What Award-Winner Denis Johnson Had to Say


What not to say when hanging out at the same table as two glittery literati: One, do not ask a National Book Award winner whether he’s noticed people kissing his ass since he won the award. Two, do not tease the Tin House literary journal and writers conference founder that he’s a literary snob and quite possibly on drugs or something…

Eh-hem. And I hadn’t been drinking either. I call that an evening well spent and sure to help me along the path toward publishing success! Hah!

National Book Award winner Denis Johnson spoke on the last night of the Tin House Writers Conference. I attended the reading with friends who know Mr. Johnson (am I allowed to call him “my friend Denis” now? Or, at least, “an acquaintance”? Or “Denis” at all?) and his wife. (Editorial addition after the fact: Forgot to mention that my friend is immortalized in Johnson’s Tree of Smoke; he’s “Sergeant Nash.”)

After the reading and QandA, we found ourselves at a table chatting with Johnson and a few other notables. At one point, Johnson was kind enough to ask me about my novel. And of course I froze. All thoughts left the building. I swear to God, I preferred not to answer. How to render my novel more important or more worthwhile or more literary than it actually is? I’ll say this for Denis — eh, Mr. Johnson — he may have understood my reticence because he smiled, and we moved on.

This is what I’m saying, though I haven’t said it yet, only thought it: I’m lousy at networking. I could have talked myself up a good spell to Johnson and also to Win McCormack, the Tin House founder. I could have asked McCormack if he’d read a few of my stories. I could have at least flirted with them.


Readers of Nova’s blog already know that Johnson spoke at an outdoor amphitheatre on the beauteous Reed College campus. Nova may not have noticed the beaver cavorting in the wetland pond, but no one could miss the jogger loping by on the trail. All very idyllic as Johnson read from his latest work, a sexy pulp fiction piece that Playboy is publishing in three parts. (By the way, Nova and I didn’t meet, alas; we muffed up that opportunity.)

Johnson was quite droll, explaining that he’d sip water at every white-space break. “So when I sip, it means that we are experiencing white space.” And, he interrupted himself with comments such as:

   “Am I the only one hearing geese?”

   “Do I sound like a woman when I’m trying to be a woman? Letting my feminine side out.”

   “As I read this thing, I start to think maybe I could have written it all different.”

In other words, this is a pretty cool guy, not taking himself all serious like. Here are highlights from the QandA:

  • When asked why he was writing serial pulp, he answered that he likes noir and that he “didn’t want to write anything good.” He wanted to write “a piece of crap.”
  • However, and this is the interesting bit: He was surprised to discover that it is just as hard to write pulp fiction as it is anything else. Goes to show that we shouldn’t look askance at writers of genres outside our own!
  • About bending the prose to his will (can’t remember the exact question, something about rewriting his sentences so they convey exactly what he means): He said that he finds that the sentences he labors over the most are the first to be cut.
  • Last but not least, as Nova mentioned: He did say to quit that job, trust the Universe, don’t wait.

0 comments on “What Award-Winner Denis Johnson Had to Say

  • Ha ha ha, Lisa; what were you thinking when you were making those comments at the luncheon? That’s great. I think people need help keeping their feet on the ground sometimes, so maybe you did. ;o)

  • Tell me about it! OY! However, that said, I think Win McCormack got a kick out of me — people probably do kiss his arse all the time. Denis Johnson…couldn’t tell. He did answer the question though (and I forgot to write the answer in the post). He said that he hasn’t noticed anything much except that his publisher now gets back to him pronto and so on.

  • Hey, at least you talked to them! I was at that conference all week and barely made a dent in networking. Too shy. Why does a shy person go to a writing conference? No idea.

    I wish you and I could have met!

    And no, I completely missed the beaver, but was that the night with the duck in the pond? Or was the duck a beaver all along? I live in a city, maybe I forgot how to tell the difference…

  • The truth is that I’m quiet by nature, so sometimes when I push myself, the words come at all haywire — and that’s always real swell.

    I probably passed right by you at some point during the evening — aggravating, isn’t it?

    Hmm…I saw no duck, no duck saw I, but the beaver was quite duck-like when it flipped into the water…

  • I’ve course I’m honing in on the “quit your job” part of what you said that DJ said.

  • Oh, that’s funny about the comments that backfire. I say those kinds of things all the time. They always sound so much better in my head…


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