Denis Hale Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He is perhaps best known for his debut short story collection, Jesus' Son (1992). His most successful novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), won the National Book Award for Fiction. His other novels include Angels (1983), Fiskadoro (1985), The Stars at Noon (1986), Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), Already Dead: A California Gothic (1997), The Name of the World (2000), Nobody Move (2009), Train Dreams (2011), and The Laughing Monsters (2014). Johnson was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published posthumously in 2018. Johnson also wrote plays, journalism, and nonfiction.
|Born||Denis Hale Johnson|
July 1, 1949
Munich, West Germany
|Died||May 24, 2017 (aged 67)|
Gualala, California, US
|Notable works||Angels |
Tree of Smoke
|Notable awards||National Book Award; National Poetry Series award|
Denis Johnson was born on July 1, 1949, in Munich, West Germany. Growing up, he also lived in the Philippines, Japan, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. His father, Alfred Johnson, worked for the State Department as a liaison between the USIA and the CIA. His mother, the former Vera Louise Childress, was a homemaker. He earned a B.A. in English (in 1971) from the University of Iowa and an M.F.A. (in 1974) from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he also returned to teach. While at the Writers' Workshop, Johnson took classes from Raymond Carver.
Johnson published his first book, a collection of poetry titled The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19. He earned a measure of acclaim with the publication of his first novel, Angels, in 1983. He came to prominence in 1992 with the short story collection Jesus' Son, which included vignettes originally published in The New Yorker, inspired by Isaac Babel’s book Red Cavalry. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, Jesus' Son was voted one of the best works of American fiction published in the last 25 years. It has been variously described as: seminal, legendary, transcendent, a classic, and a masterpiece. It was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup. Johnson has a cameo role in the film as a man who has been stabbed in the eye by his wife.
The Stars at Noon (1986), a spy thriller, follows an unnamed American woman during the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984. It was adapted into the 2022 film Stars at Noon by director Claire Denis, starring Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley.
Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It takes place during the Vietnam War, spanning the years 1963–70, with a coda set in 1983. In the novel, we learn the history of Bill Houston, a main character in Johnson’s first novel Angels, the latter novel set in the early 1980s.
Train Dreams, originally published as a story in The Paris Review in 2002, was published as a novella in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, for the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer board did not award a prize for fiction that year.
Johnson's plays have been produced in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Seattle. He was the Resident Playwright of Campo Santo, the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. In 2006 and 2007, Johnson held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Johnson also occasionally taught at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.
Altogether, Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. The final book he published while still alive was a novel, The Laughing Monsters, which he called a "literary thriller" set in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Congo. It was released on November 4, 2014. Johnson's final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published posthumously in January 2018.
Johnson held bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Iowa, where he also returned to teach in his later years.
Johnson was twice divorced and lived with his third wife, Cindy Lee, in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time of his death. They also shared a home in Idaho. Johnson had three children, two of whom he homeschooled; in October 1997, he wrote an article for the website Salon in defense of homeschooling.
For most of his twenties, Johnson was addicted to drugs and alcohol and did not do much writing. In 1978, he moved back to his parents’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to sober up and find direction. He stopped drinking alcohol in 1978 and quit recreational drugs in 1983.
Three Rules To Write By
Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
- 1981 – National Poetry Series award (selected by Mark Strand), for The Incognito Lounge
- 1983 – The Frost Place poet in residence
- 1986 – Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1986 – Whiting Award
- 1993 – Lannan Fellowship in Fiction
- 2002 – Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review, for Train Dreams
- 2007 – National Book Award, for Tree of Smoke
- 2008 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, for Tree of Smoke
- 2012 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, for Train Dreams
- 2017 – Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction (awarded posthumously)
- Angels (Knopf, 1983) ISBN 9780394532257
- Fiskadoro (Knopf, 1985) ISBN 9780394538396
- The Stars at Noon (Knopf, 1986) ISBN 9780394538402
- Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (Farrar, Straus & Giroux [FSG], 1991) ISBN 9780374249496
- Already Dead: A California Gothic (Harper Collins, 1997) ISBN 978-0060187378
- The Name of the World (Harper, 2000) ISBN 9780060192488
- Tree of Smoke (FSG, 2007) ISBN 9780330449205
- Nobody Move (FSG, 2009)
- Train Dreams (FSG, 2011) – a novella first published in The Paris Review  and in Europe 
- The Laughing Monsters (FSG, 2014) ISBN 9780374280598
- Jesus' Son (FSG, 1992) ISBN 9780374178925
- The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Penguin/Random House, 2018) ISBN 9780812988635
- The Man Among the Seals: Poems (Stone Wall Press, 1969) ISBN 9780887486272
- Inner Weather (Graywolf Press, 1976) ISBN 0394523474
- The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems (Random House, 1982) ISBN 0394523474
- The Veil (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) ISBN 0394743431
- The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (Harper Perennial, 1995) ISBN 9780060926960
- "Last Night I Dreamed I Was in Mexico" (Ploughshares 36.4, 2010, p. 58)
- "The Trees Leaning into One Another, Green and Horrible" (Ploughshares 36.4, 2010, p. 59)
- Hellhound on My Trail: A Drama in Three Parts (2000)
- Shoppers: Two Plays (Harper, 2002) ISBN 9780060934408- includes Hellhound on My Trail
- Des Moines, San Francisco premiere in October 2007
- Des Moines, New York premiere in November 2022
- Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse (FSG, 2012) ISBN 9780374277963
- The Prom (1990) (directed by Steven Shainberg)
- Hit Me (1996) (directed by Steven Shainberg, adapted from the novel A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson)
- (contributor) One Man By Himself: Portraits of John Serl (Hard Press, 1995) ISBN 9789110224940
- "The Civil War in Hell". Esquire. 1990-12-01. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
- "The Militia in Me". Esquire. 1995-07-01. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
- "Change your life FOREVER: God's Warriors in the Third Millennium". Salon. 1996-03-22. Archived from the original on 2000-08-24. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
- "School is out". Salon. 1996-10-01. Archived from the original on 2013-01-20. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
- "Hippies". Paris Review. 2000-06-01. Archived from the original on 2017-07-22. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
- "The small boys' unit". Harpers. 2000-10-01. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
- Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond (essays) (HarperCollins, 2001) ISBN 9780060187361
- Sandomir, Richard (26 May 2017). "Denis Johnson, Who Wrote of the Failed and the Desperate, Dies at 67" – via NYTimes.com.
- Carlson, Michael (June 6, 2017). "Denis Johnson obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved October 8, 2022.
- Kean, Danuta (May 26, 2017). "Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson dies aged 67". The Guardian. Retrieved October 8, 2022.
- Jesse McKinley, "A Prodigal Son Turned Novelist Turns Playwright", The New York Times, June 16, 2002.
- "Denis Johnson: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu.
- Chai, Barbara (June 22, 2012). "Denis Johnson: The Gregarious Recluse". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on March 30, 2018. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
- David Amsden, "Denis Johnson's Second Stage", New York, 2010.
- Moore, Michael Scott (February 19, 2003). "Poet of the Fallen World". SF Weekly. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
- Dwight Gardner, "Inside the List", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
- Italie, Hillel (May 27, 2017) "Denis Johnson, author of 'Jesus' Son,' dead at 67". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2017-05-26.
- Dwyer, Colin (May 25, 2017) "Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote Of The 'Painfully Beautiful,' Dies At 67". npr.crg.
- Williams, John (March 29, 2017) Modern Masterpiece Turns 25 – via NYTimes.com
- "Author Denis Johnson's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center" Archived 2013-05-31 at the Wayback Machine, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, July 7, 2010.
- James, Caryn (September 28, 1986). "Nameless Lovers Chased Through Hell". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved November 17, 2019n.
- Kroll, Justin (November 3, 2021). "Joe Alwyn To Co-Star Opposite Margaret Qualley In A24's 'The Stars At Noon' From Claire Denis". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2021.
- Thompson, Bob (November 15, 2007). "Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke' Wins National Book Award". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
- Ben Sisario, "Arts, Briefly: Channeling Noir, Dickens-Style," New York Times, June 11, 2008.
- Jim Lewis, "The Revelator", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
- Michael Cunningham, "Letter From the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year", The New Yorker, July 9, 2012.
- Harvey, Dennis (September 5, 2000). "Review: 'Hellhound on my Trail'". PMC. Variety. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
- Berson, Misha (March 22, 2005). "Novelist's play "Hellhound" thrives on whip-smart lingo". The Seattle Times Company. Seattle Times. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
- Schmidt, Kate (September 12, 2002). "Theater People: Denis Johnson's shaggy hellhound". Sun-Times Media, LLC. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
- Jillian Goodman, "No More Drama?", Slate, June 1, 2012.
- Mark Hendricks, "Former Mitte Chair Johnson wins National Book Award", txstate.edu, November 19, 2007.
- "Remembering Denis Johnson". The New Yorker. 26 May 2017.
- "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson". PenginRandomHouse.com.
- Deborah Treisman, "This Week in Fiction: Denis Johnson," The New Yorker, February 24, 2014.
- Joy Williams, "‘The Laughing Monsters,’ by Denis Johnson," New York Times, November 7, 2014.
- "Posthumously Published 'Sea Maiden' Affirms Denis Johnson's Eternal Voice". 9 January 2018.
- Denis Johnson, "School is Out", Salon, October 1, 1997.
- Carolyn Kellogg, "Award-winning author Denis Johnson dies at age 67," Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2017.
- "Denis Johnson". poets..org. Academy of American Poets. 30 April 2007.
- Alan Williamson, "Three Poets", New York Times, October 10, 1982.
- "The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volume 1", Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2001.
- Ricky Stein, "Denis Johnson to read from his works at the Blanton Auditorium", The Daily Texan, October 24, 2012.
- "Denis Johnson – WHITING AWARDS". www.whiting.org. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
- "Fiction Awards by Last Name," Archived 2013-10-22 at the Wayback Machine Lannan Foundation. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "Past Winners: Aga Khan Prize," The Paris Review. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27. With interview, acceptance speech by Johnson, and essay by Matthew Pitt from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.
- Gavin, Jennifer (July 11, 2017). "Prize for American Fiction to Be Awarded Posthumously to Denis Johnson". loc.gov. Retrieved July 20, 2017.
- Johnson, Denis (2010). ""Last Night I Dreamed I Was in Mexico"". Ploughshares. 36 (4): 58.
- Johnson, Denis (2010). ""The Trees Leaning into One Another, Green and Horrible"". Ploughshares. 36 (4): 59.
- Hurwitt, Robert (October 22, 2007). "Quirky 'Des Moines' kicks off experimental weekend-only series". Sfgate.com. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
- "Des Moines". Theater for a New Audience. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
- Staff writers (2/2/2015) "Denis Johnson – Biography and Filmography". Hollywood.com. 2 February 2015.[permanent dead link]
- Denis Johnson Papers at the Harry Ransom Center
- Works by or about Denis Johnson in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Denis Johnson at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco
- KCRW Bookworm Interview
- Profile at The Whiting Foundation
- Denis Johnson profile and poems at Academy of American Poets
- Denis Johnson at Library of Congress Authorities — with 25 catalog records