Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University
Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a labyrinthine story of a man’s travails in North Korea, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, restoring a high literary honour a year after no fiction award was given.
Pulitzer judges on Monday praised Johnson’s book as “an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.” It was the third book by the 45-year-old Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University.
“I wanted to give a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary person in North Korea,” said Johnson, who spent a few days there to research his novel. “It’s illegal there for citizens to interact with foreigners, so the only way I could really get to know these people was through my imagination.”
Booksellers and publishers had been surprised and angered in 2012 when Pulitzer officials decided for the first time in decades not to give a fiction prize, which usually results in a quick and sustained boost in sales. There was no clear favourite Monday for fiction, with Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” and a pair of novels about the Iraq war, Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds,” among those receiving strong attention.
Johnson’s novel was one of three works with Asian themes to win Pulitzers. Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” the story of a successful Pakistani-American lawyer whose dinner party goes out of control, won for drama and Fredrik Logevall’s “Embers of War- The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” for history.
Logevall and Johnson also shared the same publisher, Random House; and same editor, David Ebershoff. Logevall said Monday that he worked on his book for 11 years, “missed a deadline or two,” but that he was glad he had the time to “make sure everything was just right.”
“My editor (Ebershoff) was very patient with me,” Logevall said.
In “Disgraced,” a dinner party brings together two couples and several religious and ethnic identities over pork tenderloin and chorizo. When chitchat touches on Islamic and Judaic tradition, the Quran and the Talmud, racial profiling and Sept. 11 and the Taliban and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu along with the requisite alcohol intake chaos is achieved.
“I really wanted to write a play that was going to have a legitimately tragic dimension for a contemporary audience,” Akhtar said from London, where he’s helping ready a new production of “Disgraced” at the Bush Theatre. “I wanted the play to have immediacy and aliveness of engagement that harkened back to a tragic form but a mass form, something that would have audiences gasping.”
The biography winner was Tom Reiss’ “The Black Count- Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.” Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove- Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” won for general nonfiction and Sharon Olds’ “Stag’s Leap” for poetry.
Reiss, who lives in New York, was at the dentist when he learned the news. He not only received $10,000 in prize money, but his dentist waved the fee for his visit.
Four of the five books to win Pulitzers were published by divisions of Random House, Inc., which also released two of the most acclaimed books of 2012 not to receive awards Monday- Robert Caro’s latest Lyndon Johnson biography, “The Passage of Power“; and Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” a finalist in the general nonfiction category and winner of the National Book Award.
For music, the winner was Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices,” cited by Pulitzer judges as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.”
On her website, Shaw describes the four-part suite “as a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.”