Q&A with Catherine Johnson ’20, winner of the Nick Adams Short Story Contest

Catherine Johnson ’20, a political science major from Galesburg, Illinois, recently took the top honor in the Nick Adams Short Story Contest.

Apr. 19, 2019

Catherine Johnson '20

Catherine Johnson ’20, a political science major from Galesburg, Illinois, took the top honor in the 2019 Nick Adams Short Story Contest sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The award, named for the protagonist of many Hemingway stories, celebrates the creativity and talent of student writers at the 14 ACM colleges.

We caught up with Johnson to learn more about her story, “Coming of Age in the Modern Midwest,” and her work as a writer.

Tell us about your story, “Coming of Age in the Modern Midwest.” What can you share about the plot?

This story revolves around the protagonist's changing perceptions of a fair in her hometown. It reflects her evolving relationships with her town and the people around her as she grows up.

How did you come up with the idea for the story, and what was your writing process like?

I based a large portion of this story on my own experiences growing up at different summer carnivals. After a shooting in my hometown, I wrote down all of my memories associated with these fairs, and then mashed them together and put some twists into them to try to process my feelings about what had happened.

The final judge for the Nick Adams Short Story Contest said you were able to “achieve an electric sense of place.” That’s incredible feedback. How did you get there?

My story was integrally tied into two larger settings: the town of the fair and the carnival itself. I tried to play with letting the fairground reflect the larger reality of the town. I thought a lot about the very tactile nature of this setting and used description to communicate deeper feelings about broader themes that I threaded through the piece. I also tried to think about what someone who had never been to one of these would need to understand them.

Tell us about your work as a writer. How long have you been writing?

I have always loved reading, which segued into a love of writing. Ever since elementary school I have dabbled with writing to some degree. However, it was really in the last year or so that I began to take my writing seriously and devote time to it more systematically.

How has your experience at Carleton affected the way you approach storytelling?

The breadth of writing I have engaged with at Carleton has definitely stretched me as a writer. My experiences at Carleton have shaped the kinds of stories that I want to tell.

What’s next for you as a writer? Are more short stories in your future?

I want to experiment with more types of writing — I have recently gotten into poetry, and that has been really fun. I would love to write some articles. Writing has gradually taken a more central place in my life, so I will probably write another short story or two before too long, but right now all I have are a few ideas.