A Writer's Intuition
A Writer’s Intuition: Toni Ann Johnson Interview
by Evan Jackson
Toni Ann Johnson has a storied screenwriting career with credits of Disney made for TV movie Ruby Bridges, Showtime movie Crown Heights, and Lifetime movie Courage To Love. Toni admits to me venturing into becoming a first time novelist was a bold move for her but she had been doing that for most of her career. Hailing from Monroe, New York Toni uses her upbringing and travels around the world as sources for her written work. The characters in her debut novel Remedy For a Broken Angel are masterfully layered. She has a way of making them three dimensional, bringing them to life just as she has done for so many years when it comes to her screenplays. As an accomplished essayist, screenwriter, and playwright she now adds author to those hallowed talents. Earning a 2015 NAACP Image Awards nomination for her debut novel and winning the Beverly Hills Book award for Multicultural Fiction she’s proven all those who’ve doubted her wrong. At the end of the day writer’s write in any format. Hopefully Toni inspires you to entrust your intuition when it comes to creating giving you the ability to create something just as impactful.
When did you discover your love for writing?
As a little girl I wanted to write stories, but I didn’t have anything that interesting to say, so I didn’t finish them. I was taking acting lessons as young as age 12 and we were executing other people’s plays and stories. As I continued acting and grew into my teens, I wanted to be the person who created those things. I liked other people’s stories, but I wanted to say stuff that related to my own life. As I got older I began thinking about what kind of plays I could create and I wrote some. They weren’t very good at first, but that’s where my love for it started; it grew out of acting, which, as I see it, is storytelling as well.
Where does your imagination take you when you decide to embark on a new project: whether it be a play, script or a book?
I think that depends on what I’m writing. Right now I’m writing short stories based on my life growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white town. But because some of that stuff happened so long ago I’ve had to fictionalize things. My imagination will take me back to what I think I recall from the actual events. I’ll try to visualize the places where things in the story are happening—the details. It’s hard to know where the imagination takes over from what I can recall from memory. It’s a vacillation between memory and imagination.
In other instances, my imagination may take me somewhere unexpected, somewhere I haven’t been myself, especially when I’m writing about fictional characters. In Remedy For a Broken Angel, the characters are fictional (with elements of real people—so there’s a bit of memory), but they’re not real people, so when I’m writing about them and their trajectories, I have to use my imagination. I act them out in my head, as I would if I were playing them onstage. I do the same thing when writing a script. I “play” the roles myself in my imagination.
Growing up you traveled a lot to different countries with your family. Seeing the world at such a young age, what impact do you think that had on your writing?
I think it had an impact on me as a human being in not feeling so different or better than any kind of person. I traveled to several third world countries, while still under the age of 10. I saw beggars, ambassadors, people who were of high social standing and people who weren’t. I think it made me feel a sense of humanity— of connection—I might not have acquired had I not traveled. I grew up in a conservative area and some people I grew up with were prejudiced in different ways. They felt that people who were different: gay, black, Asian, or whatever were somehow not as good as them. They were sort of protective of their own status and stature in the world. Having traveled I didn’t have that. For me, I was more curious than judgmental. If I were to see a beggar I wouldn’t think “Ew, a beggar,” I would think why are they like that, and I would look at how other people were responding. I’d ask myself questions and sometimes I’d ask my parents who couldn’t always give me an answer. I developed more of a curiosity, then a disdain when I traveled. And that has had an impact on my writing. For example, when I write about villains, or so-called bad people I don’t leave it at that. I try to look a bit deeper at those people and understand how their life experience has led them to be the way they are.
You’ve studied under Stella Adler. What gems of wisdom did you get from her and others that you’ve implemented in your own writing?
Stella Adler taught a class called script interpretation and she was teaching us modern playwrights—Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neil, and Shaw. She showed us how what was going on culturally, socially, and politically influenced those playwrights and their work. That has had some influence on my work, in terms of context, and of being conscious of the ideas embedded in what I’m writing.
One of the simple technical things she taught was that if you have an idea you want your reader or audience to come away with you have to find a way to mention it at least three times. Hopefully a slightly different way each time, so it doesn’t feel redundant, but you have to layer the idea in.
In your screenwriting career you tend to be drawn to true stories with writing the scripts for Ruby Bridges (1998), Crown Heights (2004), and The Courage To Love (2000). What made you want to adapt these real life events to the TV screen?
I took those jobs first and foremost because they were going to pay me to write them, but what drew me to each project was different. What drew me to the Ruby Bridges story was an emotional connection to her experience. She was alone in the classroom, she integrated a school, and she experienced racism. I didn’t have her precise experience, but I was one of the only black kids in my school growing up and I experienced racism. So I understood that. Seeing how mean adults were to her when she was just a child—I identified with that as well, because there were adults who were unkind in my town, and who called me the N word when I was a little girl. I remember how that felt, so there was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to write that movie.
When it came to Crown Heights I was interested in the clash of cultures. The Hasidic Jewish community had a strong culture, obviously, but what I found when I was researching, is that some of the boys (black and Jewish) didn’t understand that the black kids had a culture, too. Some of the community leaders working with the both groups after the riots taught them about Hasidic culture and African-American and Caribbean-American culture, too, which created more of an understanding and respect between the groups. I found it interesting that these two young men (based on real people) in this story learned about each other via their respective cultures.
The Courage To Love was based on a mid-19th century free woman of color in New Orleans. I had done a lot of research on New Orleans for Ruby Bridges and so I found it interesting that this also took place in the historic city. I learned what slavery in New Orleans was like and how it was different from plantation slavery in other parts of Louisiana. Unfortunately the network made the slavery in the movie look like plantation slavery. New Orleans had urban slavery where slaves didn’t always live with the people that owned them, and it was these slaves that Henriette Delille, the subject of the film (who became a nun), was ministering to. Many of these slaves lived in boarding houses. Free people of color owned a lot of these boarding houses. In New Orleans, some slaves were allowed to work for other people (for pay) on their day off, to save money to buy their freedom, or to buy other family members’ freedom. The free people of color in New Orleans at that time were to some degree empowered, and I found that fascinating because I’d never learned that in school. Where I went to school they didn’t teach me about black people or people of color who were empowered during slavery. The free people of color, or Creoles of color, were a separate class. They had their own schools, their own businesses, and in many ways they were thriving. They weren’t equivalent to the white class, but nor were they the slave class. That was astonishing to me. They were middle class and some of them owned slaves themselves. I didn’t know before doing research that people of color owned slaves. I thought it was bizarre. What drew me into that project was curiosity. It was amazing to me that this stuff that happened in our country and that the history isn’t as widely known as the other elements of slavery. In high school all I learned about slavery was from watching Roots and reading a couple of chapters in a history book. I didn’t learn about the stratification of people of color, so it was interesting to discover.
In the play Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public you not only were the playwright, but also an actor in the play. How did you balance that?
I’m sure I drove my directors crazy, because I had a sense of how to do the play since I wrote it. Sometimes when they’d direct me and I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t do what they asked. I figured it was my play ‘what do you know?’ Sometimes my choices were better, and sometimes they weren’t. When I figured out that their ideas were better and when their perspective enhanced what I was trying to do, I’d listen. Sometimes I would change my own lines. One thing that really bothered me was when other actors would change their lines or forget the lines. That drove me crazy.
From your short stories like Claiming Tobias to your some of your screenplays, one of the main themes is identity; in particular racial identity. What are some revelations that you’ve had in your own life that make you reflect on your own racial identity?
When I was 18 my mother told me she was adopted and her biological father had been white, which I never knew. I grew up not knowing that my mother’s parents, who were both black, were her adoptive parents. So my identity was based on my mother being black, not biracial. My mother had no cultural connection to being half white since she wasn’t raised with her father.
Growing up, people would always assume I was biracial. I thought: no I’m not. My father was very light skinned, too, but as I understood it, both his parents were black. As it turns out, though, my grandmother, who was Bermudian, had a white father. He was English. She was very fair skinned, and I look exactly like her. But my identity was always black, not biracial, because though I had these white ancestors, they weren’t around and I didn’t know about them.
When I was growing up and people were telling me I looked biracial my mother would tell me: “So what if you do? In the world we live in you’re black and that’s all you need to know.” Then when I found out she was biracial it started to make sense: Oh, this is why I’m so light and my hair is curly-kinky but not as kinky as some.
Another thing that made me reflect on my racial identity is that I did a DNA test a couple of years ago and found that I’m genetically less black than white. I have a higher percentage of European DNA and a large percentage of Ashkenazi, which is eastern European Jew. My mother told me her biological father was a Russian Jew, but until I saw it in my own DNA I didn’t feel it pertained to me. I grew up being called the N word and at the time, my mother was right--even if you were biracial, that was still black. This was before you could identify yourself as multiracial, legally.
Also, not growing up in an African-American community I wasn’t around black people that much. When I did hang out with one of my black cousins in her community, she was critical: you act like a white girl, you sound like a white girl, you dance like a white girl... But I wasn’t white. White people didn’t embrace me as one of them. I didn’t fit in either place and I still don’t. But I identify as African-American, and now that I’m an adult I don’t mind not fitting a particular image of blackness, because “black” is not a monolith, and it’s ok to be an individual.
How did it feel to be recognized for your debut novel Remedy For a Broken Angel at the 2015 NAACP Image Awards with a nomination and winning the Beverly Hills Book Award for Multicultural Fiction?
That was great. All of that acknowledgment, as well as the other awards I’ve been nominated for, including the International Latino Book Award, feels good because I hadn’t written a novel before. I have some great writer friends who were supportive, but there were also people who weren’t supportive. I was told it wasn’t commercial enough, it wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t this enough, it wasn’t that enough. I was told it didn’t work. But I didn’t believe that. I submitted it to the NAACP Image Awards myself and paid the submission fee, because I believed in it. I was pleased and grateful to be nominated. The book was up there with others published by large presses (which mine wasn’t), and it was fun. It was exciting going to the awards show. I appreciate the Beverly Hills Book Award too, and for it to win in the multicultural fiction category was gratifying, because that’s what it is. I live in a world with all kinds of people, not just black, or white, or any one group. Mainstream fiction often seems to segregate novels. It’s easier to market a book if it neatly fits into one culture. But the multicultural experience is more familiar to me, and people like me read books, too.
What is the boldest thing you’ve done yet?
The first thing that comes to mind was leaving the security of my family and home where I was living and going to school in New York. I took a risk and moved to Los Angeles in 1992 with no money, no job, just a duffle bag with my stuff. I bounced around staying with friends for a while.
I had no family in LA and I didn’t have a plan to fall back on if things didn’t work out. I didn’t know how I was going to make it and my parents didn’t expect me to succeed. My father was done with me, because he’d helped me financially for a few years after college, but I hadn’t been successful enough to survive on my own completely. He let me know that he didn’t think anything much would materialize for me and he wasn’t going to help me anymore.
The survival job I got through a friend was a receptionist gig at a company where I made $7.50 an hour. I was driving a car that was literally falling apart. I had this play, Gramercy Park, and I knew it was good enough to lead to something, but I didn’t know what. Within a couple of years I signed with a major literary agent and I went from working at that receptionist job to writing a movie for Disney, going from $7.50 an hour to earning $85,000 for my first writing assignment, so it was a big jump.
I guess it was also bold, ten years later, setting aside my screenwriting career to write my novel. I did have another big job after that, but my screenwriting career suffered. I wasn’t in love with what was being offered to me as a screenwriter at the time. I had done a few things that I liked very much, but I was executing other people’s ideas more than my own, and in the process losing my own voice. I was creating things that weren’t leading to a legacy that felt authentic to me. So I stepped away from that.
I did make a modest attempt to get other jobs, but I didn’t stay in that world and maximize what I might have accomplished.
I think many people would look at the choice I made and say that it was a mistake. But for me it wasn’t, because I’ve been able to write stories that are meaningful to me. I’m not a writer just for the goal of having a successful career and making a lot of money. Yes, I want and welcome success, but I have a limited amount of time in my life, and I don’t want to spend all of it writing other people’s ideas. I have my own. I want the chance to write things that matter to me. I hope they matter to other people, because I am writing to communicate to others, but there’s no guarantee of that and I’m happy to write anyway. It’s a privilege to be able to write and publish stories that no one else would or could write in the same way. I’m not interested in being like anyone else, or in writing like anyone else. Yes, I want to continue being published and produced and yes, I want to be able to pay my bills and enjoy my life, but I’ve had the experience of people invalidating my perspective and experience and that’s not the way I want to spend the bulk of my creative life.
What are your future plans?
My immediate plan is to finish my short story collection, which is taking way longer than I’d like, because I’m still promoting the novel and doing so is a lovely distraction. After that, I’ll write the next thing and I’m not sure what that is, but I have a lot of material in various stages of development. I’m also considering creating some kind of performance piece with the short stories. Some of them lend themselves to performance and I enjoy that as much as creating them.
Where can people reach you?