Author of 'My Monticello' on writing a first book with Buzz

“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms. Jocelyn Nicole ...


“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.


Jocelyn Nicole Johnson has been a public school art teacher for 20 years, but she’s not in her elementary class this fall in Charlottesville, Virginia. His first collection, “My Monticello”five short stories and the book’s title novel – will be released on October 5. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead called “My Monticello” “agile, knowing and electrifying,” and Squire named “My Monticello”, published by Henry Holt, one of the best books of the fall, writing that it “announces the arrival of a new electric literary voice”.

To top it all, Netflix plans to turn the news of the book’s title into a movie. In the short story, which takes place in the near future, a young woman descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and a group of largely black and brown survivors take refuge against marauding white supremacists in Monticello, Jefferson’s estate.

The book is extraordinary for another reason. Mrs Johnson is 50, not the average age of your typical first author. To put it bluntly, the publishing industry is viewed by some business observers as too often a fetish of young writers. So, while 50 is considered relatively young in many circles, it’s rare for a first-time writer to make their way onto the big stage.

The author, who lives in Charlottesville with her husband, a software engineer and photographer, and their 15-year-old son, is thrilled the book is being released to the world, but she’s also a little nervous. “As an art teacher, I can tell myself the kinds of things I would absolutely say to my students,” she said. “You did something, but it wasn’t you.” (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

When did you first start writing?

Writing and art have been my main interests from an early age. I recently found this book which I wrote in fourth grade. We had to write a story, illustrate it and relate it, and mine was called “Prom Queen”. There is a lot of revenge in it, which surprised me. Then when I was a teenager I read SE Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, that brutal coming-of-age story. And I found out that Hinton was published when she was 18, so I decided to write a novel, and I did. I wrote a book when I was 16. I still have copies of this book in a drawer.

When were you first published?

After my teenage years, I put the idea of ​​publishing a book on the back burner until much later in my life. But I loved writing – I wrote all this time – I just didn’t step into publishing my work when I was younger.

In 2017, I submitted a short story about a college professor secretly using his son for a racism research experiment, “Negro control”, In Guernica, and I was delighted when I heard that they were going to publish it. Then it was tweeted by Roxane Gay, who then selected it for Best American Short Stories, a prestigious annual collection. which she edited that year. I would say that was the real beginning of this book, my debut, “My Monticello”, which will make me a 50-year-old literary debutante.

Tell us about your life before this book?

I taught art in public schools for 20 years. Anyone who has taught in public school knows this is a very tough job. Very time-consuming work. It is a job that you are truly committed to.

I was sort of the Mr. Rogers of teachers: standing at my door with a chime and cardigan, welcoming this very large and diverse group of students that we have here in Charlottesville in my classroom.

What do you think is the first step you have taken towards publishing this collection?

I had a moment after posting “Control Negro” where I realized how related this story and other stories I was working on were. And that was through this idea of ​​place, through this idea of ​​Virginie. And through the lenses of racial and environmental anxiety. It was then that I realized that I wanted to publish a collection.

How did you find the courage and the strength to take this first step?

The first step that led to this book – reaching out – came naturally to me because I had been sending my work for so many years. So I used to try. I used to persevere and try – without too many expectations which I think is a nice place. Familiarity with rejection.

Do you remember your first reaction when you found out you had sold the collection? That it was going to be published?

I was teaching virtually at home because of the pandemic. It was June 2020 – the end of the 2020 school year.

It was really exciting but also a little terrifying. A lot of writers, including me, are introverts. And you work very hard to get your book out in the world, but there is also a vulnerability that goes with it. So I sat down at that point, and then I walked around the block with my husband and we debriefed. Because we could see our lives changing. I had to decide if I was going to continue teaching. Finally, I decided, between the book market and the pandemic, to take a break in the classroom.

What have been the biggest challenges on your journey to publishing?

I like to write, but not everything is pleasant. You can see what you want it to be, but it takes a lot of time and experience – and luck – to get your writing where you want it. You often fail. You come up against your own limits.

I wrote about things that mattered a lot to me. Difficult things for our community here in Charlottesville. The collection is partially inspired by the mortal Unite the Right Rally that took place here, as well as the troubled stories of this country dating back to the days of the Founding Fathers. I wanted to make sure I did my best to be honest about my point of view. To write something that hopefully was useful and engaging for people.

Do you wish you had made this book earlier or do you think it was right on time?

I am so happy that this book is my first. It incorporates so much more of my lived experience and my life and my aspirations and hopes.

What are your future plans?

Apparently I’m going to write a second book – because I’m under contract to write a second book. I’ve said to myself so many times in my life, “I think I’m going to take a break from writing. But I still write. So I’m looking forward to what’s next and how I’m handling my expectations again as I get started. Because each book is its own project.

What would you say to people who feel stuck and want to make a difference?

Try something small. Do something different that is manageable. But start. That’s what I would tell the students. You have to start somewhere. Find support. Find the community. And start small.

Did this experience make you a different person?

I think we are constantly changing, and I think we should change. I am a different person now from the teacher who greeted the students at her door, or even different from the one who wrote “My Monticello”. And it is exciting.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the path that got you here?

People are helping you along the way. Even those who don’t say “Yes”. Your first book is not published. And your second book is not published. Maybe your third doesn’t. But that creates the conditions, in a way, for what happens next. The difficulties along the way ultimately make it more satisfying.

What lessons can people learn from your experience?

Accept the rejection and find your people.


We’re looking for people who decide it’s never too late to change course, change their life, and pursue their dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.

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