Adam Johnson: How I Write

"Each narrative you tell has to discover itself completely anew."
By Jack Smith | Published: July 1, 2013


Photo by Tamara Beckwith

Photo by Tamara Beckwith

Adam Johnson is an associate professor of creative writing at Stanford University. His novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The Pulitzer committee described Orphan 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.” The novel was also a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and named one of the best books of 2012 by The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. Johnson is the author of two previous works of fiction: a short story collection, Emporium (2003), named Debut of the Year; and a first novel, Parasites Like Us, that won a silver medal for fiction at the 2004 California Book Awards. Johnson’s work has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review and Harper’s Magazine.

Why: If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it came in a creative writing workshop. My whole life I’d been told that I had all these perceived flaws. I was a daydreamer, a rubbernecker, an exaggerator, a liar ‒ all those things. But in a story, everything I’d been dinged about my whole life added up to something other people appreciated. I saw that a writer could be a real person but also do something that speaks to other people.

Research: When I was younger, you had to go to a library. If that didn’t work, you had to go to a bigger library, and if that didn’t work, you had to go to an archive. But now you can write a book about North Korea, the most secretive place on earth, from a computer. You can email experts listed on university websites. You can even Google Earth, and there are a lot of aid workers taking down the stories of people, doing the fieldwork for you because they see it’s important. That’s the beautiful thing about research these days.

Process: I go to the library for six or eight hours and I write, and then I go home to my wife. On my laptop, I usually have two documents open. One is the narrative I’m working on, and one is usually a blank page that I can make mistakes on, play around with and throw those words away. At the end of the day maybe I’ll have a paragraph, maybe I’ll have a page of work, and then I’ll move it over to the story I’m actually writing.

Dark humor: A story’s turbulence needs humor for the reader to release tension. When I read aloud in public, I can feel a tension building in the audience. There’s difficult material, and they want to let go of it somehow. Give them one chance to laugh, even in a small way.

Writing challenges: It’s all a struggle. When you write a short story, you think, “Oh, I know how to write a short story now,” but the next story isn’t easier because you just learned to write that story. Each narrative you tell has to discover itself completely anew. And a lot of novelists wouldn’t be surprised that once you write one novel, the second one is actually even tougher, even though you might think it will be easier.

Advice for new writers: I’ve always valued labor over talent. My students who are the most talented I think grow the least because they lean on their natural ability rather than developing their skills. Writers do need a full complement of writerly talent, but it’s the ones who put in the hard work who really grow for the better.

Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication.