Presenter of the National Book Awards

2007 National Book Award Fiction Winner Interview With Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Photo © Cindy Johnson

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

BAJ: First and foremost, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview genre seems to be the question of where you were when you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist? Has it sunk in yet?

DJ: I turned on my e-mail and found a number of messages from friends, all headed either "National Book Award" or "congratulations!" Right away I suspected a mass practical joke. I still do.

BAJ: In a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis, what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you view yourself in that role?

DJ: Storytellers have enjoyed quite a wide audience over the last few centuries. Now it's dwindling, and if the world's leaders have their way they'll probably return us to an era when we tell tales around small fires in caves. But we'll always have stories to tell. It's nice to be doing it when folks still think it's something worth giving out awards for.

BAJ: How long did you work on Tree of Smoke?

DJ: Some of it's been around since the summer of 1982. Or maybe the fall. Once in a while over the years I gathered together my notes and tried to make sense of them. Last January I gave up the effort.

BAJ: What drew you to the story?

DJ: I have no idea.

BAJ: How does the book compare to other prose you’ve written?

DJ: It's longer and, despite what anybody says, more conscientiously plotted.

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

DJ: Well, I've never thought about this before, but now that you ask, it occurs to me I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not.

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. Although Tree of Smoke moves, for the most part, chronologically through its storylines, you’ve given the reader a sweeping, multifaceted, and expansive narrative. Did you conceive of such scope before beginning the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

DJ: I'm fond of quoting T.S. Eliot, who somewhere said he was concerned, while writing, mainly "with decisions of a quasi-musical nature."

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Tree of Smoke, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

DJ: I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.