A Pulitzer Prize winner on the pains and pleasures of fiction

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As part of author Adam Johnson's research for his novel "The Orphan Master's Son" he visited the country of the book's subject, North Korea, under a state-sponsored trip. He also interviewed defectors and accounts of propaganda about the hermit kingdom. Illustration courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Adam Johnson is a tall, burly man who has the perfect voice for a lecturer. In the quiet of the Writer’s Bar at Raffles, Makati, with only the jazz music leaking through the speakers disrupting our exchanges that afternoon, Johnson’s voice commands attention, a sampling of how it must be like to sit in his class at Stanford University where he teaches creative writing. He landed in Manila a couple of days before his speaking engagement at the Reader’s and Writer’s Festival at the same hotel, with his family in tow (“I get lonely when I travel abroad,” he tells me), where we’re having our conversation.

Like any cheerful tourist who’s new to our shores, he’s enjoyed his stay so far, despite the erratic weather we’ve been having. But he’s also taken a keen fondness for the people he’s come across — a predilection evident in how he unfolds his narratives through his characters, from the minutiae of their lives to the complex web of emotions that propel them.

Johnson’s second novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013, the subject of the many questions he’s thrown at due to the book’s sprawling portrait of North Korea, the hermit kingdom known for its self-styled grandiosity and precariousness. Prior to finishing the novel, North Korea was Johnson’s obsession, to the point that he wouldn’t talk about anything else, dispensing random trivia about the country to anyone present (“No one would talk to me then,” he says in jest). This eventually led to a trip to the country, a journey that risked his life and everyone involved, lest they be detained as prisoners, like many Americans who have set foot in the outlaw nation. He went to the country as a visiting professor and came out with stories of the country’s tenuous relationship with the rest of the world, and their reverence for their Dear Leader.

The Orphan Master's Son Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son," won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 and was hailed by the committee as "an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart."  

“When I went to North Korea, the woman who was the head minder, who took me around, she was very smart,” Johnson shares. “She had a graduate degree, very witty. She was anything but worldly. She didn’t understand the world, she never experienced it. I had an iPod and she’d seen one of those before. She knew how digital cameras works, she wasn’t impressed by that.”

He continues: “One time, when I was real quiet, she said to me, ‘Is it true in America people do labor for fun?’ I said what do you mean? She said, ‘In your free time, do you do work for nothing? Do you ride bicycles that go nowhere? Or climb steps that go nowhere?’ Literally, burning calories and working out. The idea of wasting your energy, your food was inconceivable to her. I told her, ‘Well, I don’t work out but some people do.’ I can see her just kind of file that away. The idea that we spend so much time exercising, nobody was jogging in Pyongyang, well of course they have athletics, but the idea of being fit, losing weight, was so foreign.”

Johnson has been drawn to the oddities of human nature in his stories, such as in “Nirvana,” which tells the story of a couple dealing with the wife’s rare illness and their emotional connection with a technology that summons likenesses of dead people, specifically an Obama-like president and Kurt Cobain (the story is drawn from Johnson’s experience with cancer and his college roommate’s suicide);”Hurricanes Anonymous,” about a UPS driver looking for his son’s mother in post-Katrina Louisiana; and “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” about a Stasi prison warden contemplating about his past. All the stories are collected in his book, “Fortune Smiles,” which won the National Book Award Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Johnson talked to CNN Philippines Life about the parallels between jazz and fiction, the role of smartphones in modern narratives, and his obsession with the literary language. Below are edited excerpts of the interview.

Do you always find people coming up to you and talking to you about little tidbits of information that you might write about?

I was trained as a journalist and so I do love to research and interview, especially when you encounter a human being who has a real story. You must interview lots of interesting people; people who have survived on a boat for a while or done an interesting experience, or suffered a loss or a behind the scenes look at something we wouldn’t normally know. When a real human gives you that story, it comes with those authentic details with great authority that I can steal, but more importantly it comes with emotions. And when I then write, and I’ve interviewed, I know that the emotionality of my work has to rise. That becomes the test, the human test.

Some people just use characters as pawns to make things happen. When a character comes on stage it’s a little bit of a risk because they’re a real person. They have their own desires and they may send things in another direction. I don’t want to not use a character but I want them to be. I want to listen to them.

You said in an interview that you were a fictionist first, but were you ever tempted to write a nonfiction book on something you were really interested in?

Oh I think that’s completely possible. I’ve written some nonfiction pieces. Usually fiction allows me more range and it allows me to amalgamate different voices and research together. Nonfiction is messy, it doesn’t come with structure and it’s jangly. But by using fiction you can rearrange, and leave things out, make a nice arc, and have a bigger impact.

There’s also a lot of music elements in your stories, like in “Nirvana,” and in “The Orphan Master’s Son” as well. Have you always been drawn to music and its influence on fiction?

I’m not a big music person. Maybe jazz I like. I actually think fiction and jazz share a lot in common. I would say that jazz is about discovery, improvisation, and spontaneity. A jazz musician, when they’re really improvising, does not have written music. And they do not know where it’s gonna go. A musician has his or her talents, they have their instruments, they have their history, the tradition of all the musicians that came before them, they’re contemporary, so they know so-and-so is doing this sax technique, and someone’s into that. So they kind of go into a piece referencing other melodies, playing with material, and they go out and then they pour their emotion. And then there’s also the audience, there’s something of the culture that comes into them. And then they go out and either they fail — there’s lots of bad jazz in the world — or they make something that has never been before.

For me, if I know what a story’s gonna be, I won’t even write it. If I make big discoveries too early in the story, I get bored and I just quit it. But I like to take a voice, a feeling and an obsession, and start discovering in every scene. I’m like, ‘What’s in the character’s glove box? Why did the character say that?’ They become puzzles, problems, and things come into the story for reasons that I don’t understand but I have to believe are for the right reasons. I have to be obedient to what I put in and discover higher meanings. And then the story goes into places I never expected.

You’ve called your writing “maximalist.” Is this because you always want to map the setting, the characters, in a more elaborate way?

I’m fascinated in details. I believe a lot of writers summarize a lot. And I don’t believe in summary. I don’t believe [in] exposition. I don’t believe what I’m told. I gotta see it. And I don’t believe when I write it unless I see it, hear it, and I want to see every tiny detail, and that makes me brave. I know it’s slower. [But] I think scene-based writing moves faster when you read it than summary which is thick. I know some of my stories are long but when I read them, they really move, and there’s a pace and an energy and I want to hear every word. I don’t want to have a narrator say, “Then they talked on for a while but at the end of the conversation, before she said goodbye....” I don’t want that. If the conversation is worth having then let’s hear it. Otherwise, just cut off the thing.

North Korea Statue One of the memorable monuments from Adam Johnson's North Korea trip was the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, where he noticed an elaborately decorated sewer lid, which he calls "the most beautiful sewer lid in the world." Photo from WIKIPEDIA COMMONS  

I noticed that there are a lot of little stories that pop up every now and then in “The Orphan Master’s Son,” like the stories of the captain about his experience in Russia. Was that an intentional device?

I love secondary characters. Some people just use characters as pawns to make things happen. When a character comes on stage it’s a little bit of a risk because they’re a real person. They have their own desires and they may send things in another direction. I don’t want to not use a character but I want them to be. I want to listen to them. It just seems really, like if you lived your life in those seas, you would have seen some things. And I didn’t believe that captain until he told a couple of stories.

There are only six stories in “Fortune Smiles.” How did you choose which stories to include in the collection?

When it comes to the words I’m very obsessive. I’m a control freak. They must be perfect. I will write an opening paragraph a hundred times. I wrote the opening of “The Orphan Master’s Son,” that propaganda voice, 500 times ... When I would sit down to write for the day, I would get into the book by rewriting the first couple of pages. In some days, it may just be changing a couple of words in some days maybe I would totally redo them. In the end Itotally wrote a new opening. I don’t mind rewriting something 500 times.

As my sensibilities evolve, getting it perfect matters to me. I guess I wrote that book a couple of years ago, if I wrote it now I would make changes. Really, the books you write are a document of who you were at that time in your life. What I say to some of my students, you can write forever because that’s why it’s great to publish. It means you must finish. There must be a final version. Because as you grow and change, and as your concerns change, and your aesthetic changes, you can tinker with that novel your whole life. But you must stop and start a new one.

Fortune Smiles.jpg "Fortune Smiles" is Adam Johnson's second short story collection and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2015.  

But how do you know when to stop?

I don’t know ... I guess there's some emotion that’s gnawing at you, and it’s brewing in you, and to take something abstract as a feeling and to put it in something as exact and precise as language, seems like a monumental feat. And when you get it right, it’s exhilarating. I didn’t know how I felt about my wife, I didn’t know how I felt about my friend dying ... I was like “Should I have been closer to him? I knew he was troubled. Where was I?” I blamed myself and didn’t blame myself ...  all these things.  And when I put it into that story [“Nirvana”], that’s exactly the feeling I couldn’t name but I could only portray. And when you feel you’ve done that work, you’re done.

You teach young writers. Do you see any new habits in the new writers that’s different from your generation?

I’m lucky to teach at a good school, Stanford University. I have great students. I had several students from the Philippines and they’re great storytellers. I teach young undergraduate students and I also teach fellows who can be older, some older than me. I think one issue that I do see in contemporary writing is technology, especially the issue of the cellphones. The plot of every novel you’ve ever loved and every movie you’ve worshipped would be ruined by a cellphone. Because it’s a linear art form, the narrative. And you can only put one word at a time in a certain order so it’s based on withholding. Some things have to wait. Prominence and withholding are these tense balance; keeping information from the reader, revealing things at the right moment is your main leverage as a writer. But what if they all have devices that can share information at any moment? Narratively, [what does sending a text] do to contemplation? What does it do to our inner landscapes? What does it do to the tense, fraught emotion of emotional interaction? I suppose it’s a different kind of emotionality. I’m just concerned how it works in terms of narrative revelation.