Author Adam Johnson on Phoenix, North Korea, and His Latest Novel, The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson had already written a critically praised collection of short stories and a novel when he embarked on his second novel, "The Orphan Master's Son," which is set in North Korea.

"I read some experts on North Korea," Johnson says, "and I just went down the rabbit hole. I'd never found a place so dark, absurd, funny. It seemed to me to be the cruelest psychological experiment ever created."

But not everyone shared his fascination. "I thought I was going crazy," Johnson says now. "I would tell people I was writing about North Korea, and they would say, 'Why?'"

Undeterred, Johnson forged ahead with his tale of Pak Jun Do, the orphan master's son, who becomes a tunnel soldier trained in the art of zero-light combat and then a kidnapper for the state. He even visited North Korea, where he got a firsthand experience of the propaganda machine that had piqued his curiosity in the first place.

Now Johnson is touring the country to support "The Orphan Master's Son," which he'll read from at Changing Hands Bookstore, in Tempe this Wednesday. 

The trip will be a homecoming for him: He grew up in South Scottsdale and Tempe, and spent a lot of time at Changing Hands when the store was on Mill Avenue.

Johnson's parents were both from the Midwest; they moved to Arizona when his mother was accepted into graduate school in psychology. Johnson was 2. His father got a job as a night watchman at the Phoenix Zoo, and he would take his son to work for a couple of hours while Johnson's mother worked on her dissertation.

"I knew from an early age that there was a zoo that everyone else saw and then there was the real zoo, the zoo I got to see," Johnson remembers. "And my father knew all their animals and their behaviors, and I could see the way they really lived. It gave me an early sense that there was always another world behind this one."

Johnson went to Marcos de Niza High School and graduated early, then worked construction for several years. He worked on the Dial Twin Towers and the Scottsdale Ritz Carlton, and he spent a year doing pump station and tunnel drilling as part of the expansion of the I 10 Freeway. That, he says, was the job that made him decide to go to college.

He has fond memories of ASU, especially of bars like Bandersnatch and the Dash Inn, which Johnson says was an early education about "how the world really worked."

"The Dash Inn was a bar that all the college students went to, but the technical name of the bar -- a genius did this -- was the Dash Inn Bookstore. A lot of students of course were from the Midwest and from other places and had their parents' credit cards. So they could go there and drink on those credit cards and the bill would show up at home as the Dash Inn Bookstore. It's brilliant."

He started ASU as an engineering major, but says he had no aptitude for math and science, so he took a creative writing class to boost his GPA.

"I fell in love with creative writing instantly, epiphany like. But I never thought I could make a living at it. So I got a journalism degree."

Johnson says he loved going out and writing news stories, but he wasn't made for it, and he wasn't good at it.

"I would often go cover a story on campus and feel like I knew the essence of something that I couldn't get a quote for, for a fact, to prove, and I felt really at liberty to just make up a line of dialogue, what I thought was there but I couldn't establish. And my journalism teachers always found it. They somehow always knew. They could always spot the fiction and they were like I don't believe this line. Show me your notes."

When he graduated, he decided to pursue creative writing. Several years and several graduate degrees later, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and three children and teaches creative writing at Stanford.

Adam Johnson reading from "The Orphan Master's Son" from ASU English on Vimeo.

​Arizona occasionally appears in his work, as in the short story "Your Own Backyard," in which a former cop says of Phoenix, "there wasn't one house you couldn't picture without chalk lines in the drive or yellow tape across the door.'' 

But it's also there in the experiences he draws on that inform his writing -- his intimate knowledge of tunneling, for example, or the journalist's approach to getting the story, both of which are evident in "The Orphan Master's Son," an act of vivid imagination rooted in personal experience and detailed research.

It's a book that takes risks -- the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong Il is a character, for example -- but Johnson knew the risks going in, and they seem to be part of what drew him to tell this story.

"I was writing about a country that had really no voice at all," he says. "That both filled me with a sense of duty and also a sense of trepidation. It's hard to speak for someone else, especially someone far away, across cultural lines and race lines on the other side of the world.

"Some would say that to try to tackle a voice so faraway is inherently an act of trespass, like I'm going to get something wrong, and I know I got some things wrong, and I acknowledge that. But I just became obsessed, and I couldn't help it. And I also feel writing across gender lines, age lines, race, culture, etcetera, is the biggest act of empathy that we can do. To speak in the voice of another is to have to consider every aspect of someone else's life. With the right intentions and the right research and interviews, I think that can become our main way of becoming closer to someone who's farther away."

Johnson will be at Changing Hands on Wednesday, February 22 at 7 p.m.. Event tickets are free with the purchase of the book (two will be admitted per ticket). More info here.

Deborah Sussman leads the Downtown Phoenix Book Group at MADE.

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