HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Chelsey Johnson still suffers from
punk damage. Just ask Carrie Brownstein.
who grew up in northern Minnesota before moving to
Portland, Ore., in the early aughts, draws on that
experience in her debut novel, "Stray City,"
which subverts expectations around the coming-out
narrative. In Johnson’s book, a young woman leaves the
Midwest for Portland’s underground lesbian scene only
to find herself pregnant after a drunken one-night-stand
with a man. Despite the concerns of her shocked circle
of gay friends, she decides to have the baby.
teaches at the College of William and Mary in Virginia
and is a writer on Brownstein’s upcoming television
show, "Search and Destroy." They spoke to The
Times before an appearance at the West Hollywood Library
to discuss "Stray City." The conversation has
You mentioned that at a recent book tour event someone
asked about punk damage. What’s "punk
Johnson: Punk damage is when you never get over that
stage of hoarding things, even long after you should
have outgrown it. In a hotel room you’d grab, like,
somebody’s leftover rolls from the room service tray,
you know? That’s punk damage.
Brownstein: I just worked with you. You have the most
insane punk damage.
It’s true. I have not recovered from my punk damage
even though I have a respectable job. I’ll never lose
that scarcity mentality, which I think was very
characteristic of that scene and that time.
It’s interesting because you grew up middle class. It
would make sense of if you grew up with food insecurity
Nope, I had everything I needed. But I was financially
independent from the minute I finished college. I was
not a trust fund kid. I actually think — and I just
realized this now — the root of my punk damage is the
summer I spent in Portland between my sophomore and
junior years in college, when I was 19, because I was
totally on my own. My parents gave me no money, and so I
sold my plasma for a few weeks …
Oh, my God.
… and ate samples at Safeway for lunch and picked
blackberries. They grow everywhere in Portland; they’re
a weed. I was, like ,"These are free?!"
Part 2 of "Stray City" is written in
epistolary form. How did you conceive of the structure?
I’d been writing the book for seven years and finally
had a super polished draft that was, like, 500 pages. I
sent it to my agent, who said, "I really love this
book. I really love Part 1 and Part 3, but let’s talk
about Part 2." I was, like, ‘Is it too long and
slow and boring?’" [Laughs.]
really didn’t want to write a book that people put
down halfway through. Part 2 was exactly the kind of
thing that people put down. It was somebody wandering
around and thinking a lot for 150 pages. So I thought:
What if I just distill it down to calls and postcards
and emails and answering machine messages? They were
already in there. I just cut everything except for the
epistolary stuff. It was so fun. Just trashing 35,000
Does that sound painful to you, Carrie?
It also sounds freeing but, yeah, both. I’m not very
precious about things — editing is such a crucial part
of the writing process — but that’s a lot of words.
Because there’s some part when you’re writing a book
where you’re just thinking in terms of volume, like,
"I did it. Thank God. I got that 600 pages, they
must all be great!"
Did that decision change your approach to other
I kept doing those kinds of forms: the immigration
questions test, what a characters is Googling, her
search history. It did free me up to insert more of
those things. They make the book move more quickly, and
as someone who reads all the time, I’m always so
grateful when a book just moves at a good clip.
There’s a short chapter in which you provide an
excerpt from the so-called Lesbian Mafia Official ….
List [of hated things]. Since it’s an excerpt, what
else on the list didn’t make it into the book?
That’s a good question! The list could be huge. I was
trying to think of things that weren’t too obvious.
What else did we hate?
"Kissing Jessica Stein."
Yes! It’s really a straight movie. It’s by and for
straight women. In that era, in a lot of ways, your
taste was defined by what you were against. So maybe I
even need to go little broader. Like, The Man. Nestlé
Corporation. Shell Oil. The WTO. Political stuff.
Do people define themselves less by what they’re
Not just the lesbian mafia, but the whole
counterculture. Selling a song to a commercial. Signing
to a major label. Selling out.
That concept doesn’t really exist anymore.
I teach college students and I try to explain the
concept of selling out and they’re, like, "What’s
that?" But it was a huge concern and it plagued me
as I wrote the book. Am I selling out my community by
exposing these things? I had this little invisible army
of Facebook commenters looking over my shoulder while I
wrote. I was, like, "They’re going to hate this.
People are going to tear this apart. They’re going to
call it heteronormative or homonormative or
In "Stray City" queer identity is the norm and
heterosexuality is deviant. Did you set out to write a
novel that flipped the script?
Yes. That was really the intent. It came to me because I
was writing that section we discussed that later got
cut. I had a character, Ryan, and I decided to have him
leave behind his pregnant girlfriend. I thought it would
be so much more interesting if the pregnant girlfriend
that he left behind was a lesbian. I don’t think I’d
ever really written anything about my peers. I’d
written a lot of short stories and some of them had gay
characters, but it would be gay men, nobody who is like
me. It was my first time trying to write about my world
and my community and I took a funny back door into it.
I knew she’d gotten pregnant and had a thing with this
guy, and I wanted to show — at least in my experience
of that community — how completely strange that would
be. When we’re talking about "Chasing Amy"
or "Kissing Jessica Stein," the script that we’d
seen at that point was that homosexuality was something
you dabbled in or were just entering into. Here, I
wanted heterosexuality to be the weird thing you dabble
in: how out of character, how off-brand, how strange and
repulsive. We will disown you if you do it! I don’t
think straight people are used to being the repulsive
side of things. They’re not used to being the
demonized or othered.
also the incredibly hard work it takes to come out to
your family. For some parents it’s, like, "Maybe
this is just a phase?" And I thought, oh my God,
what would it be like to try to tell your mom, "I’m
actually with a guy now" and not have it completely
negate everything you are.
You were a longtime volunteer for the Rock n’ Roll
Camp for Girls, and you call yourself a "recovering
karaoke junkie." How does music inform your
There’s so much music in the book. People play it,
they listen to it. It’s like a soundtrack. I really
love music — I have played guitar, badly — but I
really love music as a live thing, as a gathering place
for people. And I love reading music criticism. The way
that it can explain things in the culture, parsing what
a song is doing in a way that’s thought-provoking and
political. That seeps into the book too. I can’t
really separate music and writing because they’re so
much a part of my sensibility and my community; they
were also so much a part of that scene. Even people who
had no skill, it was just something you did: you would
just form a band and play, like, two shows ever. It didn’t
matter if you were good, it was just fun.
How do you two know each other?
I think you interviewed my band for Out magazine.
I did! We ran in a music crowd.
So you’re old friends?
Almost 20 years now.
20 years? But we’re only, like, 25 years old.
I know, so it’s weird. We’ve know each other since