Interview with Adam Johnson

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Adam Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and short story writer who teaches creative writing at Stanford University. Johnson has earned a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship to name a few.

Howl: What is your writing/editing process like?

Johnson: I write in a public library near me in San Francisco. I like to write for long stretches, which is hard on my family life. I’m obsessive about my sentences, reworking them endlessly until they feel solid and believable. That gives me a pretty good feeling.

Howl: Your book, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” pertains to North Korea and its propaganda machine used for maintaining power. Propaganda is a fiction of sorts used for manipulation. What are your thoughts, from a literary and social perspective, on using fiction yourself as a weapon – so to speak – against the dangerous misuse of fiction in the form of North Korean propaganda?

Johnson: Because it’s very difficult for journalists to write about North Korea—since nothing about the place or the people who escape can be confirmed—I think we have a special situation in which the long arm of fiction can reach into a place from which nonfiction cannot escape. Just because fiction relies on the imagination should not discount its ability to capture the human condition, since that’s what literature specializes in. The national narrative of North Korea is perhaps no more strange than the myths of other societies or religions; what’s unique is how singular and total the myth is, that it has no competitor for the attention of the people.

Howl: What makes you favor characters who suffer such as Pak Jun Do (The Orphan Master’s Son) and are wronged by the society in which they live?

Johnson: I once read a novel about a brilliant young piano prodigy. Luckily, he meets an amazing mentor who develops his talent, so that he wins some big competitions. Then he meets a rich lady who funds his career. Then a benefactor gave him a rare and expensive piano to play on. When the young piano player met a beautiful woman who was instantly in love with him, I closed the novel and never opened it again. Reading about people who struggle for what they desire, who are willing to engage in conflict is what reveals the essence of people. That’s partly why I chose to write about a place with much suffering.

Howl: What use does humor play in fiction – especially in stories that at the surface may seem rather dark?

Johnson: Humor without darkness is like helium: fun, but it floats away. Like stand-up comedy, which is really entertaining when you hear it, but later, you can’t remember a single joke. On the inverse, dark material without humor can be unrelenting. When I read a short story with lots of darkness, I can feel the tension building in the audience. They need the release of humor, and by strategically placing laugh points in a bleak scene, I can control the build and release of tension.

Howl: In an interview with PBS in 2012, you mentioned that when you made a trip to North Korea you saw that it was a “country hungry for food, hungry for power, hungry for money certainly.” This is reflected in your book. Hunger is not only a basic human need, but it can be an emotional or psychology yearning as well. What do you, as a writer, hunger for?

Johnson: I hunger to convey human experience, in all its manifold expressions, in a dramatic, moment-by-moment way that hopefully reveals something essential about all of us. That’s what I hunger for, though I usually fall short when I try to make that happen on the page.

Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?

Johnson: I always favor labor over talent, so get to work, young writers!

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