Matt Johnson never read an assigned book in high school. Not because he didn’t like to read, but because he didn’t like reading things other people told him to read.
Cal Poly graduate and a Cliff Notes skimmer, Johnson published his first book earlier this year. During college he decided to change the path he was on. In his junior year he discovered the life of a vagabond and not only embraced the carefree nature but also ended up wandering around unknown cities without a place to stay.
These trips were the subject of the book Johnson began writing as a senior at Cal Poly. He had an interest in words whether they were lyrics from hip-hop songs or from a Steinbeck book he read for outside reading. Johnson set his mind to writing a book and although he doubted himself sometimes, it was published in January.
If you would have asked Johnson what his plans were when he entered college he would not have said an author.
Johnson was one of those kids who thought he would be a professional athlete. After his freshman year at Cal poly, however, he realized that wasn’t the path he wanted to take anymore.
“There was no passion for me,” Johnson said. “I was a left-handed pitcher. I could have gotten drafted. I just realized I didn’t love it anymore.”
But he did have a passion for hip-hop, specifically break dancing. After striking up a friendship with Brian McMullen while living in the dorms, the two found a connection. They both had hobbies that needed a space to be expressed. McMullen wanted to collaborate and mix samples with other DJs and Johnson wanted to dance and also had an interest in graffiti.
Johnson said he enjoys socially conscious hip-hop like Aesop Rock and was tired of going to parties and hearing bands like Journey.
“Instead of looking for the place to go to meet these people, why don’t we create the place?” Johnson said of his idea to start a new club on campus.
It was this drive that helped him and his friends to begin the group currently known on campus as Hip-hop Congress. When it started it was called “SubhhCulture.” This stands for student united by hip-hop culture.
Hip-hop is not the only form of expression Johnson felt a connection with.
“I always had this sort of latent profound respect and admiration for the power of words,” Johnson said.
He eventually realized that his business degree with a focus in marketing was not what he wanted anymore. He proposed his own concentration called “The business of entertainment writing” to the dean of business, who approved it.
Shortly after this was approved, Johnson wanted to take a plane somewhere, anywhere. After talking with his friends, he said they decided to stop being hypocrites and be spontaneous.
While walking into the library during finals week his junior year he pointed at a plane in the sky and told his friend Matt Ulinski, also known as Fumble, “let’s do that.”
That desire was the keystone for Johnson’s adventures that would eventually become the subject of his book.
The idea was that if a plane is about to take off and not all of the seats have been sold then the airline should sell the remaining tickets for cheap.
Even though it wasn’t exactly that easy, Johnson and Fumble secured seats on a plane for nearly free. They slapped a $20 bill on the counter and proposed that the lady behind the counter should sell them planes tickets for this amount. After she insisted that she could not even though there were empty seats they did not give up.
Eventually she told them about “buddy passes” that employees get and can share with family and friends. This allows the person with the pass to pay $25-$30 for each plane ride of the trip but it had to be a destination within the airline’s routes.
While Johnson and Ulinski’s dreams of ending up in Paris didn’t seem like it would be possible, the two did take a plane that day to Phoenix for their first trip.
The main rules for the adventures were: no predetermined destinations, no cities where they knew people and the umbrella rule – don’t spend money.
While this seems like a crazy idea it soon became second nature for Johnson and the various friends who would accompany him on his adventures.
Whether they slept in bathroom stalls, parks, outside furniture, benches or empty movie theaters they never checked into a hotel. Johnson said bathroom stalls became more of a standard.
“(I was) literally sitting in a bathroom stall propped up against a stall partition,” Ulinski said of their trip to Las Vegas. He said it was hard to sleep for longer than 30 to 40 minutes.
But this doesn’t mean they didn’t use hotel services to check their luggage in, assuring employees they would return later to check into the hotel.
When returning from some of his trips he would document them in a short essay. These would later become part of his book.
In “Life on Standby” Johnson presents three motifs: whimsy-adventure, social commentary and love. These motifs are woven over the period of the year when Johnson took his trips. They were not planned so there wasn’t a schedule and some during seasons where he took more trips than others. This was also because they had no predetermined destinations so they didn’t know where they could end up if they went to the airport in the middle of January.
Just like Johnson didn’t plan his trips, he didn’t originally plan to turn his stories of his trips into a book.
When he graduated from college he knew there were expectations. People expected him to do something with the degree he had just received. But Johnson could not wrap his mind around working in an office.
When he told his parents he was going to write a book, they were supportive.
“I was always someone who had fleeting passions,” Johnson said. “They probably figured that in two weeks I would say I was going to go train dolphins.”
But two weeks later, Johnson was not buying a wetsuit and learning about porpoises. Instead he was still aiming at becoming a published author.
There were times when he questioned his goals and his purpose. But less than two years after Johnson started writing, he was writing inscriptions in his books as he sent them out to readers.
“There were times I thought that maybe it was a waste of time and I thought that people weren’t going to dig my writing,” he said. “I just kept reading other books and realizing how I felt when I read those books and how it would feel to get other people to feel that way.”
Some of Johnson’s favorite authors include Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers, David Sedaris and early books from Chuck Palahniuk. Johnson has been influenced by the writing styles of these authors but has developed a very unique style of his own.
With lots of imagery, tangents and creative sentence structure Johnson’s work tries to pull readers into his experiences and put them in the scene with him and his other characters.
In the first chapter, Johnson introduces Ulinski and uses more than a page to explain the reasoning for calling him Fumble. After exploring this tangent he jumps right back into the flight they are trying to take.
Whether the scene is at Cal Poly, the swings at Avila beach, in another city or on a plane, readers can be with Johnson.
Johnson wanted to get his story into people’s hands. He and his manager, Brad Fuhrman, and his designer, Scott Holtog began contacting publishers about his book. After working with companies like ICM, Random House and Harper Collins, Johnson saw that this process was going to take longer than he was willing to wait. They decided to publish the book themselves with the changes the publishers had suggested.
“We will just succeed as much as we can independently and then show them the numbers, show them testimonials, show them that there is a demand for it and basically get picked up that way,” he said.
Johnson would not settle for less than perfect. When he was sent the unbound mach-up book he didn’t like the bright white paper so he special ordered the paper he wanted and printed 300 copies of his book with his own money.
He picked up the book Jan. 22 and within the first three weeks had sold about 230 copies. Johnson said the plan is to promote the book and try to get a publishing company to republish it.
“This could go nowhere,” Johnson said. “If it just stopped now, it would still be here. My story is written.”