Adam Johnson to speak at Aspen Winter Words
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
Who: Adam Johnson, presented by Aspen Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Saturday, Feb. 13, 6 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The 2016 Winter Words series continues with Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz (March 15) and Sandra Cisneros (April 5).
There are voices in Adam Johnson’s fiction that you have likely never heard before. He’s brought readers into North Korea with the people working for and those suffering under dictatorship. He’s portrayed the interior life of a Stasi prison guard in Berlin decades after the wall came down. He’s charted the tortured psychological landscape of a sex offender.
These extraordinary works of imagination began with a notebook, a pen and shoe-leather reporting.
“I love to research,” said Johnson, who will read from his National Book Award-winning story collection “Fortune Smiles” and talk about his work Saturday at the Winter Words literary series. “I like to go new places in my reading. I like to discover new things from novels. And in writing them, I like to learn about and understand a new place or time in history.”
“Hurricanes Anonymous,” a short story about Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, began with a reporting trip, countless interviews and days riding in a UPS truck.
Johnson, who has taught at Stanford and lived in the Bay Area since 1999, previously got his MFA at McNeese State in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He also happened to visit New Orleans the week before Katrina struck. So he had an obvious interest in telling the story of the place after the hurricanes. Two years afterward, in 2007, he began research for what he thought would be a nonfiction piece.
The writer couch-surfed around Louisiana for a few weeks, interviewing a coroner and a sheriff, jailers and inmates, gas and electric line workers, schoolteachers, home security providers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials (“I rode a lot of boats”). Johnson was struck when he heard how, while many government first responders failed, entities like Wal-Mart, Chuck-E-Cheese and UPS stayed and provided basic services in the immediate aftermath of the storms.
So he contacted UPS about doing a ride along and the company overnighted him his own brown deliveryman’s uniform and sent him out with drivers around New Orleans and Western Louisiana. He helped deliver 324 packages, hearing hundreds of stories along the way.
“(The drivers) knew the narrative of every person and every house that we passed,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Go into that house and ask him what happened to their dog during the storm.’”
That deep on-the-ground research counter-intuitively called Johnson to write fiction, as he imagined the story about a UPS driver in post-storm Louisiana caring for a toddler while delivering on his route that would become “Hurricanes Anonymous.”
“It turned out that fiction made the richer portrait, eventually,” he said. “Journalism is tried and true. In lots of cases there’s nothing better than a nonfiction article. But there are stories that are more difficult for nonfiction and I’m weirdly drawn to them. Because that’s a place to apply fiction that speaks to me.”
He often uses fiction to tell stories that nonfiction can’t or hasn’t quite. The six phenomenal stories in “Fortune Smiles” include complex portraits, for instance, of a Stasi prison guard in “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” and of a sex offender in “Dark Meadow.” Both manage a narrative high-wire act — they’re funny, discomfiting and disturbing while also earning a reader’s empathy for characters it would be easy to hate. Johnson wrote them because he wanted to read them.
“Where is the memoir of a sex offender? Where is that story?” he asked. “It’s hard enough for victims to tell their story and it’s impossible for an offender to do so in our time and culture. So fiction can do that. And when I went to Germany and spent time there, I became interested in the Stasi. I was like, ‘Where is the memoir of a Stasi officer?’ I couldn’t find one. So I could make one.”
The secretive and isolated world of North Korea has been a natural draw. Johnson tackled it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2012 novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” and in the title story of “Fortune Smiles.” With little information coming out of North Korea beyond satellite photos, propaganda and stories from defectors that are difficult to confirm, a writer is hamstrung in telling a nonfiction story. Wihtout those limitations, Johnson can study and interview and make a visit to North Korea, then find the truth in fiction.
“One of the things I learned about North Korea is that because there is no real official information about it that can be trusted, it’s a land of rumor mill,” he explained. “And everything works by rumors. So all the defectors would talk to me about the rumors. None of them knew if they were true, but as a fiction writer I could use all of those. Nightmares, dreams, suggestions, those were all indicative of the psychological state of the place, whether they were true or not. And that’s what I was after.”
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