He's not referring to the tables of model-gorgeous men sipping cappuccinos inside, who study every new arrival at the coffee shop like cats watching canaries. The problem, instead, is the traffic. A noisy collusion of buses and trucks in the parking lot keeps interrupting Johnson's thought. The slender, soft-spoken professor is thinking aloud about Atlanta's literary community, and, after a pause, resumes:
"I think there's not maybe as much of a sense of a 'scene' here, as in Paris in the '20s, of writers hanging out together in coffee shops like this, or in bars, or what have you," he says. "I think the writers here tend to be off to themselves a little bit more."
The problem, Johnson says, is the traffic. Although Atlanta is known as a "city of neighborhoods," he suggests it also should be called a "city of cars," and therefore is not as conducive to an active writing community.
"Anne Rivers Siddons lived here for years before she moved to Charleston. And I think she had said that she felt a lack of a writers' community here. Even though she pointed out there were a lot of good writers, they didn't tend to hang together as much as maybe in New York City or elsewhere," Johnson says.
Johnson himself might be the living embodiment of his theory. A professor of English at Kennesaw State University, Johnson plans his daily commute around the traffic. Still, an accident can leave him stranded on the interstate for an hour or more.
Writing community or not, the fortysomething author has made a name for himself in the past decade. His 1993 novel Pagan Babies (not to be confused with Elmore Leonard's book of the same name) has become a minor modern classic of gay fiction. Though he's published a stack of other fiction works -- including several short story collections and even a book of poetry -- Johnson is perhaps best known in scholarly circles for his literary criticism, most notably for an authorized and groundbreaking biography of writer Joyce Carol Oates. Johnson's short stories appear often in literary magazines, and his book reviews run in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times Book Review.
He doesn't have the pie-in-the-sky book deal some writers salivate over, nor will he embark on a multi-city signing tour when his latest novel, Sticky Kisses, is published this month by Alyson, a press known for its focus on gay and lesbian titles. But Johnson seems perfectly content with what he calls his "low-profile" literary career. And unlike other major local authors, from Anne Rivers Siddons to Pat Conroy, who fled town at the first sign of success, Johnson says he isn't going anywhere.
Sticky Kisses is Johnson's homage to the city of Atlanta. The Tyler, Texas, native moved here in 1977 to begin his doctoral work at Emory, and hasn't really left since. He had brief stints teaching in Oxford, Miss., and Philadelphia, but Johnson says that both times he missed Atlanta and couldn't wait to return.
In the novel, Abby Sandler comes back to her native Atlanta to be with her brother Thom, recently diagnosed with HIV and still mourning the loss of his lover. The two haven't spoken in four years, and as they struggle with reconciliation, Abby finds herself suddenly involved in an unexpected love affair with a stranger.
Though the book mostly functions on an interpersonal level between characters (think, Anne Tyler meets Truman Capote), the action takes place with a distinctly local backdrop. For example, a pivotal scene later in the book takes place at Blake's, a gay bar on 10th Street.
The book may be a classic case of write what you know. Johnson, like his protagonist Thom, lives in Morningside with his two dachshunds, Lucy and Gracie. He also has only one sibling, a sister. Johnson concedes that several of the characters are composites of people he knows, and allows that the locations, like a certain Ansley Park house, are taken directly from real life. But the author is adamant in his stance that the book is not autobiographical.
"I live a sort of literary life, very busy. So to write about my life would not be that fascinating," Johnson says.
Indeed, from the outside, Johnson's life is decidedly low-key. When he's not teaching, he rarely leaves a 2-mile radius from his Amsterdam Avenue home. He sees a lot of movies and plays, he says, and visits nearby San Francisco Coffee often. Although he loves teaching, writing is his first passion. And he seems perfectly content with the quiet and relatively obscure life of a scholarly author.
"Literary fiction tends in this country to not get a lot of attention," he says. "Literary writers like Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde were the celebrities of the 19th century. Literary writing has sort of become an elite [occupation], separated from the mainstream. They address a more elite audience, as opposed to the mainstream. The mainstream are buying John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark or Patricia Cornwell. We're in a different kind of literary world now."
"Greg Johnson, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "is a Southern writer who seems, in several important ways, not to have sprung from the Southern literary tradition."
Johnson himself says the entry is flattering, but contradicts it in his description of Sticky Kisses.
"It's a novel about gay Atlanta, but also in some ways a traditional Southern family novel. So much Southern writing is about the family, family ties, blood ties, so I wanted that to be something that controlled the book as well."
Johnson, with his urbane slant on relationships in the Southern metropolis, might best be labeled a New South writer. He doesn't delve much into the Southern Gothic style of Faulkner ("It's been done," he says) and his writing is more informed by big-city life.
His writing is also influenced by contemporary authors like Joyce Carol Oates, who Johnson says he has "an almost spiritual kinship with" thanks to their lengthy and frequent correspondence.
Like Oates, who has a propensity for experimentation in her works, Johnson is breaking some rules with his latest project. The forthcoming collection of short stories injects the author into the lives of several notable female writers, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. Johnson also has another novel in the works, a coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in East Texas.
Having lived in Atlanta since grad school, Johnson says the city's negative changes are obvious: "the traffic, the construction, the lack of interest in preserving landmarks." Traffic, especially, is a sticky issue for the author due to his commute to Kennesaw. Johnson, however, is unmoved in his love of the city.
"After you live here for two decades, that's something you learn to accept," he says. "This is the New South and it's all about constant change. I love Atlanta. I'm not a detractor at all. I find it to be a very exciting place to live. It's just a very exciting, energetic city."
His writing career leads to frequent visits to New York, for visits to his agent and other obligations of the publishing world. He also calls San Francisco one of the most beautiful cities he's seen. But would Johnson ever consider leaving Atlanta?
"I doubt it. In that way, I am a Southerner. I'm not saying I would never live out of the South. But I think it would be a kind of extraordinary thing if I did."
Greg Johnson will speak and sign copies of Sticky Kisses at OutWrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 991 Piedmont Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Tues. Oct. 30. 404-607-0082.
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