Posts Tagged ‘Adam Johnson’

Adam Johnson gets National Book Award – and boy, was he surprised!

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

He told his family to stay home.

Short story collections don’t often win a National Book Award, but one did last night – and we couldn’t be more delighted that it did. Pulitzer prizewinning Adam Johnson‘s Fortune Smiles was awarded the fiction prize. No one was more surprised that Adam himself. He was clearly not expecting to be on the stage Wednesday night.

“I told my wife and my kids, ‘Don’t come across America because this is not going to happen,’” he told the Los Angeles Times.

A short story collection won last year (Phil Klay’s Redeployment) and lightning doesn’t often strike the same place twice with the big-ticket literary award.

Adam won a Pulitzer for his Orphan Master’s Son, but he first came to critical notice with in the short story genre, one that he missed after working on his long novel about life in North Korea, which he called a drama with “one central character, and a supporting cast of 23 million” (read it here).

“I think the short story is a machine, and it has lots of gears that turn: Voice, style, architecture, chronology, scene selection,” Johnson said in a recent NPR interview. “I think they’re difficult, but they can be very perfect and powerful — I missed them, working on a novel for many years.”

When I first wrote about Adam six years ago here, he thought he would always be a niche artist:

fortune-smilesHe admitted that not everyone will be a fan of his “off-kilter, quirky humor.” When he sees furrowed brows and incomprehension at his readings, he thinks, “Don’t buy it! It’s not for you!”

He sees writers occupying more of a niche market, like magazines. No one insists, he pointed out, “You have to read the latest Cat Fancy – you’ll die if you don’t!”

Hence, while most authors dream of immortality, Johnson anticipates obscurity: “There will be no statues of Adam Johnson – I don’t think so,” he said, smiling slyly and sipping his iced coffee.

We’ll wait and see, Adam. We’ll wait and see.

Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Between the World and Me, a visceral exploration about the experience of black men in America.

“Every day you turn on the TV and see some kind of violence being directed at black people,” Mr. Coates said in an emotional acceptance speech. “Over and over and over again. And it keeps happening.”

Read more about this year’s awards at the New York Times here.

Farewell to Stanford’s “How I Write” – and hello to Hilton’s new book!

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Teamwork: Charlie Junkerman and Hilton Obenzinger

It’s a cliché that all good things come to an end, but stoicism was little consolation for the 40 or 50 of us who came to bid farewell to the “How I Write” series that has been part of Stanford life for more than a dozen years. The series of public conversations has been ably and amiably hosted by Hilton Obenzinger, under the aegis of Continuing Studies.

Here’s a few things that were consolations: the send-off party at the Stanford Faculty Club was celebrated with good food and good company. And here’s the best part: Hilton has made the 13-year series into a 262-page book, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experienceavailable on Amazon here. The book is dedicated to the late Diane Middlebrook. Hence, last week’s event was a fête for the new book, though tinged with a little sadness, too.

Charlie Junkerman, the dean of Continuing Studies, called the book “a portable condensation of all those conversations” and “the right capstone to this project of many many years.” Noting Hilton’s ventures in fiction, poetry, history, and criticism, he added that “he hasn’t written a cookbook so far, but that may be coming.”

What did Hilton learn from this long venture? “People are weird and they work in all kinds of strange ways.” He remembered the author who required his “writing sweater” to write. He spoke with award-winning Irish poet and essayist Eavan Boland, who likes writing code and reading tech magazines, while engineer Eric Roberts, author of Programming Abstractions in C, has no TV and surrounds himself with books, not tech toys.

As Tom Winterbottom writes in his discussion of the book here:

Who knew that the renowned Stanford literary critic Terry Castle wrote the entire first draft of her dissertation in tiny handwriting on just seven sheets of legal-sized paper?

Or that the acclaimed author and Stanford professor Adam Johnson learned the craft of storytelling at a young age in part by rifling through his neighbors’ garbage cans for inspiration?

Amusing, yes, but anecdotes give little sense of the grueling process of writing itself, or the perils of publication. The longed-for moment when you see your book in publication can bring as much rue as reward:

When you read your own work as something fresh, something strange, it can be very exciting – especially if there’s time to make revisions. But then, once published, you almost inevitably discover typos, mistakes, and causes for regret and even remorse. As in a lover’s quarrel, sometimes we wish we could take the words back. But it’s almost never possible. …

obenzingerMost of the time the ill-chosen words hang there; if you’re lucky, no one reads them and they turn to dust. But sometimes the words act and cause actions, as words do, and some readers may be led down the wrong path or may have terrible thoughts planted in their brains. So far I haven’t disowned any of my own writing, although I often cringe at how infantile, wrong-headed, or tone-deaf some passage may be.

I certainly can’t disavow my typos. No matter how much the copy editor and I comb the text, at least one goof will slip right through the galleys. For some reason there’s an article repeated or a word misspelled or worse. Yet I’ve come to terms with the stray typo, because the error demonstrates that the work is not perfect, the text is always contingent, always transient, a ‘draft of a draft,’ as Herman Melville‘s Ishmael describes Moby-Dick. …

But shame, failure, despair, utter horror, these are all stations on the journey, even after completing a ‘draft of a draft.’ …

“Where’s the quote from?” several of the guests called out when he was finished reading. “Me!” beamed Hilton. It was his own. It’s in his book. You can buy it here. (And you can read a little more about it here.)

Right about now, Adam Johnson is bagging a big prize in London!

Friday, April 4th, 2014
ST Short story Award

With writers Tom McKay and Emma Hamilton, at a reading last night at Foyles bookshop in London (Photo: Tom Pilston)

It’s the world’s most valuable prize for a single short story – and Pulitzer prize-winning Adam Johnson has won it. Just about right now, Professor John Carey, the Sunday Times literary critic and prize judge, is presenting the award at an evening ceremony at the Stationers’ Hall in London.

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story prize carries a £30,000 prize. The story that was awarded, “Nirvana,” has already been featured in the Book Haven here. (We’ve also written about Adam in a zillion other places – here and here and here and here, for example.) The prize caps Adam’s exceptional year, which has brought him a Guggenheim and a Pulitzer, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.  Which is why we won’t stop crowing about him anytime soon.


Big boy gets big prize … again.

Adam’s only-slightly-futuristic story describes how a husband uses technology, a dead president, and Kurt Cobain to confront his own grief and to alleviate his wife’s suffering, as she deteriorates from a incurable, wasting disease. Adam built his reputation on the short story form, and although he has most recently been fêted for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, says he is still “deeply drawn to the short story form—its power, its focus, its mission of emotionality.”

Said Adam of “Nirvana”: “I was inspired by a combination of my wife’s struggle with cancer and a friend who took his own life. When my wife was going through chemo, and my friend shot himself, I began asking questions about what our duty is to dying people and the departed, where they go, what remains and how we speak to them and share what they go through.”

In his presentation speech, John Carey described “Nirvana” as “a mind-expanding, futurist story, and a story about redemption.” Another judge, novelist and comic David Baddiel, said, “I loved ‘Nirvana’. It was both sad and, rare in literary-competition-land, funny. Plus it proves that genre fiction – the story is, at heart, science fiction – can work, emotionally and artistically, at the highest levels.”

Adam is the fifth consecutive international winner of the prize, drawn from a shortlist that included Americans Marjorie Celona and fellow Pulitzer prize-winner Elizabeth Strout, as well as three British-based authors, Tahmima Ahnam, Jonathan Tel and newcomer Anna Metcalfe. Each received £1,000. Here’s the cool thing: all six stories will be published as an ebook Six Shorts, available on amazon.


Last year’s winner … another familiar face.

Previous winners include Dominican-American Junot Díaz (we’ve written about him here and here and here) who won last year’s award with his story “Miss Lora”; Irish author Kevin Barry, whose story “Beer Trip to Llandudno” won in 2012; American Anthony Doerr, who won in 2011 for his story “The Deep”; and New Zealander C. K. Stead, who won the inaugural award in 2010 with “Last Season’s Man.”

Other judges, besides Carey and Baddiel, included Elif Shafak, internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist, columnist and speaker; Booker-shortlisted novelist and short story writer Sarah HallAndrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, and Lord Matthew Evans, chairman of EFG Private Bank and non-voting chair of the judges.

Said Shafak: “Blurring boundaries and crossing genres, the Sunday Times Short Story Award has no doubt an unequalled place for both readers and writers, whether they are established or emerging. This is a truly international platform and the most valuable prize for a single short story. But these are not the only reasons why it matters so much. It is also, as I believe we shall see in the years ahead, a trendsetter in the literary world.

“Feeling the love” in Croatia: Adam Johnson and The Orphan Master’s Son

Thursday, November 21st, 2013


Pulitzer prizewinning Adam Johnson (The Orphan Master’s Son) is “feeling the love in Croatia.” This photo, with his kidlets, was taken by his wife Stephanie Harrell. Clearly, there’s a lot of talent for photography in the family – we’ve already posted daughter Jupiter‘s photo here.  Earlier this month, Adam was fiction winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a celebration that awarded author Tim O’Brien as well. Adam is currently on an around-the-world gig  promoting his surreal novel about the twisted lives in today’s North Korea – we’ve written about it here and here and here.  Today’s photo and Adam’s book are timely in a more chilling way: we’ve just learned that Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, the 85-year-old Stanford alum and Korea vet, has been arrested and detained while visiting North Korea as a tourist. According to his Newman’s son, “The basic fact of the matter is that this gentleman is 84-85 yrs old, an elderly man, presumably not a threat in any way to North Korea, so this is, even by North Korean standards, an extraordinary thing.”

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.


(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)


Drones, dreams, and a dead president in Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana”

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013
2013-08-05 19.40.24

Palo Alto: “the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins…”

I don’t usually read Esquire, but I spent some time browsing its website last night.  Here’s why: Adam Johnson, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize, has a short story, “Nirvana,” in this month’s issue.  (I’ve written about Adam and his Orphan Master’s Son here and here and here and here, among other places). His newest story is about love, death,  drones, hashboards from Bangalore, and a cyberspace resurrection of a dead president that’s been downloaded 14 million times – and it all takes place on “a normal Palo Alto night—the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden.”

The protagonist’s wife has Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that leaves her paralyzed from the neck down. The couple live “at the edge of the medical literature.”  He talks to a dead president, she listens to Nirvana, “whose songs are all from a guy who blew his brains out.”  The rest twines the real and the unreal, the transhuman and the poignantly human.

You’ll be grateful I found the link for you (it’s not easy on the Esquire site).  It opens this way:


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 whisper 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.


Pulitzer-winning author.

Yes, hearing the President whisper is creepy because he’s been dead now, what—three months? But even creepier is what happens 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.

What can really keep a guy up at night is the knowledge that she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from you 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.

Read the rest here.