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, which 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 trying 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.