At 19, Denis Johnson published his first book of poetry, Man Among Seals. A couple of years after that, he got a BA from University of Iowa and MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he studied under Raymond Carver. Johnson is prolific. He’s published plays, nonfiction, five books of poetry, eight novels, a short story collection (Jesus’ Son, a cult classic without the cult) and a novella (Train Dreams). In 2007, he won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Tree of Smoke. Johnson is also charming and elusive. He’s known not to give many interviews (“ I haven’t said yes to one in many years,” he told us).
We corresponded with Denis Johnson over e-mail while he was traveling in Arua, Uganda. “I’m thousands of miles away, and you can’t get to me,” so signed off Denis Johnson in our first email correspondence. And so it begins.
You mentioned you just landed in Arua, Uganda. What are you doing there? If that answer is a secret, how was your flight?
My flight from JFK to Entebbe was uneventful, and my flight from Entebbe to Arua was short and quick. I’m making my second visit to the region. My purpose here isn’t a secret. I’m gathering background – local color, sights and sounds – for a novel that takes place in Sierra Leone, and here in Uganda, and also partly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose border lies just a few miles west of Arua. It’s kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene. I told my editor Jonathan Galassi at FSG, “I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene.”
Any Greene novels you would you recommend?
The Power and the Glory
The Heart of the Matter
Also a sad spy story, The Human Factor
I haven’t re-read A Burnt-out Case recently, but I remember admiring that one too. Or is it “Burned-out”?
What appeals to you about the CIA and the FBI as material? In Tree of Smoke your characters are disillusioned with their work for the CIA. How do you feel about novels that glorify espionage?
Tree of Smoke, I think, takes its first impulse from my early background. My dad was with the US State Department, and we lived among that community in Tokyo, Manila, and Washington, DC – diplomats and military folks, including CIA and FBI.
As for novels glorifying espionage, I enjoyed James Bond when I was a kid, but I prefer the more realistic, complicated approach – Le Carré particularly, and some of Eric Ambler.
So you moved around a lot growing up, you occupy multiple residences, and your nonfiction work sends you abroad. Are the rhythms of what you are writing influenced by where you are in space and/or how fast you are traveling?
My projects tend to develop over years, beginning with scattered notes; then I start puttering and tinkering with ideas, voices, descriptions, and then I progress to some serious fooling around, and in the latter stages I settle down and try to produce a couple of pages every day, with an occasional day off. I’m in the latter stages with this novel, whose title (today) is The Laughing Monsters. I’m really just living for a month at the White Castle Hotel and trying to write every day on this book. It’s due in January. I might finish on time.
You also move across genres…Jesus’ Son was adapted into a movie, and one of your plays, Shoppers, uses a TV. Have you considered writing screenplays or TV? Are there genres you haven’t yet tried that you are interested in exploring?
I’ve done a little of that from time to time, not with any success. During the 1980’s I wrote several screenplays under commission, most of them adaptations – one from a Jim Thompson novel, A Swell-looking Babe, one from Paul Bowles’s Up Above the World, also two from books of my own (Angels, The Stars at Noon) – nothing got produced.
Just a couple years ago I took a flyer at TV, working with three producers to design a drama series and write the pilot episode, all on speculation – that effort went pretty much nowhere. This January I’ll write a pilot for HBO, a one-hour drama that takes place in a ward for amputees returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Genres I wouldn’t try. . . I think I’ve tried them all, except maybe technical writing, or self-help books. If I get through life without tackling either of those, I won’t be sorry. Oh – It might be fun to do the libretto for an opera (although I know nothing about opera).
How does the way you think of voicing differ in writing a play, like “Soul of A Whore”, as opposed to writing a story cycle like Jesus’ Son? Do you see your first-person narrators (Fuckhead, namely) as having written the stories themselves?
“Voice” – I don’t think of it as under my control. I like Fuckhead’s voice, I liked it the minute I heard it, and I enjoy its doubleness – he seems to be immersed in his era, and then also looking back on it from years afterward — but that’s all I can tell you about that.
When I was an undergrad I took courses from the poet Marvin Bell, who said, “Don’t be committed to one voice.” I don’t remember if he said it once or if he said it often; but it stuck with me, and I stick by it. I try to forget what I’ve already written, and forget what it sounded like, and treat each attempt as if it were my very first.
Speaking of the writer’s education, in a 1997 article for Salon, you wrote about the benefits of homeschooling your children. How does your philosophy of education and “unschooling” apply to writers? Do you think formal academic training or MFA programs are useful to young writers?
I’m no expert on education. I was a terrible student. I hated school, every minute of it, from the first day of kindergarten until I got a BA. I tried to raise my own kids to be ignorant savages, but they rebelled and got college degrees. As for graduate writing programs, my own very limited experience with them has been uniformly happy. While I was a grad student at Iowa I felt a great deal was offered me and not much was asked, and now I teach here and there – one-semester appointments – and the same holds true. I get a lot of joy out of “teaching”, mainly because I do it seldom, and when I do, I have only a few students, most of whom are smarter than I am. I don’t know how I’d like it if I had to do it all the time and pretend to take it seriously.
Who were the poets that made you want to write poetry? What poets writing today do you read?
Dylan Thomas first of all, during my high school – in fact it was the poem “Fern Hill,” because it sounded so much like a person – and then Walt Whitman and the beat poets shortly after that. And Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and then, when I was a college freshman, “The Lost Pilot” by James Tate. I yearned to talk like them, I ached for it. I still read poetry all the time. Just lately it’s Eugenio Montale, and Michael Burkard, and John Clare. Often I return to Franz Wright, and W.S. Merwin. I’ve recently been impressed by the young poet Carl Adamshick, though I might be misspelling his name. James Tate still. John Logan I return to as well. I’ve been re-reading “The Salt Ecstasies” by James L. White, too. Last winter was the winter of Fernando Pesoa.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the glow of some of your poems, the visionary language seeping through parts of Angels, and the electric way in which the border between Fuckhead’s consciousness and the outside world is always being dissolved throughout Jesus’ Son. Could you talk a bit more about Whitman’s influence in your poetry and prose?
I’m not sure I could trace the lines of his influence on my language, particularly, or the way his work affects the strategies in my work, or anything like that. His expansive spirit, his generosity, his eagerness to love – those are the things that influence me, not just as a writer, but as a person. His introduction to LEAVES OF GRASS I take as a sort of personal manifesto, especially the passage:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . .
You’ve discussed with critics how your work trades in spiritual themes. How would you characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work? Have these questions changed over time?
Ah, now – this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.
We were going to ask if you had an ideal or unideal reader but saw that you’d answered that question a couple years ago, telling an audience, “I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.” Can you tell us a bit more about what each relationship in this trio means to you––as you relate to them as friends, readers, collaborators, etc?
My wife Cindy reads everything first, and she’s allowed one of three categories of response – “Genius”, “Shakespeare”, or “Elvis.” It happens my agent Bob Cornfield and I admire many of the same writers, so if he likes something I give him, I’m very happy. He’s usually very muted in his criticism, hardly ever negative. My editor Jonathan Galassi, unfortunately, feels obliged to express himself honestly. When he’s kind, that makes my day.
On an episode of the New Yorker Fiction podcast, Tobias Wolff reads your short story “Emergency.” When he discusses the story with Deborah Treisman, Wolff says, “It’s like the story wants to jolt us into looking around and seeing the miraculous all around us and, in a sense, wanting to take that knife out of our eye.” What do you think this knife obscures?
I don’t know what the knife obscures, but I feel in general agreement with what I think Wolff was saying. And I go along with Joseph Conrad, too. In the intro to his novel The Nigger of the Narcissus he said he wanted “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”
In the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son, you have a cameo as the peeping husband retributively stabbed in the eye by his wife. Is it the writer that gets stabbed in the eye for seeing too much?
Hold on now. Remember, the writer is only creating an illusion. That knife was fake.
Last but not least: what is your favorite mass cultural product?
I love McDonald’s double cheeseburgers and I don’t care if they’re made of pink slime and ammonia, I eat them all the time because they’re delicious.