Editor’s Pick: Author – Denis Johnson

Editor’s Pick: Author – Denis Johnson

* One of our aims, aside from showcasing exceptional stories and visual artwork, is to share information from other literary sources. For instance, we might share a story we love, a magazine’s call for submissions, or a helpful service for writers and artists. Not only will we share information, we’ll create our own. This post is the first in the series, Editor’s Pick. One of our editors will share her pick for such things as a favorite author, a favorite book, a favorite genre, etc. We’re also interested in hearing about your picks in the comments section of the website or on social media. 

I have my longtime friend, Sarah, to thank for introducing me to the works of the late Denis Johnson. At the time, Sarah and I were in grad school together, and she dropped by my flat just to put a copy of Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son, in my hands. The collection remained in my hands for several hours, as I read the stories over and over. How does Johnson do it? I wondered. The collection was small – only 11 short stories – yet each story – each word even – blasted off the page.

For instance, this description, from “Work,” blew me away (and still does): “Wayne cradled his burlap sack of tools in his lap as we drove out of town to where the fields bunched up into hills and then dipped down toward a cool river mothered by benevolent clouds.” A man cradling a sack, fields bunched up, and clouds mothering? Talk about verbs bringing a description to life.

And then there was Johnson’s dialogue. This passage, from “Emergency,” is another favorite:

“Georgie’s in O.R.,” Nurse said. 

Again?” 

“No,” Nurse said. “Still.”

“Still? Doing what?” 

“Cleaning the floor.”

“Again?”

“No,” Nurse said again. “Still.” 

Talk about dialogue moving a story forward. A mere fifteen words of speech give the reader a sense of Georgie’s character, but they also give a sense of the relationship between Nurse and the doctor to whom she’s speaking. The passage also provides a brief moment of of humor – of relief – in a story that’s far from funny.

Many years have passed since I first read Jesus’ Son, but to this day, whenever I teach creative writing classes, I refer to passages from this collection when I want to show students how an author can load words, so to speak. At Montana Mouthful, we’re asking for short fiction and nonfiction; if you want examples of powerful, short prose, I’d encourage you to read Johnson’s collection, Jesus’ Son, if you haven’t already done so.

In the meantime, who is one of your favorite authors? Give us a short snippet of the author’s work and tell us why you find it compelling. Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Happy creating,

J