Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed novel The Orphan Master’s Son, will be speaking at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café this Friday, September 4th at 7 pm. His newest book, Fortune Smiles, is a collection of short stories that are beautifully drawn, lyrical, and emotional reflections on human life.
These stories also contain Johnson’s unique brand of humor, which ranges from the light to the acerbic and the controversial. In “Nirvana,” for example (which won the Sunday Times’ short story prize), the narrator finds solace in the company of a hologram of the assassinated President of the United States while his wife faces a long-term debilitating illness. Another story, “Dark Meadow,” is told from the perspective of a self-professed pedophile known to his neighbors as “Mr. Roses” who manages to be alternately frightening and sympathetic.
Johnson consistently gives us characters full of life, though that life is often colored with the dark cloud of personal trauma or the sometimes suffocating, always inescapable influence of history. The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, and the title story in Fortune Smiles returns to this country and its conflicts. “Hurricanes Anonymous” explores the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, and “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a character trying to flee his former identity as a Stasi prison guard. These are dark tales, but they’re not without a kind of lightness—a sense of, if nothing else, the interconnectedness of all people and the inevitable end of all things.
In anticipation of this week’s event, I spoke with Adam Johnson about his writing process, his influences, and the role of history and time in his stories.
Ali McGhee: Can you talk a little about your writing process? You often write stories that combine elements of real-life experience and speculative fiction, even SF. Has this combination always come naturally?
Adam Johnson: I was trained as a journalist, and though I wasn’t a very good one when I was young, I’ve always loved research and especially interviewing. Coming into possession of real human stories is very important for me, whether it’s a hurricane survivor or North Korean defector. For me, the emotionality of real experiences becomes the test of what my depictions must then achieve.
Ali: What was the publishing process like? Any enlightening and/or frustrating experiences as the book moved forward? How has it changed since you first started publishing your work?
Adam: I loved writing this story collection because I care about stories deeply. I love their compact nature and coiled power. I think of stories as Duracell batteries for storing emotion. You pour your heart into a story, and there it waits until the moment a reader engages it, and then all that feeling springs to life. I'd written two novels in a row, and though novels have their own special joys, I'd missed stories and couldn't wait to write them.
Ali: Any particular influences in terms of other authors, music, and/or art that you as a writer (or your writing process) are inspired or flavored by (generally, or for particular stories in this collection)?
Adam: I think we're in a renaissance when it comes to the contemporary short story. So many gifted writers are choosing to express themselves in the form that it's giving a new generation permission to engage stories. Think of Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Kelly Link and Karen Russell. I could go on and on naming great story writers and collections. I first fell in love with short stories in the late 80s. I still remember reading Elizabeth Gilbert's "Pilgrims" or Ron Carlson's "The News of the World." It's an honor to join the club.
Ali: I'm interested in the experience of nostalgia in your works. "Nirvana," for example, is about finding comfort in simulacra of the past who speak in cliches that are both amusing and very frustrating. In the same way, so much of North Korea's mythology is connected to holding onto tradition as a means of control. Could you speak about nostalgia, the past, tradition, etc. generally as you view it or write about it?
Adam: It's a big irony that the past is often more vivid and palpable than the present, yet the past is forever inaccessible. And of course the future is unknown. All that leaves us with is the now, and writing in a moment-by-moment way is what I thrive on. I believe we carry the past with us and are constantly speculating about the future. If you write the present closely enough, you'll get all three dimensions of time, and therefore, the fullest possible portrait of a character.
Ali: What projects/next works are on your horizon? Anything coming up that you're particularly excited about?
Adam: I'm working on a large, fun novel right now, a real pleasure to write!