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.)
* * *
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.