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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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.