March 14, 2014


It was a tie between running my fingers over Gertrude Stein’s personal effects, flipping through the collected proofs of Graham Green novels (cradled delicately in wine colored velvet book cozy), or spending some quality time with Henry Miller’s journals and letters. The list of collections at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center is just a grand literary orgy—so impressive and big—that you feel like all the nipple clamps time in the world wouldn’t suffice. The Norman Mailer collection, which fills more than 40 boxes, was almost too intimidating to even broach.*

I landed on Denis Johnson, one of my favorite novelists (he’s also a poet, playwright, and journalist). I’m unsure why Johnson doesn’t have the same vocal hordes of devotees as Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace does. I find Johnson’s prose—his obsessions with fallen men and women, the West, the jungle, the drama and failure of resurrection—so much more compelling than the urbane neurosis of Wallace or Franzen. Johnson has taught in MFA programs, but he seems more at home among convicts, having taught literacy programs at a medium-security jail. He has claimed that that job required him mostly to read convicts’ steamy love letters to imaginary women, or helping them to prepare legal briefs. But still, that’s tough hombre shit—it takes mettle!

The Johnson collection is fabulous: post cards; correspondences with convicts; elementary school memorabilia; letters home detailing his first poem and first divorce; and notebooks filled with descriptions of trips to Saudi Arabia, Manila, Liberia, and Alaska, composed when Johnson was paid good sums of money by major magazines to be an adventurer (Goodbye, 1990s print journalism, I never knew thee).

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson

If there’s one major “process” tip to be learned from Johnson—and this is something anyone who is really good at writing does, I imagine—it’s this: Type up your goddamn notes while they’re fresh in your mind. There are anecdotes and character sketches of people Johnson met in Manila and Damulog that he wrote down immediately in the 1980s—and that made it into this novels ten, twenty years later. Additionally, much of the early drafts of his journalism are made up of notes and scenes—emotionally potent moments, snatches of conversation—with the connective tissue (sexy, larger-picture analysis) added in later drafts. There are typically at least three drafts for each non-fiction piece. They are rich, unfussy, and really good.

Other treasures include:

*A 1991 letter from John Beasley, special consultant from the state department that say Johnson owes the agency $577 for evacuating him from Dharan, Saudia Arabia. The letter begins, “Dear Evacuee.”

*A postcard Johnson sent his wife Nancy from Saigon, saying he was “zooming around” in love with her and “how about a smooch?”

*A snapshot of two giant two horses fighting in a ring, surrounded by village men in Damulog.

*A 1998 attempt from George Saunders  to recruit Johnson into teaching at Syracuse University. Saunders tells Johnson he has “infinite fannage” among the student body.

*A 1992 note from Amy Hempel  proclaiming herself a big fan of Johnson’s following the publication of Jesus’ Son. In her note Hempel says she read Johnson’s short story collection after scrapping a novel she had agonized over for three years. Hempel writes that Johnson has done a service to all “who write stories.”

* A years-long correspondence with a death-row prison guard Johnson met in the early 1980s while teaching at a medium-security prison in Arizona. A lot of Johnson’s knowledge about the boredom, mood, and brutality of death row—on full display in his first novel, Angels—comes from these letters. Of particular interest is the (lyrical and observant) prison guard’s gruesome description of the gas executions. Also included is Johnson’s correspondence with an inmate at the prison. This convict is a writer himself: Once released, he became an Arizona Tribune correspondent and wrote about the prison system. This series of letters is fascinating and my favorite part of the collection.

*Typewriter written letters to “The Family” from Johnson, starting when he first began attending college in Iowa. The letters are filled with scrappy working-class domestic life scenes—small house, food stamps, small reimbursement checks for tuition, fuzzy baby stories, and warm regard from Johnson’s first wife, nicknamed Pudge. Then right before Christmas in 1971, a brief note telling the family that he and Pudge and he were divorcing. In a handwritten postscript, Johnson asks his family not call, and apologizes for delivering this news so close to Christmas.

*In 1994 Harcourt had proposed putting together an anthology about the lives Christian saints, wherein “stand out” essayists and novelists would write 3,500 word biographical sketches. Tobias Wolf was set to do St. Jean Brebuf, Paul Watkins was going to do St. David, Donna Tartt was trying to decide between St. Anthony or Joan of Arc. Johnson still hadn’t decided which saint he would write about. The project never went through, but could you imagine?

*A 2007 letter printed on Congress stationary from Rahm Emmanuel congratulating Johnson on the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke. Emmanuel says he “thoroughly enjoyed” Johnson’s sprawling Vietnam War tome.

*A 2003 note from David Byrne typed on stationary adorned with yellow squiggly triangles asking Johnson to do the liner notes for a Talking Heads box set. Byrne says he’s looking for something, “critical, contextual, and impressive” written from the perspective of watching the “end of American empire” (eat your heart out, Bret Easton Ellis).

*A 1967 school production program for the Wizard of Oz. Johnson played The Wizard.

*This note that was eventually worked into an essay for anthology called Why I Write:

“And eventually I became a freelance writer traveling to these unhappy places full of danger and chaos. The real journalists, the regularly employed, they sneer at me. I’m a cheap adventurer. I’m taking up space among people who have to be there. But in my story they’re a pack of lemmings who don’t care about the truth or the feel or the sights and sounds of the faces and the voices—only about the stick images, stock phrases, the news that’s making everybody tired of life. I’m not here to get news. I’m making a story.”

If you find yourself in Texas and you like words, ideas, and dudes who taught in prison, go to the Ransom archive. Go.

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* One of the more popular collections belongs to David Foster Wallace, and part of his collection is on display at the center through March 30. My day at the library there were three different graduate students thumbing through his proofs, self-help books, and correspondences. I dedicated a good three hours simply to his teaching materials: syllabi, quizzes, essay prompts. He was an equally rigorous and generous teacher, offering students who weren’t “whackos” or “stalkers” his home phone number. Despite that generosity, Wallace only gave out a handful of As during his teaching tenure at Pomona college, calling himself a “hardass”.