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Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson photographed by Oliver Mark, Berlin 2003
Denis Johnson photographed by Oliver Mark, Berlin 2003
BornDenis Hale Johnson[1]
(1949-07-01)July 1, 1949
Munich, West Germany
DiedMay 24, 2017(2017-05-24) (aged 67)
Gualala, California, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • poet
  • playwright
EducationUniversity of Iowa (BA, MFA)
GenreFiction, nonfiction
Notable worksAngels
Jesus' Son
Train Dreams
Tree of Smoke
Notable awardsNational Book Award; National Poetry Series award

Denis Hale Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He is perhaps best known for his debut short story collection, Jesus' Son (1992). His most successful novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), won the National Book Award for Fiction.[2] Johnson was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[3] Altogether, Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage.[4] His final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published posthumously in 2018.

Early years[edit]

Denis Johnson was born on July 1, 1949, in Munich, West Germany.[1] Growing up, he also lived in the Philippines, Japan, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C.[5][6] His father, Alfred Johnson, worked for the State Department as a liaison between the USIA and the CIA.[7][8] His mother, the former Vera Louise Childress, was a homemaker.[1] He earned a B.A. in English (in 1971) from the University of Iowa and an M.F.A. (in 1974) from the Iowa Writers' Workshop,[6] where he also returned to teach.[5] While at the Writers' Workshop, Johnson took classes from Raymond Carver.[9]


Johnson published his first book, a collection of poetry titled The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19.[5] He earned a measure of acclaim with the publication of his first novel, Angels, in 1983.[8] He came to prominence in 1992 with the short story collection Jesus' Son, which included vignettes originally published in The New Yorker,[8] inspired by Isaac Babel’s book Red Cavalry.[7] The first story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" was published in The Paris Review. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, Jesus' Son was voted one of the best works of American fiction published in the last 25 years.[10] It has been variously described as: seminal, legendary, transcendent, a classic, and a masterpiece.[11][12][13] It was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup. Johnson has a cameo role in the film as a man who has been stabbed in the eye by his wife.[14]

The Stars at Noon (1986), a spy thriller, follows an unnamed American woman during the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984.[15] It was adapted into the 2022 film Stars at Noon by director Claire Denis, starring Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley.[16]

Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction[17] and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[18] It takes place during the Vietnam War, spanning the years 1963–70, with a coda set in 1983. In the novel, we learn the history of Bill Houston, a main character in Johnson’s first novel Angels, the latter novel set in the early 1980s.[19]

Train Dreams, originally published as a story in The Paris Review in 2002, was published as a novella in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, for the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer board did not award a prize for fiction that year.[20]

Johnson's plays have been produced in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Seattle.[21][22][23] He was the Resident Playwright of Campo Santo, the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.[24] In 2006 and 2007, Johnson held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.[25] Johnson also occasionally taught at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.[26]

The final book he published while still alive was the novel The Laughing Monsters, which he called a "literary thriller" set in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Congo. It was released in 2014.[27][28] Johnson's final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published posthumously in January 2018.[29][4]

Personal life[edit]

Johnson was twice divorced and lived with his third wife, Cindy Lee, in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time of his death.[9] They also shared a home in Idaho.[26] Johnson had three children, two of whom he homeschooled; in October 1997, he wrote an article for the website Salon in defense of homeschooling.[30]

For most of his 20s, Johnson was addicted to drugs and alcohol and did not do much writing. In 1978, he moved to his parents' home in Scottsdale, Arizona to sober up and find direction. He stopped drinking alcohol in 1978 and quit recreational drugs in 1983.[5]

In his essay "Bikers for Jesus," Johnson described himself as "a Christian convert, but one of the airy, sophisticated kind."[31][32]


Johnson died on May 24, 2017, from liver cancer at his home in The Sea Ranch,[11] a community near Gualala, California, at the age of 67.[1][12][33]

Three Rules To Write By

Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.

Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.

Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Denis Johnson[26]

Awards and nominations[edit]



  • Angels (Knopf, 1983) ISBN 9780394532257
  • Fiskadoro (Knopf, 1985) ISBN 9780394538396
  • The Stars at Noon (Knopf, 1986) ISBN 9780394538402
  • Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (Farrar, Straus & Giroux [FSG], 1991) ISBN 9780374249496
  • Already Dead: A California Gothic (Harper Collins, 1997) ISBN 978-0060187378
  • The Name of the World (Harper, 2000) ISBN 9780060192488
  • Tree of Smoke (FSG, 2007) ISBN 9780330449205
  • Nobody Move (FSG, 2009)
  • Train Dreams (FSG, 2011) – a novella first published in The Paris Review [2002] and in Europe [2004][6]
  • The Laughing Monsters (FSG, 2014) ISBN 9780374280598

Short fiction[edit]



  • Hellhound on My Trail: A Drama in Three Parts (2000)
  • Shoppers: Two Plays (Harper, 2002) ISBN 9780060934408- includes Hellhound on My Trail
  • Des Moines, San Francisco premiere in October 2007[45]
    • Des Moines, New York premiere in November 2022[46]
  • Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse (FSG, 2012) ISBN 9780374277963




  1. ^ a b c d Sandomir, Richard (26 May 2017). "Denis Johnson, Who Wrote of the Failed and the Desperate, Dies at 67". The New York Times – via NYTimes.com.
  2. ^ Carlson, Michael (June 6, 2017). "Denis Johnson obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved October 8, 2022.
  3. ^ Kean, Danuta (May 26, 2017). "Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson dies aged 67". The Guardian. Retrieved October 8, 2022.
  4. ^ a b "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson". PenginRandomHouse.com.
  5. ^ a b c d Jesse McKinley, "A Prodigal Son Turned Novelist Turns Playwright", The New York Times, June 16, 2002.
  6. ^ a b c "Denis Johnson: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu.
  7. ^ a b Chai, Barbara (June 22, 2012). "Denis Johnson: The Gregarious Recluse". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on March 30, 2018. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c David Amsden, "Denis Johnson's Second Stage", New York, 2010.
  9. ^ a b Moore, Michael Scott (February 19, 2003). "Poet of the Fallen World". SF Weekly. Archived from the original on September 22, 2021. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  10. ^ Dwight Gardner, "Inside the List", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
  11. ^ a b Italie, Hillel (May 27, 2017) "Denis Johnson, author of 'Jesus' Son,' dead at 67". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2017-05-26.
  12. ^ a b Dwyer, Colin (May 25, 2017) "Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote Of The 'Painfully Beautiful,' Dies At 67". npr.crg.
  13. ^ Williams, John (March 29, 2017) Modern Masterpiece Turns 25 – via NYTimes.com
  14. ^ "Author Denis Johnson's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center" Archived 2013-05-31 at the Wayback Machine, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, July 7, 2010.
  15. ^ James, Caryn (September 28, 1986). "Nameless Lovers Chased Through Hell". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved November 17, 2019.
  16. ^ Kroll, Justin (November 3, 2021). "Joe Alwyn To Co-Star Opposite Margaret Qualley In A24's 'The Stars At Noon' From Claire Denis". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2021.
  17. ^ a b Thompson, Bob (November 15, 2007). "Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke' Wins National Book Award". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
  18. ^ a b Ben Sisario, "Arts, Briefly: Channeling Noir, Dickens-Style," New York Times, June 11, 2008.
  19. ^ Jim Lewis, "The Revelator", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
  20. ^ a b Michael Cunningham, "Letter From the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year", The New Yorker, July 9, 2012.
  21. ^ Harvey, Dennis (September 5, 2000). "Review: 'Hellhound on my Trail'". PMC. Variety. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  22. ^ Berson, Misha (March 22, 2005). "Novelist's play "Hellhound" thrives on whip-smart lingo". The Seattle Times Company. Seattle Times. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  23. ^ Schmidt, Kate (September 12, 2002). "Theater People: Denis Johnson's shaggy hellhound". Sun-Times Media, LLC. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  24. ^ Jillian Goodman, "No More Drama?", Slate, June 1, 2012.
  25. ^ Mark Hendricks, "Former Mitte Chair Johnson wins National Book Award" Archived 2020-08-07 at the Wayback Machine, txstate.edu, November 19, 2007.
  26. ^ a b c "Remembering Denis Johnson". The New Yorker. 26 May 2017.
  27. ^ Deborah Treisman, "This Week in Fiction: Denis Johnson," The New Yorker, February 24, 2014.
  28. ^ Joy Williams, "‘The Laughing Monsters,’ by Denis Johnson," New York Times, November 7, 2014.
  29. ^ "Posthumously Published 'Sea Maiden' Affirms Denis Johnson's Eternal Voice". NPR. 9 January 2018.
  30. ^ Denis Johnson, "School is Out", Salon, October 1, 1997.
  31. ^ Thier, Aaron (2018). "Denis Johnson's God". The Point. No. 17. Criticism. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  32. ^ Dille, Brian B. (December 21, 2017). "Books of Revelation: Christianity and Miracles in the Life and Work of Denis Johnson". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  33. ^ Carolyn Kellogg, "Award-winning author Denis Johnson dies at age 67," Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2017.
  34. ^ "Denis Johnson". poets..org. Academy of American Poets. 30 April 2007.
  35. ^ Alan Williamson, "Three Poets", New York Times, October 10, 1982.
  36. ^ "The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volume 1", Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2001.
  37. ^ Stein, Ricky (October 24, 2012). "Denis Johnson to read from his works at the Blanton Auditorium". The Daily Texan. Archived from the original on April 25, 2019. Retrieved January 30, 2024.
  38. ^ "Denis Johnson – WHITING AWARDS". www.whiting.org. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
  39. ^ "Fiction Awards by Last Name," Archived 2013-10-22 at the Wayback Machine Lannan Foundation. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  40. ^ "Past Winners: Aga Khan Prize," The Paris Review. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  41. ^ "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27. With interview, acceptance speech by Johnson, and essay by Matthew Pitt from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.
  42. ^ Gavin, Jennifer (July 11, 2017). "Prize for American Fiction to Be Awarded Posthumously to Denis Johnson". loc.gov. Retrieved July 20, 2017.
  43. ^ Johnson, Denis (2010). ""Last Night I Dreamed I Was in Mexico"". Ploughshares. 36 (4): 58.
  44. ^ Johnson, Denis (2010). ""The Trees Leaning into One Another, Green and Horrible"". Ploughshares. 36 (4): 59.
  45. ^ Hurwitt, Robert (October 22, 2007). "Quirky 'Des Moines' kicks off experimental weekend-only series". Sfgate.com. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
  46. ^ "Des Moines". Theater for a New Audience. 26 July 2022. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
  47. ^ a b Staff writers (2/2/2015) "Denis Johnson – Biography and Filmography". Hollywood.com. 2 February 2015.[permanent dead link]

External links[edit]