LA Observed interview: Toni Ann Johnson

Writer Toni Ann Johnson is very busy.The Inglewood resident's first novel Remedy for a Broken Angel debuted this summer and she recently joined Antioch University Los Angeles as a book coach and manuscript consultant for writers who need help finishing projects. A successful and accomplished actor, screenwriter and playwright, Toni Ann won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award in 1998 for her teleplay of the ABC Movie 'Ruby Bridges', the true story of the young girl who integrated the New Orleans Public School system. She won a second Humanitas Prize in 2004 for her Showtime teleplay, 'Crown Heights' about the 1991 Crown Heights Riots.

Now she has turned her talents to fiction. Kirkus Review called her novel "musically and psychologically acute." The novel traces how the psychological scars of abandonment are passed between generations in a family of Bermudian-Americans. Two characters narrate the story in alternating chapters: Artie, a young woman psychologically damaged after a lover's betrayal, and Artie's mother, Serena, battling her own demons after abandoning her daughter and husband years before. Set in the world of professional jazz musicians, the novel is buoyant and therapeutic. It even includes an appearance by Charles Mingus, who comforts Serena as a scatting spirit guide.

Hearing Toni Ann read her novel aloud is a delight as she's an exceptional performer who brings her characters to life with vivid dialogue and musical phrasing.

On Saturday, November 8th at 7:30 PM, she'll be reading from her novel at the Cirque Salon Fiction Reading Series, located at 5503 North Figueroa 90042 in Los Angeles.

She also headlines a reading at Antioch University Los Angeles' free Literary Uprising reading series on Tuesday, November 11th at 6:00 PM in Culver City.

Below, LAObserved interviewed Toni Ann via email.

Jazz powers this novel. Can you elaborate on how the music influences your writing style and pacing of the novel?

I'm not conscious of how the music influences the writing, and I didn't try to use the music to set the pacing, but when I was working on this book I did listen to jazz often, if not daily. I would take walks in the morning and listen as I walked. Sometimes I'd play it while I was writing as well. I was listening to Mingus, and also to Miles Davis, Coltrane, Gato Barbieri, Carlos Santana and to a group of young musicians who used to play in LA in the 90s called BlackNote.

I suppose the back and forth in chapters between the two main characters, Artimeza and Serena could be considered a type of call and response, which is associated with jazz. And I would say that there are some "riffs" in the book within chapters that one might consider similar to an "out there" solo wherein a player goes off and does something that's part of the composition, within it, but breaks away for a few minutes into something unique to him or her. For example, there's a sequence in the book where Serena has a dream and the content is surreal and intense, and involves sex and spirits. One early reader said that the surreal tone felt different from the rest of the book and suggested that it didn't belong. Well, that's an opinion, but in a novel with jazz as an influence, a few "out-there" moments isn't incongruent, and I never considered removing that because those kinds of heightened moments--surprises are meant to be there. When you go to hear live jazz, you expect to hear surprises; you expect the musicians to delight you with something you couldn't have predicted in their solos. In composing this book, I didn't want everything to have the same tone. There's variety in style, emotion, and ideas in the story and that's intentional.

The characters explore different forms of the psychotherapeutic process. What types of therapy are in the book and how did you decide to insert them into the narrative?

My father, who died this past March, was a psychologist and a psychoanalyst who studied with Theodore Reik, who was a protégé of Freud. So, as to the decision to use therapy in the narrative, my father's work was certainly an influence. I grew up around it. One of his offices was in our house throughout my childhood.

In the novel, Artie is undergoing psychotherapy with a psychiatrist. I would characterize the work they do as psychoanalytic, in that they're working to uncover underlying causes of Artie's illness. She's had a breakdown, triggered by a traumatic event, but it's related to her childhood and her relationship with her mother, so they're reliving events from the past so Artie can get a new perspective on them.

The other type of therapy is a spiritual approach that another character in the book encourages Artie to engage in. It's also the kind of healing work her mother is doing, unbeknownst to Artie. That approach is more about forgiveness and inner work; making peace with painful issues and events and moving beyond them.

I've been in therapy several times in my life, and I've also worked on healing via spirituality throughout my adult life. For me, the two approaches used in concert help me to stay mentally healthy and that's why both are in there. They come out of my own experience.

One character communes with Charles Mingus as a spirit guide. How did you come up with his scat style?
I wish I had "come up with it." Mingus came up with it. He did, in fact, scat. He also sang. I simply listened to him over and over and tried to create on the page something reminiscent of what I heard in his own recording.

How do you write scat in prose and how should the reader "hear" it on the page?
Oo wa ba di gi ba di gib a do wa ba da oba ta baba ta bib a ti boo ba ta.... I just write it phonetically. The reader can say it out loud phonetically, or use her imagination and try to hear it. This will depend upon the reader's experience. If she or he has never listened to jazz, they're probably not going to get it. But for people who know jazz, and like it, they'll probably make the effort to hear it. There's no guarantee when I put something on the page that a reader will get it as I intend, but I try anyway. If they come hear me read they will hear it as I hear it. I was an actress when I was younger and I also sang jazz. In writing that sequence, I imagined myself performing it and it's great fun to do it for an audience. For readers who don't want to take the time to say the syllables out loud and for those who won't hear me perform it for them. I hope they'll just enjoy the look of the jibberish on the page. There are a variety of types of text in the book: letters, journal entries, a song... The scat sequence is another and for me, it's just part of the variety of things to see and experience on the page.

What are the areas of Los Angeles that show up in your book and what does the Southern California landscape contribute to this story?
Malibu, Venice/MDR, Inglewood, the Crenshaw district, Hollywood, the west side... Many of the characters are artists who traverse the Los Angeles area and work here in music, photography, and movies. The diversity in LA culture contributes to the story. The characters are African-American, Latina, Filipina, white, Brazilian, east Asian, south Asian... My life in Los Angeles is diverse and the world of this story reflects that.

The beach where Venice meets Marina Del Rey is prominent in the story and almost becomes a character itself. It's important to the emotional transformation of the two main characters, mother and daughter. Water is a means of transformation throughout the story. The pull of the ocean is powerful, healing.

Do you consider this tale one of magic realism?
I don't. That's doesn't mean that it isn't. There are elements in the story that one might consider odd, and that may fit into the category of magical realism. I'm okay with that, and I love magical realism, but I don't see it as that. If someone tells me it is I won't say that they're wrong; I just don't see it that way. People communicate in dreams, one character, Serena, "sees" spirits. "Sees" is in quotes, because I don't feel that she's hallucinating, or having delusions. I think she's intuitive and has a sense of the presence of these beings from the other side and she's communicating with them on a level that most of us don't. Something like the way a psychic or a medium can see energies from the other side. If you don't believe in that stuff, it seems crazy. Maybe it is. But it's not so crazy to me.

Is Los Angeles a magical place?
Sure. But by magical, I don't mean like the magic of fairy tales or magical realism. LA has magical landscapes--the beach, the mountains; it has fascinating history--Native American and colonial. Of course the movie and TV industry has its magic and illusion. For me, the real magic is the diversity of people here, and all that they bring to the city. The mixing of cultures is exciting and magical to me. The chef Roy Choi is a good example of what I mean by that. The idea of a Kimchi quesadilla is magic to me. I'm that kind of Angelino, one who likes to mix it up culturally, and Los Angeles is ideal for that. As a person who's interested in all cultures I find magic in the diversity here and in the connectedness between cultures. Sure, there is sometimes tension between various groups, but magic lies in the spaces where we connect via our humanity and learn and grow because of those connections and I see and experience that all the time in Los Angeles.

On Saturday, November 8th at 7:30 PM, Toni Ann Johnson will read from her novel at the Cirque Salon Fiction Reading Series, located at 5503 North Figueroa 90042 in Los Angeles.

She will also be appearing at Antioch University Los Angeles' free Literary Uprising reading series on Tuesday, November 11th at 6:00 PM in Culver City.

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