English Senior Mackenzie Johnson recently won the Senior Writing Award. On an unseasonably warm day, we chatted about the award itself and Mackenzie’s inspiration while writing Abattoir, It Is A Small Creature, and It’s a Lark.
BA: Can you describe the writing award you received?
MJ: The Senior Writing Award is judged by three independent judges. In order to qualify, a writer must send in one academic paper, and two samples of writing in other genres, amounting to no more than 25 pages.
It was nerve-wracking even submitting the thing, but I’m so glad I did. Even typing out the award’s description made me nervous again.
BA: Can you talk a little about how poetry influenced your prose and vice versa?
MJ: I definitely started off a prose writer. I thought poetry was for greater minds than mine, or at least for those who had a unique way of looking at the world. But I eventually gave it a try, and have since come to realize that poetry is definitely a craft that must be honed over time.
Still, you can see little bits of my prose sticking out of my poetry–“It Is A Small Creature” is telling a story, and one that could easily shift from the poetic medium to the literary medium. And poetry has always been in my prose, though it’s since been trimmed back thanks to constructive criticism. Poetry is where a lot of the flowery trimmings of my short stories go, like a transplanted tree limb. Everything that I write can be used; it just needs to be in the right place.
BA: Speaking of spaces, “It’s a Lark,” “It Is A Small Creature,” and “Abattoir” contain motifs of the distance between bodies and of bodies occupying the same space. In “It’s a Lark,” you write We’re standing across from each other / the vastness of space / yawning between us … Why aren’t we / crawling into / and enveloping one another.” In “Abattoir,” the Bibelot absorbs souls and stores them on a drive. In “It Is A Small Creature,” horror of encroaching anxiety comes to life as an other, occupying the same space as the host. What is it in this motif that keeps you returning to it?
MJ: I like the idea of the body being something unfamiliar. It’s a sacred space for me, personally, so drawing the body away from preconceived ideas, whether it be giving a body to something that does not possess one, or taking one away from someone who does, is a very intriguing practice. Bodies, I think, help paint issues in a new light; should anxiety be considered a predatory thing instead of a fault of those who suffer from it? What does romance entail for two people? Is Dr. Bibelot still a person, or should we now consider him a machine? The body is so important to us, and I like to shake that up a little.
BA: I was also struck by the cinematic qualities of “Abattoir.” I’m thinking of passages such as “She looked out over the landscape, spotting the caravan, and her left eye zoomed in on it with a quiet whir. ‘Three outside, one in the driver, no passenger,’ she murmured. ‘Mining supplies on board.’” and “An even stronger blast rocked the room, metal shrieking as it clattered to the floor from the lab tables, and Annette was flung over the ladder, landing on the small of her back. The ceiling buckled, and a metal rafter from the roof groaned and broke, swinging low and catching Isaac in the side, sending him flying toward the far wall.” Are there specific cinematic elements that you feel yourself drawn to? Or cinematic sources of inspiration that you turn to?
MJ: I love cinema, so I absolutely had cinematic inspiration in writing Abattoir, though I may not have known it at the time. Visuals are interesting to me, and I’ve always loved giving a sensory overview of a situation to invite the reader inside. I have also always loved dynamic action scenes, particularly when a lot of things are in motion. I try to achieve the perfect balance of dynamism and comprehensibility in writing action scenes in my own work; I want people to be able to follow each throw of the spear without being overwhelmed by how many spears there are, if that makes sense. A good action scene is easy to follow, but contains enough engaging movement to keep the audience alert, and I guess I wanted to imitate that.
BA: And what about literary sources of inspiration?
MJ: I am a sucker for literature that depicts human struggle, especially in regards to mortality. I think Abattoir subconsciously gets a lot of its moral questions from Brave New World and Ender’s Game–what makes people “persons,” are only humans worthy of moral consideration, and so on.
I’m also madly in love with The Three Musketeers, so I think I borrowed a lot of grandeur from that. I will always see Tolkien as an inspiration to me because he has influenced so many aspects of my writing over the course of my entire writing career. He really inspired me to get in there and get my hands dirty building the world my characters will live in, because it makes the experience that much more tangible.