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Recap: Two Pulitzer Prize Winners Share the Stage

For books fans, being graced by the presence of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of fiction is a thrilling experience.  Last night, Brooklyn, New York’s Greenlight Bookstore put on an event featuring two Pulitzer winners—Adam Johnson, who won in 2012 for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, and Jennifer Egan, who won one year prior for her novel/story collection hybrid A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The event centered around Johnson’s recently released and critically acclaimed short story collection Fortune Smiles.  Johnson began by reading the opening pages of the collection’s first story, “Nirvana,” in which the protagonist divides his time between his sick wife and a presidential drone created in the wake of a presidential assassination.  The story contains many of the characteristics that Johnson is known for—humor pulled from technological absurdity and deep melancholy drawn from his character’s personal tragedy.

Following the reading, Egan interviewed Johnson. The two met in 1999 at the prestigious Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, where Egan taught a class attended by a young Johnson.  She recalled being “blown away” by his writing, thinking that “he should be teaching this class.”  The admiration was mutual.  Johnson spoke of hearing Egan read from a piece she had recently published in Harper’s and being floored along with the rest of his classmates.  Since that conference, Johnson and Egan have kept in touch.  For that reason, and for the fact that they both won, in succession, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature, it was only fitting that Egan and Johnson share the stage.

Much of their conversation focused on Johnson’s writing habits.  Egan was particularly interested to hear where Johnson’s tendency to use technology in his writing came from.  Johnson pointed out that he lives in San Francisco, where futuristic technology, “is in the air.”  Both Egan and Johnson noted that many new stories they read tend to shy away from technology, which they agreed is a mistake. “These stories don’t seem grounded in the present moment,” said Egan, to which Johnson added, “writers have a responsibility to not be out of step with the zeitgeist.”

Another characteristic of Johnson’s work, his ability to inject humor into the most tragic of stories, was also a point of inquiry for Egan.  For Johnson, his humor comes naturally from his self-proclaimed goofiness.  In regard to his previous novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is about characters living in North Korea, he said that people told him “you can’t write humor about North Korea.” He protested: “To deny humor is to deny what it is to be human,” adding that in doing research for the book he found that “North Korean defectors are some of the most darkly funny people” he’s ever met.

Egan then focused on Johnson’s ability to lend humanity to even those characters who the reader may feel are terrible people, focusing specifically on Johnson’s story “Dark Meadow,” whose protagonist struggles with pedophilic urges.  Johnson believes that interesting characters are often those who are somehow trapped, who are silenced, and who struggle.  “This guy struggles every day to be a good human being,” he said of his character.  “In our quest as writer’s to find readers and publishers, the likeable character has risen to our detriment.”  Johnson is more interested in unlikeable characters and the difficult, though rewarding, task of finding their humanity.  “What unites the stories in this collection,” he said, “is that they give the reader voices they don’t normally hear.” 

 

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