Harriet McBryde Johnson was born in 1957 in eastern North Carolina and has lived most of her life in Charleston, South Carolina.
She attended self-contained special-education classes until age 13, when she was invited to leave because she was campaigning to get the teacher fired. At that time, there was no right to appeal; she would have been limited to home-bound instruction had her parents not convinced a private high school to give her a try. She has a B.S. in history from Charleston Southern University (1978), a Master's in Public Administration from the College of Charleston (1981), and the J.D. from the University of South Carolina (1985). For over 13 years, she has practiced law in Charleston, the past 10 years in solo practice. Before becoming a lawyer, she worked as a freelance technical writer/editor, a college sociology instructor, and a community organizer. She is active in a variety of political and disability organizations and currently chairs the Democratic Party for the City of Charleston.
"My professional and political life is all about using words to influence behavior," she says. "Persuading people requires conveying information, surely, but also eliciting emotions. Whether I'm writing a legal brief for a judge, an eye-catching press release or broadside, or a short letter to a semi-literate client, the basic challenge is the same."
She has published various kinds of nonfiction, primarily in professional publications and the disability press. Examples include: "Power Dressing" (December 1998) and "Return to Cuba" (May 1998), in New Mobility; "Eminent Domain" (1993) and "Blasphemy" (1991) (encyclopedia articles), in South Carolina Jurisprudence; "The Americans with Disabilities Act: some highlights for South Carolina Lawyers" (1991), in South Carolina Lawyer; "Who is handicapped?: Defining the protected class under the employment provisions of Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973" (1981), in Review of Public Personnel Administration; and "David meets Leviathan: Remarks on myth, attitude, and the political articulation of protest in the Great Tax Revolt of 'Seventy-eight" (1981), in Perspectives on Taxing and Spending Limitations in the United States.
"I turned to fiction when nonfiction failed me," she says. "I had written and spoken quite extensively about disability issues, but I wasn't managing to convey what I wanted to say about the disability experience. I tried memoir. I started essays. I did lots of polemic. Nothing worked. Then I created a character and a story, and put them in the world of my childhood and youth -- what we called the Crip World. Right away I found I could not only talk about my subject in a new way, but experience it afresh."
Johnson is still working on that first fiction project, a short novel whose working title is Accidents of Nature. In addition, she has written a few short stories, of which "Marriage of Convenience" is the first written and the first to be published.
As a teller of tales, Johnson comes from an oral tradition. "I live in a place where story telling is a treasured part of every day life. Usually, stories come from real experience, but people expect stories to improve with each telling. You reorder events, sharpen the dialogue, heighten the humor, even create a punch line. But the story must always remain close enough to the original event that no one will call you a liar. Writing fiction is a joy, because you can lie all you want -- and maybe in lying tell a different kind of truth."