Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He holds a masters' degree from the University of Iowa and has received many awards including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction in (1993), a Whiting Writer's Award (1986) and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams. He is best known for his collection of short stories, Jesus' Son.
His first published writing was a collection of poetry, The Man Among The Seals, published in 1969 when he was 20 years old and enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he was mentored by Raymond Carver. At 21 he was first admitted to a psychiatry ward for alcohol addiction, having started a lengthy love affair with substance abuse at the age of 14 while living in the Philippines, where his father, a State Department employee, was stationed. This was followed by seven or eight years of on and off drug abuse and, often, homelessness. While struggling to get sober in 1978 Johnson says he had "a strong experience of the presence of God" in Phoenix, which he describes as "no talking" and "kind of blue". A number of passages in Jesus' Son appear to be based on this experience. The same year he started work on a novel that he had begun in college; Angels was published in 1983 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. Between 1982 and 1986 he produced two books of poetry and three novels.
In 1988 he was in the Philippines, researching an article for Esquire. However, he came down with malaria and, on his return, felt too wrecked to finish the piece; added to which, his second wife was divorcing him so he had no place to stay. Recovering in a friend's house near Mendocino he sent his agent a batch of stark, semi-autobiographical sketches that he'd written during his days as an addict, not expecting them to be published. However, Johnson's former editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, had just taken over as editor of The New Yorker and, in Johnson's words, "was ready to make some changes in the magazine, so he thought it'd be a laugh to publish some of these vulgar stories." The New Yorker bought four of the stories and The Paris Review and Esquire bought a few others. Still, Johnson didn't think much of the stories but, owing money to the IRS, he sent a collection to his editor, Jonathan Galassi, at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who published the eleven stark stories as Jesus' Son, after a line from Heroin by Lou Reed.
Meanwhile, despite the unfinished Esquire article, Johnson developed a career in adventure journalism and spent the best part of the next 10 years exploring some of the most violent places on earth, including Liberia during one of its civil wars and Iraq during Desert Storm.
Much of his work carries a religious subtext. As Johnson says, "What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there's supposed to be a God?"
From 2006-2007 he held the Mitte Chair at Texas State University in San Marcos. He is also the resident playwright of Intersection for the Arts, based in San Francisco.
Stars at Noon (1986)
Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991)
Already Dead: A California Gothic (1998)
The Name of the World (2000)
Tree of Smoke (2007)
Nobody Move (2009)
The Laughing Monsters (2014)
The Incognito Lounge: And Other Poems (1982)
The Veil (poems, 1987)
Jesus' Son (short stories, 1992)
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's New Millennium General Assembly: Poems: Collected And New (1995) Shoppers: Two Plays By Denis Johnson (2002)
Hellhound on my Trail
Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames
Soul of a Whore
Psychos Never Dream
Everything Has Been Arranged
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse
This biography was last updated on 06/26/2016.
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