The Rumpus Interview with Adam Johnson

By

I recently sat down with Adam Johnson at Reverie Cafe in San Francisco to discuss his new book Fortune Smiles. This collection of six stories sinuously transports its reader through indelible settings like New Orleans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Hohenschönhausen prison eighteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Silicon Valley in a Black Mirror-esque future that is complete with a digital simulacrum of Kurt Cobain, and, in the title story, a return to Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning subject of North Korea.

Johnson’s stories use the motifs of defectors, prison guards, technology, cancer, and even Alcoholics Anonymous (or Anonyme Alkoholiker if you’re a Stasi Prison Warden) to elucidate themes of heartbreak, vulnerability, human mettle, and immortality. The stories have won awards like the lucrative Sunday Times short story prize, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories. They have appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, and last summer’s Tin House, where I previously read the terrifyingly amazing “Dark Meadow.”

Johnson is an associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University. He founded the Stanford Graphic Novel Project and was named “one of the nation’s most influential and imaginative college professors” by Playboy. Johnson wrote The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013, the short story collection Emporium, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award in 2003.

***

The Rumpus: In your first story, “Nirvana,” there is a switch from first person to second person. It is the only time it is done. It happens subjectively at the most poignant moment of the story where the narrator is explaining a preceding event, which results in the current medical condition of his wife:

“Please, honey,” you say. “Get on the gurney.” Soon you behold the glycerin glow of your wife’s spinal fluid. And she’s right. She doesn’t get up again… to soothe her I read from Joseph Heller’s memoir about contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome.

How do you think writing in the second person affects the reader in general and was there something more specific you were aiming for? Does second person allow the reader a sense of participation?

Adam Johnson: The second person is out there at the end of the periodic table of point of view. It is mercurial, a complicated thing. Maddening when not used well. It is difficult because the second person personal is singular and plural, hence the need for “ya’ll.” We also use it to form the imperative. A properly used second person can seem like you are being commanded to do something as a reader; people love that. What I think is the most interesting about the second person is that it is the pronoun with which most persons refer to themselves inside their own mind. It is something you would never let out. So while as the first person is an externalized, orchestrated voice with an inherent sense of audience to it, the second person is very personal, private, an unsentimental voice with which we speak only to ourselves. When I use the second person, I try to capture that.

Rumpus: Where an analogously relatable writer such as George Saunders is more of a surrealist, acting as a neologist of futuristic jargon–Verbaluce™, Darkenfloxx, ED556, et cetera, from his short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” you, however, jump right into a reader’s ability to authenticate your story with references to code writing, freeware protocol, hundred-key-seven-layer encryptions, slave codes, and even open sourced algorithms based off a Linux operating kernel. As a San Francisco writer living in the heart of the technology world, how much research goes into a character like the one from “Nirvana,” who works for the company Reputation Curator?

Johnson: A ton. I went online and looked up hash readers and actually started using a hash reader. The real badge of honor for me was when the magazine Popular Mechanics did an article on that short story “Nirvana” and they talked to some experts on holograms, and scrubbing the web, and they asked them if the story could be real. And they said it could. I was like, Fuck yeah. We are in a world now where technology is everywhere. I drive from Interstate 280 down to Palo Alto where I teach and the Google self-driving cars pass me all the time. They drive about eighty miles-per-hour. I saw my first one about five years ago. I’ll never forget it. I was driving and this car went by me, it was a pretty nondescript car, with two dudes in it, young Google engineers, like twenty-six, and they are facing each other in the seats and no one was watching the road. They were just eating burritos and talking. But that’s the world we are in. I’ll be on the Stanford campus and a solar-powered robot will go zooming across the quad, and shit like that just happens all the time.

Rumpus: I can think of many novels where the plot was bent unrealistically under a penumbra of a lack of technological knowledge. How do you think technology will affect modern writing in genres such as crime, mystery, and thrillers?

Johnson: I enjoyed writing about North Korea because I didn’t have to face the technology of South Korea. And the book I’m writing now is set in pre-history and I don’t have to deal with texts. I wonder about this genre because there is no way people can commit crimes anymore. All personal experiences can be retrieved if they happen in public. There is this guy who invents this ball cap and you can’t really tell, but it is covered in these IR infrared LED diodes and so because we can’t see the spectrum we don’t see that they’re strobing all the time. Most all of these closed-circuit security cameras film using infrared, and most anywhere you go you have these IR cameras on you in banks, elevators, et cetera, but this hat flashes a strobe that blinds the cameras. I want one of these hats for the future. I also think this genre is often driven by the control of information and withholding. Who knows what, when, how the secrets get transferred, how is information revealed, how was the discovery made. I was just talking to a table full of young writers not too long ago and I asked them how do they handle that someone is tweeting and updating every moment now. I asked if they were embracing that and they were like oh no. We are avoiding it. It ruins your story if anyone can talk at any moment, if no one has any private time to build up expectations, or to let their uncertainties percolate.

Rumpus: In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” “Hurricane Anonymous,” and “Fortune Smiles” there is a motif of anonymity. Is the anonymity in these stories indicative of the relationship that anyone could be these characters suffering along with loved ones? Does it allow your readers the opportunity to point at their own circumstances reflected by these stories and say, that’s me?

Johnson: I don’t think about my work in these complex literary motivations. I’m not an intellectual in that way. About “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” I was in Germany and through a lark I visited the Hohenschönhausen prison and it blew my mind. I went on a personal tour with the guy who curates what is now a museum and he just told me that the old warden still lives in the neighborhood and how he walks his dog around the prison every morning. I asked what he was like and he said he’d never spoken to him.

That detail came back to me months later and it gnawed at me, this old guy walking his dog around what was once a prison and is now memorial against everything that he stood for. And I started researching this prison and who this guy was and how does he live with his delusions. And the curator also told me the old guards come through in disguises to make videos to prove that everything the tour guides are saying is wrong, because it is very un-German like. Germans like a regulatory and uniformity to information. When the wall fell, everyone rushed the Stasi headquarters and everyone rushed the GDR establishment, but this place was a secret interrogation prison.

So it was another year until it was discovered and stormed. The guards had a year to destroy all the records. Now it is a place of mystery. The guides are former inmates so their experience are guided by emotion, and trauma, and terror, and uncertainty. When you were taken to the prison, the guards would drive you around for hours before entering it. They did this to confuse the inmates on its location, but the prison was actually in a residential neighborhood in the center of Berlin. One of the rules of the prison was you never saw another inmate or human being. So the guides who give the tour only know what it felt like to be there and so it’s subjective. Every tour you take is different because every inmates experience was different. It is very new and controversial to the Germany people to have a subjective portrait of something, and so it is very easy for the old guards to go and say that wasn’t true because the experience were impressionistic.

I wasn’t really trying to get at anything anonymous there, the records just all were destroyed. As for “Fortune Smiles,” since 1951 there have been 27,000 defectors. There are a lot of defectors in South Korea. But, when you think of a country of tens-of-millions of people, it isn’t really that many. And unless you were looking for a defector, you could go your whole life in South Korea and not see one. The last I was in Seoul, I asked everyone I met if they knew a defector. And unless they were some sort of activist, most normal people said no. One time, I was at a fancy event where there was a defector that I knew. The defector used to be a musician in Pyongyang and was playing for us. I was sitting next to this big business man and I asked if he had ever met a defector and he said no. I said you see that man right there, he is a defector, let’s go talk to him. He’s a nice I guy, I know him. The business man said he didn’t think he could. I told the business man that his name is Wu, and he’s a very wonderful person. And the business man said he just couldn’t do it because there is too much narrative distance between them.

I think we have the same equivalent of anonymousness in America right now with our soldiers. We have a small percentage of our citizens who have gone off to war and are now returning after fighting for the values of the entire system. They walk amongst us and you see them at the airport. I see them all the time in their fatigues and you know they’ve served. Probably seen some things, and yet I’ve never really met them. I don’t know any veterans expect for a few suits at Stanford and a couple of writers. So why don’t I get up and walk over to them and ask them their names, where they served, what was their experience. We don’t do that because they’re going to give us a story and we’re going to have to receive it all, and that story maybe troubling. We might not have anything to say to that story about how they suffered serving for all of us. And we would have to walk away with the weight of that story and maybe feel impotence as to what to do with such a personal narrative.

Rumpus: “Interesting Facts” is a fictionalized autobiographical account from your wife’s perspective on her battle with cancer. Why did you decide to create a “fictional” version rather than write an essay or a non-fiction account?

Johnson: I’m a fiction writer. I process things through fiction.

Rumpus: What is the difference between therapeutic writing and storytelling? By using fiction are you looking to draw the reader in differently?

Johnson: If I was a comic’s artist, I would have written a graphic novel and if I was a composer I would have made an opera about it. Fiction is just how my mind does things. I will say that Adam the Writer will get interested in a topic, usually it is something that is partially seen that simulates the imagination, and I begin completing that or making sense of it enough to flush something out. And once you get the story in motion, you have a character, and a scenario, and a voice, and a setting, and then something starts to happen. It really does its own job. The writing works under its own command. I often find the results just as surprising as anyone.

Rumpus: All of your stories have open endings, but they lean toward hopeful outcomes rather than the doomed. Is there something particular in these stories that resists resolution or closure? Are the endings designed in a mimetic likeness to their themes?

Johnson: It’s funny. I just got interviewed by someone who said the opposite, that all my endings were dark. He said you’re a pessimist, aren’t you? You have a paralyzed woman hugging a guy who killed himself. So I was like yeah, I guess that is a little dark. You know, I don’t think the stories are open ended. When you start a story there are a thousand doors you can do through. And at the end of the story, there is one. And there is only one place the story can go because you’ve made all these choices, and ever choice limits it, ever decision you make brings about inevitability. What’s beautiful is when that inevitability can be surprising, you don’t see it coming. All the elements in the story have been telling you this must happen. Kurt Cobain must come back to life, the wife must meet a hologram, and there is nothing else that could happen.

I think there are a couple traps that are just part of existing. One is that we are trapped in time, that we know the past intimately through memory, but we can never access it again. And you can never go backward. And the future is absolutely unknown. All we have is the moment. That is why I think scene-based realism is so powerful and it is not a trend in writing. It perfectly mimics what it is to be us. I will say that narrative is so perfect because we know it is composed, we know that the story is all written, we know it has a conclusion, that there is predetermination. But as you read it, you don’t know what the ending is because you read it line by line, it is a linear art form. And so you experience it sentence by sentence, moment by moment, like life and even though the ending is predetermined, you don’t have access to it like real life.

You can be surprised, something must happen, and there is no choice to it. I think that fulfills both ends of that trap at once and is very satisfying. The other trap that we are in is that we will never enter the mind of another; we will never leave our own perspective. That’s why I think many of our big moments in life are our testimonials. We swear to what’s really going on in our mind. I love you, I’ll never leave you, or that I’ll marry you, or that you were a great person. I swear to it because we can never confirm what another person is thinking. Let alone what it is like to be them. But that’s the whole point of literary narrative. It is designed to transcend this trap that we’re in. You must enter other perspectives. It’s the whole point of it. And in literature we can do it in a way that music, and movies, and paintings never will. And when these two things are working together you can have a really tremendous experience.

Rumpus: You manage to capture so many distinct voices from Mr. Rose, to DJ, to Hans, to perhaps my favorite, the wife from “Interesting Facts,” without being seen on the page. How do you pick the voices you want to represent? How do you escape solipsistic writing?

Johnson: You know I do love to research. I have a degree in journalism. I love to interview. One of the great things about research, especially interviewing, is that you get real stories from real humans who have had experience, have processed it and have put it into a narrative in a certain kind of way. Whether it is a hurricane survivor or a North Korean defector, when someone gives you an emotionally real story that is the benefit of struggle in their own lives, that is a very important thing and something I use as a way to measure the emotionality of my story. In the realm of North Korean defectors, I don’t really take their stories as much as hear the power of them. What I write has to live up to that whether it is a surprising story, a humorous story, or a dark story.

Or, like in “Nirvana,” I hear lots of stories about Silicon Valley and life here and I have to capture that weirdness or uniqueness. A lot of the story “Nirvana” is very personal so I didn’t have to research, for example, a wife being sick. When my wife was in the hospital many times for her own illnesses, I was writing that story. I remember one day I was talking to a nurse and I was like, do you have a Hoyer Lift? I asked if we could play with it. She pulled one out for me and the nurse and I started rolling it down the hallway and putting my kids in it and lifting them up and down. I asked the nurse if she had ever treated anyone with Guillain-Barré and she said yes, but she knew a nurse who was an expert on it and we went down the hall to talk to her. She gave me all these stories about people with Guillain-Barré. I went and haunted the Guillain-Barré chatrooms to hear the tenor of their voices. It is just the kind of writer I am.

I will say as a younger writer, I was using lots of autobiographical material. I was using my own experiences, my own upbringing, my own family, and my first two books deal with my personal experience directly. I think many writers do that same thing. The test is whether other people are going to find it meaningful or not. There was a turning point in my writing at which I just really wanted to write fiction not about myself, but about others. I became very interested in voices we don’t normally hear. I think if there is something unifying in my work it is that. There wasn’t a portrait of North Korea from the perspective I was looking for so I started to write it. When I went to Germany and I had that weird experience at that interrogation prison I became really curious about the Stasi. I wondered if there was a great memoir from a Stasi officer. And everyone was like there can be no such thing in our country. No one would ever write that, no one would ever read it. And I couldn’t find one anywhere. My German translator and publicist were very nervous about my George Orwell story. They said that there is no such thing in Germany as this and you are going to rile a lot of people up. So that story wasn’t really about capturing a voice or a certain point of view. It was about my mind partially seeing something and my mind starting to complete it. My first move towards that completion was trying to find a narrative. And when that wasn’t there, I was like I have to make it.

Same as the North Korean defector story. I inadvertently in Orphan Master’s Son gave the impression that all you had to do was get out of North Korea and life was better even though I knew from all these defectors that their struggles had just begun, or new struggles they had never seen coming had just begun. And people do occasionally re-defect, they can’t handle it. There wasn’t a story about that and I just wanted to fill that emptiness. I wanted to use my talent to make something that was missing. You know, where is the great Hurricane Katrina novel? One thing I tell my student is the odds that you are going to be a good storyteller and that you’re going to have an important story to tell are really rare. So you have to be on the lookout for other peoples’ stories that are important and for whatever reason they can’t tell it. For “Fortune Smiles,” I interviewed two defectors and this was their story in North Korea and this was their experience in the south.

Rumpus: Even though Fortune Smiles is not a traditional story cycle it stills manages to weave connective tissue throughout in themes and statements, some of the stories even reference other stories. Was this connectivity intended, an afterthought arrangement, or has mining literature allowed a reader’s apophenia to taken over? I went to AA in three countries during Fortune Smiles.

Johnson: There is no David Mitchell-like reward for reading my work closely. Nabokov used to do stuff like that, but for me, if it is in there, it is all accidental. It was interesting researching Louisiana. I went there with my tape recorder, my camera, and slept on couches and interviewed dozens of people. When all the systems fail, when the power goes out, when the cell towers go down, when you can’t call 911, that’s when you begin wondering what systems keep working and to my surprise it was Walmart, and it was UPS who kept working. If you could find a way to order something, UPS would deliver it to you. Also, churches kept giving services and working, and AA meetings kept running because the people running them knew this would be a hard time to stay sober. So that’s the American truth. When the sheriff’s gone, when the utilities aren’t working and no one is coming to fix them, that’s America: AA meetings, Churches, Walmart, and UPS. I wasn’t trying to put AA in different stories. I was just trying to write the truth.

Rumpus: I recently attended your panel for writing on North Korea at the Asia Society of Northern California. We listened to defector Joseph Kim speak about the biggest challenges North Koreans will face assimilating back to modern society when the time comes. He shared that the most important factor will be how the South will accept the citizens from the North. This idea seemed shared between other panelists including foreign British diplomat in NK, Mike Cowin, as well as Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. In your title story, “Fortune Smiles,” you take on this idea from a different angle. What would you pose are the biggest challenges citizens of North Korea will face?

Johnson: One of the great experts on North Korea is a woman named Barbara Demick, she is a reporter for the LA Times. She said out of all the people who defect the most successful defectors are middle-aged women. She said that young people when they get out are often very angry, they feel betrayed, and that everything had been a lie. Older people were too set in their ways, and inflexible and with that transitioning to a new life was very difficult. She also said there was a difference between women and men, that women were generally more flexible and embracing of a new world. They had to be so malleable to survive in the north that they could handle it. North Korea is not a monolithic place either, if you went to Oklahoma and said these are Americans, well that wouldn’t be fully true, just like if you went to New York and said the same thing. Pyongyang is a city of educated elites, and their lives are vastly different from people who live out in the country. I think the challenges will depend on your status in that society, your region, your experience when you left, your age, and your gender. It is probably a different story for all those groups. It would be hard to generalize.

Rumpus: After much success with The Orphan Master’s Son and many of your stories from Fortune Smiles, what are you working on now?

Johnson: I’m working on a novel. I’m almost halfway. It is a big, crazy, weird novel that’s is requiring tons of research. It takes place in pre-history and there is a parrot. Nobody is tweeting, nobody is status updating, no texts. The most effective means of communicating are training your parrots.


Joseph Rakowski received his bachelor’s degree in criminology from Florida State University and is pursuing his M.F.A. in fiction at the University of San Francisco. Follow him @josephrakowski. More from this author →