Author Archives

Janet Steen
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 at www.editrixie.com and is a curator of a new reading series in Brooklyn called Murmrr Lit (www.murmrr.com).

Wrestling With the Ghosts In My Head

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Janet Steen | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,463 words)

One of them I think of as a malevolent flower growing in my head, unfurling petal by petal, causing great distress. Another variety is an ink spill in the skull, maybe if the ink were scalding hot, starting at one precise point and then spreading heavily into every cavity. The most common is the plain old nail underneath the eyebrow, always on only one side of the face, hammered upward and lodged there for hours or possibly days, depending on whether I got the timing right with the medication. For me that’s the Wal-mart of migraines, super basic, but it’s still a fascinating one. The pain seems to be contained in one area but is so intense and pulsating you could swear it’s everywhere. So I play games with it. I try to feel with my mind — which is funny, because it’s in my mind — where the exact line of the pain stops and starts.

I may as well do something with these long expanses of time when there’s really nothing to do but feel what’s happening up there. So I try to give myself over to it. Feel the contours of the sensation. It has a shape and a texture. It spreads and moves. It’s like a country suddenly forms and establishes a government up there. Each migraine episode, if you really pay attention to it, has a personality. Oh, this one really wants to take me down. On another day it might be more passive-aggressive. This one is the toxic narcissist, gaslighting me. Sometimes when I’m not sure how bad it’s going to be I like to say I’m flirting with a migraine, but it’s really the migraine that’s flirting with me, and then I finally cave and let it have its way.
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Lying Down in the Dirt: An Interview with Denis Johnson

East Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho (Eric Zamora/VWPics via AP Images)

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.

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