Lying Down in the Dirt: An Interview with Denis Johnson

“I thought I’d never publish these things. I thought it was important for me to hide the fact that I’m not right in the head.”

Janet Steen | Longreads | February 2018 | 13 minutes (3,523 words)

In 2002, while I was the literary editor at Details magazine, I interviewed Denis Johnson on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of what is perhaps still his most famous book, Jesus’ Son. When he died last year, at the age of 67, I wondered if I could locate the cassette I’d recorded the interview on all those years ago.

Eventually it surfaced, on a dusty ancient Sony type-1 normal bias, and there, suddenly, was Denis — before books like Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke, and before his last recent posthumous book of stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which, as it turns out, would be his only other collection of stories. On the recording he is soft-spoken and easy and open, but there is still a hint of the jangly “Fuckhead” he drew on for the stories, a guy who finds it “painful to be amongst humans,” who made the rest of us feel less ashamed for finding it so hard.

(This interview has been greatly edited for clarity, but the full audio is available below. -Ed.)

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Janet Steen: Have you reread any of the stories in Jesus’ Son lately?

Denis Johnson: Not really lately. But it happens I’m very familiar with the book. For a couple of years before it was published, and then several years after, when I would give a reading, I would read one of those stories, or two of them. I’d look around for something I hadn’t read out loud in a while in that book, and that was kind of my routine. I ended up reading all of the stories out loud several times. Three, four readings a year. I became really familiar with the sound of the stories.

I haven’t looked at them lately though. I never really got tired of reading them out loud. I just quit because I started to feel like I was beating a dead horse, and I felt like I should read something a little more recent.

JS: What did you feel towards them when you read them, even if you would sit down and read them by yourself?

DJ: Well, I don’t know. I rarely read them to myself, but reading them out loud I really enjoyed the humor in them. People would almost always come up to me afterwards and say, “I didn’t realize those were funny. I thought those stories were just sad.” When you read them out loud, people laugh a lot, because the characters are humorous. It’s just their situations are generally very, very bleak.

JS: There’s some slapstick humor in them, too.

DJ: Yeah, but I think people get overwhelmed by the depravity and the bleakness, and so they don’t really notice sometimes, and then they’re surprised when they sit in an audience and hear everybody laughing. It’s my experience that there were generally people that were surprised after the readings.

There’s nobody who can disguise himself. Eventually we’re all outed in one way or another.

JS: Yeah, there’s also, I think, a real sweetness to the book.

DJ: Yeah. It’s candid. The narrator doesn’t try and depict himself as anything less than a really screwed up human. That can be kind of endearing.

When I first wrote the first stories that are in that book, I was really excited by the voice. I didn’t know exactly what it was about it, but I wrote three or four of them in one day. I was just thrilled. I thought, this is really the kind of thing that I would enjoy reading if I were 16 years old again. Like Catcher in the Rye or something. Catcher in the Rye was my book when I was a kid. I thought, this has the same kind of flavor for me. And didn’t know exactly what it was about it, but at the same time, I thought I’d never publish these things. They’re too weird, and too frankly autobiographical. I guess at that point I thought it was important for me to hide the fact that I’m not right in the head.

And then as I got older, five years later, I thought, what difference does it make? Everybody I meet knows within seconds. There’s no hiding it. And the people who don’t meet me aren’t going to care that somebody wrote these stories.

I mean, one day it just dawned on me it made no difference at all how much of me might or might not be revealed in the stories.

JS: Was that kind of liberating?

DJ: Yeah. I mean I think maybe in a way I became more humble. I think after going through the common humiliations of a human life, I realized it just doesn’t matter. There’s nobody who can disguise himself. Eventually we’re all outed in one way or another.

JS: So I’m right to assume that that main character is pretty close to you in a lot of ways.

DJ: Yeah, in fact the first stories were just anecdotes that I told people about me as I would go along through life, and sometimes they’d say, you should write these down. My reply always was: once you tell it, it’s not worth writing down. But then one day I just did and I don’t know why. And then what happened — and I didn’t realize this until reading these stories out loud and becoming a student of them — what happened was, I would take these anecdotes, which are just interesting tales, and put one with another. A lot of those stories are two anecdotes shoved together in such a way to make you wonder why. There’s sort of a formal question about why would this be a story. Why isn’t it just an anecdote, why would the author suggest that this is somehow a whole, if small, work of art? I don’t think anybody can answer the question.

JS: Yeah, I always found it interesting that you can read this book in any order, and it’s almost like the time just keeps looping back and forth.

DJ: Yeah, that’s true. The original manuscript had the stories much less in chronological order, they were completely jumbled. Jonathan Galassi, the editor, asked me to put them in chronological order, and they almost are. I think there are a couple out of sequence in terms of the character’s journey, but pretty much he’s the youngest at the beginning and he’s the oldest at the end.

JS: Yeah, there’s definitely a progression in his experience. In a way the book is kind of a reflection of your life in the ’70s. Is that fair to say?

DJ: Yeah, well the first two or three that I wrote were like that, three or four, and then I began to rope in stories that other people had told me, things that happened to other people.The character claims these as his own experiences, so eventually it became fiction.

It started out being almost pure reminiscence and then it became lying, and if you put it between covers a lie becomes a work of fiction. But I think — I’m not sure about this — but I think that every tale told in that book, all the incidents happened either to me or to somebody I knew, or it was told to me by somebody I knew about somebody they knew. I think it’s all actually stolen stuff.

Sometimes there’s nothing better than lying down in the dirt, being completely hopeless and helpless… But the problem is you can’t do that for long. There’s always a steam roller headed your way.

JS: Did you think of yourself as a fuck-up back then the way the guy in the book does?

DJ: It really burned my ass to think of myself that way, but that was my nickname: Fuckhead.

JS: That was your nickname?

DJ: Yes, it was. I was not happy about it. It didn’t strike me as a friendly nickname. It struck me as a label to warn others: don’t be around this guy too much, he’s going to do something disastrous. Now it sounds as if, [if] everybody’s pals, some of them are called Fuckhead. But in fact at the time I felt that it isolated me from my fellow idiots. And we were actually all idiots.

JS: Do you ever feel nostalgic for that time in your life?

DJ: Well, just for the self abandonment of it. Just sometimes there’s nothing better than lying down in the dirt, being completely hopeless and helpless, because then of course you have no responsibilities, and that kind of appeals to me. But the problem is you can’t do that for long. There’s always a steam roller headed your way. You have to get up and cope, you have to rally, you have to get a job for at least a few minutes, come up with a couple of bucks. Life for someone who doesn’t want to live it is really hard.

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JS: Yeah. Do you have much contact with this milieu in the book now, in your life?

DJ: No, not really. I have no idea what goes on with that. I’m in a lot of recovery groups, so I see people coming out of that world, and maybe some of them go back to that world, but I don’t visit them in their homes when they’re shooting up or anything. I only see them when they’re chasing it, ready to try and get out of it. I hear about it, but I don’t really see it or experience it. I don’t get around the clubs, I don’t hang around bars very much or any of that.

JS: Yeah, I would assume as a father now you’re in contact with probably your kids’ friends’ parents and stuff. A different world.

DJ: Yeah.

JS: Do you think the world now is a harder place for somebody like Fuckhead to survive in?

DJ: Oh gee, I don’t know. I really don’t. I just can’t answer that question. It’s never been easy for anybody, I guess. It’s never been easy for anybody who is prone to addiction, but there is help now. I think it’s more available, more accessible, better publicized, so in a sense it’s easier to get out of that world once you’re in it, but I just don’t know. I hear the dope is stronger now, and cheaper. More likely to kill you, more likely to keep you in that world, I guess.

JS: When did you yourself get out of that world?

DJ: It was kind of — there were stages, I guess. The first thing I stopped doing was heroin, and that was in ’75, ’76, and then it was ’78 when I got off alcohol. I kept doing pot a little bit for a while, and then the last time I had any pot was in ’83, and those are the drugs that I consider addicting and dangerous for me for various reasons. I tried to experiment with magic mushrooms.

JS: Yeah, I think you wrote about that.

DJ: Right, but that was more in the nature of an experience. I was quite certain it would never be repeated. I never really felt it was an addicting substance. Pot was different. If I did pot now, if I didn’t think to myself that it was addicting, then I would start doing it more. Even though it may not be physically addicting, it’s something I can become habituated to pretty easily, I think.

JS: Was your experience with writing a whole lot different when you were indulging in substances?

DJ: Yeah, there was hardly any writing at all. I managed to publish a few poems and a couple of stories. In my own mind I was right up there with Shakespeare or somebody. It wasn’t until I got sober that I began to worry, will I be able to write? I really looked back at the last — and by that time it may have been 10 years that I had been publishing, writing and publishing and thinking of myself as a writer — and looking back, I’d published fewer than 40 poems, and a couple of stories. As an annual average that’s very little writing, and then I thought it doesn’t really matter if I get sober and I don’t write again because I’m not really writing now. I wasn’t tempted to use that as an excuse to stay screwed up.

JS: Right. Of course, you’ve been way way more prolific since you stopped.

DJ: Yeah, more and more all the time.

It’s as hard as I thought it would be. It’s as painful to be amongst humans as I expected it to be.

JS: Yeah. I know this is kind of weird — to talk about yourself as an influential writer, because it risks sounding arrogant or something — but what do you think it was about this book, these stories, that has been so influential to people?

DJ: I don’t know. I’ve met people who say, “This book is the reason I’m a writer.”

JS: Yeah, I’ve heard that too.

DJ: I think I might say that about the Catcher in the Rye, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. And what those have in common with Jesus’ Son is that they speak to the experience of the youthful soul. They’re kind of about the journey of a youthful soul, so maybe that’s it. I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud now.

JS: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense.

DJ: Tom Sawyer was the type of book — and Huckleberry Finn — [that], when I was a kid, I immediately began imitating. I got myself a stack of paper and I was 9 years old. A bunch of pens and I sat down to write Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t get very far. And Tom Sawyer, too. The first things I wrote on my own were imitations of chapters of Tom Sawyer. I remember writing one where the barber’s son shaved the head of one of the teachers, which is very much like a chapter in Tom Sawyer where they get the toupee off the guy’s head.

JS: Are you still writing plays?

DJ: Oh yeah.

JS: I loved the one that I saw in New York a couple of years ago.

DJ: Oh really?

JS: Yeah.

DJ: That’s in Chicago right now, that one.

JS: Oh really.

DJ: It’s called Hellhound.

JS: Yes, exactly. I saw a reading in New York.

DJ: They did a workshop of it in New York too. It’s in Chicago right now. They’re doing a really good production.

I’ve been writing a lot of plays. Trying to restrain myself. I have a contract to write a novel that I’ve been working on for years. I just settled down recently to finish it, and the rule is: no more plays until it’s done.

JS: Well, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing, I don’t think, if you broke that rule.

Anyway, it was great to talk to you about this.

DJ: Yeah, I’m sorry, you can see I’ve become really gabby.

JS: That’s great.

DJ: I’m out in the wilderness here.

JS: You’re still in Idaho?

DJ: Yeah, I’ve just been here a couple of months. I’m going to go down to Arizona in a few weeks.

JS: Oh, that’s where you — I remember you said when I talked to you before that you were splitting your time, right?

DJ: Yeah, I was probably in Texas then. Now I’m tri-parting my time among Arizona, Texas, and Idaho. Something’s got to give there.

JS: Is that because of teaching?

DJ: No. Texas is kind of because of teaching. I go there every couple of years. But Arizona, my folks are down there, so I like to get around them a little bit. Idaho, we just got a place up here so we got to come up and pluck the weeds every once in a while.

JS: Do you have a lot of land there?

DJ: 120 acres.

JS: Wow.

DJ: If you walk around [it], it’s exactly two miles to walk around. But it’s hard to walk around. Got a lot of hills and ravines and vines and trees and stuff.

JS: It must be amazing though.

DJ: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

When life decides it’s going to visit you, it will visit you. You can’t hide.

JS: I have one more question for you: are you at all interested in doing magazine writing these days?

DJ: Not so much. I kind of replaced that with writing plays. The trouble with plays is I’m going bankrupt.

JS: Because they just don’t make money?

DJ: Yeah, [and] you have to go there and help them out with the production and so on. It’s fun to do that anyway.

JS: Yeah, I would think.

DJ: There’s no money in it so I’m slowly — actually, rapidly going broke, but I just don’t have that much time to get around. It’s just hard. Details asked me to do something.

JS: We were sort of tossing around this idea — I know you’ve written about this before — but the idea of living off the grid and if there was anything you wanted to say about that, either your own experience or people that you know or you’re around in Idaho. Just the idea of living that way.

DJ: Yeah, living that way appeals to me less and less.

JS: Oh it does?

DJ: Yeah, I just like to be out here in the summer now. It’s tough to go 35 miles to get a quart of milk.

JS: Yeah. That’s a different way of life.

DJ: It really [i]s. It’s so nice living in Austin, you just go — I don’t even have to put on my shoes, I can just go barefoot down to the Seven Eleven and get some milk. That really makes a difference in your life, your whole day. Plus I can go to plays, I can go to movies, all that suddenly became a lot more fun. I don’t know why.

JS: So you’re not as reclusive as you used to be.

DJ: No, and actually the interview thing, I’m more willing to do that now, as you can see. A lot of that has to do with being involved with theater productions, because I want to help the actors get somebody in there to see them. They work so hard. It’s really chastening to see how hard they work. I just can’t say, no I won’t do an interview, I won’t help you at all. Working on productions, I’m involved with people a lot more.

Like, really things have changed a lot for me in the last three, four years. I am a lot less reclusive.

JS: Well, it’s nice to know you can change and adapt and just have different phases in your life. That seems very healthy to me.

DJ: Yeah, it’s as hard as I thought it would be. It’s as painful to be amongst humans as I expected it to be. I think I’ve been about as freaked out as I can get, from time to time. This summer we did a production of a play of mine in New York that was kind of a disaster from the get go.

JS: I didn’t see that.

DJ: Oh my God, it turned out to be a good production on some nights when everybody could get it together, but it was just really hard.

JS: Why?

DJ: Things just went wrong. We had to get a new set designer, the guy didn’t get along with the director, this affected the actors, it was just on and on. It was really something. If you ask each person you’ll get a different story as to why it was bad, and I think a lot will blame the author of the play. I try to blame everybody else, but I’m afraid my inexperience had a lot to do with it. It was just hard, it was really painful.

JS: But there must be enjoyable aspects of it, or you wouldn’t be bothering to go.

DJ: It was enlightening. It was great. It was one of those things that you hate going through. You wouldn’t do it again, but it was really a valuable experience.

JS: Yeah, collaborations really are interesting. You sort of forget, as a writer, that that even takes place.

DJ: It’s hard to make the shift from being God to being one of the gang. It’s tough. But it can be done.

JS: But as far as day to day living, you don’t mind having people in close proximity and not having a big swath of land and all that?

DJ: Yeah, it’s all right. Even having a swath of land, I quarrel with the neighbor. He’s suing me. It’s just like having a guy in the apartment next door. He’s got his 120 acres, and I’ve got mine, it doesn’t matter. In New York it would be 120 square feet, but it’s the same damn story. You just can’t avoid it. People are everywhere.

JS: Yes they are.

DJ: If it’s not people — I had a place in the Yukon, 50 miles from the nearest human — and a freaking grizzly bear started marauding. And whenever I wasn’t there he’d tear the place up.

JS: Oh man.

DJ: Basically, when life decides it’s going to visit you, it will visit you. You can’t hide.


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Janet Steen is a writer and editor. She has written and edited for mainstream magazines and less conventional essay sites. She helps people edit their books and is a curator of a new reading series in Brooklyn called Murmrr Lit.

Editor: Dana Snitzky