Local Writer Chelsey Johnson’s Impressive Debut Novel Is a Coming-of-Age Story Set in ’90s-Era Portland 

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Kara Thomson

Andrea Morales is a 24-year-old from Nebraska whose religious parents stop paying her college tuition after discovering she is a lesbian.

Adrift and penniless, she starts screen-printing with Portland, Oregon's "lesbian mafia," hanging out with musicians and artists, creating a new family where she can love who she loves. But she didn't plan on a breakup with a woman that would send her, drunk one night, into the arms of Ryan, the drummer for a perennially-about-to-break rock band, Cold Shoulder. He's a nice guy, but still -- a guy.

This is the setup for "Stray City," the poignant and funny debut novel by Richmond-based writer Chelsey Johnson, an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary. It's hardly surprising anymore to learn about a major writing talent living in Richmond, a city still affordable for artists (Knock on whatever's closest to you. Now, please).

Johnson has written a confident, pitch-perfect book set in the queer art scene of Portland in the '90s, one that hits all its emotional notes beautifully and feels true in its meticulous details. The author lived there during most of the 2000s.

"Andrea's family is not my family, mine are pretty liberal Lutherans. They've been supportive of me. But what happens to her is similar to what has happened to a lot of people I've known," Johnson says by phone from Los Angeles, where she's writing scripts for a Hulu television project called "Search and Destroy," based on the memoir of her friend, musician, actor and author Carrie Brownstein ("Portlandia").

Of course, "Stray City" has a twist: During Andrea's illicit, confusing affair with Ryan, she becomes pregnant and soon must deal with the fallout within her tight-knit scene — not to mention what to do about the baby and lovesick father, a hot mess in his own reserved way.

"She's up against the limits of not just her identity, but who she can fall in love with," Johnson says. "At heart she's gay." What could easily have gone off the rails in the hands of a lesser writer becomes a moving parable on the importance of finding one's inner voice and listening to it, as a human being and a young artist.

Johnson is a formidable talent. She earned a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford University, mentored by Tobias Wolfe ("a great model in the classroom, very supportive"), John L'Heureux and Elizabeth Tallent ("my first and only queer woman teacher") and a graduate degree from the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop.

In one resonant passage of the book, the author describes her protagonist's realization that her progressive clique of friends is just as close-minded, in some ways, as those she escaped in rural Nebraska (Johnson grew up in Minnesota):

"I thought about some of the most dogmatic anarchist punks I'd known, whose parents turned out to be bankers and oilmen. I thought of the class-discussion radicalism police who leaped to call out everyone else on their shit, desperate to cover their own. … It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we'd formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic."

Johnson explains that the novel started with an exercise: Write a story about a bad decision made for good reasons. It all began with the hapless male, who bails on his life and is stranded in a remote place, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend. But that was overdone and too boring, she says, so she changed the girlfriend to a lesbian to keep her own interest: "When I went into Andrea's point of view, that took over the whole book."

The author's intimate knowledge of the working lives of musicians is evident ("Everybody in Portland plays in bands," she says.) Johnson grew up playing music and has always immersed herself in punk scenes, she says, noting that as she embraced her identity as feminist and queer, music became a haven.

Her book, which is being published this week by Custom House/HarperCollins on March 20, has a broad national media campaign and is already receiving raves.

Johnson says she is working on a second novel as well as a possible nonfiction book about a gay utopian movement from the 1970s in California. She's been spending research time at One Archives, the largest gay and lesbian archives in the country at the University of Southern California. "I've really been into queer history lately," she says, adding that she was fascinated by Richmond's own secret history after attending a Triangle Players' talk a few years ago.

It might surprise some to learn that Johnson hasn't found Richmond to be lacking compared to her beloved Portland. "Richmond is still pretty cheap, it hasn't gentrified at the same rate as Portland. A friend came to visit and said Richmond feels like Portland did 10 years ago," she says. Besides, this city still has Babe's of Carytown while Portland's only lesbian bar "got torn down and turned into condos," she says.

Like her characters, Johnson enjoys karaoke and found a favorite local spot: "Yes! Lakeside Tavern on Mondays. It's amazing. The KJ [karaoke jockey] is like a radio announcer and has an applause meter, like a laugh track. But the best thing is there's a senior citizen lady with a tambourine who plays on every song." S

Chelsey Johnson will read from "Stray City" at Babe's of Carytown with Chop Suey Books on Sunday, March 25, from 2 to 5 p.m. There may or may not be karaoke afterward. Free.


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