The Biggest Lunkhead Ever to Win a Pulitzer: An Interview with Adam Johnson

Article by ben

Adam Johnson is a lunkhead…but I’ll get to that part shortly.

Instead, maybe I should begin by telling you that, about a year ago, during an evening of drinking and moping, back when I drank too much and moped too much (although some things never change), I sent a Facebook message to Johnson. I do not remember what I wrote—shame prevents me from refreshing my memory—but I do remember that, the next morning, I awoke dimly and found that he had actually responded. Not with much, although certainly with more than I deserved. He signed the note, “your homie.”

Few authors would bother to respond to such a note, let alone Pulitzer Prize-winners (he won in 2012 for his novel THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON). But then again, talking to Adam Johnson on the phone, I’m not entirely sure he has won the prize at all. Absent from him are all of the stereotypes associated with the Successful Author. When he won the prize, he and his wife understood that it could change their lives, but they simply decided not to let it. “I’m not a person who changes very much,” he says. “I teach with Tobias Wolff, and I had lunch with him the other day, and he said, ‘Adam, I think you were wearing that shirt when I met you.’”

Of course, even before his Pulitzer win, Johnson wasn’t exactly struggling—most of us average writers don’t teach at Stanford and have anecdotes about lunching with Tobias Wolff—but the fact remains that Johnson, on the eve of the publication of FORTUNE SMILES, seems remarkably calm and centered. Perhaps part of this has to do with the fact that none of the six short stories in the book are exactly “new”: they’ve all been published in (and therefore vetted by) magazines in the last few years. (Only one of them, a story called “Hurricanes Anonymous,” was written before Johnson won his Pulitzer.)

All the same, this is no random collection of short stories, rushed out to capitalize on an author’s newfound fame; this is a carefully considered book, one that holds together, with each story speaking to the others. For instance, consider a moment in “Nirvana,” the opening story, in which a character praises “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—but not the Cobain version; instead, he praises the Patti Smith cover. A small moment, yes, but a telling one, for so many of these stories concern types of “cover versions”: In “Nirvana,” a man makes a hologram of a deceased U.S. president. In “Interesting Facts,” a wife is concerned with her husband replacing her. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” a former Stasi guard relives his sins while on a tour of a prison he once worked at.

When I ask Johnson about this, he says, “You may have touched on something that’s going on that I wasn’t necessarily conscious of.” Oftentimes, he answers questions in a way similar to this, seeming to struggle with them and talking his way into his answers, instead of repeating carefully rehearsed sound bites. For Johnson, the connections between the stories emerged in the best possible way: he followed his instincts and what obsessed him, and trusted those things to yield a coherent whole. In the case of “Nirvana,” he was writing about a sick family member and a dead friend; in the case of “Hurricanes Anonymous,” he felt connected to the landscape that Hurricane Rita ravaged. In these cases and more, his fiction became—and now, for the reader, becomes—an opportunity to relive, reimagine, and make legible past traumas.

“One of the great things about the distance of fiction,” Johnson tells me, “is that you can channel elements of your own life—things that are haunting you—through other people. You’re not the subject; you let the meaning-making machine of the story take those issues and play them out.” In one story in particular—“Interesting Facts,” which Johnson’s wife seems to narrate—he wanted only to discuss his own life as clearly as possible. “That was a story where I just kind of dropped the guise of fiction and wrote about my wife being sick and what it did to her and our kids.” This is also a story in which the wife refers to her husband as being “the biggest lunkhead ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.”

In many of these stories, Johnson works with first person narrators—and not always individuals that most readers would want to get close to. In “Dark Meadows,” for example, we enter the mind of somebody attracted to children. And then there’s the Stasi man in “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” arguing with a prison tour guide that the old regime wasn’t as repressive as modern minds claim. Johnson likes entering these complicated points of view because of the dramatic irony inherent in somebody trying to tell—and consequently misunderstanding—his/her own story; the Stasi man “thinks he’s telling a story about an underappreciated arm of the institution,” but the reader knows otherwise and can fill in the gaps. These kinds of readers Johnson craves: readers who are complicit in the fiction.

Sometimes this involves pushing a reader pretty far, into dark territory. Consider once again “Nirvana,” in which a man tends to his bed-ridden wife who has become obsessed with Kurt Cobain. The husband invents holograms to keep himself company, and at the end of the story, he creates a Cobain hologram to show his wife, who begins to cry, pleading with the digital rock star not to kill himself. On one hand, it’s moving: we see how much she cares. On the other hand, all her pleading won’t change anything: Cobain is dead and will remain so. “I think that it’s a pretty dark ending to that story,” Johnson says. “When I read that story [to audiences] and I get to the end, people have a lot of emotion they’ve built up that they want to release, but they don’t know what to do with it. There’s awkward silence.”

But still, a question hangs in my mind—one that involves Johnson’s fundamental character as a writer: is he an optimist or a pessimist? Because looking at the ending to “Nirvana”—love and caring vs. fatalism—it seems like it could go either way. Johnson considers this question: “Let’s say you have a character, and that character buys a lottery ticket. Whether the ticket wins or loses, that’s the writer’s worldview. The writer decides to make that happen.” Then, he chuckles. “I don’t know what there is to be optimistic about,” he says.

Nevertheless, Johnson seems to enjoy the notion: that his work is either seriously optimistic or soul-crushingly pessimistic, all depending on the angle from which one views it. He offers up another example from “Nirvana”: “The guy—our narrator—talks to a hologram [of the president] about his sex life and love life and marriage and the stresses from his wife’s illness. On one hand, it reveals just how wounded and concerned and desperate he is…but it’s also ridiculous! The hologram isn’t going to give you any advice.”

Of course, these weren’t necessarily things Johnson considered before writing the story. Instead, “I get concerns, and I get my imagination going, and I get into the story, building the world—that’s what I’m doing. Then the story does its own work. What it’s going to come up with, and where it’s going to end, are mysteries to me.” For example, the end of “Nirvana”—when the hologram-making man decides to make a hologram of Cobain for his Cobain-obsessed wife? “When I got to the end, I went, ‘Ah, he needs to bring [Cobain] back!’ And then I went, ‘Duh. Any workshop could’ve told me that.’”

So there he is, Adam Johnson, the biggest lunkhead to ever win the Pulitzer. And with FORTUNE SMILES’ six challenging stories, the lunkhead astonishes us again.

Fortune Smiles: Stories Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780812997477
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - August 18th, 2015

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