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In our interview, Johnson shared some fun facts about himself:
"After high school, I worked industrial construction for a few years, building things like hotels and freeways. When I did get to college, late, I struggled with grades. A friend suggested taking a poetry class, which he said was an ‘easy A,' and by mistake, I signed up for a fiction class. Immediately I knew writing was for me -- suddenly my penchant for daydreaming, exaggerating, and lying all became useful and constructive, and I never looked back."
"My wife and I were married five times in five months in 2000 -- we went on a kind of wedding road show, taking the ceremonies to families and friends in different states. We had five best men, five maids of honor, and my wife had five fabulous wedding dresses. One wedding was hosted by the writers Robert Olen Butler and Elizabeth Dewberry at their home in Florida. We wrote new vows for each ceremony, and we had people who were important in our lives officiate. Mostly these were writing mentors, like Tobias Wolff, Ron Carlson, and Sheila Ortiz-Taylor. I recommend multiple weddings to everyone. If you love someone enough to marry them once, you'll want to do it over and over."
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In the summer of 2003, Adam Johnson took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I wasn't a big reader growing up, but about the time I was in high school, I read The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. The narrator was a boy about my age, perhaps 15, and the story was a prototypical one for me -- a family drops out of society, takes a long journey, and attempts to reinvent itself. That was my family! I also shared the narrator's awe and fear for an inventive, iconoclastic, and self-destructive father. The "well-meaning but deluded believer" is a repeating character of mine, and I first encountered it in The Mosquito Coast.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Postcards by Annie Proulx -- Like many of Proulx's characters, this is a dark and poetic look at a person driven forward by regret. Her hauntingly beautiful depiction of a ruined life makes even a cautionary tale look alluring.
Buffalo Soldiers by Robert O'Connor -- Corrupt to the core, the Cold War soldiers who inhabit this daring book dance the limbo with their souls. Written in the second person, present tense, this book is a tour de force, from the heroin needle that opens the book to its crushing end.
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone -- A writer's writer whose name should be a household word, Stone is capable of lingering, lounging almost, in the troubled hearts of his characters. I get tense reading his scenes; I never know where he'll go or what one of his characters will say. Check out his short story "Helping" for a dose of this pleasurable anxiety.
Beloved by Toni Morrison -- A genius with the language, Morrison shows us the inner workings of trauma, how it rewrites experience, how it fragments perception, how it self-replicates. It's a tough book to read, but it's a must read.
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff -- Is Wolff the modern inheritor of Chekhov and Tolstoy? I hope so. Every time I finish a Wolff story, my mind starts wandering back to all the moral decisions I've made, usually finding them lacking. This collection is his best yet.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- No book is more re-readable in my mind. Melville tries to go for the "Ultimate," as he puts it, on every page. The result is that whole sections and thoughts seem new with each inspection. When you're done with this book, you're ready to sign on to a 19th-century whaling vessel as well, and that can be handy.
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster -- I don't know how many times I've read this book. It's so classically constructed, so balanced, that I'm in perpetual awe of the narrative. How can Forster be light and funny, yet meditative and profound? Instead of revealing life, this book interrogates it.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- Funny and ironic, Moore reinvigorates the genre of the short story with these relentlessly self-examining stories. "People like That Are the Only People Here" is a heartbreaker that you will have to speak to other people about.
The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson -- The deluded, slightly pompous narrator of this relatively dark novel is a freed slave who inadvertently signs on to the crew of a slave ship. This is one of those stories that seems very personal, yet suddenly becomes universal.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love documentaries and watch them almost exclusively. The supposed "truth" of them challenges my notions of what is concrete and what is constructed, not to mention the different ways in which factual narratives and artistic narratives unfold. It doesn't matter if the documentary is humorous, like Hands on a Hardbody or American Movie or serious, like Brother's Keeper, they keep my wife and I talking long after the film is over.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music while I write, but I do love to hear rural, right-wing A.M. radio talk shows. Whenever I'm in West Texas or Louisiana, I'm the one driving slow on the country roads, soaking up the latest conspiracy theories.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I think it would be great to read ZZ Packer's story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere with a group of people. Many of Packer's stories are set against socially important backdrops, like the Million Man March, yet her characters' voices are so strong that even the smallest moments are as pivotal.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Nonfiction books. It's so hard to find the right novel for someone else, but everyone loves a good biography or some adventurous tale of an impossible journey.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
The only writing ritual I have is a sleeping baby. When the little one finally goes to sleep, then I can go to work.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel set in contemporary Los Angeles.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
While voice and vision can't be taught, I'm a big believer in learning the craft of fiction writing. My doctoral studies focused on the development of the conventions of narrative technique in the development of the novel. Because every novel has to be new, each writer has to figure out the mechanics of good writing. Building those skills took me about ten years. I'm still trying to figure this writing thing out.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
My wife, Stephanie Harrell. I've been watching the evolution of her novel, The Beige Berets, for several years now, and the book's humor, heart, and vision never cease to amaze me. In the book, a group of Scottsdale trophy wives form a vigilante group to patrol their gated community. What begins as humorous cultural commentary quickly becomes a serious investigation into the state of feminine power in contemporary society.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Find a mentor. Writers, in my opinion, seem to be a generous lot. They have a lot to teach and share if you're willing to seek them out. Be humble, think of writing as a lifelong process of learning, and your audience will come.
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