In 2007, during the seven years of researching and writing his novel, "The Orphan Master's Son," Adam Johnson spent five days in North Korea, taking in sights unavailable to all but a few Westerners. By imagining day-to-day life in the Democratic People's Republic and the struggle to survive under the rule of Kim Jong-il, Johnson captured both the surreal nature of the isolated nation and the harsh realities of famine, censorship and political brutality faced by its populace. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted the San Francisco author into the front ranks of American novelists.
Whatever he writes, Johnson brings a willingness to journey to far-flung locales and to the outer limits of his imagination. In researching post-Katrina Louisiana, he delivered packages for UPS, he said, while a visit to Berlin led him to a prison formerly run by the Stasi, the East German secret police. When his wife received a cancer diagnosis, Johnson used the intimate details of family life in a short story to explore the possibility of losing her.
Reached by phone, Johnson explained that he has always been drawn toward research and interview.
"If I can find real human beings who have experienced what I'm writing about, it forces my writing to measure up to the things they express," he said. "I use their experiences as a standard for what my writing should achieve."
Now, Johnson has delivered a new short story collection, "Fortune Smiles." He will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Wednesday, Aug. 19 in conversation with Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor for the San Francisco-based literary magazine, ZYZZYVA.
The six stories included in "Fortune Smiles" feature a wide range of settings and protagonists. In "Nirvana," set in Palo Alto, a woman paralyzed by a rare disease listens obsessively to the music of Kurt Cobain while her husband communes with the digital simulacrum he has created of the assassinated President of the United States. "Dark Meadow" follows a Los Angeles computer consultant as he erases child pornography from hard drives and looks out for a pair of neighborhood girls seemingly forgotten by their mother.
Then there's "Hurricanes Anonymous," which focuses on a UPS driver suddenly responsible for the well-being of his toddler son, whose mother has disappeared in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. To gain first-hand knowledge of UPS procedures during a 2007 research trip to Louisiana, Johnson said he first contacted UPS world headquarters in Atlanta.
"They overnighted me a uniform," he said. "They allowed me to do ride-alongs with a couple of drivers. I ended up delivering 524 packages in August in Orleans, Beauregard, Cameron and Calcasieu parishes to get the feel of what it really is like to be a UPS driver in Louisiana."
Johnson also immersed himself in his research for the short story, "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," in which the former warden of an East German prison receives strange packages of intensely personal items: mementos of the days he has worked diligently to repress. Johnson wrote the piece after visiting the Hohenschönhausen prison memorial, where hundreds of German Democratic Republic citizens were imprisoned and brutally interrogated during the Cold War.
"When I was talking to the curator, he said, 'Oh, yeah. The (former) warden lives just down the block and he walks his little dog around the museum every day,'" Johnson said. "I never forgot that juxtaposition of the old establishment living in proximity of total change. Later on, I was just compelled to fill that picture in. I think that, for a fiction writer, something half-seen really sparks the imagination."
Sometimes, inspiration comes from a more personal source. The short story, "Interesting Facts," explores the impact of a cancer diagnosis upon a family much like Johnson's. Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine, the story struck a strong chord with readers.
"I've never received as many notes and letters as from that story," Johnson said. "I think cancer is handled in a very sentimental and maudlin way in contemporary culture, in movies, TV and books. There was a thirst out there for someone to make up a true and difficult portrait, which is what I tried to do."
The title story of the new collection returns to Korea, where two defectors from the North attempt to acclimate to life in a democracy, and one of them mourns the woman he left behind in Pyongyang.
"I think I left readers with the illusion that all you had to do was get out of North Korea and your life would be great," he said. "The truth is that, in interviewing many defectors, I found (it) was very challenging, troubling and confusing to go from such seclusion and isolation to the modern world. I wanted to capture a truer portrait of what it's really like, to write one more story about two North Koreans adjusting to life on the outside."
Teaching creative writing at Stanford University leaves him "revitalized for literature," Johnson said.
"I will say that writing drains me and that teaching recharges me, and I like to have both in my life. There's nothing quite like articulating things that you know to be true to make you ponder them anew. I'm lucky to teach at a place with great students who are filled with talent and energy."
Asked how his short fiction has changed since the publication of his previous collection, 2002's "Emporium," Johnson said his writing "took a turn six or seven years ago. I started doing more non-fiction work and caring more about people who aren't normally depicted in fiction. I always tell my students, 'The odds that you'll be a good storyteller and that you have an important story to tell are probably pretty low. So it's our duty to give voice to others who can't tell their stories.'"
With "Fortune Smiles," Adam Johnson fulfills that duty, and then some.
What: Adam Johnson in conversation with Oscar Villalon
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Wednesday, Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $10 (student admission, without book), $20 (general admission, without book), $40 (priority seating, with book)
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321.