NO. 26
Stanford Today

Adam Johnson: Writer of uncommon experience

To research one of the stories in his National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson donned a brown UPS uniform and rode along with drivers on their delivery routes.

Johnson was equally rigorous in research for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set in North Korea. In addition to a state-sponsored trip to the tightly controlled country, he spent several years reading historical materials, propaganda and the accounts of those who had escaped the country.

Research is integral to Johnson’s writing process and to the way he views fiction.

English Professor Adam Johnson undertakes extensive research as part of his writing process. David Gonzales
English Professor Adam Johnson undertakes extensive research as part of his writing process. David Gonzales

In the Stanford series How I Write, Johnson shared his belief that writers must take themselves outside of their own experience to arrive at a more truthful outcome.

“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,” Johnson said in a December 2015 interview.

Johnson’s research exerts a powerful force on his storytelling. He becomes close to his subjects and to the stories they represent, especially in research for The Orphan Master’s Son.

“One of the things I discovered through my research is that most North Koreans can’t tell their story. It’s important for others to hear it, though. So I had a sense of mission about the topic,” Johnson said.

Johnson came to care deeply about the North Korean people. “When you get that story, you are beholden to it,” he said. “It is like bearing witness to it. You have to live up to it.”

Johnson first came to Stanford in 1999 as a Stegner Fellow. He currently holds the Phil and Penny Knight Professorship in Creative Writing and teaches courses such as Advanced Fiction Writing, Narrative and Narrative Theory and Historical Fiction. Johnson also founded the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, which brings together a team of students annually to create a graphic novel.

His first novel, Parasites Like Us, won a California Book Award. Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for The Orphan Master’s Son and the National Book Award in 2015 for Fortune Smiles, both in the category of fiction.

Johnson said he is grateful to Stanford for its commitment to good writing.

“It’s just a place where storytelling is valued above all else,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have written [The Orphan Master’s Son] without Stanford and its support of creative writing. From all parts of the university, the narrative is valued. I know it’s a place where people are excited about stories.”

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service