Chelsey Johnson still suffers from “punk damage.” Just ask rocker Carrie Brownstein.
Johnson, who grew up in northern Minnesota before moving to Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000s, draws on that experience in her debut novel, “Stray City” (Custom House, $25.99), which subverts expectations about 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.
Johnson teaches at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and is a writer on Brownstein’s upcoming television show, “Search and Destroy.” Brownstein is a member of the band Sleater-Kinney, a co-creator and star of IFC’s “Portlandia,” and the author of a memoir, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.” They discussed “Stray City” before an event at the West Hollywood (California) Library. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You mentioned that at a recent book tour event someone asked about “punk damage.” What’s punk damage?
CHELSEY 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.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN I just worked with you. You have the most insane punk damage.
JOHNSON 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.
BROWNSTEIN It’s interesting because you grew up middle class. It would make sense of if you grew up with food insecurity or something.
In “Stray City” queer identity is the norm and heterosexuality is deviant. Did you set out to write a novel that flipped the script?
JOHNSON Yes. That was really the intent. 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.
So I knew she’d gotten pregnant and had a thing with this guy, and I wanted to show — at least in my experience of [the lesbian] community — how completely strange that would be. When we’re talking about [the movies] “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.
There’s 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 writing?
JOHNSON 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?
BROWNSTEIN I think you interviewed my band for Out magazine.
JOHNSON I did! We ran in a music crowd.
So you’re old friends?
BROWNSTEIN Almost 20 years now.
JOHNSON Twenty years? But we’re only, like, 25 years old.
BROWNSTEIN I know, so it’s weird. We’ve know each other since preschool.