By Jenny Thai
Adam Johnson untangles his life’s narrative
Unlike most offices in the English Department, the furniture’s centerpiece is not a heavy desk. Rather, Adam Johnson’s office is spacious, with ceiling-high bookshelves crammed with an eclectic assortment of books. Big Godzilla and dinosaur action figures — toys to amuse Johnson’s children — line the tops of the bookshelves. With the two enormous armchairs, a coffee table topped with more books and a desktop computer tucked away in a corner, Johnson’s office reflects his dedication to his two life callings: creative writing and family.
Named “one of the nation’s most influential and imaginative college professors” by Playboy, Johnson is an associate professor of English with an emphasis in creative writing. He is also a Whiting Writers’ Award recipient. His fiction has appeared in publications including Harper’s, The Paris Review and “Best American Short Stories” and Random House published his most recent novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” in January of this year.
Johnson was born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona. From an early age, he cultivated a probing sensibility to understanding the world around him. In his early childhood, Johnson’s favorite place was the Phoenix Zoo. His father, a zoo night watchman, would take his son out on evening excursions to see the animals. It was from these excursions that Johnson developed a growing awareness of the depth and multi-layered nature of stories.
“I developed a sense really early on that there was a behind-the-scenes to everything, that people who came to the zoo saw one zoo but my father had the keys to the back rooms where…you could see the animals in different behaviors,” Johnson said. “That had a very big influence on me as a writer, that just behind the veil of anything was a richer, truer, more human story.”
In addition to the animals he interacted with at the zoo, desert tortoises, a Cayman alligator and a seven-foot-long boa were just a few creatures that lived at home with Johnson. His memories of his early childhood days are filled with these animals.
“We had every animal you could imagine,” Johnson said. “People would leave them, intending them to go to the zoo but when someone left an African gray parrot…my dad would bring that thing home.”
Johnson’s animal adventure days were brought to a close when his parents divorced and Johnson moved to live with his mother. His mother, a psychologist struggling to establish her practice, worked long hours, leaving Johnson to roam independently. An only child and a latchkey kid, Johnson spent most of his free time wandering the alleys of the neighborhood. One of his favorite pastimes was investigating the contents of people’s dumpsters, an activity driven by his early interest in stories behind “the veil” of the everyday.
“I would look at all of the trash that was in there and I would try to figure out who lived in that house by what they threw away,” Johnson said. “Like what kind of family they were…everything seemed like a treasure to me.”
After finishing high school at age seventeen, Johnson made his foray into commercial industrial construction for several years, working on projects including an air-separation plant, the I-10 freeway and a parking garage at a mall.
“I still love concrete…that you can form and shore up this liquid and turn it into something of such permanence,” Johnson said. “I still like going by buildings in Arizona and saying, ‘Hey…it’s still there, it didn’t fall down yet.’”
Construction work also opened Johnson up to a world of new stories.
“Those jobs in the late ’80s were just filled with characters, you know, guys who were just out of jail, people on leave, people who traveled the world,” Johnson said. “[The Vietnam vets] had hair-raising and hilarious stories about their military service and stories of great compassion. These were guys that lived outside normal society, on the margins, by their own codes.”
Part Sioux, Johnson reflected on storytelling as a valued skill in his family and local community. For Johnson’s family, the truthfulness of a story was less important than conveying a certain value or essence of humanity.
“I remember that no one ever asked whether a story was true or not,” Johnson said. “They would tell tall tales and legends right up beside personal stories. One would be clearly mythical and impossible and the other very personal, but they coexisted.”
The murky boundary in Johnson’s work reflects his rejection of nonfiction and fiction as mutually exclusive.
“I think my fiction is really infused with true life and my nonfiction is infused with myth, too,” he said. “It’s hard for me to separate the two.”
In fact, Johnson’s penchant for blending fiction and fact in his writing became an obstacle during his undergraduate years at Arizona State University, where he studied journalism. Much to the exasperation of his journalism professors, Johnson had the notorious habit of creatively producing his own quotes.
“They could always tell when I lied,” Johnson said. “I always felt that there was some truth that I perceived that I could not get a quote for or verify with some facts, and so I’d make something up. I’d make up a quote that captured the experience that I felt I had.”
Johnson’s tendency to invent or exaggerate was also spurred on by his desire to augment the positive aspects of life.
“If I found a 10 dollar bill on the ground, I could go to my friends and tell them that I found twelve dollars,” he said. “It was some urge to make the good rare things in life even better somehow.”
Finding the truth-driven world of journalism too limiting a field for his wild imagination, Johnson found his life’s calling junior year when he took his first creative writing class.
“It was one of my few epiphanies in life…I just loved it,” he said. “I knew this was the missing thing.”
Writing seeped in and consumed Johnson’s day-to-day life, often overtaking his social time with friends. For Johnson though, this was not at all a high price to pay — creative writing gave him the freedom and exploration of the stories he had been fascinated with his entire life.
“Fiction, or probably just writing, allows you to be better than you are,” he said. “You spend weeks crafting this story, on your own, orchestrating it, composing it, making everything perfect.”
Although many of Johnson’s stories are infused with a bizarre blend of the supernatural and fantastical, writing fiction remains a deeply personal process for him. His first novel, “Parasites Like Us,” a story involving a dog and bird apocalypse, was influenced by Johnson’s family story in South Dakota.
Johnson’s latest novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” tells the journey of a North Korean professional kidnapper. The novel was the product of Johnson’s six years of research and drafting, which included a six-day visit to Pyongyang.
Despite the several years of research he had completed, Johnson was taken aback by the rigidity and strangeness of a country that is completely censored.
“I knew exactly what to expect there physically…but nothing can prepare you psychologically for a world without spontaneity, a world of complete order and conformity,” Johnson said.
With his linebacker build and impressive stature, Johnson stuck out in the North Korean crowd. However, he found the psychological lash of being ignored out of fear unsettling.
“I stand out visually,” he said. “One of the more unusual things they see that day, or that week…[but] they wouldn’t even look at me. The safe bet for them was to pretend that I didn’t exist. I felt transparent.”
“You really feel people weigh everything they say ahead of time for all possible consequences,” Johnson added. “You got the sense of the way the people you’ve interacted [with] have digested censorship to the degree that they are their own censors.”
The oppressive atmosphere in North Korea fueled Johnson’s desire to individualize the people, to write a tale that not only spoke of cruelty but also of compassion and love.
Johnson said that warmth and strong love from his wife and family have helped him write tales of enduring hope more easily. Speaking fondly of his wife, Johnson recalled their romantic plans to testify their absolute faith and trust in each other, involving a “secret” wedding.
“We decided to get bulletproof vests…we got a pair of Olympic Match-22 pistols, and we were going to Death Valley in the desert and my wife and I were going to shoot each other in the heart,” Johnson said.
The couple never managed to carry out their secret wedding plans as right around the planned date the infamous North Hollywood shootout — an armed confrontation between two heavily armed bank robbers and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) — occurred. Years later, with three children in tow, the couple decided to abandon their secret wedding plans.
For Johnson, his love for writing and raising a family are linked together.
“Writing wasn’t fun, but it was fulfilling, which is what parenting turned out to be like,” Johnson said.
Despite his accomplishments, what excites Johnson more than anything is to see students craft new stories, regardless of talent or skill.
“Telling a story is such a noble endeavor that nothing, I believe, could ever be a failure,” Johnson said. “I love all stories and a story that a student is writing, drafting in manuscript form, is more rewarding than a published story. The struggle is still there; it’s still in play. They’re still discovering it. The story is still becoming itself.”