Adam Johnson is Associate Professor of English with emphasis in creative writing at Stanford University. A Whiting Writers' Award winner, his fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, Playboy, Paris Review, Granta, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award. His novel The Orphan Master's Son has just been published by Random House. His books have been translated into sixteen languages. Johnson was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.
This interview was conducted over the phone and transcribed by Interview Editor Jamie Acevedo. He said of the process, "getting the chance to interview Mr. Johnson has been a long standing ambition of mine. I first became aware of his writing when his short story 'Teen Sniper' was assigned in a creative writing class as a model for the use of dramatic tension in fiction and I greatly enjoyed his debut short story collection Emporium and novel Parasites Like Us in which the author demonstrates his unique voice and perspective." In the interview Mr. Johnson discusses his newest novel The Orphan Master's Son as well as the current model for educating aspiring writers and the role of isolation, loss, and climax in fiction.
Superstition Review: You earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Arizona State. Why did you decide to pursue an MFA after you graduated and how has your time studying journalism affected your fiction writing?
Adam Johnson: I did get a degree in journalism, but a couple years into the process of earning the degree I discovered fiction writing and that was my great joy. In journalism school at the Walter Cronkite College at ASU I had great journalism professors and they could always tell when I made up quotes or details about stories. I would go and cover student council meetings and feel like there was some truth about the event that I couldn't find a quote to confirm so I would wind up using a made-up one. I loved to research, I loved to go out into the field and I still do lots of field research for my writing but I wasn't meant to be held to the standards of verification that journalism requires. I fell in love with story-telling through narrative and I certainly didn't have it in my plans to go get a master's degree I just wanted to write and that's what I ended up doing.
SR: Were there any authors in particular that influenced your decision that made you fall in love with writing?
AJ: There were writers that I have loved a great deal: Elizabeth Gilbert's short story collection Pilgrims influenced me a lot, Mark Richard, Ron Carlson, but I don't know if they influenced me to go get a master's degree, per say. I think that there was a time in America though, probably before World War II, that if you wanted to be a writer you had to go find a writer, whether it was in Paris or New York or L.A., try to contact them and show them your work, and see if they would take you on as an apprentice. Now, I think you'd get a restraining order held against you if you tried to contact a writer. The way we find writers now is that they all work in universities and it's under those auspices that mentor protégé relationship in creative writing has come to find a home. I fell in love with a short story collection called, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 93, and the guy who wrote it was named Robert Olen Butler. I went out to study with him at McNeese University where he taught in rural Louisiana. He was a Vietnam vet in addition to being a Vietnamese translator and there is a Vietnamese culture in rural Louisiana that reminded him of Vietnam, so I wanted to move to the swamp and study with him, which I did for three years.
SR: The Orphan Master's Son is an epic novel that provides a candid look at lives of North Koreans living under the oppression of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. What inspired you to write about that culture?
AJ: The truth about North Korea is that North Koreans are not allowed to tell their own stories. They are not allowed to write their own novels, their own music, their own poetry. Everything is censored by the state. We don't really have evidence of any novels making it out of North Korea in the last sixty years, which means no one there has read a book as we would think of it—a book that explores the human condition upholding American society or that tries to examine human relationships. All the material in that nation is designed to glorify the leaders of the regime. I won't know if my candid portrait is accurate or not, but I found the material very compelling and I didn't see anyone telling this story and I felt, in a certain way, that only fiction could tell this story properly. I won't say that nonfiction has failed North Korea, but because everything must be confirmed and verified, as it is in nonfiction, very little can be written about that place.
SR: The level of detail in The Orphan Master's Son is astounding considering the secretive nature of the DPRK. Can you discuss your research methods? You've mentioned that you traveled to North Korea in preparation for the novel.
AJ: That's true. Mostly I just devoured as many narratives as I could about the place. I don't know that I knew I was writing a novel about North Korea for, really, like a year. I just became obsessed about that place after reading a book called The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Khol-Hwan and that made me read David Hawk's The Hidden Gulag that made me read Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, and I just went down the wormhole. And as I read over the course of a year, I started reading propaganda. I started reading Pyongang's worker's party newspaper and I just began writing sketches, dialogues, newsreels trying to write a voice of central plural authoritarian government and I had a lot of fun with it actually. It was only after a year of this that I thought, oh, maybe I might have a book.
SR: The power of storytelling is a theme that recurs throughout The Orphan Master's Son, whether as an act of individual compromise in a bid for survival or a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the state. The novel makes the argument that people don't care as much if a story is factual as much as whether it is useful to them. Outside of DPRK do you feel this is a concept that applies to society in general?
AJ: I would say that we live in a Western society and here we have an idea of how stories work. We believe that each person in our society is a valuable individual who should determine his or her own destiny by looking inward and discovering their personal desires, by moving outward and making decisions to bring us closer to the things we want, overcoming obstacles and getting to a place of understanding, growth, change, enlightenment, and discovery. That's the way we try to live our lives in the West and that's similar to the stories we tell. North Korea is very different, I came to discover. There is one character and that's the dear leader, whether it's Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-un, and everyone else in that nation is a secondary character. So if you come from North Korea you don't get to determine your own destiny. People decide whether you are going to be a machinist or a baker, a soldier or a farmer. It really doesn't matter what your own feelings are, what your own desires are, and there's no reward for communicating those things or discovering them. You just have to bottle up your own dreams and use the national narrative that's written. So story telling there is very different. It's not about the individual. And the story is an absurd, fantastical one. For instance, the propaganda presented about Kim Jung-Il: That the dear leader was born on Mount Paekdu under a double rainbow and that when he was born, all the snow melted and flowers spontaneously erupted from the ground, and all the trees around Mount Paekdu spontaneously carved warm wishes for him in their bark. The truth is that we know that he was born in a Soviet labor camp, but in North Korea because it's a closed society and there is no other information. So my book is about a character that discovers that there is a different story out there and that he might be able to become the author of his own story.
SR: In the novel you explore the idea that, "To survive in this world, you got to be many times a coward but at least once a hero." Can we discuss this quote, and what it means to you to present a moment of redemption to flawed characters?
AJ: I think that line comes out of reading the narratives of people who defected and that to survive you have to cast your eyes downward, you have to obey orders, you have to do what you're told. You have to not ask questions when other people disappear, for example. You must do all the ugly things that come with living in a totalitarian state. But in the end, even if you do everything the state says, you are going to be ground down to nothing, because you have no value there, and the people who make it are the people who say, I have to leave and do this heroic act of leaving everything I know in the world and make a break for an outside world. If you try to be a hero in North Korea you are going to be beaten down, but everyone there who makes it out and defines themselves has to make this heroic break for it.
SR: As Jun Do the protagonist of The Orphan Master's Son points out, the feeling of being a part of something can bring about a level of satisfaction that cannot be located inside oneself but only among others. Many of the characters in your short stories and novels suffer with feelings of isolation and difficulty connecting. Will you explain why you find this theme so important and why you continue to come back to it?
AJ: Well, I think most artists and writers have felt outside of the typical normal American experience and they therefore see it from a distance and with a critical perspective. My novels aren't written by captains of football teams or by homecoming queens. They're written with people that are hanging out under the grandstands casting a cold eye upon it all. That's how I felt when I was younger. I was very excluded, but the funny thing is that now I don't feel that way anymore. I have a wonderful wife and three wonderful kids and great friends and colleagues and so I've had to learn to write differently, with a different eye about isolation and relationships that maybe was a little more challenging for me. That aspect occurs in The Orphan Master's Son only because the first person I interviewed that was from North Korea had been an orphan and that perspective was very formative. The only thing I knew early on was that my character was going to be an orphan and in the novel I tried to capture that experience.
SR: If The Orphan Master's Son is a critique of the problems of a communist society, the stories of Emporium are very much a critique of American capitalism and suburban culture. “Teen Sniper” features a gifted young police officer who appears lost in a semi-dystopian world that has become desensitized to violence, advertizing, and human emotion. Will you discuss how “Teen Sniper” manages to be both futuristic and at the same time extremely contemporary?
AJ: You know, it's interesting people often say that my work is futuristic or absurd or off-kilter, but my stories always feel very normal and real to me. For instance, as I wrote "Teen Sniper" within months there was the DC sniper: a teen really was going around killing people with a sniper rifle and in that story there is a character called ROMS, a little bomb robot, but now our world is filled with bomb robots, and Brazilian jujitsu seemed odd then, but everyone is doing Brazilian jujitsu now. So I don't know if the world of my stories is so strange. What seems absurd to me is usually the emotional things, like when two people love each other but the relationship doesn't work - to me, that's the most absurd thing in the world. It's kind of unfathomable, but everybody accepts that as normal. Or that half of all families fall apart because of divorce. People say, "Well that's too bad. That's how it is," but to me it's just inconceivable that families fall apart that way and that we tolerate that. "Teen Sniper" feels like a very normal story to me. I was living in Palo Alto when I wrote it and it was based on a time when I saw that there was a janitor's union here in Silicon Valley. The union was protesting that they were making minimum wage for companies that were making billions, and they staged a sit-in on a street called El Camino Real, and without even talking to them and hearing their concerns, the Palo Alto police department came out with their fancy assault vehicles and their body armor with their snipers on the roofs and arrested working moms demonstrating out on the street. The story just grew out of the strange scene that was there right before my eyes.
SR: In your short story "Cliff Gods of Acapulco” the protagonist states, "I am asleep in an essential way, and I will not begin to wake up for several years, not until I learn the meaning of the word loss." Can you discuss in more detail how the recognition of loss brings about change for your characters?
AJ: I think when writers start off they write very autobiographical work and that story, "Cliff Gods from Acapulco," is essentially nonfiction. I did have these friends in Vegas and I did watch a caiman bite someone's toe off, and we did have this ride that we went on where you simulate sky diving, all that stuff kind of really happened. I'm fascinated by how traumatic elements change the way stories are told. In that story there are like five different timelines: the past, the recent past, the current moment, the near future, and a strange kind of distant future. I think with lines that suggest that someone can change how things are going to work out a year or two into the future, and one of the things I tried to do to capture that is I wrote all the stories in the same present tense. So even though there are different timeframes, you can't really separate them, and it kind of makes it one strange eternal state, which seemed very true to me. So I think that in fiction, to go back to the question, movies are about action and big events and books are about the wake that is left behind, and how people live and change after these events. That's why they make books into movies and not movies into books. Most novels are based on losing something, and about being separated from something that is essential and how we put ourselves back together again. And, you'll notice that there are few novels that are based on gain. I did read a novel one time about a piano prodigy who entered a piano contest, and had an awesome girlfriend who was really beautiful, and someone gave him a great piano and he became a fantastic superstar, and it was the most uninteresting book in the world to me. I think we are just drawn to working out our issues through fiction.
SR: In Parasites Like Us, the protagonist Dr. Hannah expresses the opinion that climaxes are a fallacy and an illusion which do not occur in real life. As an author discuss how do you approach the climaxes of your stories so that they do not stray to from reality while still providing emotional closure?
AJ: I do believe that epiphanies occur, that insightful incidences happen that set you on the course for a new life based on a sudden discovery. But I also think, at least in my experience, that these are only determined in retrospect. When I look back, I remember the epiphany of discovering that fiction was what I wanted to do with my life, but I don't believe that there was any exact moment. It was only in recollection that I realized what was happening to me. So, I think we do have climaxes but they are only seen through the wrong end of binoculars, looking backwards.