Adam Johnson is the author of Fortune Smiles, winner of the National Book Award and the Story Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the California Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Johnson’s other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship.
On Friday, October 9, Johnson will give a virtual Word Works talk on writing research-based narratives, in which he’ll share stories from the lives of people he’s interviewed for his books—including rare individuals who defected from North Korea—and the ways in which their powerful testimonies changed the course of his projects. In anticipation of the event, we caught up with him to get his thoughts on emotional truth, uncertainty in the writing process, teaching, and the most important thing he ever learned about interviewing.
You did an enormous amount of research for your novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, visiting North Korea and interviewing defectors with fascinating stories of their own. How did you balance the factual truth of their accounts with the emotional truth of the story you wanted to tell?
That’s a great question. Actually, you can find out a great deal about North Korea, though none of it’s confirmable. There are a lot of facts to be derived if you take enough defectors’ testimonies, but it’s not a world you can verify in any way. I had sources for almost every detail in the book. There were only like six things that I remember clearly making up. In fact, most of the truly wild stuff I had to leave out because it was so unbelievable.
But in terms of research, the stories of people who were from there were most important for emotional truth. Because when I would encounter these stories—and sometimes hear them firsthand—the power of the narrative, especially when they were people that I met, was the kind of power that I had to live up to. You’d think the interviews would be more factual, but actually it was more about the emotional bar that I had to reach.
The first man I interviewed had been an orphan in North Korea, and his story was so powerful that the only thing that I knew was that my character would also be an orphan. To do justice to the interviews that I had done with him. There’s really no replacing research.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you’re writing you love moving through a scene and not knowing how it’s going to play out. What strategies do you have for cultivating that capacity for uncertainty in your writing practice?
I’m doing some independent studies right now with some students, and I really practice with them improvisation and writing on the fly. A work of art that’s understood by the artist too early, or is too known, is usually something I’m not very interested in. I can tell a novel that’s been outlined and planned from early on. There’s that saying—if there’s no surprise for the writer, there won’t be any for the reader. And I really believe that.
But I also believe that if the critical mind is occupied with construction, the unconscious mind, if there is such a thing, will overlay itself. My students and I will do this exercise in which I’ll say, “You give me a character, you give me the setting, you give me the object,” and we will walk through scenes that are just whole-cloth discovering. I’m like, “Okay, what’s in her glove box? What are her presets on her radio station?” “Her phone rings,” I’ll say, “Who is it? Who does she think it is?”
Usually in just a few hundred words, they discover a character they’ve never encountered that has to be sussed. And in the end, I think the character is kind of in a profound way about them.
You’ve published two novels and two short story collections, and you’re currently at work on what you’ve described as a “really big” novel. What do you find most challenging about working in each form? Most invigorating?
There’s certainly a primordial joy about a short story; with a story, you can control every single aspect and hone those aspects to have a palliative effect, even if that’s an effect that pulls in different directions or does not lead to a single easy reading. The story’s yours.
Whereas the novel is a political act in which the writer’s trying to make the grandest compromise. There’s a writerly obligation to the characters and to their arcs, but also to a balance of the world, to architecture, to scenes, to the emotionality, to the history, to the balance of time. And each of those demands of the novel—and I’m just enumerating a few of them—pulls the book in a different direction.
Some smart person once said that every novel is flawed. One of my professors told me that, quoting someone. I didn’t believe it because some of my favorite novels didn’t seem flawed, but once I tried to write one, I understood. That’s a writer speaking.
Finding the greatest compromise is your vision. Finding what is most perfect and what you’ll allow to be incomplete—maybe that’s your voice, in a certain way.
As a professor of creative writing at Stanford, what is the most important lesson you want your students to take away from your classes?
I don’t know if I would tell them this, but one of my core beliefs is that I value labor over talent. I think all artists are given some gifts, because they’re human gifts. Whether it’s ceramics or painting, if you went to this art form, even if you were new to it, you’d be able to do a couple things right. With painting, perhaps you’d have a sense of balance, or color scale, or perspective. I think everyone who comes to writing has a couple gifts, and then they just have to learn everything else.
It’s my observation that the students who start with the most gifts progress the least, because they can write stories that wow their friends. But the students who sit down and say, “Oh man, my dialogue’s not very good,” or, “I don’t know how to structure a story”—the ones who hammer and hammer and hammer at all these qualities and work hard are the ones who are still writing years later.
If a writer believes he or she has no talent at all, if they put in those Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours, I believe they will be able to make something that credibly expresses something important.
That’s probably the best selling point for writing classes I’ve ever heard.
Well, I believe it! Of course, your passion has to be there to keep working at something. And one of the problems with young writers is that they read great books and not as much peer work. There’s this difficult few years in which their aesthetics are very refined, because they read Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, and their ability to express is not as refined.
If they can handle that painful few years in which their standards are high and their abilities are low, they’re probably gonna make it.
Your upcoming Word Works talk is on The Art of Listening. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned when it comes to listening as a writer?
My mom is a psychologist, and I remember when I was young going to a party, and it was all her friends in the psychological field. One of her friends was famous for doing difficult interviews. When they had people they needed assessed who would prefer not to be assessed, she had a resume for that. And so, Jeffrey Dahmer— after he was caught, he wouldn’t talk. And this woman was brought in to do a court assessment, whether he could stand trial.
So I talked to her at this party, I monopolized her. I wanted to know what Jeffrey Dahmer was like. But she wanted to tell me what interviewing people like him was like.
One of the things she said to me was that she normalized everything. There was nothing a human being could say that she would let surprise her or that she would judge in their presence. She would make contexts that built bridges to people, even people that seemed very far away from her. She said she would have questions like, “Usually when most people kill another person, later they have strange feelings about what they did. Were you one of those persons?” You know, to make a community of people, rather than a lone, strange, or abnormal subject. And while I’ve never had to phrase a question that way with someone, I have always thought about interviewing that way.
I interviewed a defector in Seoul who was kind of a famous defector. He had his own translator and everything. His name was Park Sang-hak. I interviewed him over the course of a whole day. When we were done, his translator came to me and she said, “I’ve been translating for him for five years. I didn’t know any of that stuff about him.” I think that I just wanted to know the human being.
One of the interesting things about interviewing defectors that I’ve discovered is that even though my experience is much different than them—I’ve never lived under totalitarianism, I’ve never been in a famine, et cetera—what surprises me when I interview is how much I have in common with people. The defectors all seem to have acquired over their lives an incredible sense of humor, even through translation—a dark, wicked humor that I love. Right away, you see that they want the things out of life that we want. Safety, security, stability, better lives for their children, possibility. Even though the experiences may be vastly different, the truth of our lives is very much the same.
That’s why I love working in the novel. That’s my definition of truth—it’s something that’s valid for all people at all times, whether you’re in North Korea or whether something’s being expressed on the Grecian urn. It still connects and applies to all of us.
Learn more from Adam by attending his upcoming virtual Word Works lecture on Friday, October 9.