If or When I Call: Will Johnson Discusses His Debut Novel

Long-held itch harvests the road, autobiography, and compassion

Set along the rivers and highways of Southeastern Missouri where he was born, If or When I Call titles the debut novel from Austin singer-songwriter and painter Will Johnson, creative force behind beloved Texas bands South San Gabriel and Centro-Matic, acts he co-founded and toured around the world after moving to the Lone Star State in early youth.

Will Johnson at home in Austin, March 2021 (Photo by Matt White)

In addition to his full band efforts and multiple collaborations with some of the most revered artists in folk and rock music, Johnson continues to release album after album of acclaimed solo records, sparse, evocative affairs infused with the great sensitivity and rawness that have become hallmarks of his creative style.

Newly vaccinated and eager to hit the road, I traveled from Little Rock to Texas the second weekend of March to visit the author and talk about his new book. Just weeks on the heels of a historic winter storm that left his town and state reeling, Johnson greeted me from the porch of his North Austin home as late afternoon sunlight streamed through the kitchen windows, setting the room awash in a warm and inviting glow where his wife and kids smiled broadly and laughed easily. We spoke on the front steps and in the small, handsome backyard studio where he paints a lot of paintings, writes a lot of songs, and worked away on his novel, a hard traveling family story of working people trying to find themselves amidst the fallout and wreckage of small town life.

“Roaming the American West has always provided inspiration. It’s still an infinitely curious and magical region to me. Traveling out there offers a good dose of perspective as to just how small and how vulnerable we are.”

If or When I Call is available now via Goliad Media.

Austin Chronicle: How did it feel to hold a copy of your novel for the first time?

Will Johnson: A little strange, but also satisfying. It was something I’d always wanted to get around to, going back a good number of years. It just took a while to finally see it through.

AC: What is the genesis of the book? How did you begin?

WJ: It started with a short story called “Renewal.” I wrote it down in Mexico a few summers ago. At the time, I thought I’d piece together a book of short stories, but once I got home I realized I wanted to spend more time with those characters.

So, I started expanding on them, taking them into new situations and trying to better understand their complications, but also the necessity in and of their connections. I didn’t fully know how the story was going to wind up at that point. I only challenged myself to try and remain interested in the ride.

AC: Place and the visual poetry of the landscape feel like vital components to the work. What compelled you to set your story in this region of America?

WJ: I was born in Southeast Missouri and lived the first 12 years of my life there, so in a way writing this was a return home – at least mentally, and I guess at times, spiritually. It’s a part of America that a lot of people might not think twice about, but there’s a beauty, a rawness, and a complexity to it that’s always felt cinematic to me. I drew from my experiences there and at times, people I knew or at least was aware of.

I still feel connected to that part of the world. I suspect I always will.

AC: Did you grow up beset by rivers? Their presence threads throughout the tale. What’s their relevance in your life?

WJ: Yes. We lived about 20 miles west of the Mississippi, and spent a lot of time over that way, swimming, fishing, rooting around on the sandbars, and shooting fireworks. The floodway ditches that I refer to in the book actually exist, and I also spent time there as a kid. It’s a system of five parallel ditches that were constructed as a drainage project in the early 20th Century, essentially transforming Southeast Missouri from swampland to fertile and inhabitable farmland.

The cover to If or When I Call, which came out March 15

AC: How much of your own childhood is imbued throughout the book?

WJ: Some. There’s the scene where Parker catches Ben with the tobacco and makes him put the whole pack in his mouth at the edge of the cotton field. Ben winds up throwing up numerous times. That was a direct recall from my childhood, and an experience I had with my first stepdad.

There’s a scene where Chad doesn’t want to play catch with Ben, so Chad suggests that Ben just go in the front yard and throw the ball in the air and catch it by himself. That’s another direct experience. But I also drew from my fortune of having strong women around me, thus far for all my life.

My mom and I were on our own for most of those years, and a great deal of Melinda’s strength and composure, and additionally her love for Ben, was inspired by her. I see that same strength and resolve in my wife, and in the natural way that she cares for our children. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever looked upon.

Strong women have been the most consistent force in my life for as long as I can remember. More than music, art, or writing. More than anything.

“Strong women have been the most consistent force in my life for as long as I can remember. More than music, art, or writing. More than anything.”

AC: What role did reading play in your formative years?

WJ: A significant one. I’m from a family of teachers and farmers, most all of which read voraciously. My father’s a retired pediatrician, but has always read regularly. Books were always prominent, and largely part of the decor at my grandparents’ houses.

My uncle was an English Lit professor, and he and my mom always kept a strong connection through reading and the sharing of books. In my 30s, mom and I had a tradition of making road trips from Texas to Chattanooga for the Southern Writers’ Conference. It was a way to see a number of our favorite writers in one place: speaking, reading, and participating in panel discussions.

It was an excuse to buy books and talk about what we’d experienced as we drove back to Texas. Reading, and the presence of books have been a constant within my family at every turn, for about as long as I can remember.

AC: Do you recall particular writers you two were excited to see?

WJ: Yes, a good many of them, and most multiple times. Wendell Berry, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Allan Gurganus, Ron Rash, Clyde Edgerton, Silas House, Barry Hannah, Kaye Gibbons, Reynolds Price, Rita Dove, and many more. We drove over to at least four or five of those conferences.

AC: What do you imagine it would have meant to your mom to see that you’ve published your first novel?

WJ: Given that much of it is inspired by our path together, and that it largely covers our home territory, I think she would have appreciated it.

AC: Did the countless hours of hard thinking and reflection put into this project yield new perspective or appreciation for impactful people in your life?

WJ: Yes. It made me thankful (again) for the bond that I had with my mother, and thankful that I’m in a healthy marriage with an amazing woman. It made me thankful that I get to spend so much time with my kids. My mom went through two divorces before I was 12.

I have no memory of the first, and am fortunate to have a great relationship with my father, but the second was a hard thing to pay witness to. It’s a helpless feeling watching the person you love the most go through a challenging time. I think writing this made me re-appreciate how she provided for me consistently and gracefully through those years, and again touched upon the mysterious, incredible power of a mother’s love for her children.

“In my 30s, mom and I had a tradition of making road trips from Texas to Chattanooga for the Southern Writers’ Conference. It was a way to see a number of our favorite writers in one place.”

AC: One of my favorite aspects to the story is the feeling of wonder and strangeness found in moving around out in the world. Overhearing conversations and having random, often bizarre interactions with strangers out on the road. Seeing both the good and bad in people. As an artist and hard traveler, how personally meaningful are those experiences, and what does it feel like to have missed them for nearly a year now on account of the pandemic?

WJ: Those experiences feel valuable beyond measure. Playing shows is important, but the act of going out into the world and absorbing; listening to others’ stories, interacting, and learning, that’s the most important thing about the road to me. It’s where I tend to harvest a lot of material, taking note on how we move through this world, our constant folly, pursuits, small failures, and victories.

Those are the energies that keep me excited about the road. I’ve always been inspired by books and film and music, but equal to that inspiration is the act of just sitting at the end of a bar in some small town pretending to read, eavesdropping on the locals, and maybe taking a few notes.

AC: Your career as a musician has led you around the world and across the country many times over. Aside from the homeland depicted in your novel, what are a few other places that ignite a desire to create?

WJ: Roaming the American West has always provided inspiration. It’s still an infinitely curious and magical region to me. Traveling out there offers a good dose of perspective as to just how small and how vulnerable we are.

It’s a valuable reminder that nature is very much in control of us, and the space and terrain offers a visual soundtrack all its own. I get the same sensation taking trains around the interior of Spain. I tend to write in the wake of being in those places.

AC: If or When I Call is a magically fitting title. How early was it finalized, and did the realization help to propel the process forward?

WJ: I settled on that title fairly early, probably around the time that Maureen had taken Melinda in. The scope of the story wasn’t quite yet realized at that point. It still lived in the abstract for the most part, but even in the first steps I had a hunch that the title would apply to several different characters, their relationships, and multiple situations within the book.

Photo by Matt White

AC: In an early chapter, a song from Tom Petty’s Wildflowers comes on a grocery store radio, prompting Melinda to walk out because it makes her think of her estranged husband. I’ve heard friends who’ve gone through divorces say that there are places on that album that are nearly too painful to go. Does that record mean a particular lot to you, or did it simply feel fitting for the story?

WJ: I do like that record. I’m not obsessive about it to the degree that many people seem to be, but I like it. The song “It’s Good to Be King,” however, has always stuck out. It’s an atomic song, in that I think the narrative, arrangement, performances, and production are all in as good a place as they can be, and I think the outro itself is constructed in a near-perfect way.

“The song ‘It’s Good to Be King’ always stuck out. It’s an atomic song, in that I think the narrative, arrangement, performances, and production are all in as good a place as they can be, and I think the outro itself is constructed in a near-perfect way.”

When Benmont Tench’s piano triplets come in, and eventually the Michael Kamen string arrangements, those are cinematic moments and an ideal merger of elements to me. The mood of it felt fitting enough to carry over, and reference within the book. It’s Melinda’s longing for hers and Parker’s better days.

AC: I felt very moved by where and how the story lands. How difficult was it to arrive at an ending?

WJ: Not too difficult. I wanted to get back to the compassion that can still survive between two people, no matter how rough or confusing the waters can get. It was a mood I was trying for. A feeling of possibility. And I knew that Ben should again be the common thread.

AC: I was introduced to the writing of Willy Vlautin a few years ago via mutual friend of ours, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster. I read Lean On Pete, cried my eyes out, and promptly fell in love with Willy’s outlook on the world, and his vast array of work. He and the parallels you two share crossed my mind as I read your book. You’re both songwriters who’ve expanded into novelists, with a clear affection and empathy for working people permeating your work. So turning the final page and seeing Willy’s name in the acknowledgements made me smile. What has his writing meant to you, and what role did he play along this book’s way?

WJ: I think Willy is one of our most gifted and important living American writers. Our bands played together some 15 years ago in Hamburg, Germany, and we’ve managed to keep in touch over that time. I got brave and sent him “Renewal” when I’d finished it, and he kindly and selflessly offered valuable feedback.

He graciously did the same once I was done with this book. His development of, and his relationship and empathy for his characters is a force unto itself. His writing is so consistently and relentlessly good. I’ve long thought that Willy is in a class all his own. He’s the kind of artist that always makes me want to be better.

AC: You’ve worked with countless phenomenal artists and songwriters. It feels very fitting that you were entrusted to work with unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. What are a few collaborations that you hold dear?

WJ: It feels like a cop out answer, but all of them in varying ways. I’ve been friends with most of the individuals I’ve collaborated with before we’ve decided to make something together. Trust has already been established, and that’s the most important element to me.

So in essence, and after that, it’s often been an outlet to simply document something with people I love. I learn more about how they prepare, construct, and move through the thruways and cul-de-sacs of making something. That’s a gift, and a privilege to look upon.

Each experience has fallen together differently, and each has taught me something new. They’ve been their own unique rides at specific junctures in life that we’ll never get back to, and with that each has been its own specific, identifiable reward.

AC: Be it a song, novel, or otherwise, why do you suppose you feel driven to write?

WJ: I suspect I’m like most any other writer – trying to find new ways to see the room; trying to find new voices to work with, and with that, maybe some better understanding. I’m trying to keep myself turned on by melody, character development, predicament, language, and interaction. I’m trying to remain unafraid of conflict, discomfort, and the notion of hurting my characters no matter how much I might come to love them.

I think every day offers its own story to tell, and more often than not I think a good bit of it can be worth noting.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Will Johnson, If or When I Call, Centro-Matic, Southern Writers’ Conference, Wendell Berry, Jill McCorkle, Randall Kenan, Allan Gurganus, Clyde Edgerton, Silas House, Barry Hannah, Kaye Gibbons, Reynolds Price, Rita Dove, Tom Petty, Willy Vlautin

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