Fortune Smiles

Fortune Smiles

by Adam Johnson


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The National Book Award–winning story collection from the author of The Orphan Master’s Son offers something rare in fiction: a new way of looking at the world.

“MASTERFUL.”—The Washington Post     “ENTRANCING.”—O: The Oprah Magazine     “PERCEPTIVE AND BRAVE.”—The New York Times

Throughout these six stories, Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal, giving voice to the perspectives we don’t often hear.

In “Nirvana,” a programmer whose wife has a rare disease finds solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States. In “Hurricanes Anonymous,” a young man searches for the mother of his son in a Louisiana devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany who vehemently denies his past, even as pieces of it are delivered in packages to his door. And in the unforgettable title story, Johnson returns to his signature subject, North Korea, depicting two defectors from Pyongyang who are trying to adapt to their new lives in Seoul, while one cannot forget the woman he left behind.


NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Miami Herald • San Francisco Chronicle • USA Today 

AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post  • NPR • Marie Claire • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • BuzzFeed • The Daily Beast • Los Angeles Magazine • The Independent • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews

“Remarkable . . . Adam Johnson is one of America’s greatest living writers.”The Huffington Post

“Haunting, harrowing . . . Johnson’s writing is as rich in compassion as it is in invention, and that rare combination makes Fortune Smiles worth treasuring.”USA Today

Fortune Smiles [blends] exotic scenarios, morally compromised characters, high-wire action, rigorously limber prose, dense thickets of emotion, and, most critically, our current techno-moment.”The Boston Globe
“Johnson’s boundary-pushing stories make for exhilarating reading.”San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594747154
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Adam Johnson is the author of Fortune Smiles, winner of the National Book Award and the Story Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the California Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Johnson’s other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship; he was also a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. His previous books are Emporium, a short story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

July 12, 1967

Place of Birth:

South Dakota


B.A., Arizona State University, 1992; M.A., M.F.A., McNeese State University, 1996; Ph.D., Florida State, 2001

Read an Excerpt

It’s late, and I can’t sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the president, because we often talk in whispers. I know the whispering sound is really just my wife, Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-­mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though good luck trying to convince Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the bedsores, and there was something about the way she stared at the safety rail at the edge of the mattress. The bed is voice-­activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds. And then there’s the way she stares at the looping cable that descends from the Hoyer Lift, which swings her in and out of bed.

But my wife doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from me to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her, but she’s not listening to Nirvana yet—­she tends to save it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”

Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

In the silver dish by her voice remote is a half-­smoked joint. I light it for her and hold it to her lips.

“How’s the weather in there?” I ask.

“Windy,” she says through the smoke.

Windy is better than hail or lightning or, God forbid, flooding, which is the sensation she felt when her lungs were just starting to work again. But there are different kinds of wind.

I ask, “Windy like a whistle through window screens, or windy like the rattle of storm shutters?”

“A strong breeze, hissy and buffeting, like a microphone in the wind.”

She smokes again. Charlotte hates being stoned, but she says it quiets the inside of her. She has Guillain-­Barré syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves so that when the brain sends signals to the body, the electrical impulses ground out before they can be received. A billion nerves inside her send signals that go everywhere, nowhere. This is the ninth month, a month that is at the edge of the medical literature. It’s a place where the doctors no longer feel qualified to tell us whether Charlotte’s nerves will begin to regenerate or she will be stuck like this forever.

She exhales, coughing. Her right arm twitches, which means her brain has attempted to tell her arm to rise and cover the mouth. She tokes again, and through the smoke she says, “I’m worried.”

“What about?”


“You’re worried about me?”

“I want you to stop talking to the president. It’s time to accept reality.”

I try to be lighthearted. “But he’s the one who talks to me.”

“Then stop listening. He’s gone. When your time comes, you’re supposed to fall silent.”

Reluctantly, I nod. But she doesn’t understand. Stuck in this bed, having sworn off TV, she’s probably the only person in America who didn’t see the assassination. If she’d beheld the look in the president’s eyes when his life was taken, she’d understand why I talk to him late at night. If she could leave this room and feel the nation trying to grieve, she’d know why I reanimated the commander in chief and brought him back to life.

“Concerning my conversations with the president,” I say, “I just want to point out that you spend a third of your life listening to Nirvana, whose songs are by a guy who blew his brains out.”

Charlotte tilts her head and looks at me like I’m a stranger. “Kurt Cobain took the pain of his life and made it into something that mattered. What did the president leave behind? Uncertainties, emptiness, a thousand rocks to overturn.”

She talks like that when she’s high. I tap out the joint and lift her headphones.

“Ready for your Nirvana?” I ask.

She looks toward the window. “That sound, I hear it again,” she says.

At the window, I peer out into the darkness. It’s a normal Palo Alto night—­the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden. Then I notice it, right before my eyes, a small black drone, hovering. Its tiny servos swivel to regard me. Real quick, I snatch the drone out of the air and pull it inside. I close the window and curtains, then study the thing: its shell is made of black foil stretched over tiny struts, like the bones of a bat’s wing. Behind a propeller of clear cellophane, a tiny infrared engine throbs with warmth.

“Now will you listen to me?” Charlotte asks. “Now will you stop this president business?”

“It’s too late for that,” I tell her, and release the drone. As if blind, it bumbles around the room. Is it autonomous? Has someone been operating it, someone watching our house? I lift it from its column of air and flip off its power switch.

Charlotte looks toward her voice remote. “Play music,” she tells it.

Closing her eyes, she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.

I wake later in the night. The drone has somehow turned itself on and is hovering above my body, mapping me with a beam of soft red light. I toss a sweater over it, dropping it to the floor. After making sure Charlotte is asleep, I pull out my iProjector. I turn it on, and the president appears in three dimensions, his torso life-­size in an amber glow.

He greets me with a smile. “It’s good to be back in Palo Alto,” he says.

My algorithm has accessed the iProjector’s GPS chip and searched the president’s database for location references. This one came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford back when he was a senator.

“Mr. President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have more questions.”

He looks into the distance, contemplative. “Shoot,” he says.

I move into his line of sight but can’t get him to look me in the eye. That’s one of the design problems I ran across.

“Did I make a mistake in creating you, in releasing you into the world?” I ask. “My wife says that you’re keeping people from mourning, that this you keeps us from accepting the fact that the real you is gone.”

The president rubs the stubble on his chin. He looks down and away.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he says.

Which is eerie, because that’s a line he spoke on 60 Minutes, a moment when he expressed regret for legalizing drones for civilian use.

“Do you know that I’m the one who made you?” I ask.

“We are all born free,” he says. “And no person may traffic in another.”

“But you weren’t born,” I tell him. “I wrote an algorithm based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-­source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video compiler. The program scrubs the Web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—­everything you say, you’ve said before.”

For the first time, the president falls silent.

I ask, “Do you know that you’re gone . . . that you’ve died?”

The president doesn’t hesitate. “The end of life is another kind of freedom,” he says.

The assassination flashes in my eyes. I’ve seen the video so many times—­the motorcade slowly crawls along while the president, on foot, parades past the barricaded crowds. Someone in the throng catches the president’s eye. The president turns, lifts a hand in greeting. Then a bullet strikes him in the abdomen. The impact bends him forward, his eyes lift to confront the shooter. A look of recognition settles into the president’s gaze—­of a particular person, of some kind of truth, of something he has foreseen? He takes the second shot in the face. You can see the switch go off—­his limbs give and he’s down. They put him on a machine for a few days, but the end had already come.

I glance at Charlotte, asleep. “Mr. President,” I whisper, “did you and the first lady ever talk about the future, about worst-­case scenarios?”

I wonder if the first lady was the one to turn off the machine.

The president smiles. “The first lady and I have a wonderful relationship. We share everything.”

“But were there instructions? Did you two make a plan?”

His voice lowers, becomes sonorous. “Are you asking about bonds of matrimony?”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“In this regard,” he says, “our only duty is to be of service in any way we can.”

My mind ponders the ways in which I might have to be of service to Charlotte.

The president then looks into the distance, as if a flag is waving there.

“I’m the president of the United States,” he says, “and I approved this message.”

That’s when I know our conversation is over. When I reach to turn off the iProjector, the president looks me squarely in the eye, a coincidence of perspective, I guess. We regard each other, his eyes deep and melancholy, and my finger hesitates at the switch.

“Seek your inner resolve,” he tells me.

Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly happening? The woman you love gets the flu. Her fingers tingle, her legs go rubbery. Soon she can’t grip a coffee cup. What finally gets her to the hospital is the need to pee. She’s dying to pee, but the paralysis has begun: the bladder can no longer hear the brain. After an ER doc inserts a Foley catheter, you learn new words—­axon, areflexia, ascending peripheral polyneuropathy.

Charlotte says she’s filled with “noise.” Inside her is a “storm.”

The doctor has a big needle. He tells Charlotte to get on the gurney. Charlotte is scared to get on the gurney. She’s scared she won’t ever get up again. “Please, honey,” you say. “Get on the gurney.” Soon you behold the glycerin glow of your wife’s spinal fluid. And she’s right. She doesn’t get up again.

Next comes plasmapheresis, then high-­dose immunoglobulin therapy.

The doctors mention, casually, the word ventilator.

Charlotte’s mother arrives. She brings her cello. She’s an expert on the siege of Leningrad. She has written a book on the topic. When Charlotte’s coma is induced, her mother fills the neuro ward with the saddest sounds ever conceived. For days, there is nothing but the swish of vent baffles, the trill of vital monitors, and Shostakovich, Shostakovich, Shostako­vich.

Two months of physical therapy in Santa Clara. Here are dunk tanks, sonar stimulators, exoskeletal treadmills. Charlotte becomes the person in the room who makes the victims of other afflictions feel better about their fate. She does not make progress, she’s not a “soldier” or a “champ” or a “trouper.”

Charlotte convinces herself that I will leave her for one of the nurses in the rehab ward. She screams at me to get a vasectomy so this nurse and I will suffer a barren future. To soothe her, I read aloud Joseph Heller’s memoir about contracting Guillain-­Barré syndrome. The book was supposed to make us feel better. Instead, it chronicles how great Heller’s friends are, how high Heller’s spirits are, how Heller leaves his wife to marry the beautiful nurse who tends to him. And for Charlotte, the book’s ending is particularly painful: Joseph Heller gets better.

We tumble into a well of despair that’s narrow and deep, a place that seals us off. Everything is in the well with us—­careers, goals, travel, children—­so close that we can drown them to save ourselves.

Finally, discharge. Yet home is unexpectedly surreal. Amid familiar surroundings, the impossibility of normal life is amplified. But the cat is happy, so happy to have Charlotte home that it spends an entire night curled on Charlotte’s throat, on her tracheal incision. Goodbye, cat! While I’m in the garage, Charlotte watches a spider slowly descend from the ceiling on a single thread. She tries to blow it away. She blows and blows, but the spider disappears into her hair.

Still to be described are tests, tantrums and treatments. To come are the discoveries of Kurt Cobain and marijuana. Of these times, there is only one moment I must relate. It was a normal night. I was beside Charlotte in the mechanical bed, holding up her magazine.

She said, “You don’t know how bad I want to get out of this bed.”

Her voice was quiet, uninflected. She’d said similar things a thousand times.

“I’d do anything to escape,” she said.

I flipped the page and laughed at a picture whose caption read, “Stars are just like us!”

“But I could never do that to you,” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.


“What are you talking about, what’s going through your head?”

I turned to look at her. She was inches away.

“Except for how it would hurt you,” she said, “I would get away.”

“Get away where?”

“From here.”

Neither of us had spoken of the promise since the night it was exacted. I’d tried to pretend the promise didn’t exist, but it existed.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” I said, forcing a smile. “We’re destined, we’re fated to be together. And soon you’ll be better, things will be normal again.”

“My entire life is this pillow.”

“That’s not true. You’ve got your friends and family. And you’ve got technology. The whole world is at your fingertips.”

By friends, I meant her nurses and physical therapists. By family, I meant her distant and brooding mother. It didn’t matter: Charlotte was too disengaged to even point out her nonfunctional fingers and their nonfeeling tips.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at the safety rail.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I would never do that to you.”

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation Between Adam Johnson and Vincent Scarpa

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and managing editor of The Austin Review.

Vincent Scarpa:
How long have these stories been in your arsenal? Were they all completed after The Orphan Master’s Son, or were some in the works before that?

Adam Johnson:
That’s a good question. One story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” I wrote earlier. In the middle of Orphan Master’s Son, I knew that I needed to use a certain kind of third person with a certain kind of distance that I’d never really deployed before, and so I stopped writing that book and I figured, Let me test it out. So I wrote that story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” that was really ratcheted down and limited in a certain way, as a kind of test run to see if I could do that over a bigger novel. So that story came earlier, but the other five came after I finished the novel. I had just missed stories. I love everything about stories and I’d been just jonesing to write some.

Was there any trepidation on your end, or on the publishing end, in putting out a book of stories—­thought of by some these days as a dead-­on-­arrival endeavor—­on the heels of a Pulitzer-­winning novel?

Well, I’m lucky to have a great editor and a great house. I have a sense that the people who read short stories are the ones who want to write short stories, and who are very literary types, and it’s seemed to me always that there’s maybe ten thousand of us out there. But I do believe there has been a resurgence in short stories, and that there are great practitioners—­whether it’s Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Karen Russell—­doing great work and who are actually finding wider audiences for stories. Random House has been wholeheartedly behind these stories, and they really want to get them in the hands of readers, so I’ve been fortunate.

I usually wouldn’t ask a writer to talk about the process differences between writing stories and writing novels—­for a lot of reasons, but primarily because I just don’t find it an interesting or productive question—­but I am curious to hear you talk about it, considering that you write some of the longest stories I’ve read, at sixty, seventy pages. They’re Alice Munro long! And while each story in the collection feels fully realized and exists in a carefully constructed world all its own, I could easily see any of them being stretched into a full-­length novel, especially stories like “Hurricanes Anonymous” and “Fortune Smiles.” They feel entirely complete to me as short stories, but undoubtedly contain so many opportunities for expansion. As a reader, I would’ve been down to follow either much longer. I suppose that’s a roundabout way of asking if these always existed as stories or if you had ever planned or tried to work one out into another novel.

Well, first of all, my process for writing is the same, regardless of form: I abandon my children, I become a horrible husband and a half-­assed teacher. That’s what it all has in common. There’s definitely something a little maximal about my writing, just because one of the great joys is building a world out of nothing. That’s the largest pleasure for me, and it takes a lot of page space to do. To make a Stasi prison so that I can see every hall and cell and the looks on people’s faces, to feel the electricity humming through the wires. Or to know every street on a hurricane-­ravaged town. Or to see every flashing light in the city of Seoul from the point of view of two defectors. I just have to build that world. I could kind of go on forever. I know these stories are all long, but they are honestly as short as I could get them.

When I first saw that there were only six stories, I admit to thinking, Well, that’s a little light for a collection. But, truthfully, after finishing three stories—­“Nirvana,” “Dark Meadow,” and “Interesting Facts”—­I was convinced that this was one of the greatest collections I’d ever read. Which makes me want to ask a question about ordering—­how much thought went into the placement and arrangement of these stories? Do you see any of the stories as speaking to one another in a way—­responding to one another, or echoing/ricocheting off one another—­or maybe perhaps even negating in one story something that felt true in the story prior to it?

That’s a great question. I just write the stories. I trust the publisher to change the order, change the title, you know. “Fortune Smiles” felt like a hopeful note to me, because even though there are some heavy scenes in the book, you’ve got to go forward. So that one seemed like a good one to conclude with. “Nirvana” is a good opener because it’s quickly engaging—­within two pages, you have a drone that appears and the president comes to life.
I’m always afraid, as a writer, that the reader is going to quit reading at any paragraph, so I feel like if the language isn’t there, if the dialogue isn’t right, if there isn’t ­development—­if I’m not giving the reader a constant stream of candy, in one form or another—­they’re just going to abandon me. That’s my great fear.

Tell me a bit about how “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” came to be.

I was in Germany, and German television wanted to interview me. And they must have thought I liked torture because of my North Korea book, so they were like, “Let’s interview you in a former torture prison!” And so they took me to this prison and did this very grim interview with me in a cell where people had been interrogated forever. It was a very creepy, creepy place. Afterward, I took a tour with the director, and he told me that the whole neighborhood is filled with all the Stasi officers who used to work there, and they sneak in all the time and make YouTube videos. And he said the warden walked his little dog around the prison every morning. I asked if he’d ever spoken to him and he said no.
All that to say that, for the fiction writer, the half-­seen thing is what sparks the imagination, and your mind begins filling out the rest of the portrait. That idea of the warden and his little dog—­it wouldn’t let go of me! How does that man justify what he did? How does a person reorient their psyche toward hurting other people in the name of good?

I have to ask a few questions about “Dark Meadow,” the story that I think is really the crown jewel in a collection of perfect stories, and a story that I hope will be read and taught for years to come. Mostly what I admire about it is that you’ve tackled a subject—­in the first person, no less—­that most writers, myself included, would be reluctant to touch with a ten-­foot pole. I’m reminded of two things the narrator of “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” in attempts at self-­exoneration, says: “someone must undertake the unpleasant tasks” and “the truth is that duty calls upon us to perform tasks we’d rather not.” Do those sentiments resonate with you at all, as a writer, and perhaps serve to explain why you’d willingly go into the mind of a pedophile? Was it a kind of duty to go there as a writer?

I have many answers to this question, because the story doesn’t have a simple source. I do feel like several years ago my writing took a turn toward creating portraits of people you just don’t hear from, including people who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. I tell my students all the time that the odds you’ll be a good storyteller and you’ll have an important story to tell are quite rare. Those are long odds. So if you are good at storytelling, you have a duty to tell the stories of others. After I went to that Stasi prison, I asked if anyone could recommend a good Stasi memoir, and not one person could. You know, if I could’ve just read a book, I probably wouldn’t have written the story. Writing about North Korea, I just became ravenous with curiosity, and the human portrait of what is it like to be a North Korean is something I couldn’t find. That’s when my mind started writing it.
With “Dark Meadow,” you know, it’s very rare and brave for victims of abuse to come forward, but there are almost no offenders. Literally, try to find—­outside of medical literature—­one person who will say, “I did monstrous things. I am no longer that person, but here’s what I did and why I did it, and I’m going to share with you this human possibility.” It just isn’t out there. They’re the biggest pariahs in our society, all the more reason we should look at them, especially if the offenders were once victims, and I believe that in many cases that’s also true.
It puts to the test the notions we bandy about very lightly in the humanist realm of the university that everyone has full humanity and we are all essentially the same on some level. We like to act, in the university, like every single person does have full entitlement to being a human being. And that’s something I believe. But it’s not something easy to write.

I’m not going to ask about the truth content of “Interesting Facts,” because if that’s what interests you about the story, I think you’ve missed the story. But I would love to hear you talk about your intentions in writing a story in which the narrator’s husband is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written a novel about North Korea and who attended a Florida ­university—­a man uncannily not unlike yourself. The wife, also a writer in the story, even goes so far as to say that her husband has stolen a character from her, a sexual predator, and published a story called “Dark Meadow.” What are you asking the reader in “Interesting Facts” to consider or to gnaw at by including this autobiographical element?

Well, putting so much obviously factual material in a piece of fiction of course invites the reader to ask that question. So it’s perfectly natural. My motivations are more simple and less noble. The way my mind makes sense of things is through narrative. So this is just something that happened in our family a few years ago. My wife got breast cancer. It was a very chaotic time. We have kids. There was all this stuff going on, and my mind just turned it all into narrative. I know it might sound trite to say, The story picks you. But it’s true.

And the story serves to help compartmentalize that chaos?

I think so. And a story forces meaning on something, it’s a meaning-­making machine. And the story is going to come up with an answer. It’s a dangerous thing to play with, a story, when you put personal material in there, because you might not like the answer.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’ve just always written whatever I’ve been drawn toward. Having written the novel for many years, I was just jonesing to get back to stories. I just love the form. I wrote five of them, big wild-­world stories. And I just started writing a novel last year that I’m about halfway through: a big, crazy, goofy novel that it’s hard to believe I’m actually doing. You tell someone at a party what it’s about and they kind of give you that smile. I get that smile a lot.
This conversation originally appeared at

1. How would you describe the elements that these six stories have in common? Are there themes that recur?

2. Discuss the importance of place in these stories, which range from Louisiana post-­Katrina to a former prison camp in East Germany to North Korea. To what extent are these stories that could only take place in these locations? To what extent are the experiences of their characters universal?

3. In “Nirvana,” why do you feel the narrator has created a holograph of the president? What purpose do his conversations with the president serve? How do you think Charlotte feels about this?

4. Describe the father-­son relationship in “Hurricanes Anonymous,” and how you understand Nonc’s sense of obligation to Geronimo and Relle. Is Nonc a good father? What does this story say about the bonds of individual love versus the bonds of family? What does this story say about the diasporas that occur after natural disasters?

5. “Dark Meadow” and “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” both feature narrators who have done—­or are drawn to doing—­terrible things. Talk about how your perspective on these characters changed over the course of their ­stories—at the end, were your feelings about their choices different from what they were at the beginning?

6. In “Interesting Facts,” the narrator’s husband has a biography similar to the author’s. What did you make of this? Does the narrator’s relationship with her husband and family change over the course of the story?

7. What is the role of humor in these stories?

8. Many of these characters seem motivated by shame—­over their past, or their actions, or their sense of failure. Does a sense of shame motivate them to be better toward others, or does it make them more selfish?

9. Would you describe the stories as each being distinct in prose style? Or quite similar? If so, what are the continuities?

10. Talk about the ending of “Fortune Smiles.” How do Sun-­ho’s and DJ’s experiences of defection differ? Does the story change your understanding of what it means to defect from a place like North Korea?


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson pursues the subjects of his fiction in much the way an investigative reporter chases a story. He spent seven years researching his Pulitzer-winning novel of life in North Korea, The Orphan Master's Son, eventually visiting the country in order to capture as much as possible a sense of ordinary life in that very extraordinary place.

But as the short stories of his bravura new collection, Fortune Smiles, demonstrate, Johnson is a literary sleuth bent on uncovering the astonishing in every corner of the twenty-first-century world: post-Katrina New Orleans, a former site of state-sponsored torture in Berlin, a near-future Silicon Valley in the wake of a president's assassination, and even — perhaps most darkly — the inner world of a man wrestling with monstrous urges. In the collection's title story, Johnson visits Seoul in the company of North Korean refugees who might have stepped from the pages of The Orphan Master's Son, and who discover in their new home a world as hard to understand as the nightmarish society they've left behind. What all of Johnson's characters — and readers — encounter, is something previously unimaginable, and utterly convincing. As one of the refugees remarks about the climactic events of "Fortune Smiles," "This was . . . spontaneous and unexpected, this was real."

Sitting down to talk about his fiction during the frenetic round of signings and events that made up May's Book Expo America in New York City, Adam Johnson is a warm and serene presence, whose manner reminds one of a professor used to the task of putting new students at ease in a seminar — a skill that may well be practiced among his students at Stanford. Our conversation ranged from the dislocations of life in a world where technology is perpetually challenging our notion of the real to the responsibilities of the writer to the world his work describes. The following is an edited transcript of our talk. — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: When I read "Nirvana," the opening story in the collection, the phrase, "The ghost in the machine," immediately comes to mind, in both a literal and thematic sense. This is a story about caring for a partner in illness — but also about drones, the Internet and mourning. Can you talk about how you came to write this very layered story?

Adam Johnson: Well, it came out of real life. My wife was having health issues, going through breast cancer, and it was tough on our family and our kids and everything. Right at that time, my college roommate, an old friend, took his life. I really couldn't process that. I didn't even really want to go to a funeral at that time. So I didn't. But when we were at college, my buddy was obsessive about Nirvana, and that's all he would play in the house, and so it was always playing. I found myself listening to that music again. Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994, just after we were done with college, and that music started really speaking to me, and for a long time I listened to nothing else. I really felt my friend's presence.

BNR: This was after your friend's death.

AJ: Yes. That's how I deal with things in life. I just write a story or something. And cancer is such a loaded issue because it's so poorly handled in popular narratives, in TV and things like that. So I didn't want the reader to bring any baggage. So I got a different kind of illness that was maybe fresh to the reader.

BNR: She starts suffering constantly from this illness, as well as in real doubt about whether recovery is really possible.

AJ: That's a real aspect of the illness. Joseph Heller did have this, and wrote a very interesting memoir about it. I had a friend in graduate school who got Guillain- Barré syndrome out of the blue, was paralyzed for a year. His dream for a year was to urinate on his own, he told me. He was very depressed, and they couldn't guarantee him that he would recover because not everyone does. But I had a dream one night that a drone came to the window and, in my dream, I went to the window, and there was just a little drone hovering there, and I just knew that this was a visitation from my dead friend in my dream-emotion logic — I still get goose bumps remembering that. I thought, You know what? I'm just going to start a story with that, because it's obviously connected to something else — see where it goes.

I don't remember how I invented bringing people to life . . .

BNR: Just to explain for someone who hasn't read the story, because it's such a fascinating, on-the- edge-of-possible-now kind of concept, the protagonist of the story is a software developer who has come up with a way of gathering up all the video on the Web, collecting it through an algorithm . . .

AJ: Right.

BT: . . . and assembling all the video about a particular person into a kind of responsive display that will project a lifelike hologram of a person you can talk to — in this case an image of a recently assassinated president. That went so quickly to the heart because I think so many people have had worries about our first black president being assassinated, the sense of fear that it might happen, and also the sense of closeness that we have to certain public figures. And that comes through in another way, because the wife in the story obsessively listens to Cobain.

AJ: I live in Silicon Valley. People always say, "Oh, your work is a little over the horizon, it's a little futuristic." But I commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto to teach. That's where they practice all the Google cars. So the driverless cars have been passing me for four years as I drive to work. Mercedes is testing its driverless cars in San Francisco now, and these silver cars drive around with no one in them. It's come to be normal to me.

BNR: You're already sort of living a little bit into tomorrow?

AJ: I think if you're right there in the home of Google, in the home of Uber and Lyft and all these companies are there, and artificial intelligence, the Stanford robotics labs, there are drones, solar cars driving around Stanford campus. Popular Mechanics wrote an article about that part of "Nirvana," about whether it could be done, and they concluded that it could be done now, that if you could really get an algorithm, we have enough of a Web presence, it could be curated and maybe assembled into some type of similar experience. One of my students graduated, and she was a great short story writer. They often get hired into companies like EA, to write software. She wrote a dialog-bot that fools people online into thinking that they're talking to humans.

BNR: There are very interesting Twitter- bots that are out there . . .

AJ: I met a man last week who wrote a novel from the perspective of a Twitter-bot. I think it's going to be a popular novel. Because a Twitter-bot doesn't really understand what it is, and who made it, and what its role in the world is as it comes to think about the strangeness of humans. But that's an old trope, to understand humanity from a non- human perspective.

BNR: It's not hard to find in your stories characters who are, for one reason or another, experts in particular areas of recondite knowledge. In the story "Interesting Facts," a woman suffering from cancer catalogues all of these facts about her illness and the treatment. There is an intent over and over by your characters, it seems to me, to be like the inventors of Silicon Valley, to master the world through deep technical knowledge, to catalogue everything, to sort of tag their experience of the world with finely-grained knowledge. Your fiction throws them into a confrontation with something that cannot be mastered in that way.

AJ: Well, I feel like the world is bewildering in its vastness and complexity. I think to just become an expert on yourself is almost impossible, let alone understand the motives and inner workings of humanity, and what it means to live in a world of such scale. Maybe I'm just projecting my own bewilderment before the monoliths and multi-liths that are out there. But how does a human make its way through a world of 7 billion people and all these other meanings, and still find a meaningful path to chart one person's meaningful course?

Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel and many other interesting books, came to Stanford. One of the things he said that really spoke to me is that the worst thing that ever happened to human beings was that they stopped being hunter-gatherers. They started this little explosive arc into what we call civilization. We honestly really believe we're meant to be close-knit, transient, tribal, communal, mystical, storytelling people, and yet we've made this thing.

We're in the Javits Center now, this steel-and-glass thing. And I love this amazing society. But it's inhuman in the world, it feels to me in many ways.

BNR: Is fiction then an attempt to find humanness within that bewildering architecture that we've created?

AJ: Long dramatic pause. Fiction is many, many things. I will say this, because that invites me to make a big pronouncement . . .

BNR: I didn't mean to set up a loaded question. Perhaps a better one would be: So where is the storytelling impulse for you important?

AJ: I will say that I think contemporary literary fiction is most alive when it is like jazz as an art form. It's in-conversation, it's improvisational, it's terribly intimate and personal. All the writing I like is writing in which a writer is trying to discover, and whenever someone tells me, "Oh, I outlined my novel" or "I knew the end first," I think, "I don't want to read that book." I take elements . . . I took in "Nirvana" my wife's illness, the loss of a friend, a troubling dream, my sense of the world around me, and I just started writing. A story, a narrative is a meaning-making machine. It must make meaning because it's operating on so many levels — structure, causality, chronology, voice, language — and it all combines to make at the end a wave of meaning.

So if I put what's going on in my life into a story in the right way, at the end, the distance of fiction in its improvisational, meaning-making way, will deliver unto me a meaning that I couldn't have come to on my own. That's why I write. Sometimes it's like, duh — it's an obvious meaning that I should have seen. Maybe if I'd just gone to therapy I would have figured it out. But sometimes it leads to ponderous, complex answers that I must dwell upon.

BNR: Speaking of therapy — the experience of trauma seems central to many of your stories. I was thinking about the way in which one of the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is the inability to stop repetitive thoughts or behavior related to the wounding experience. I went back to a story, "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," and the line, "If this place was so horrible, how come you keep returning?" Is trauma something you think about consciously a lot?

AJ: You know, I haven't been traumatized in a big way. But for several reasons, I really care about the topic. I often believe that the How of the story is just as important as the What of the story, and trauma narratives take very specific shapes, but are very unexpected and surprising and interesting. I think when it comes to trauma, there are people who go through events that tear at the fabric of normalcy, and some people turn their feelings off in an effort to deal with, and some people can't stop feeling it, and the trauma is everywhere, and there's loops and repetitions and hauntings, and it's ever-present and everything leads back to it. So in "George Orwell" we have some guy who has totally dislocated his feelings . . .

BNR: He's a former Stasi in what was East Germany — a Stasi prison administrator.

AJ: Right. And he encounters a former inmate for whom the trauma is alive every day. They had opposite experiences, or opposite ways of dealing with the same experience.

I went to Germany for the German edition of The Orphan Master's Son, which was very popular there. That Korean experience of partition, Communism, freedom also rings true for the Vietnamese. My book is very popular in Vietnam, in Germany, etc. — some of the Eastern Bloc countries.

German television wanted to interview me. They said, "Oh, there's torture in your book; we have a torture prison." I said, "I don't want to go to a torture prison." They said, "No, it will be great." They took me to this place called Hohenschönhausen, a secret Stasi prison. It was a very creepy place, and it was very alive with the suffering that had once taken place there. But it is now a museum, as it is in my story, and the man who ran the place was a very intellectual person dedicated to turning this into a place of good. He took me on just a personal tour — so I did not go on a tour with a former inmate, which is how it really works there. But as we were walking, I asked about the former wardens and whether they all were brought to justice. He said, "No one. There's been no accounting for this." He said, "in fact, the warden still lives in his prison warden's house a block away. He walks his little dog around here every day."

I kept thinking about that for months, the old prison warden going around. So I knew he was a real figure. I made sure to Google nothing and learn nothing about the real man. I still don't know his name. I know he's real and he does exist.

My tour of Germany went to seven different cities, and I became fascinated. I would tell people, "I want to try to understand this East German Stasi culture." Because I'd been studying the Bowibu, which is the North Korean equivalent. I said, "Is there a book from a former Stasi agent in which he explains everything and just comes clean?" They said, "No. No one would ever write such a book." I said, "is there one voice that I could turn to of someone who just explains why they did it, or the machine they wee caught up in? — the human side of the offender." They said no. That's what made me write this. There was a voice missing that only literature could fill in.

BNR: Let's talk for a moment about the title story of the collection, "Fortune Smiles." Was there unfinished business from completing The Orphan Master's Son — did you feel, "There's another aspect of this that I want to go back and deal with?"

AJ: That's exactly it. When I wrote The Orphan Master's Son ?- the topic was so big. I feel like I got to a real emotional truth. But after I was done, I felt some facts weren't done justice to. It's such a large human thing that one portrait isn't enough. So after I was done, I wrote nonfiction pieces. I went to Japan and I found Kim Jong-Il's sushi chef, who escaped, and I interviewed him six times. I just wanted to write a big inner look in Kim Jong-Il's life in terms of getting one of our better portraits of Kim Jong-Il based on this. So I wrote several pieces of nonfiction about the broken history of literature in North Korea, and things like that.

But I think the novel implied at the end that if you get out, all your answers, all your dreams will come true, even though I knew from talking to defectors that a whole new set of problems had just begun. And I didn't want people to think, "Yes, they got out; it's easy now; they've won the lottery" or whatever, because I knew from talking to them, how hard it is trying to adapt from that society to a modern society... and society in Seoul is one of the most modern on earth. Some people can't handle it.

I spoke specifically to a couple of high-level defectors and did multiple interviews with two of them, who were like the guys in the story. If you're an elite in North Korea, you probably run scams to get hard currency, and the scams in the book are exactly the ones they reported to me, that we know to be true. Even they, the people who had cars in North Korea, who lived in Pyongyang, who had all the luxuries, could not cope well with the new world. The disillusionment, the bewilderment, the uncertainty, it just broke my heart — and the lack of acceptance in the South. The pejorative terms they have for North Koreans. They instantly become "dishwashers."

People say to me — this is a criticism (if it is a criticism) that I embrace — "Who are you to write about North Koreans? You're not Korean. You're a white guy in California." And that's true, and I own it. But the thing is, North Koreans aren't free to tell their stories. They cannot speak for themselves. And South Koreans are not taking up the flag of telling these stories. The people who get out are traumatized, and they want to look to the future, not to the past. But knowing that being an outsider to Korean culture means I'll get some things wrong, inherently. There will be trespass, and I apologize for that to the degree that it's there.

But sometimes being an outsider means that you can see things that are so clear to someone who is not within the paradigm, and I feel like that was really true of writing a story about Germany. I maybe got several facts wrong, but I can look at this without all the cultural baggage, without any investment, without my family dynamic being at stake, and paint a portrait that, whether it's right or wrong, brings a new humanity to it. With literature, you can project your humanity onto a situation, if we are all really humans who feel the same things.

There's a story in the collection, "Dark Meadow." It's a very troubling story.

BNR: About a man who is sexually attracted to children. It's a hard story to read.

AJ: It was a very difficult story to write. I have a friend, a therapist, and he runs a rehabilitation group of sex offenders in the prison system, and helps them transition once they've done their time. He has this set of stories of real people, some of whom are victims, some are offenders, some are both, who have become the ultimate pariahs in our society, and about whom most people would say they've lost their humanity. I don't believe that. They're real people who have done the worst thing we can imagine. But he sees their humanity. He sees their struggle. He sees them confront what they did and try to become other than what their worst moments were.

I'm a parent, so this is the worst nightmare ever. My wife and I go on Megan's Law, which is the registry in California, and we're like, "Who are the creeps in our neighborhood?" So part of writing that story was me confronting my fears, but also I said to my friend, "I just would love to read one narrative in which someone says, ?This is what I did; this is how I came to be a person who did this; and here was my path toward coming back or reconciling or something.' " And he said, "There isn't one." He said, "It's in the therapeutic literature, but there is not a book . . . " And he said, "I don't know that anyone would buy it." I said, "I would want to understand that person." Again, just that seed — there was a missing story within the realm of being human. My mind just started trying to imagine . . .

The one thing he talks about is these people's struggle, and it is not visible. He said, "Every minute of the day they are battling interior demons that they cannot share with anyone but others like them in my group sessions." And those are characters we care about. Really, I think that's what makes us care about this character, is that we would consider them a monster from a distance.

BNR: Does writing from these various points of view give you a sense of what we can't see about ourselves in America, our blind spots?

AJ: Well, I could say several things. One thing I'll say is that North Korea has set up one of the ways in which terror is inflicted upon the population — a David and Goliath thing, and we are the Great Enemy. So now America has been written into their narrative. Part of capturing a North Korean perspective in The Orphan Master's Son was critiquing America constantly. The one place in the world you can't talk to a North Korean is in North Korea. It's illegal. So when you go there, you're only handled by minders who have graduate degrees in handling foreigners. They are very skillful. When you're with them, they're trained on dealing with Americans who come to the country. They can name all fifty states, the capitals of all the states, they know the population of New York. But of course, they're not worldly, and they don't know the essence of things. So when I was there, like, North Korean elites would ask me: "Is it true that in San Francisco homeless people lay around in the streets and people don't do anything?" That's true in my neighborhood of the Haight, and I would say to say "Yes." They'd be like, "But why does the government not help them?" That was like a really genuine question. Of course, their definition of government help is much different than ours.

They would say, "Is it true that there is no health care?" They would say, "Our health care isn't the best, but everyone can have it. Is it true that you don't care about sick people in America?" I would have to say yes. This wasn't just propaganda ploys. They were curious about how we were so obviously rich and powerful, how we did not care for the underclass.

I asked my students all the time at Stanford, "When the future reads our books, what will they judge us for?" We read books from the nineteenth century that don't question slavery or colonialism or the rights of women or things of that nature. I ask them, "What will they judge us for?" What my students say has changed over the years — the rights of animals, how animals are treated. Gay equality. And the climate. I just asked this question of 110 freshmen at Stanford a couple of weeks ago. They said: They're going to read our books in 100 years and say, we just drove around in SUVs and consumed stuff and didn't even think about taking long showers or what-have-you.

—August 27, 2015

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