Writers Inspiring Change feature author: Danny Johnson
I wrote my first story at the age of 62, and at 70 had my debut novel published via Kensington. I am from, and currently live in Durham, NC, USA. Since childhood, I always had the desire to be a writer, imagining what a wonderful lifestyle it must be to seclude one’s self in a room and only come out to pick up checks from the mailman. I read every book I could, be it comic books or novels my Grandmother would get from the Bookmobile which came around her farm every couple of weeks. My family was very poor and we grew up in a City Housing Project built for low income folks. It was a rough beginning but I learned many things about survival in that environment, one of them being how to run very fast J During the summers, I would go and stay with my grandparents on their tobacco farm in rural Chatham Co., NC. Once I graduated from high school, I attended college one year. When I returned for the 2nd, a fraternity brother and I got stumbling drunk and decided to go to Florida for a few days. We got there, ran out of money by the 2nd day, then sold blood to have enough to stay at the YMCA for a couple more days. I called my Mom for money to get home. When I arrived, my Dad stood me at the front door of the house and said “all I want to see is your behind going out.” I hitched a ride to the military recruiting station and spent the next four years in the USAF, two years in Japan and one in Vietnam.
What prompted you to become a writer? When I returned home, it was very difficult to get a job because no company wanted to hire Vietnam Vets, they thought we were all crazy. It took almost a year, but when I secured employment, I did what I had always been taught—bend to the grindstone and work, which I did for the next 40 years. Eventually I got married, had a child, bought a home, all things of the American Dream, or so I thought. I was completely miserable, even though I had managed to work myself into a position where money was plentiful. Back came that haunting of wanting to be a writer. On my 62nd birthday, I walked into my office and said goodbye, having no idea how I would make it. I began by immersing myself in everything writing, be it conferences, workshops, open mic, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, most of it terrible. I was out of ideas and began sitting in front of my computer and simply typing the first words that appeared in my head, and that’s when the magic happened. My characters in The Last Road Home just showed up, and as Albert Camus said, took up residence in the apartment of my mind. It took me three years to complete the novel, find an agent, and have the agent sell the manuscript.
What do readers like about your writing? I think readers like my writing because it deals with controversy without preaching, which is why I work in the genre of Southern Gothic Fiction. If you want an example of what that is, read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. It tells a story about a white kid and black kid floating down a river, but what it’s doing is making a statement on slavery in 1860s America. My novel does the same thing, except the setting is mid twentieth century America, where, regrettably, not much had changed.
Is there a message weaved into your writing? The message in my writing is discovery: discover in people unlike yourself their vision of the world. In America, that is black and white, was especially so in the 50s and 60s, and is so today. We are afraid of each other; afraid we may find we are more alike than different.
What is it that you want to inspire in others or change in the world through your writing? I want to inspire any who read my work to reach out a hand instead of a gun, to understand before we condemn, to grasp the fact that the entire world is the human condition and we must do everything to keep it safe.
Tell us about your most recent book and why you wrote it. The name of my novel is The Last Road Home, and it is about two kids, a black girl and a white boy who meet at the age of 8 after his parents are killed in a car crash and he comes to live with his grandparents on their farm. Their connection is immediate and their friendship grows strong over time, until they come of age when it turns into a more romantic, tender, and powerful relationship. In the rural south during that time, the KKK was still a major factor in the community, and once the relationship between the two is discovered, the threat of death is very real. At a point, the girl leaves to go to NY then France to escape, and the boy joins the USMC in time for the Vietnam War, where the reader gets an up-close look at the horrors of war. They come back together one last time and must decide to reconnect or go back to what they’ve found.