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The Darkness and the Popcorn

A Correspondence with Denis Johnson


Acknowledgement:  The Darkness and the Popcorn first appeared in Cold-drill, 2007 (before the publication of Tree of Smoke). 

Denis Johnson is the author of over a dozen books in almost as many genres, including Jesus' Son, Angels, Seek, Already Dead, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the Name of the World, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's New Millennium General Assembly, and Shoppers. A novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, and short-story writer, he has blurred the boundaries of form and pushed the limits of literary convention. In the broadest terms, Johnson's work deals in contradictions. He brings together what would seem to be opposites and reconciles them into a beautiful coexistence. The disturbing and the hilarious, the banal and the spiritual, the hero and the coward—all are synthesized within his writing—writing which is just as experimental as it is emotional. He shows us a world that is not perfect because it is broken, but that is broken because it is perfect.

Denis Johnson's career has likewise managed to reconcile high-art literary acclaim with cult infamy. He agreed to answer questions from one of his most shameless fans. Tyler McMahon spoke with his hero about influences, images, adaptations, and fairy tales.

TM: You told an interviewer that people act like Jesus' Son is the only book you've ever written. I've never understood why this is, considering all the other outstanding books under your belt, none of them any less groundbreaking than Jesus' Son. Do you have any idea how this happened? Does it have to do with some inherent tendency, within the public or within the critics, to pigeonhole authors?

DJ: When did I say that? I don't remember. Now I'm more inclined to say the readers I hear from tend to single out a particular book, but it's not always Jesus' Son. I guess I'm the same way with authors I've read. Writers who experiment with different forms and types probably shouldn't expect any one reader to like all their books.

TM: You told me that you've sworn off teaching for a while. What are your general feelings on creative writing programs and their effectiveness? Are they developing a contemporary American literature of importance? It occurs to me that you have a unique perspective on this issue. You've been down both the academic, craft-based, workshop road to becoming a writer, as well the journalistic, life-experience road. Were both roads of equal importance to your work?

DJ: I don't think a writing student in a workshop somewhere is in any danger of missing out on a life worth writing about. A student can only hide out for a couple of years, anyhow. I wonder what might have happened to me if I'd gotten a tenure-track position as a teacher, though. I suspect I'd have written less and less as I spent a longer and longer time confronted by other writers' pages. I'll probably teach again. I've done it many times, but I've always had time enough between—enough so that it's fun when the chance comes along again. As for whether the writing programs are developing an American literature of importance, I just couldn't say. That's for later eras to decide.

TM: Many young writers talk of reading your books over and over again. Are there any authors or books that you return to repeatedly? What have you read recently that's spoken to you?

DJ: I re-read Saul Bellow and Chekhov, also many poets—W.S. Merwin, Shakespeare, Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, Rilke. I read a lot of folk literature—fairy tales from various lands. In what I'd call my formative years I re-read Fat City by Leonard Gardner many times, and Flannery O'Connor's stories, also Mark Twain, Nathaniel West, Stephen Crane. Lately it's Chekhov I find most inspiring. Chekhov and folk tales. I read a lot of plays. Find myself returning to Mamet, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Lorca, to name just a few.

TM: Have you always read folk literature? Do you prefer any specific books or traditions? How have these fairy tales influenced your own writing?

DJ: I think I've always liked folk tales, starting with a book I had as a seven-year-old, Old Tales from Japan—I think that was the title. I don't prefer any one tradition over another, but if I had to choose my favorite book of fairy tales it would be the Ralph Manheim translation of the Grimm Brothers. And my favorite story in it is "Hans the Gambler" or "Gambling Hans." The free, unstudied style of folk narratives is something I admire. I'd like to emulate it, but if I tried, that wouldn't be free or unstudied, would it?

TM: Most of these folk tales have come from oral-storytelling traditions. Do you think anything has been lost or gained by modern literature's emphasis on written text?

DJ: I'm sure we've gained a lot more than we've lost since the invention of the printing press. But spoken stories are fun. I heard the musician Jim White tell yarns for an audience at a literary festival in Amsterdam last fall. He related a couple of incidents from his life, and we all found them gripping.

I have a book called A Book of Anecdotes collected by Daniel George. According to its introduction, "Anecdote" comes from the Greek term for "things not yet published," and while most of these in this collection were written down somewhere, the idea is that they weren't composed as literary efforts and were handed on just because someone found them fascinating. And they fascinate me too.

TM: Contemporary writers and aspiring writers seem to really break themselves down along genre lines. I was wondering what you think about this. You've worked in so many genres. Do your have a special affinity for any one in particular? The world seems to think of you as a fiction writer first and foremost. Do you feel this way? What I'm most interested in is how the genre-crossing fits into your creative process. When you have an idea, do you know immediately whether it's a poem, story, novel, play, or essay? Do you ever make this decision consciously? Do you set aside different days or hours to work on poetry as opposed to prose? Do you ever change form part way through?

DJ: As a kid I assumed I'd someday write both poetry and fiction. My adolescent pre-career fantasy was that I'd learn all about words by writing poems, and then I'd put to use what I'd learned when I wrote novels. I don't remember wanting to write short stories, but after I'd written poems for a few years and was ready to take up novels, I found I couldn't get past page ten. I detoured into writing stories, none of them very good, while working sporadically on a couple of novels. After I'd written three novels I returned to short stories and wrote a few I liked (Jesus' Son).

The road back to short stories wasn't quite as direct as I make it sound. After my first novel was published (Angels), I got a job turning the book into a screenplay. That led to jobs doing a couple of other adaptations. There was a lot I disliked about that kind of work, and I really was never very good at it, but the strictures of the screenplay form, and the experience of compressing novels into that form, got me thinking again about short stories. I began to see they were much more like poems than like novels. I believe it was that insight, above all, that helped me write stories that worked for me.

In the meantime I tried using my credentials as a novelist to get some non-fiction assignments from magazines. I was a fan of Joan Didion and Michael Herr, among other non-fiction writers, and I wanted to see the world. For about ten years I did an article or two each year. I didn't enjoy the writing as much as the traveling--rather than knock a piece out in a couple of weeks, I'd like to let it take its time to get written. Eventually I stopped taking assignments.

The poetry dropped off gradually. Notes for poems ended up paragraphs in novels. I hardly write poems at all these days, although I still keep a notebook of verse fragments. I've always had a sense, too—maybe a silly prejudice—that real poetry should be surrounded by a general silence. That it should be almost the only thing a poet writes. So in my own eyes I've tended to discredit myself as a poet by writing a lot of prose.

What got me out of journalism, finally, was a fascination with the theater. In the early nineties I was part of a reading program at the Met Theater in L.A. that included two actors—Arliss Howard and Holly Hunter—staging a scene from one of my novels. Hearing my characters talk out loud was a life-changing experience. I started making notes for possible stage scenes, plays, and so on, and in '97 I finished a play and immediately wrote another. Since then I've been writing plays as much as fiction. Two of these have been in verse, so there's something of a return to poetry there. Here again, my failure as a screenwriter played a role. I was a terrible screenwriter because I wanted more dialogue and less action. That's not good for the movies, but it's great for the stage.

I don't think of myself as a novelist first, or a playwright first, and certainly not as a poet, and I never thought of myself as an essayist—"pseudo-journalist" was more fitting. It occurs to me, now that you ask the question, that I hardly think of myself as a writer of any kind. I've been writing and publishing now for thirty-seven years, but the whole time I've sort of been waiting for it all to stop. I'm always surprised to find I have a little more I want to write about today.

As for when I write what—when I write down a phrase or image that interests me, I have no idea whether it's a bit of verse or prose or stage dialogue. I have several projects I work on all at once, off and on (some of them more often than others), and a note just goes where it seems to fit. Later I might move it--a phrase of prose description might end up as a line in stage-character's speech, and vice-versa.

It's something of a saga, as you can see. I've always just wanted to write any sort of thing I enjoyed reading, and I've assumed whatever I learn by trying is going to help me somewhere down the line. And it has.

TM: Did Angels ever finally get adapted for the screen? How about your other adaptations?

DJ: Although the script I wrote for Angels led to some other screenplay commissions, nobody's ever made a film from it. Others have tried to adapt it, too—I've seen Angels scripts by the director John McNaughton and by the writer Stewart O'Nan. I did an adaptation of a Paul Bowles novel, Up Above the World, for MGM/UA, and for Fine Line I adapted the unpublished biography of a reformed Nazi Skinhead named Greg Withrow. If I remember right the title was Skinheads, but I'm not sure. I did one also of a Jim Thompson potboiler called A Swell-looking Babe—that one was actually produced, under the title Hit Me, directed by Steve Shainberg, who later did the film Secretary, based on Mary Gaitskill's short story. Hit Me was never distributed. The experience of seeing the script put on the screen was actually a disappointment. The first version of the film ran almost three hours; a third of it had to be cut out, and what survived of it, at least in my opinion, didn't have nearly as much life as the longer version.

By the time Jesus' Son was optioned, I'd lost interest in writing for the movies. I had very little to do with the script—wrote an extra scene that wasn't in the book, and had a cameo in the film. But I developed a great creative relationship with the producers, Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia, both of whom started out in live theater. They produced a play of mine in New York in 2002, and just last February, in Provincetown, MA, we staged a reading of another one. David and Elizabeth have the rights to another of my books, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, and I believe they've pretty much completed a script for it. Whether they ever get it financed is a whole different question.

TM: Do you take in many films? This talk of screenwriting set me wondering if you are influenced or affected much by the cinema. Were you much of a drama fan before you started writing plays?

DJ: I go to a lot of movies—two or three a week, maybe. I like the darkness and the popcorn and I don't much care what I'm seeing, but I'm happy if it's something like the recent Sideways or Downfall or Schultze Gets the Blues. I think my first published novel, Angels, is laid out like a film, in a series of simple scenes, with a minimum of rumination on the part of the characters. And in fact the novel's cinematic structure is what attracted the interest of a couple of producers and got going my brief journey as a screenwriter. My later stuff isn't quite so cinematic. As I've probably indicated, I lost interest in the screenplay form, very quickly began feeling I wasn't learning anything new from that kind of writing, but I believe it helped me as a writer in general.

TM: I'm curious about the new novel as well. It sounds like an ambitious project. Is this based on personal experiences in Southeast Asia? Has a lot of research gone into it?

DJ: Forgive me if I don't talk too much about the novel I'm working on, except to say that it does draw on my childhood experiences in Southeast Asia, that I've been at it for quite a while now, and that I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever get it done.

TM: Was seeing Jesus' Son on screen was in any way a powerful experience, comparable to seeing your scenes and characters performed by live actors for the first time?

DJ: I liked the Jesus' Son film. It honored the spirit of the stories. Seeing it on the screen didn't have quite the impact of seeing a live performance of my own stuff. The greatest wollop I got from it all, in fact, was when I went to watch the filming of a scene from the story Two Men. Here were three guys, a farmhouse, an old Volkswagen—as if they'd been conjured from my youth. I could shake hands with them, touch the Volkswagen, stand in the farmhouse—and it was humbling to think that experiences I'd been visited by had flowed out of my past as images onto a page, and then, eventually, had moved people sufficiently that they'd now arranged to have them reappear on the earth. It's very mysterious, I find it beautiful, that images should manifest themselves repeatedly and persistently, independent of any particular author.

Copyright by Tyler McMahon