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.

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.

 

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.

 

Errors

SH 36 website banner

This spring they’ve been adding up:

  1. Soooooo many typos. In emails and manuscripts. On Facebook and Twitter. Maybe because I’m left-handed. Perhaps because I’m a four-finger and two-thumbs typist. Probably because I’m forever in a hurry and rushing through things without proof-reading well enough.
  2. There was that bike crash I had right before AWP. The one where I broke my left wrist and pinky finger, got a concussion (which only added to the typos), cracked my mandible, added three manly new scars to my face, and made me miss AWP.
  3. Like, a month ago, my essay “Errors” came out in the journal, Salt Hill, along with a lot of other excellent work (I’m really digging the story “Bald Bear” by Becky Mandelbaum), and I really should have thanked Jacob Collins-Wilson, the nonfiction editor at SH) and mentioned all of this a lot sooner, like, a month ago.

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

Berea Book Fest

I’m really excited to be reading today at the Berea Book Fest, presented by the talented and always enthusiastic writers from the Berea Writers Circle. There’s a great group reading too, including Julie Hensley, Libby Falk Jones, Dustin Brewer (a fellow Alternative Book Press author), Joseph Montgomery (an EKU grad), and others. Here’s the link for all the details:

http://bereawriterscircle.wix.com/home#!berea-book-fest/cbkyABWC