The Dallas Morning News
Author reveals humanity behind North Korea’s horrors
Author focuses on life in a land of mysteries and ghosts
Adam Johnson took a creative writing class in college because he heard it was an “easy A.” The class and its teacher — Ron Carlson — proved to be more than just a way to boost his GPA. A writer was born.
“I had an epiphany,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “My flaws became my strengths.”
Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, will share his journey to becoming a successful author at the Highland Park Literary Festival, which has a public event on Thursday.
While Johnson often discusses his writing experiences at speaking engagements, he also talks about the novel that earned him the the Pulitzer Prize: The Orphan
Master’s Son. Published in 2012, the harrowing story about life in North Korea is a timely subject with the Olympics taking place in South Korea. The North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is the first member of the country’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
What sparked his interest in the country was how little is known about everyday life. He wondered, for example, what it was like to be a dad there. He’s the father of three.
“I started as a curious reader,” Johnson said. “While much is known about the country’s history, it’s the human portraits that are harder to find.”
The problem with a story about “the land of mysteries, ghosts and mistaken identities” is that research can’t be verified. Johnson learned as much as he could by reading defectors’ oral histories and taking a brief trip there. He spent six years working on the book.
While the book is fiction, it seems real. Johnson pulls you into the horror, but you also see the humanity. He gives a voice to the most voiceless people on earth.
His skill as a storyteller revolves around the beliefs that we are all the same and we all have much in common. “We all want to be our best possible selves,” Johnson said. We follow our paths and climb the mountains, and “by climbing, you grow.”
Johnson’s career started off strong. His first novel, Parasites
Like Us, won a California Book Award. He has written many short stories and essays that have appeared in Harper’s Magazine,
Esquire and The Paris Review, to name a few. Fortune Smiles
(2015), a collection of his short stories, won the 2015 National Book Award.
He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award and a litany of others, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy in Berlin.
Johnson, 50, has been at Stanford since 1999. He loves teaching and said it “recharges” him.
“I worked in construction and it was hot,” he said about his earlier days. He’s a towering figure physically, at 6-foot-4.
“When I started college, there was air conditioning and I thought I may never leave the university again.” He pretty much hasn’t.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and then two master’s degrees from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. He followed those degrees with a doctorate in English from Florida State University.
His family life was quiet. Born in South Dakota, he grew up in Arizona as the only child of parents who divorced when he was young. But he was always curious and had an active imagination.
The flaws he said he had in his youth, such as being considered a daydreamer and rubbernecker, eventually proved to be a blessing.
“They are prerequisites for writers,” Johnson said. “To follow your obsessions, which are probably your weaknesses, is a strength. Hard workers become great writers.”
Johnson works very hard. In a Stanford University “How I Write” article, Johnson said that each of
his works is the result of “methodical research, self-imposed discipline and a lifelong passion for storytelling.”
He records his writing habits in a detailed Excel spreadsheet to keep track of details such as the location, the time of day, the number of words he writes and how many of those words actually make it into the final work.
Research and interviews are also important, he said. For The
Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson read everything he could. The people he read about became real to him and left a weight on him, he said in the Stanford article. He also tried to write from the point of view of a native North Korean.
Even with his skills and organization, Johnson admits he’s not immune to writer’s block. He said it’s just part of the process.
Perhaps what most appeals to Johnson about writing is that the storytelling contributes to his own self-awareness. From the moment he took that creative writing class at Arizona State, he has been dedicated to telling stories and learning what stories do for everyone.