Monticello and Charlottesville as well as environmental and racial anxieties take center stage in a debut collection on short stories from a local author that’s already been dubbed one of the best books of the fall.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s “My Monticello” hit shelves this week. The longtime Charlottesville resident and former public school art teacher will be at The Haven on Friday for an in-person book launch hosted by The New Dominion Bookshop and WriterHouse. The free event begins at 7 p.m., but the bookshop recommended arriving early; doors open at 6:45 p.m. The Haven is located at 12 W. Market St.
Even before the book was released, critics and best-selling authors praised the work, with Esquire calling it one of the best books of the fall. Netflix already secured the rights for the book’s titular novella, “My Monticello,” and an adaptation is in the works.
“It’s kind of the idea that I had in my head of what could happen but certainly isn’t what happens all the time,” she said, adding that when she sent the book to publishers, she thought it would find a home somewhere. “ … But I certainly didn’t have an expectation of so much attention and care from my publisher and buzz and then certainly didn’t even consider the idea of a movie or anything like that.”
All of this early buzz and anticipation is the fantasy for a debut author but not what Johnson expected, Johnson said.
“So I think it’s really both exciting and a little harrowing to have something get a lot more attention than you anticipated,” she said in an interview before the book’s official release.
The collection includes five short stories and the novella, each of which explores burdened inheritances and extraordinary pursuits of belonging, according to the publisher. In “My Monticello,” a diverse group of Charlottesville neighbors who live on South First Street seek shelter at Monticello after fleeing violent white supremacists who were raiding Black neighborhoods. The story’s protagonist is a descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as well as a University of Virginia student.
“But I really hope that it validates the experience of people who are sometimes ostracized and kind of troubled by some of the extremism and some of the racism that has happened in the present and in the past,” she said of the overall collection. “But I also hope it is a place of reflection for people for whom, maybe, that hasn’t been their experience or their focus toward other people in the community and kind of creates a place where we might reflect. … I think fiction has a way of putting you in the shoes of other people.”
Johnson, 50, has been writing for decades and started trying to get published in the last 10 years. She said this book came together in the last few years. She had finished writing before the murder of George Floyd, the summer protests over police brutality and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“My Monticello” was the last piece she wrote for the book.
The novella is apocalyptic-lite, she said, and thought of it as a cautionary tale. “My Monticello” is set in the near future following an unspecified environmental disaster “that felled trees and flooded City Hall.” The white supremacists arrive in Charlottesville after the power fails.
“I was really looking at more of Aug. 12, 2017, and what would happen if these forces continue,” she said. “… I thought of it as let’s do a thought experiment of what would happen if this naturally pushed forward as a way to say, ‘let’s not go there and let’s do something different.’”
She started working on the book in 2018 after the publication of “Control Negro.” In that short story, which kicks off the collection, a Black college professor secretly observes his own son as part of a social experiment on racism. Near the end of the story, the son was involved in an arrest reminiscent of what happened to Martese Johnson in 2015 when ABC agents forced him to the ground after being turned away from a bar on the Corner. His face was bruised and bloodied during the incident.
Jocelyn Johnson has said that what happened to Martese Johnson inspired “Control Negro.” After that she had the overall idea for the collection.
“I had this idea of Virginia, Charlottesville, environmental and racial anxieties, and this connection of characters,” she said.
For the last two decades, Johnson has been teaching visual arts to area children, including those at Johnson Elementary in Charlottesville.
“Just being in a public school gives you access to so many people,” she said. “I love the project of putting a bunch of people together who may not have been in the same room, who may have things that are very similar about them and where they live but also have a lot of differences. And I think I draw on that just for ideas about how to create characters and community.”
In the novella, her protagonist employs some of the tools that teachers use to build a classroom community when the group takes refuge at Monticello.
“Monticello is kind of a symbol of the past,” she said of the novella’s setting which inspired the story. “It’s a symbol of America’s Promise. It’s a symbol of the founding fathers. It’s a symbol of also slavery, racism, and brutality. And I think it really echoed the themes of the story.”
Johnson will be at Monticello next week for a reading. She’ll be joined by Andrew Davenport, the Monticello Public Historian and director of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project who is also a descendent of the Hemings and Hubbard families who were enslaved at Monticello. The in-person event is fully booked but the reading will be live streamed.
Johnson said Monticello has embraced the collection.
“I’m excited that they’re excited about the project,” she said.