Award-winning Stanford author Adam Johnson discusses the renaissance of the short story

Stanford English Professor Adam Johnson, recently the recipient of the National Book Award in fiction, weighs in on the power of the short story, the need for humor and the next generation of writers.

Long before Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, when he was a young boy, he would visit the local zoo at night. While his mother worked on her dissertation, his dad, a night security guard at the zoo in Phoenix, Arizona, took him around in a zebra-striped golf cart to see how Hazel the gorilla and Coco the elephant spent their lives when they weren't on public display.

"One of the things my father taught me was that there is the surface of the world that most people engage, and there’s always a realer, truer, purer world beneath that," said Johnson.

David GonzalesAdam Johnson

English Professor Adam Johnson says his job as a fiction writer is to reveal the truer, realer world beneath the surface that most people engage.

His job as a fiction writer, Johnson believes, is to reveal that truer, realer world.

In Fortune Smiles, the short story collection that recently earned him the National Book Award, Johnson pushes the boundaries of his readers' sympathies with morally complex narrators. In "Dark Meadow," we meet a pedophile who gardens to keep his mind off his urges, while the collection's title story reveals that home truly is where the heart is, even if home means a cold, despotic, corrupt North Korea.

Johnson first came to Stanford in 1999 as a Stegner Fellow. He currently holds the Phil and Penny Knight Professorship in Creative Writing, teaching courses like Advanced Fiction Writing, where he pushes the next generation of writers to their own creative limits.

Here, Johnson expands on his recent National Book Award win for his second short story collection, Fortune Smiles.

This was the second year in a row that the National Book Award for fiction went to a short story collection rather than a novel, and two of the five finalists were short story collections. What do you think makes the short story format special?

I feel like there's a renaissance going on in terms of the short story. The short story has a particular coil power, like an emotional battery that can store feelings and release them in a very unique way. In a collection, when it happens many times, it can have a big effect. A short story collection can have an overarching theme or even a bigger range than a novel. It is great to see stories rewarded like this. A lot of our great contemporary writers are choosing to write in the short story – George Saunders, Kelly Link, Lorrie Moore. I think this says a lot about the fact that readers appreciate short stories.


What did winning the National Book Award mean for you personally?

All the finalists are just terrifically talented writers. To be among the company of such writers was a true honor. I'm lucky to be counted among the finer works of fiction written that year. It doesn't change how I write or my subject matter; I've been doing this for a while. But it is nice to be in a league of important people.


How does Stanford encourage the next generation of writers?

I believe that Stanford has one of the more vibrant English departments and creative writing programs in America. The Stegner Fellowships bring in the best writers of their generation through the most competitive process in the world and undergrads interact directly with these outstanding young writers. These are amazing writers that students have opportunity to study with in an intimate and personal way. That's where art resides and is transferred.


Many of the characters in your Fortune Smiles collection feel isolated, some due to illness, others from being far away from a home where they can never return. Many of them turn to technology to form a connection with others. Do you believe that technology can help us feel more connected to one another?

I think in "Nirvana" we see that our narrator's needs to deeply connect to his wife is revealed by his inability to do so. The true sadness is that someone would turn to a piece of technology rather than to the person right next to him.

Being at Stanford and in the Bay Area, we interact with robots, drones, solar-powered zipping things. But when you engage with real humans, you have to become vulnerable and you have to share and you have to accept deeply the person you're with and that's not easy. I don't think we get as much practice with that as we used to since we engage remotely and privately more and more.


The themes and events in Fortune Smiles are very dark, yet there is humor to be found in each one. How do you find you can infuse humor into dark themes, and why is humor important for us?

I think humor is a universal thing regardless of your experiences, and maybe if you've had more challenges, had a little more darkness in your life, that’s something that you might turn to. The North Koreans I've met have had a great sense of humor, even through translation. Our true humor is dark humor. Comedians are the darkest tragic figures in our society, and they tell the toughest truths to us. They are such difficult truths that they can only get them to us a spoonful at a time.

As a writer I feel like humor that doesn't have the weight of emotion, that is too light and humorous, is like helium, it just floats away. But if something is too dark, we need humor to leaven it and to control the tension and release to the reader. To me they go hand in hand.


In Fortune Smiles we hear from computer programmers, conflicted pedophiles, a woman struggling with cancer, North Korean defectors. How do you create such different characters?

A lot of contemporary fiction is autobiographical and takes place in very familiar settings. And I think that's fantastic. However, it is not necessarily what I am interested in. I feel like with fiction you get to make up characters that are different than you – otherwise, what’s the degree to which invention is at work? I love to do research to educate myself through writing, to read things that interest me because they show me the world.