Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his 2012 novel, The Orphan Master's Son, a harrowing investigation of state power in North Korea. He returns to that setting in the title story of his new collection, Fortune Smiles (Random House; 320 pp.).
Other stories in the volume are about a husband nursing his ill wife through a hologram of an assassinated U.S. president ("Nirvana"), a German prison warden confronting his past ("George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine") and a Louisiana UPS driver dealing with single parenthood and the impending death of his father ("Hurricanes Anonymous").
The INDY reached Johnson in advance of his Sept. 3 appearance at Quail Ridge Books & Music for a fascinating conversation about the blurred lines of fact and fiction in his deeply researched tales, how they draw on his own experiences and the "emotional absurdities" of modern life.
INDY: In Fortune Smiles, I noticed a running theme of disconnection, both between the characters in the stories and how the characters see themselves.
ADAM JOHNSON: Well, that's the great pleasure of the first-person narrative—assuming a narrator accurately represents the world, then giving the reader the tools to make their own judgments. There's what the narrator believes is going on, and what the reader believes is actually going on.
"Nirvana" and "Interesting Facts" both involve married characters dealing with illness. In the first, it's from the point of view of the husband of a woman with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and in the second, it's from the perspective of a wife dealing with cancer.
Just after The Orphan Master's Son came out, my wife got a breast cancer diagnosis, and that was front and center in our lives for the next few years. It makes your mind work, and the way my mind makes meaning of things is through narrative.
The first story I wrote about that was "Nirvana," and because cancer is so often treated in such a maudlin, sentimental way in popular culture, I decided to give the wife a different illness. I didn't want the reader to bring whatever baggage they had from popular culture to this story. A friend of mine had Guillain-Barré, which is fairly rare, and I thought the reader could bring a new attention to a different kind of malady—one that can also be terminal. But when I went back to the material, I was still troubled by the idea of the reverberations of the disease through a family, and I made it a little more nonfictional. I took it on a little more directly.
You have a science-fictional direction in "Nirvana." It's not that far from what's on the Internet today.
They did an article in Popular Mechanics where they asked virtual reality experts if this could happen—reanimating people through 3-D holograms off the web—and the top guy said, "Yeah, we could do it today if it needed to be done." I go to Palo Alto a lot to get to the Stanford campus, and a lot of what I see there is close to the story. It doesn't feel like science fiction at all to me.
I just started teaching a class on media and made the point to my students that a lot of what we enjoy today, such as instant messaging, would have been unthinkable in an age that didn't even have home mail delivery.
I teach writing at Stanford, and I asked some graduate students if they are comfortable writing characters who, in the real world today, would be Instagramming and texting. They admitted it was hard to build suspense with characters who are always looking at their phones. So they keep writing historical fiction, or fiction in realms where characters don't have to deal with new technologies.
What seems absurd to me are not ideas like telepathy or drones flying around. The absurdities in our world are emotional absurdities—that half of all marriages end in divorce, or that people wander the world alone and never connect with other people, or that kids have to tell a judge, "I want to live with this parent or that parent." It seems like we take these as everyday things. And they seem to me completely opposite of how human beings' emotions are supposed to work.
With these stories, there's always a bit of a disconnect from the world a lot of people consider "mainstream." In "Hurricanes Anonymous," you're dealing with the society living in a post-Katrina state, and in "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," you have this aspect of East German history that most people in America don't know about. But you're still dealing with relatable themes like being a father and wanting to protect your child, or being in denial about your past actions and their consequences.
Well, if anything links these stories, it's the interest I have in voices and problems that you rarely hear reported on. When I was on tour in Germany, I became fascinated with Stasi culture, and I wanted to read a memoir on it. People told me, "No, no book like that exists! It couldn't be written!" Immediately, my mind was like, "I have to fill in that emptiness."
Most people know about Hurricane Katrina, but almost no one remembers that an even stronger hurricane, Rita, hit a month later. I wanted to write about people who'd been through a tragedy that had, in some ways, been erased.
Eventually, it had to be applied to my own life, too. When my wife was sick, she didn't want to talk about it, and it was hard for her to express what she'd gone through. And writing about it helped—filling a voice that was missing in my own house.
Of the stories in this collection, which one was the most involved in terms of research?
I love interviews. I love research. I do a ton of research for all my work. It's the kind of human standard my work has to live up to, what I encounter talking to people. The only story I never researched was "Dark Meadow" [Editor's note: The story deals with child pornography]. I didn't want to put anything into Google or talk to anyone about that. But if you're writing about South Korea, you've got to go to South Korea. And if you're writing about a German torture prison, you've got to go to Germany.
When I wrote "Hurricanes Anonymous," I interviewed about three dozen people for it. I went to Louisiana; I slept on people's couches for weeks. I interviewed the county sheriff, the Fish and Wildlife guys, the Homeland Security guys and school principals. I wrote to UPS' world headquarters in Atlanta, because I wanted to do ride-alongs. I delivered 524 UPS packages. Going out with those drivers, they'd tell me about the people on their routes. Every single human being had a story.
Without that, it's so hard to write fiction that feels real to me. I didn't know if I was going to write fiction or nonfiction. I went to see what I felt, to talk to people and discover. The two defectors in "Fortune Smiles" are based on defectors I interviewed at great length in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. I just assumed I was going to write a couple of profiles about the type of defectors we don't usually see—not poor farmers, but people who'd kind of run criminal enterprises through the government. I actually felt held back by the facts. The truth of what it was like to be in North Korea could only be captured through fiction.
I did a piece for GQ on Kim Jong-il's sushi chef. I flew to Japan and interviewed him six times. And in the end, the facts of his life were so amazing that fiction actually lessened it. So that was a place where I went to nonfiction.
Are you going to do another novel as your next project, or are you going to be focusing on short form for the foreseeable future?
I'm obsessed with short stories. I love their coiled power and their ability to stay with you and haunt you and build this whole huge world. But I'm halfway through a novel. It's a big, crazy fucking novel that interests me a great deal and requires tons of research. But it's historical, so it is a world before text messages and cellphones and GPS and chips. There's nothing but human interaction.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Research & destroy"