Adam Johnson reveals how surreal emotions are
by Rob Neufeld
Adam Johnson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” comes to Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, 7 p.m., Fri., Sept. 4 to present his new book of short stories, “Fortune Smiles.”
The stories are remarkable for their emotional impact, surreal realism, sardonic humor, dynamic dialogue, and narrative inventiveness.
I treasure each story, each one different in subject, form, message, and setting.
There’s a Palo Alto techie with a paralyzed wife in a sci-fi future, and the message is love. Then, in post-Katrina Louisiana, there’s a picaresque UPS delivery man who’s grasping to make good choices.
A woman dying of cancer in San Francisco eventually visits her family as a ghost. A former Stasi prison warden in East Germany tells of going on a tour of the memorial museum the prison has become.
A disturbing hero story emerges from a pornography addict turned pornography stopper in North Hollywood. And, in the title story, Johnson returns to the setting of his novel to show how two buddies do not find peace after defecting from North to South Korea.
Q&A with Adam Johnson
R: Every one of your six stories is memorable, and each is different. With short stories, are you consciously trying to experiment?
A: The stories are all different, but if one thing unifies them, it is that I’ve become interested or maybe even obsessed with voices you don’t normally hear...That’s new territory, and it’s exciting. For instance, when I went to Germany—I went on a long book tour there—I became fascinated with the GDR and Stasi culture. I kept saying to people, “I went to learn more. Where’s a memoir of a Stasi officer who tells all and gives me a look at the inner workings of it?” The people said, “Oh, a book like that could never exist here. No one would ever write it.” And that’s when I started writing it (the story, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine”).
R: The way you do it is not the way it would come out with someone else trying the same thing. You put this ex-warden through a tour of the memorial museum!
A: When I was in Berlin, the national TV, DWTV, wanted to interview me. And they said, “We know you like torture. We want to interview you in a torture museum.” What? I don’t like torture. But they took me to this place called Hohenschönhausen, and I walked around with the information officer, and we talked about this very spooky, strange place. And he said, “You know, all the old officers still live in the neighborhood. In fact, the old warden still walks his little dog around the prison every morning.”
R: Oh, my gosh!
A: So, I said, “What’s he like?” And he said, “Oh, he has never spoken to me, and I’ve never spoken to him.” I said, “Wow, that’s fascinating.” So, that stuck in my head for months...The tours (are) given by former inmates. They can’t be objective. They only remember their difficult times. Their emotions and trauma color their tours, and every tour is different.
R: I have read about how storytelling was a big part of your growing up. Could you give me a picture of the scene of that taking place?
A: I grew up in Arizona, fairly alone; I was like a latchkey kid. My parents had divorced. But in the summers, I would go home to South Dakota, where my grandparents lived, and that’s what people did was tell stories...(And) you know, my father was a great story-teller. He had a construction company, and when I would work with him, we would just tell stories...My dad liked to sound out a story. He would knock on it to test its realness, and he wanted those killer details. He wanted that great line of dialogue. I think I learned early that the stories that pleased him were the ones that were very solid that way.
R: It’s interesting that you say these things about your father—the killer details and the great line of dialogue—because those are two of the distinctive things I pick up on in your writing. One killer detail is the gloves that Hans (the Stasi warden) took from a prisoner and gave to his daughter.
R: It’s like: I’m going to come up with a list of horrors, you know, people being tortured, horrible things—no, wearing gloves!
A: A glove is so personal. It’s tailored to your body. You try on so many pairs until one perfectly fits you. I think that means that she (the daughter), by wearing that glove, has to realize that someone exactly like her was a prisoner in her father’s prison; and that it could have been her under different circumstances. It’s also so personal, intimate— touching the hands—and supple, and—ooph, that creeps me out.
R: You seem to have a strong instinct for what is real, or not hollow—Hemingway’s top attribute, a good bullsh-t detector, as he called it.
A: (laughs) Probably. For that story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” I went to Louisiana. I don’t know how many dozens of people I interviewed. I wrote UPS world headquarters in Atlanta. I said, “Hey, I want to write about a UPS driver during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They overnighted me my browns. They set up two ride-alongs. I did ride-alongs with drivers in Orleans, Beauregard, Cameron, and Calcasieu parishes. I delivered 524 packages in August in Louisiana. These drivers, when I went on their routes, they’d say, “See this empty place? There used to be a house there.” Or, they’d be like: “Run and knock on that door and ask that guy what happened to his dog.”...I honestly don’t know how many people I interviewed to make that story feel real to me.
R: It’s not the usual thing for a famous writer to go out and have new experiences.
A: I’m a dad. I’m a teacher...I feel that real people were hurt in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and real people were hurt in Hohenschönhausen, and there are real North Koreans, and there are real victims of pedophilia out there so I have to get it right or I’m actually maybe hurting someone by having a portrait that’s not within the realm of possibility.
T: In your story, “Interesting Facts,” you have the least factual thing happen. (A woman hangs around as a kind of ghost.)
A: What has always seemed most surreal to me is the emotionally surreal things. People would say, “Oh my God, you’ve got a holographic president story and a drone. That’s so surreal.” But to me the surreal things have always been the emotional ones that we accept, that people are alone in this world, that people don’t find one another, that half of all marriages end in divorce, that kids have to pick which parent they’re going to live with when it’s obvious they need them both...I would just say, “You know what, there’s a more profound surreal dimension to life around us all the time, and that’s the one of feelings.”
R: Could you tell me one of your father’s stories?
A: You know when I was a kid, my dad worked at the Phoenix Zoo as a night watchman. And so we lived narrative. Every night at the zoo, there was some animal escape, some emergency, or some beautiful moment or encounter with the tiger. I remember the gorilla Hazel so well. We would visit her every night, and my dad would take me to work with him, and my mom would come get me a couple of hours later. What my dad taught me was there was a zoo all the average people in the world saw, and then there was a real zoo. He had the keys to the real zoo. I’ve always felt, in my fiction, I’ve got to lift the veil for the reader and show them that secret truer portrait of how the world works.