do love storytelling that uses magic and surrealism to provoke different ways of thinking. I feel there’s a lot of emotional potency to be found by placing characters into absurd situations, and I’m enjoying the process of making that work for me. Writers like Helen Oyeyemi, George Saunders, and Clarice Lispector are very inspiring to me in this way. Also, I watched James Cameron’s Aliens about a thousand times as a child and it’s pretty much the cornerstone of my imagination, so stories that are extremely wild but entertaining have always had a lot of appeal for me.

I’m sure our readers will be keen to see more of your captivating work soon. Are you working on anything at the moment?

This is very kind! My main writing project at the moment is a short story collection (in which View Vigilance will hopefully feature), and I’m aiming to have that done by the end of the year. I will also have a story published in the next edition of Overland, which I encourage your readers to purchase!