Interview with Jenna Johnson, Editor of Luster

November 5, 2021

Jenna Johnson is an Executive Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux where she worked with author Raven Leilani on her debut novel, Luster. Jenna will participate in a panel about the process of publishing a debut novel during the 2021 Cabell First Novelist Award Night on Wednesday, November 10, at 7 p.m., alongside her client Raven Leilani, whose novel won this year’s award.

Jenna Johnson, editor, Cabell First NovelistCan you give us a glimpse into the very early days you spent with Luster? What were some of your initial thoughts or impressions as you first started reading the manuscript? What aspects, in particular, kept you compelled to keep reading?

I read Luster quickly over a weekend, and from the first page, I was shaking my head to make sure what I was reading was real. The combination of gloriously dynamic language and radically honest characterization—in a debut? —was just so hard to believe. But there it was in my hands! Every time I read it, I am struck anew by its confidence in itself and the reader, by its humor and directness, by its very real philosophical project, and its equally real interest in delivering a good story. Most of all, though, I was taken in by the lines—like every reader after me, I scrambled to find a pen and get to underlining. I hear Edie in my head all the time, laying out the ugly truth in her beautiful way.

Can you describe your working relationship with Raven Leilani? While editing the novel, how often did you correspond? When you’re actively working on a piece with an author, what forms of communication do you prefer?

Raven and I worked closely during the editing process, corresponding frequently and talking through questions by email and on the phone, as well as in person. It's my utter delight to be a sounding board, careful critic, and enthusiastic fan all at once. Raven approached every question with real attentiveness and her edits, even on the line level, expanded the impact of the whole in really wonderful and surprising ways.

In terms of prose and style, what qualities, trends, or habits do you see in writers lately? What advice would you offer to writers in response to these observations?

I can't say that I've been trendspotting in fiction much lately, certainly not in terms of prose and style, though I can say that over the past several years there's been a rise in fiction that centers itself entirely in a single character's interior. In some ways that has been a welcome corrective, and I'm always eager to see into and through another person's full interior life. In other ways, this has begun to feel a bit limiting when it's not serving the full potential of a narrative and when it feels more imitative or prescriptive than organic to the story and ideas at play. It also seems like a reasonable response to the pandemic. We've also been seeing a lot more literary dystopian novels, which also completely makes sense given the state of our world. My only advice would be to make sure that you're following your interests and passions, not trends, and that you really explore and interrogate the ways in which your particular work can be urgent, unique, necessary, and true.

In a previous interview for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, you predicted that we would love Luster, and clearly, you were correct. Tell us about some other projects you’ve been working on, either ones that are upcoming for publication, or that came out in the last year or so.

There are so many! So I'll limit it to a few months' range and only fiction. One novel that you can't read for the prize but ought to read for pleasure is Asali Solomon's third book, The Days of Afrekete, which struck me right away for its steady-eyed and relatively rare portrayal of being a woman at mid-life; here, with two women and inspired by Sula and Mrs. Dalloway, midlife comes as not so much a crisis as a reimagining—which felt very true. If you love language and the kind of book that is irrepressibly spirited even as it grapples with serious questions, check out Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette, who was just named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 this year. And coming in April, get ready for the intense whirlwind that is Melissa Chadburn's debut novel A Tiny Upward Shove: the story of a young woman whose murder transforms her into an aswang—a figure from Filipino folklore—who can see into the lives of everyone she ever met, including the serial killer who took her life. It is a novel that examines our foster care system, the limits of love, the impossibility of justice, and the freedom that comes with mercy.

This will be your fourth time attending the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award: you came in 2019 for Ling Ma’s Severance, again in 2016 for Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, and also in 2012 for Justin Torres’ We the Animals. What do you recall from those experiences? Is there anything special about the award experience that you’re looking forward to again?

I'm not sure what to expect this year, given the hybrid event model, but I remember vividly and fondly that this very much feels like a community-centered award, one that requires the participation of readers from across different parts of the city, celebrates the various participants, and gives everyone an opportunity to create new connections. I will miss talking to everyone after the event and hearing about everyone's favorite books.

What do you find most interesting and/or rewarding about your work as an editor and publisher? What do you find most frustrating about it? And what, if anything, do you wish writers better understood about the publishing process?

The publishing process is not what I want writers to focus on, so much as writing. And “the process” isn't one-size-fits-all, so understanding it takes many, many experiences and is a whole separate field. In some ways I'd give them the same advice I give those who want to work in publishing—the work must be its own reward. And this work is endlessly rewarding! I'm incredibly lucky to be able to do it. It can be frustrating to put a book into the world and—despite its merits and all our efforts—not find the broad readership it deserves. But we can and do still tell ourselves the true story that there's a chance yet for future readers to find it, and surprisingly often I hear from individual readers about books that had a serious impact on them, books that aren't among the ones every reader seems to have picked up that year. As someone whose guides and caretakers have always been books, I never forget the very real way one book can change the world by altering someone's path, expanding their world, comforting their grief, inspiring their own creations. It's immensely exciting and fulfilling to be part of the process of pairing the right book with the right reader, and of helping a writer offer their work to the world with confidence and a full heart.