Johanna Stoberock has always been a writer. Her storytelling started young: “I guess growing up I always wrote. It was something that I really loved doing. I was a huge reader and kept a journal for years and years” said Stoberock, a senior adjunct assistant professor of English and General Studies at Whitman College.
But Stoberock hasn’t always been a fiction writer. It wasn’t until after college, while working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company in New York, that she started writing fiction.
“I found that there was a kind of depression that often happens when people enter the workforce after college, and I just felt that there was a sense of meaning-making missing in my life,” she said.
A group of Stoberock’s friends had formed a writing group, and she decided to join. They wrote and shared short stories and poems, encouraging one another to explore new forms of writing.
“As soon as I started writing prose fiction, it just kind of clicked and I realized that was where my writing should be focused,” Stoberock said.
Her passion and skill in fiction was acknowledged last fall: She received the Artist Trust 2019 Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. The award is an unrestricted grant of $10,000 given to an artist in Washington state that engages in storytelling through their artistic discipline.
“I feel like there is something about this award that says, ‘Keep up the daily discipline of writing, because we have faith that at the end of the process, you will have written something that we will respond to in a meaningful way,’” she said.
Stoberock credits figuring out how to write fiction to a piece that a friend wrote about his sister. In the story, his sister is walking down the street and when she turns the corner, she instantly becomes something else. Stoberock imagines her own writing taking these sudden, abrupt turns.
“I begin by thinking very closely about something that I can watch in the real world and then I have it turn-off from the trajectory of the real world and enter into the fictional word,” she said.
When it comes to the content of her stories, Stoberock draws inspiration from the world around her. Many stories occur to her while she is reading, watching TV or in the rich discussions she has with students, particularly in Encounters, which she has been teaching at Whitman for a number of years.
“The observations that my students make about the world and the discipline and rigor that they bring to classroom discussion feeds me enormously as a fiction writer,” she said.
One of the writing assignments that students complete in her composition class is an imaginary Watson grant proposal.
“I want my students to know that these kinds of opportunities exist,” she said. As a writer, Stoberock is keyed into the many awards and grants available and she understands how applying for these awards often takes many attempts. For Stoberock, 2019 was not the first time she had applied to Artist Trust.
For the LaSalle Storyteller Award, Stoberock submitted her recent novel “Pigs” and a short-story titled “The Strange Case of Ingrid P.” Both pieces are not realistic fiction and for Stoberock represent moments in which she stumbled upon new forms of fiction. “Pigs” is an environmental fable about the garbage of the real world washing up on the shores of an uncharted island inhabited by children and a herd of giant, magical pigs. “The Strange Case of Ingrid P” is about a woman who will not accept that humans can only live one life.
“The strange thing about her is that she wanders through her life and constantly sees other Ingrid’s peeling off and living lives that are sometimes just slightly different from the one that she herself lives and sometimes radically different,” she said of the character.
Both stories are propelled by the untraditional. “The Strange Case of Ingrid P.” is driven by the character’s desires and the complexity and richness of the multitude of lives she dreams of. “Pigs” juggles the reality of today’s environmental problems while playing with the form of the novel.
“With ‘Pigs,’ there are a number of really short chapters that consist of lists of things we throw away. There are some chapters that are only one or two sentences. I included them because I was trying to figure out ways to give a really intense charge to the page and then to back off,” she said.
While her writing may seem whimsical, experimental and free-flowing, for Stoberock, writing is regimented process.
“I do best if I have a set time of day that I write with a clear beginning and ending. I save my creative thinking for that window of time and as soon as I sit down, inspiration just comes.” she said. Since publishing “Pigs” in October 2019, Stoberock has been busy writing for publication promotion purposes and hasn’t been able to use as much of her writing time for fiction as she would like. With the benefit of the LaSalle Grant, Stoberock hopes to explore the possibility of attending a writing residency to focus on her creative work.
While she isn’t always writing fiction, Stoberock stresses the importance of routine.
“For me, the writing practice has to stay the same and has to be there in good times and bad, because it is the structure of it that carries you along.”
Stoberock is a featured writer for the college’s 2019-2020 Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the English Department with support from the Mabel Groseclose Fund. She will give a public talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, in the Kimball Theatre.