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'Quirky, off-kilter' Stanford author gets $50K award

Stanford author Adam Johnson gets praise, plaudits and cash for his offbeat stories.

Tamara Beckwith Adam Johnson

Author Adam Johnson

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

A bomb-defusing robot is a lonely 15-year-old sniper's best friend. An older teen drives a bus for his dead mother's cancer support group. An anthropology student who lives like the vanished hominids he studies – camping outdoors, dressing in fur pelts, trapping squirrels for food – unwittingly unleashes an apocalyptic plague.

Sound funny? In Adam Johnson's hands, it is. Johnson, author of the short story collection Emporium and the novel Parasites Like Us, and a senior Jones Lecturer in English at Stanford, is also the latest recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers' Award. The 25-year-old award program, which carries a $50,000 prize, has flagged promising writers who have since become renowned – including short story writer ZZ Packer, Johnson's colleague in the Stegner Fellowship Program, and also the writer Johnson considers a mentor, award-winning author Tobias Wolff, professor of English.

Given the dark and quirky nature of his stories, Johnson is not what one would expect. The inevitable first impression is massiveness – he's an imposing 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. But the former construction worker is also urbane, affable, mild-mannered.

Pitch-black comedy, yes, but with a sensitive hand: Kingmaker-critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote that Johnson "delineates these lives with a mixture of wry amusement and genuine sympathy, satiric glee and elegiac compassion, seemingly contradictory attitudes that combine to create an idiosyncratic and compelling voice."

'I'm a maximalist'

Relaxing over his laptop and an iced coffee at the Stanford Bookstore café, Johnson reflects on what distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries: "I'm a maximalist," he said contentedly. "In contemporary fiction now, a high premium is placed on subtlety. I see it in students, in their workshops. They believe the biggest crime is obviousness."

"What happened? What was it about?" he asks his students. "I didn't want to hit you over the head with it," they reply. "Hit me over the head with what?"

Clearly, Johnson is not afraid to whack his readers upside the head: "Why not have a spaceship come into the story? Why not?" To retell an age-old father-son story, Johnson suggested, "put them on an orbiting space station." Or, better yet, tell the story through two raccoons, he said.

"Isn't it the same story?" The task of today's fiction is "telling the same stories people have been talking about for hundreds of years – but to tell them in a new way," said Johnson, whose fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, Paris Review and Best American Short Stories.

The point of a story is often to get the reader "to be moved to act or change. Wake up! There's something more! Make a decision! Don't go down the path of safety!'" he said. "It's not like switching to the sports station."

Apparently, he is successful: The Chicago Tribune wrote: "Like a squall moving in on a dead-muggy day, Adam Johnson's audacious work blows the covers off the short story and leaves the genre newly invigorated."

Catches readers off-balance

It's an uphill fight. Corporations, politicians and PR have taken over "the narrative" so much that we have become mistrustful, said Johnson. The readers' reaction is typically, "What do you want of me?" Johnson said that's why he often short-circuits such a response "to put the reader off-balance early" – he includes a talking robot in the first paragraphs of a story, for example.

Although the Whiting Writers' Award is given for "writers of exceptional promise," Johnson is no budding debutante. The 42-year-old author (he is part Sioux) has a PhD from Florida State University. Born in the Dakotas, the setting for his novel, he grew up in Tempe, Ariz. "I loved all that hickness, and swap meets, and desert land," said Johnson.

One would think, given his stories, that he hadn't much to borrow from the past – then he unwraps some of his personal stories. He remembers when his father worked for the Phoenix Zoo's security; his mother was a graduate student. He recalls accompanying his father on his evening rounds, "falling asleep in his golf carts." He also remembers the family taking in the exotic animals people abandoned at the zoo – boa constrictors, tortoises, a fox, an alligator, a gray African macaw. He also toured the subterranean caves where the big cats slept at night.

Later memories include biking past strip malls and gas stations over melting asphalt and along empty highways. "I was kind of a latchkey kid. I had a lot of time to myself," he said. "I rode for miles and miles and miles. I wandered around the K-Mart."

As a construction worker, he earned the nickname "Rubbernecker" for his habit of curiosity about off-limit areas, objects unearthed during excavations and the stories of the Vietnam veterans he worked with. He left to get an MFA and an MA in English in Louisiana.

Teaching taught him how difficult it is for people to see their own stories with distance. He would hear student excuses like this one: "I can't make it to class. My dad got arrested for raiding 'gators and his truck crashed, and the sheriff is his pastor's brother." Then they'd ask for an extension on their fiction project: "I don't have anything to write about."

Former Stegner Fellow

He came to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in 1999 and continued as a Marsh McCall Lecturer, a Draper Lecturer and a Jones Lecturer. Johnson said the enthusiastic teaching the fellows bring to undergraduates in the Stanford Creative Writing program make it, in his opinion, the best writing program in the country – "absolutely – no doubt about it."

He also praises the mentoring young writers get at Stanford. In his case, the opportunity to work with Wolff, a writer he'd admired, was "inconceivable to me."

"I'm lucky enough to be in his artistic orbit. Everyone I know is completely jealous," he said. "You can never really pay them back, except by being a mentor to other people."

For the last four-and-a-half years (he is careful not to say five), he has been working on a novel about North Korea, in which he will "explore ways people manage to be individual under that regime."

Noting American value for "free-thinking, spontaneity, ingenuity, individuality," he added, "Over there, spontaneity can ruin your life." Nonetheless, the novel invites an examination of the propaganda Americans accept on this side of the Pacific.

He 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.

Media Contact

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu