Denis Johnson: Front Row, Center

To say Denis Johnson was at the 2016 Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon isn’t quite enough. He wasn’t just there. He was sort of everywhere—popping into workshops, sitting in at presentations, mingling at receptions, and going to readings, so many readings, and usually sitting front row, center.

I have a picture of him at Padgett Powell’s reading, DJ01which you might think makes sense, one big name writer honoring another. But Denis didn’t discriminate. If you were reading, whether he knew your name or not, he was listening.

I know because about a week before the Padgett Powell reading, Denis was at my reading. He didn’t know my name, I’m certain, even if we share the same last name. Maybe he was there to hear my talented and better-known co-readers, David Caplan and Frank X. Gaspar. It was exactly two weeks before my debut novel, Californium, was to be released, and it was the first time I’d be reading from the novel, my uncorrected proof in my hands, a room full of people, and Denis Freakin’ Johnson shuffling into the room and sitting about five feet away from me, front row, center.

I read what I hoped was a funny chapter, the one where a group of high school boys are Disquiet_Itrying to come up with a name for their punk band and running through a list of possibilities: Atomic Anarchy, Gone Fission, Second Thoughts, Screaming Mimes, The Variables, Solve for X, Los Punks, and ¿Habla Anarchy?.  To my relief, people were laughing in all the right places, including Denis. After the reading, he even had a suggestion for a band name: Dowager Orgy.

At the time, it was one of the most affirming moments of my writing career. Denis Johnson didn’t just listen to my work, he reacted; he engaged in it. It was better than any blurb or review I could ever hope to get because it was a gut-level reaction, it was positive, and it was Denis Johnson.

I haven’t had a lot of time for reflection, for hindsight. This was all still less than a year ago. But even before I learned of Denis’s passing, I understood that what is more important about that day is all the days I saw Denis, at all those other events, being a generous writer and a gracious person. A lot of people will, and should, praise Denis’s talent in the coming days and weeks. I hope, if they had the pleasure of meeting him, their experiences weren’t unlike mine. Of course I hope my writing can someday be worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as his, that universities might pair our books in Johnson seminars, but it’s more important to me, a much better goal, that I try to be the kind of writer Denis was when I met him—honest, engaged, and sitting front row, center.

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Californium on Fernando Pessoa’s “to-read” list

Blog 1Fernando Pessoa never visited the United States, so he never made it to California. At least, not physically. A writer so ahead of his time — post-modernist before there was post-modernism — he surely would have found a novel set in a time and place beyond his own experience attractive. He would have laughed at early eighties So Cal culture (as we all should); he would have delighted in characters who are trying to understand their place in the universe (even if that universe is high school); and he definitely would have liked punk rock (in principle, and maybe in practice as well). And if nothing else, he’d have been intrigued by the cover. It’s a pretty cool cover.

 

That Day My Novel Came Out and I Was Where?

Livraria BertrandLong before I had a book deal or even an agent for my first novel, Californium, back when it was just a manuscript, I knew, well I believed, it was a book somebody would want some day. So, even then I’d think about that day Californium would be published, and where I’d be.

Today, July 19, 2016, is that day. Am I giving a reading at some bookstore in New York City? That always seemed like the right thing to do even if in all my trips to New York bookstores (two), I’d never caught a reading. But no, that’s not the plan.

Will I be at a launch party tonight in Hollywood, perhaps at the World Famous Whisky a Go Go (it shows up in the novel) where a lot of old So Cal friends, and a So Cal punk band or two, maybe Social Distortion or The Offspring, will play? Nope.

Perhaps I’m giving a reading somewhere near the university where I teach, maybe the public library or the local arts council, something low key, but nice, and still a celebration? Not that either.

Where am I on this day, that day, the day I’ve long dreamed about? Lisbon. No, my novel has nothing to July 16, 2016 001do with Portugal, or Europe, or anything historical beyond the early eighties punk scene set down amidst California’s growing military industrial complex (in a funny way, I promise). This is the third week of a teaching assignment with Disquiet International and Bluegrass Writers Studio Low-Res MFA program. I committed to it before the pub date was set.

I’m not complaining. A little over a week ago, I got to read from Californium at Livraria Ferin, a landmark bookstore in Lisbon where, should you choose, you can read from Fernando Pessoa’s desk (it’s tall like a podium because, apparently, he liked to write standing up). I had the honor of reading with David Caplan and Frank X. Gaspar. And Pesoas podiumover these past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of attending so many other great readings around this historic city—Padgett Powell, Molly Antopol, Maaza Mengiste, John Herrin, Mikhail Iossel, Chanan Tigay, Annie Liontas, Arthur Flowers, Sabina Murray, Afonso Cruz, and National Book Award Winner, Denis Johnson (who I am blatantly name-dropping here because he came to my reading too and laughed at all the right places, which may be the most authentic kind of positive review I could ever hope for).

The post-launch readings and book signings will be waiting for me back in the States, and I’m excited for them all. But for now, on this day, to be in Pessoa’s city; to daily walk by Bertrand Chiado, the oldest bookstore in the world; to be among all these writers whose work reminds me of why I do this in the first place; it all seems more than appropriate. Maybe it should have been the plan all along.

It’s pub day, I’m in Portugal, and other than really looking forward to getting home to my wife and kids in a few days, I couldn’t be more thankful.

 

The Secret Last Line

Secret last line 02You know how you sometimes hear those apocryphal stories about writers and writing: Ernest Hemingway’s wife leaving his entire manuscript on a train; Sherwood Anderson writing the bulk of Winesburg, Ohio, in the middle of the night and naked; Alice McDermott basing an uncompleted novel on one of my short stories?  Some are completely false (like the thing about Alice McDermott; I just really like her). But some are based in fact and a few of those happen to be completely true.

Here’s one I know is true: The very last line of my novel, Californium, is not the line with which I originally intended to end the book. I was struggling with exactly how to word that line and my editor at Plume solved my dilemma by striking it completely and ending on the penultimate line. I didn’t know things like that actually happened, and I wasn’t sure my editor was wrong to do it, so I got a second opinion from my other editor at Plume, and then my agent, and all agreed that the second-to-last line was the better line and the very last line should go.  At this point, it was hard to argue with people who had taken such care with my manuscript and, frankly, helped me make it a much better book than I ever could have written completely on my own, so I agreed and the last line was lost to history. Well, almost. I still have it saved on a draft of the novel.

I’m never going to sneak into bookstores and pencil in that last line so people will know what it was. BUT, I am willing to reveal it to anyone who reads Californium, who cares to know, and (here comes the marketing pitch) who has bought Californium by July 31, 2016. (I know, to completely lose my soul I just need to add that operators are standing by and if you’re not completely satisfied you can send the book back at no cost and keep the steak knives as my gift to you). But, it would be kind of cool to know, wouldn’t it? Sort of a director’s cut of the book?

If you’re interested, I promise I won’t send the last line and spoil everything until after you’ve read the book. So if you think you’ll want to know, all you have to do is this:

  1. Buy Californium by July 31, 2016
  2. Save your receipt
  3. Either attach a dated receipt or a selfie with the book to r_dean_johnson@yahoo.com by September 30, 2016, and I’ll give up the goods

That’s it. You’ll help preserve a very minor part of literary history, and you’ll be able to say, “Thank God that guy had good editors” Or will you?  Maybe my instincts were right at first. Decide for yourself, then feel free to email me exactly what you think.

From the “How Cool Is That?” file:

Livraria FerinI’m giving a “two weeks before it’s released” reading of CALIFORNIUM, which really isn’t a thing. The thing is that I’m reading with David Caplan and Frank X. Gaspar. The other thing is that the reading will be at Livraria Ferin, a bookstore  in the Baixa-Chiado neighborhood of Lisbon. So, two things. Super cool things.

Big thanks to Jeff Parker of Disquiet International for setting this up and letting me read with two great authors.

 

The great Californium pre-sale sale

My first novel, Californium:  a novel of punk rock, growing up, and other dangerous things (Plume-Penguin), won’t be out until July 19. But not only is it on pre-sale right now, it’s also on sale-sale (like 5 bucks off at all the online book sellers). california-bear-flag7

So if you’re thinking about how to look cool on the beach this summer, well, there are a lot of better ways to do it, but having a copy of Californium that you didn’t have to pay full price for won’t hurt.  You’ll look smart . You’ll be smart. And everyone knows smart is the new cool. Kind of.

 

Where I’m Going. Where I’ve Been.

DM_Trinity CollegeThis is supposed to be my 2015 writerly wrap-up. It probably should have posted a month ago. But that’s kind of what 2015 was all about. My story collection, DELICATE MEN, came out so late in 2014 (December 29) it felt more like 2015. And so, the year began with things arriving late and that never really went away.
I finished my MFA in 2003, and here it was, just twelve short years later, and I was giving readings with my brand new book. My first book. Better late than… well, it was just really great to see it arrive, and then to see where it went—those readings with me, into the hands of people I’ve never met but who were kind enough to email me their impressions, and to far-flung places like Brasil, England, and Scotland. DELICATE MEN even visited, courtesy of my old college roommate whom I hadn’t heard from in years, its distant cousins at Trinity College Library in Dublin.

Delicate Men_ScotlandAlso in 2015, my agent, Mackenzie Brady Watson, sold my first novel, CALIFORNIUM, to Plume-Penguin. I’d taken long gaps in working on the novel and taken a long time revising it. In fact, technically it’s the first book I ever wrote, but it will be the third book published with my name on it. (There’s a collection of pedagogical essays I edited, TEACHABLE MOMENTS, floating around this world too).

Late in 2015, my essay, “Something L.A.” was published as a chapbook through Blue Cubicle Press’s Overtime Series. I’d written the early drafts of that essay four years earlier.
At first glance, it may look like 2015 was this extraordinarily productive year for me. And it was in terms of publishing. But I spent most of the year revising the manuscripts of Something L.A. and Californium for my editors, another big chunk of the year it reading from and promoting DELICATE MEN, and far too little of it writing.
Apollo Reading 1

I’m not complaining. In discussing where to start a story, I ask my beginning writing students all the time: When is the best time to arrive at a party? There’s usually one polite, attentive, pleasant student who says, “On time” or “When it’s scheduled to start.” And there’s usually one mostly polite, fairly attentive, slightly unpredictable student who says, “Late” or “When things are really getting good.” Yep.

My essay, “Errors,” will be out in the Spring 2016 issue of Salt Hill. CALIFORNIUM, now with the subtitle: A Novel of Punk Rock, Growing Up, and Other Dangerous Things, will be out July 19, 2016. I’ve got a few readings planned already, and I get to spend three weeks with my MFA students in Lisbon this coming July too. (I’ll be getting some selfies with both books). If 2015 was the year of Late, I’d like to think 2016 is the year of things really getting good. Californium_WSub