Adam Johnson hangs a tale

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson honed his storytelling skills by listening to his family and construction site co-workers, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 3:28pm

Earlier this year, American writer Adam Johnson learnt he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Orphan Master's Son via text message.

The Stanford University associate professor of English was speaking on his mobile phone with an editor when the device began beeping. Concerned that his wife was trying to get a hold of him, he stopped the call to see whether there was an emergency.

The first missive read: "Dude, you won the effing Pulitzer."

The next: "Huge motherf**ing prize."

"It seemed such an impossible notion," Johnson, 46, says over the phone from his home in California. "When I think of the Pulitzer Prize, I think of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and Jennifer Egan - writers I have on such a high pedestal that it's pretty inconceivable that my book could be among the company of their books."

Johnson, who will be in Hong Kong this month to give lectures at City University in its Master of Fine Arts (MFA) creative writing programme, is being modest. In addition, the university will host a public reading and reception with him on July 26.

The Orphan Master's Son is a work of art that is heart wrenching, funny and empathetic. It's a craft that Johnson has been honing for years, first with a collection of short stories, Emporium (2002), and then his debut novel, Parasites Like Us (2003).

However, he'll be the first to admit it also helps that the ability to tell a good story runs in his family.

"Thinking back on it, I can see that my father was a great storyteller," he says. "His father was a great storyteller. My uncle actually was a good storyteller. We would all sit and tell stories when I went back to South Dakota in the summers.

"There would be very serious real-life stories, my grandfather's war stories, local stories from people in town, tall tales from the pioneer days - kind of mythic legends from when the steamboats ran on the Missouri there. They would really intermingle very mythical stories that couldn't be true and very personal stories.

"That power of holding people was a power that the men in my family shared in terms of storytelling. I was always under the spell of that. Honestly, no one ever asked was the story true or not. They blended fact and fiction all the time."

It's a land without a voice. It's a land where people are trained not to tell their stories
adam johnson, on north korea

When Johnson's work life began during the 1980s, he spent a few years on construction sites. During this time, storytelling helped pass hours under the hot Arizona sun. "These job sites were filled with ex-cons and [Vietnam war] veterans and wily characters and people who'd seen and done everything," he says. "And that's all we did all day long, just work and tell stories."

He then enrolled at Arizona State University. "When I finally did go to college, I was a little older and a little insecure, and I had been in a different culture out on job sites," he says. "Everyone seemed smarter and hipper than me at school, even though they were younger."

Johnson was initially an engineering major, but he took a number of classes to boost his grade-point average: family studies, music appreciation and creative writing. He had no literary pretensions.

His first writing teacher was Ron Carlson. "He was radioactively charismatic," says Johnson. "He just charged your batteries. My only epiphany in life, honestly, was in that class, in which I realised that this was the thing I found truly rewarding and meaningful. It was truly satisfying and I had never quite had that feeling before."

He switched his major to journalism; he went on to do his MFA in writing and a PhD in English before teaching at Stanford.

In 2004, he was teaching a class and had assigned the memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, which he found inspiring. He then read other memoirs and histories about North Korea and visited the country for a week in 2007.

The Orphan Master's Son is set in the country during Kim Jong-il's reign and features a protagonist named Jun Do.

"One of the things I came to discover when I started really reading the propaganda, about a year into my project, was this notion that stories work completely differently there," Johnson says. "They're just inverted in a way that was new to me, that made me question my Western notions of how a story was shaped.

"In America, everyone is encouraged to be the centre of their own lives. We're all like our main characters. It's pretty hard to think of someone who would be a secondary character in America. We're all from a land where everyone has their own novel.

"But when you read about North Korea, there's only one central character there, and that's the Dear Leader. Then there are 23 million secondary characters, and they're not supposed to discover their own desires and yearnings. They're not supposed to better themselves. They're supposed to better the state, and they're supposed to put their own needs and wants aside in service of this higher cause ... They really are players, minor players, in a large script meant to glorify a single central character. That really made me rethink a lot of what I knew narrative to be."

When he began writing the book, friends wondered why he wanted to focus on North Korea.

"It's a land without a voice. It's a land where people are trained not to tell their stories," he says. "I was writing a book set in North Korea, and almost every day I kept asking myself: 'How did I get into this? I'm a white guy in California. What am I doing telling the stories of Koreans?'

"But the truth is, they can't tell their own stories. And I was shocked by how few people were taking on the challenge of telling their stories. While a case can be made to say, 'Oh, hey you, dude, you shouldn't be telling someone else's story,' I would make the counter-case and say as many people as possible should be giving voice to this particular group."


Adam Johnson in conversation with novelist Sybil Baker, July 26, 6.30pm, lecture theatre M3017, Level 3, Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre, City University, 18 Tat Hong Avenue, Kowloon Tong, free. To register, visit www.english.cityu.edu.hk/pulitzer