Obsession starts the story for this National Book Award winner

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now another in our conversations with winners of the 2015 National Book Awards.

Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford and a 2012 Pulitzer winner, won the fiction category for his collection of stories, "Fortune Smiles."

Jeffrey Brown talked with him recently at the Miami Book Fair, starting with a question about the appeal of writing short stories.

ADAM JOHNSON, Author, "Fortune Smiles": I love the short story.

Having written two novels in a row, I missed the power of the short story. To me, a short story is like a battery that can store emotion and just charge you up directly with it, and it can hold emotion for as long as you want and then transmit it.

I have always loved research. I have always loved going out into the world and finding a twin for what's going on inside me. Maybe technology's part of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what starts a story for you?

ADAM JOHNSON: I have learned over the years to trust my obsessions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Obsessions.

ADAM JOHNSON: When I get obsessed about Nirvana songs, listening to them over and over, or buying Maori jade over the Internet late at night and running up my eBay bill, it usually means it's connected to something inside. And I won't know what it is until I put that obsession into a story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm. And does it come quickly once you start?

ADAM JOHNSON: These stories came very quickly.

You know, when you're writing a novel, and it takes years, there are all these beautiful tempting stories that come along and they say, write me. Oh, no, quit your novel. That's hard work. It might fail. Come write me. I'm alluring. And…


ADAM JOHNSON: But you have got to say no to those.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have a personal relationship with these stories, huh?

ADAM JOHNSON: That's the devil talking, because you must complete your novel and the long journey.

And when I was done, I couldn't wait to go write some stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And once you start, is there a lot of chiseling that goes into them? How crafted are — no.

ADAM JOHNSON: I would say, rather than drafting, it's more about discovering.

I write scene by scene, and I think, I want to get my character to this point. I want to get my characters to the bedroom. I want to get my characters toward the appearance of the first hologram. And then I just — I have to really ponder and think about what is going to happen next.

I think contemporary fiction is very closely related to improvisational jazz. The jazz musician has a tradition, has a talent, has some concerns. It's in conversation. But he or she doesn't know what the song is going to be. It appears before them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first story, called "Nirvana," involves holograms, involves new technology. There, you had to do a different kind of research, I assume.

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, just — I just had to look around me.


ADAM JOHNSON: I live in San Francisco, and I work in Silicon Valley and there are self-driving cars. And on Stanford campus, there will be flying solar-powered autonomous things zipping around, or things that balance on one wheels that students are making.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet we're still human, right, which is part of what comes through in the story.

ADAM JOHNSON: That's exactly it. And what is it going to mean to have holograms in our lives?

You know, Josephine Baker is going on tour next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you're talking — the great singer ÆMDNMØlong dead, but is going on tour through a hologram.

ADAM JOHNSON: Long dead. That's right.


JEFFREY BROWN: And that triggers something for you.

ADAM JOHNSON: People are going to fill auditoriums, because the tickets have already sold out for the premiere performances, because they love her.

And it doesn't matter. As long as the human voice is there, I think it doesn't matter that it — she's just made of light.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that's weird, right? I mean, it's strange.


JEFFREY BROWN: She's made of light, and people are going to see a dead — long dead singer perform. That sounds like an Adam Johnson story, actually.


ADAM JOHNSON: Do we not look at a television and respond profoundly to cinema and to good TV? And those people are made of light.


When you and I talked after you wrote "The Orphan Master's Son" set in North Korea, you said — I just went back to look at that interview. You said to me, when I asked you, why North Korea, "It seemed, as a writer, that this was perhaps the most difficult place on earth to be fully human."

That goes just to what we are talking about, right, this idea of being fully human, even amid technological change, natural disasters, torture.

ADAM JOHNSON: That's right. Right.

Is the state of being human eternal, as we think of it throughout the history of our evolution, or is it mutable? You know, I'm not really sure. As a fiction writer, the thing I'm scared of the most is phones in stories. What does it do to tension, inertia, momentum, information management if one character at any moment can share anything at a distance privately with another character?

What does it do to brooding, building, withholding, with human confrontation, conflict, with revelation, if that's all subverted through technology?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the National Book Award Winner for Fiction, Adam Johnson for his book "Fortune Smiles."

Congratulations, and thanks.

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, thank you.