Adam Johnson -
Parasites Like Us
April 27, 2006
About the Author
Adam Johnson, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow, holds the Draper Distinguished Lectureship at Stanford University. In 1992, Johnson earned a B.A. in Journalism from Arizona State University. In 1996, he received an MFA from the writing program at McNeese State University, and he later went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from Florida State University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's and The Paris Review, and it has been translated into more than 10 different languages. Adam Johnson's much acclaimed debut collection of short stories, "Emporium," was published by Viking in 2002 and was nominated for a Young Lions Award. It was named Debut Book of the Year by Amazon. His novel, "Parasites Like Us," was published by Viking in 2003 and received the California Book Award.
In 2013, Johnson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "The Orphan Master’s Son," a novel which examines propaganda and identity in North Korea. Adam Johnson and his wife live in San Francisco with their daughters, Jupiter and Justice Everlasting, and their son, James Geronimo.
About this Book
"Parasites Like Us" is an enthralling journey through memory, time and the cost of mankind's quest for his own past. After illegally exhuming an ancient American burial site, anthropologist Hank Hannah is arrested and put in jail. Soon, his legal woes will pale in comparison to what he must face. Buried beside the bones, a timeless menace awaits that will set the modern world back 12,000 years and send Hannah on a quest to save that which is dearest to him.
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Adam Johnson, who burst upon the scene of American letters very recently with two books: A Collection of Stories, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us. The New York Times said of Adam Johnson's work, "Mr. Johnson uses his keen sense of the
absurd and his magpie's feel for language to create some wonderfully antic black comedy. But running through his tales is also a melancholy of longing and loss, a Salinger-esque sense of adolescent alienation and confusion combined with an acute awareness of the randomness of life and the difficulty of making and sustaining connections." Adam Johnson, welcome.
Adam Johnson: Hey, Ron, it's good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ron Carlson: These are curious books. I mean, I would say that they --certainly everyone agrees they don't fall within the conventions of what we think of as say maybe mainstream fiction. Is there an edge in American Fiction right now, and are you part of that new wave?
Adam Johnson Well, certainly there are people who are doing different things. George Saunders, Kelly link, writing stories that are paved in a recognizable world. And that is a baton the writer uses to pull you into their world. I suspect that for George
Saunders, his stories seem pretty normal.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, m-hm.
Adam Johnson: For -- my stories seem very normal to me. People say, oh, but you're writing about a teenage sniper with a bomb robot as a sidekick friend. But, you know, a couple months after the story was published, well, there's a teenage sniper running loose in America, and, certainly the difference between fiction and nonfiction, is that, you know, fiction has to be believable. And I see stranger things out there in the nonfiction world all the time. What seems -- people say, you're absurd, you're kind of a little
over the horizon or off- kilter. I -- you know, what always seems absurd to me are the emotional absurdities of life. It makes sense that someone would wear a bulletproof vest around, you know, under their normal clothing. Or that, you know, a mom would, you know, push a young son to be the best sniper in the world. What doesn't make sense are, you know, the emotional Absurdities that -- you know, my parents broke when I was young, and, you know, the idea that two people who love each other deeply can't stay together. That's one of the most crazy ideas I can imagine.
Ron Carlson: How do you balance these things?
Adam Johnson: What we're talking about, then, is the very cutting-edge absurdities of contemporary culture that we're up against every day in the newspapers. I mean, it's a lot to take. And then writing fiction, which isn't just brittle, because your fiction is not brittle or caustic. Each of the stories, as far out or edgy as they might be, all have a human character, a human heart.
Ron Carlson: Now, how do you create that balance? I mean, you're trying for that balance, right?
Adam Johnson: Well, I would say that, you know, people have chronic issues, and one of their jobs in life are to figure them out. I don't know if they're -- you're supposed to overcome them but befriend them in a certain way. And I noticed that -- you know,
I did an experiment once in which I had a very disturbing dream and I wrote it down, and I got in the habit of writing my dreams down. And I wrote this phonebook- sized document of my dreams for almost a couple years.
Ron Carlson: Really?
Adam Johnson: And it was -- I decided I had to read it. It was, you know, very bad reading. I mean, the only thing worse than reading your own dreams is probably reading someone else's. But, you know, they were like Dreams where, oh, I'd walk around and breathe underwater, or I jump out of a plane, what have you. But I started noticing after I read hundreds of these dreams that they all kind of fit into a few categories, and the more intense -- I would put stars by them, like how intense the dream was. Did it wake me up? Did I remember it all day? And the more intense the dream, the more it seemed to fit into, like, a few simple categories. And then I went back and read my fiction. And I realized, like, some of -- some of my beliefs about how the world work get into them, no matter what. And I think that gave me a strange liberation to -- to be able to put -- to find these issues, to know that, you know, abandonment, isolation, the hopes of connection are going to come through, and then I could put any face on that story I want. And so I think half my stories, some of them tend to be the straight on, very realistic social documentary mode, in which there's a person who would be your next-door neighbor goes to a store and does something that's significant. And the other half are, you know, gay, Canadian astronauts going to the moon. They're the same story to me.
I think they -- they go to the same places.
Ron Carlson: The -- you talk about the premise of -- will you read us a page of -- let's just sample some of the stuff we're talking about. In the -- is it "the Canadanaut?" I don't know if it's "the Canadanaut" or "the Canadanaut."
Adam Johnson: It's from -- it's the word Canada on the word astronaut.
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Adam Johnson: And kind of a celebration of our northern neighbors.
Ron Carlson: Kind of.
Adam Johnson: The Canadanaut: "I was pouring liquid argon into a bowl of flatworms when Secretary Mulroney arrived at our lab. He'd flown through the perpetual dark and taken a snow cat 13 kilometers from a tiny ice-field landing strip before snowshoeing blind along frozen lifelines. I was doing some side research on reanimation, and the worms had just begun to crackle and flip in the pyrex when Mulroney pushed his way through our storm proof doors, his war medals glowing amber in the light of our heaters. Mulroney had never come to the tundra lab before, so it was clear something big was up,
something far too important to risk using the scramble phone. He stomped his boots and
grabbed a pair of red U.V. goggles. We'd been having problems with gamma rays. Scotty lowered his l-7 analyzer and groaned, 'vu killed the Dynoburner and spit on the floor, but I wasn't going to piss and moan. I believed in what we were doing. We hadn't bathed since Boxing Day. That's how serious we were.' We all turned to Dr. Q for a reaction."
Ron Carlson: The -- I was struck -- okay, you put yourself out on a limb
there. You started very specifically in a place that's recognizable. You put a lot of inventory in there. When you started that story -- let's talk about process. We've been talking about the subject. And I've run into a lot of young writers recently in my
travels who are writing stories really drawn from cultural moments in the last,
say, 24 months and the way American culture is going and these phenomenas -- phenomenas. When you start a story like that, how much do you know?
I mean, did you teach yourself that story, or did you -- let's talk about your process.
Did you have your major stations which you were going to go to and then you
embellished them? Or did you just cut a road into the wilderness and find your
Adam Johnson: Well, this story was a gift. I mean, every once in awhile one just comes to you on a platter. I was talking with a friend of mine, a novelist, Neil Connelly, a fabulous writer, and I was kind of bemoaning that my strengths I think are voice,
first person, a sense of place, a sense of language, but I've always had a hard time figuring out what the story was. What is the plot, as some people would say.
And you know, I told my friend Neil, I said, "you know, I think I'm going to write some
historical fiction. Because the story's there. You just have to bring it to life. You have to get the psychology and the feel of the place, and understand how it worked." And he kind of said to me, "yeah, but wouldn't it be more fun to write false historical fiction, like the first Canadian on the moon?" And that was it. I put the phone down, really. I mean I was on vacation and --
Ron Carlson: So somebody said the first Canadian on the moon, and you
thought, there's my guy.
Adam Johnson: I said, I've got to do it. So I started in the cold and the dark.
And I try to make realms in which I believe and then go outward from there.
I was like, can I believe that I'm in Canada in the cold? Can I believe that we're in
some crazy lab, or some plan like going to the moon on a shoestring with a ragtag team
before anyone in the world can do it? Am I in a place where that could happen?
And what kind of crazy balls do I have to get in the air to make myself believe it?
And once I kind of have, you know, that situation, that space on the page to believe
that these things could happen, then the voice has to be right. My test for the first person
voice is I usually write until I can say something that's funny.
Ron Carlson: I see.
Adam Johnson: And there's some mixture of truth and edge to humor that has a complexity that lets me know I'm on the right path. With a story like teen sniper I
did the same thing. I'm like, I just have to believe this person can shoot another person.
And I just did it as a -- as an experiment. It was -- came out of the news. It was like, a friend of mine was writing a piece about snipers and was talking about snipers, and that snipers were all around me. And I'd seen a sniper in Palo Alto, and it was in my kind of
contemporary life. And I said, "you know, I'm just going to try this." And once I wrote five pages and someone died at the end, I was like, I can do this story.
Ron Carlson: I want to talk about another element of the process. I want to talk about many things about these stories. But each of the stories that you referred to, these two are
examples, for example, the way you start with a -- with the freezing the worms and so on.
There's some research in both of these stories that -- I mean, this isn't the kind of story
that someone would just turn around and start typing. Is there -- are there – is there research for this – for these stories? And what role does research play in developing a story? I want to turn to the novel in a minute, too.
Adam Johnson: M-hm. Well, for a short story like "The Canadanaut," I just made everything up. There was just a sheer joy in, you know, inventing an l-7 analyzer, whatever that was, and hopefully making it believable as real things. Usually you have to throw in a couple pieces of genuininity to hook someone along.
Ron Carlson: Is that why you start back where you are? You start with a scene. I mean, you start before this -- the plot. Let's go to the moon. So you're trying to establish a place that you believe so that then you can go forward off what you don't -- which tests
Adam Johnson: Well, I would say that I have to believe before I can
ask anyone else to. And that's the problem. That's what keeps me knocking
my head. Do I believe this story that I've got going on? And I would say that with a story like teen sniper -- I had a friend who was writing a heavily researched, very serious book, a novel about a Gulf war sniper. And he was -- I was reading drafts of it, and, you know, we went out shooting, and I kind of became immersed into – into the psychosis of his novel writing. Psychosis is a good term. For my novel, I did research like I'd never imagined. I did a solid year of research.
Ron Carlson: Let's turn to that in a minute. I want to say -- first of all I want to remind everybody that we're talking with Adam Johnson, who is the author of two books, a collection of stories, Emporium, A Wild Stories with a heart, and Parasites Like Us, a big
ambitious novel which we're going to talk about. So you write a story like teen sniper, which is very compelling. Once I started reading that, it just grabs me. And "the Canadanaut," which is fun. How do you know that you didn't just indulge yourself with these? You know, this is the kind of a question with "the Canadanaut." You write a story like that, are you aware of the theme you're working toward, the things that emerge? And it isn't simply enough to take a cultural moment, no matter how -- you know, let's say we're talking about traffic, and dramatize it. Do you understand that the other thing rises, this idea, the ideas, do you work for idea or do ideas emerge? How does that contribute to your understanding of what the larger story might be?
Adam Johnson: Well, there's maybe – I maybe have two responses to that impulse. One -- one would be the notion that, again, my stories are going to go where they're going
to go. What's troubling me in my life, what I'm going through, my chronic issues, my situational ones, are going to find their way into the writing. I think that's, you know, when I pick up the pen that's there. And I have to provide a platform that's interesting,
that's different, that challenges myself in a certain way. And also that makes the formula
come out with something Different at the end of the equation. You know, if I take me and I fuse half of, you know, my life, my experience, my issues with a completely fictional
one, you know, I'll come out with a new synthesis at the end. I'll have -- if I write too
autobiographically, I'm bored. I know me. And if I write too researched-based, if I write
about, you know, a pygmy in another country, you know, on a submarine, there's not enough of my heart in that, and it's cold for me. And a lot of it is getting the balance right between the kind of cathartic power of feeling like I've gotten something, I've expressed something on the page, and feeling like I've met a new person and seeing it from a distance. That's why we use fiction instead of nonfiction, to work it through another character. That means we'll be able to see ourselves from another angle.
Ron Carlson: It's -- I don't mean to imply that stories can be reduced to, like, I would never ask you --
Adam Johnson: What are you implying, Ron?
Ron Carlson: Yeah, what's your story about? I'm not saying that. but I don't think it's a
writer's job to explain what a story or her story is about. But let's talk about -- let's
switch over and talk about the novel, where now you take on as your topic, should I say,
Mankind and the future of mankind, all of archaeology, and again, history and invented
history. In Parasites Like Us, there's a -- in North Dakota, there's a dig at a college, a student who kind of is our radical-student- type camping out, finds bones and signs of a -- of another civilization, finds a Clovis Point, this instrument, this weapon that they think, or his theory is, that remodeled and revisioned all sense of mankind's hunt and methods of hunting. But it goes from there. It goes very big. And then it ends, I mean, it Just, uh, grows and grows. Now, what -- where did the idea for that novel -- when you had
the idea for the novel that must have been -- where did it come from, and wasn't it
Adam Johnson: Well, I don't -- you know, finding a story isn't like, you
know, shooting a bird out of the sky. You know, it falls and you, what kind is it?
I became fascinated with paleolithic technology. I was living in rural Louisiana
And working with a guy who was a doctor who was into flint knapping and making weapons. And he was -- he was a trauma surgeon and his wife had left him, and he had gone through like a Porsche, and then he went backward. And walked around with a little
leather pouch on him in which he had his little tools, and he would go out on the weekends in his, like loincloth and hunt pigs with 10,000-year-old technology.
And he had a little kit in his car --
Ron Carlson He hunted feral pigs?
Adam Johnson: Yes.
Ron Carlson: With a --
Adam Johnson: He had an Atlatl, which is a spear-throwing device, and he
had his bow and arrow that he had made. He knew everything about it. And I realized there was this whole subculture of people who go and have, you know, knap-ins -- that's what they're called -- a primitive-society meetings where everyone will go out in the woods and not use any technology that's been created since the Pleistocene Era, the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago. And this guy had a little kit that he carried with him.
And he told me that he often -- he got interested because he often used obsidian in his
surgeries. Because the blades can be made -- can be chipped sharper than any metal ever -- ever known. So he had a kit that he carried with him. And his dream was to do open-
heart surgery on someone using 10,000-year-old technology. And he figured he could only do that if he happened upon someone. So he carried this kit to be ready at all times.
And so, I started researching this, and I came across some -- all these dissertations of
young people who'd gone to Africa and lived on rancid elephant meat for a year, or
people who'd not bathed for a year to, you know, test their body smells, or who'd lived on
nothing but field mice for a year. And I realized that I had to -- I had to create a character who lived on, amongst us, 10,000-year-old technology in a world of Doritos.
Ron Carlson: Right. And you have what you just said. A lot of writers would have
found that compelling the other way. It would have been exactly what they fled from.
But this attracted you. And then you contrasted hard against all the effluvia of
contemporary culture, all of the disposable this, and the whole book is layers of
archaeology, both modern and ancient. And it's an ambitious story. I mean, it goes on, and then there's problems with -- I think it's with the pigs themselves. Isn't there an infection or plague with pigs?
Adam Johnson: There is a plague with pigs, as there's a plague with pigs
right now, if you happened to see millions of them burning in England over the last few years. Another impulse of the book was that my parents were from this small Dakotan town on the Missouri river with the one kind of beautiful university up on the hill, bricks, 1890s, and like many schools it had become defunct in the '80s, in the 1980s, and it was bought over by the federal prison system, and it became the federal prison camp at Yankton, or camp Yankton as they often called it. And it is now like the cushiest
minimum security white-collar prison in America. And, you know, if you're
convicted of a crime, you hire a special lawyer who will help you get to this place.
But, you know, I toured the prison. Ad they were doing a Hitchcock
Retrospective there with the archive at the library, Olympic-size swimming pool,
bowling alley, observatory, everything. But the whole town had been built around this school, with the houses all facing it, and all the buildings were named and endowed for people from the community. So now it would be the Gustafson lockdown and detention facility rather than the, you know, a memorial union.
Ron Carlson: That appeals to your sense of...
Adam Johnson: Well, it was clear to me that suddenly an institution that had been designed to better the future of our world had instead been used to lock up all the mentors who naturally would be the people who would get us there to some degree. And the absurdity, the upside-downness of that somehow fit with the upside-downness of
the old technology. And from there the book just took its own course.
Ron Carlson: The -- you're celebrated for your use of language, in your stories and in your novel. And it's seen as being experimental, edgy, tender, and when I read your work,
I'm very aware that you've had every sentence in your hands, that you've thought of every
sentence. Do you want to talk about developing that facility with language? As a writer?
Adam Johnson: Well, I think everyone's given a couple gifts. I mean, some people are
inherently funny, and if you're not as a writer, try it. Just try to become funny. Some people have an ear for dialog. Language was the first thing I think I had and the thing I
didn't have to work for. And I needed a mentor to point out very quickly that your
strengths are your weaknesses. And often when I see my language soaring during the
writing process, or that I'm investing too much in the evocation rather than the emotion, then I know I'm in trouble. It's the revision process where I try to decide, you know,
how organic can I push it? I love my language. I'll push it as far as I can let it go.
Ron Carlson: Right to the limit.
Adam Johnson: I would love to become a – a kind of prose poem writer where
I just went forever with my language and left people with impressions.
Ron Carlson: Right, right.
Adam Johnson: But I don't think I could write a novel like that.
Ron Carlson: And rewriting is what portion of your work? You know, writers talk about
this all the time. Sometimes with -- they're a little glib about it. but, do you want to talk about, like, how many drafts, or how much attention does a piece of work get in terms of the rewriting? Is it 10%?
Adam Johnson: It's interesting. I think that, you know, when I first started writing I used
legal pads. And it was a big revision process. I have arrows and all kinds of schematics.
But now that I use a monitor with a scrolling system, like most people do, I think the
writing process and the revision process has become weirdly fused, in that I'll
write a sentence, I'll go back and read the last four, I'll make changes, I'll read the new
one, and then I’ll write another one. And I'm constantly writing. So I produce less but it's more finished. And often, it -- it can be too myopic, I think, to really capture a character sometimes. One of the things I do to keep myself from doing that is I'll turn the monitor off and just write with the keys. So that I'm seeing like the scene in my head rather than
the screen, and go back and just clean it up later. And then I will do like what is a true draft afterwards, a next revision.
Ron Carlson: This idea of revision and creation working hand in hand,
don't you think that's – that as you get more experienced those two work in more kindred? I mean, there's no stark division between the creation and the editing?
Is that a matter of experience with you? You've written thousands of pages.
Adam Johnson: Well, I see the skills getting better. I think my brain eliminates,
you know, erroneous possibilities before they get onto the page. I make fewer mistakes.
I do see my skills getting better in, as I devote another decade to this, but it doesn't get any easier. Why is that, Ron?
Ron Carlson: Well, we're in the dark. If you're going to write a good story -- for me it is – that you go out in the dark and then you find your way back. And if you find the same way, you say, oh, I know where the door is, you've done that before. And that isn't the way to grow and reach. I wanted to ask you about your apprenticeship. I mean, here you are. You're mid-career. You've made this wonderful -- these books have done so well
and been critically received well, and you're a teacher and a writer. And what would you say -- let's talk to people who are writing their first book. What were the major elements of your apprenticeship, both working alone and with consultants?
Adam Johnson: Well, I kind of came of age through the university system.
I think there was a school before that in which, you know, you had to seek people out,
that you, you know, earned it on the streets or this or that. But I came into the university,
and most all of my mentors have been teachers who are writers who are making a living
teaching. And so these are people who, you know, have a lot pressed upon them in terms of needs. But I would say that one thing that the university does is provide that early platform where you can fail regularly. And I don't think that many people get past that process. My first mentors -- I look back at my old work, I don't see what they saw.
I don't see why they gave the extra. I don't see what necessarily allowed them to sift through six bad stories to get to the seventh, where I made a leap. After that, though, after I did get a lot of bad pages out there, I think mentorship, to have -- to go to grad school,
And I don't think there's anything like it in America right now. There are problems with the M.F.A. degree and the creative writing program, but where else is -- are you going to find someone who's going to read every word of what you write for two years?
Ron Carlson: Right, right.
Adam Johnson: I think that's the most important thing, so... and mentorship never ends.
I think the pool slowly shrinks of people that you need, and at some point the tables turn, and you start, you know, learning by teaching.
Ron Carlson: Right, right. Well, this has been fascinating. and your work is very provocative, and you're really stretching the limits of what we understand is fiction.
And that's very enjoyable. I'm glad you were here today. We've been talking with Adam
Johnson, the author of Emporium, a collection of Stories, and the novel, Parasites Like Us. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope to see you next time.