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ASU grad wins prestigious writing prize


November 9, 2009

Michael Cunningham, Kim Edwards, Tobias Wolff.

We know their names, and we’ve devoured these bestselling authors’ books.

Now, we can add Adam Johnson to the list. Download Full Image

Johnson, an ASU graduate and author of the novel “Parasites Like Us,” has been selected as one of 10 young writers in the United States to receive a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Awards – and a $50,000 cash prize.

Past winners have included Cunningham, Edwards, Wolff, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mary Karr – all of whom went on to become acclaimed, bestselling authors.

The Whiting Writers’ Awards have been given annually since 1985 by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation to writers chosen for their “extraordinary talent and promise.”

That Johnson would win an award is not as surprising as the fact that he is a writer at all.

Ron Carlson, former professor of creative writing at ASU, who now directs the writing program at the University of California, Irvine, recalls the start of Johnson’s writing career:

“This tall kid appeared in the back of my English 210 class years ago; he looked like Elvis, the smart-aleck lip and the shiny hair, and he started right out writing stories with an edgy vividness that is unusual for undergrads.

“He must have been what, 20? He could write closely so that you felt the heat of the construction site in his story or the claustrophobia of the drivers' training classroom, and finally at the end of the semester I asked him who the heck he was.

“He smiled and said he was enjoying the class very much but he had taken it by accident, meaning to take poetry which he had heard, from an unreliable fraternity brother, was easier.”

Johnson picks up the story:

“I was an engineering major before. I took creative writing because I wanted to take an easy class. There was a brand-new fiction-writing teacher named Ron Carlson. He was an electric, radioactive teacher who converted me to be a fiction writer.”

Carlson said a poetry class might have been easier for Johnson, but it was fortuitous that he stumbled into Carlson’s fiction-writing class.

“I was glad to meet him and I invited him into a very small independent study section I was running that Spring and he took that and wrote more of these compelling stories, warm as life and clogged with convincing detail.”

Johnson said, “I would do independent studies with Ron. We’d meet at Chuckbox or Bandersnatch. He’d help develop my stories. Rarely do you meet someone who has so much to give. I started writing short stories, even though they were horrible. I look back know and realize that Ron was doing an act of charity, but he saw that I had something to develop.”

Carlson added, “That was the start, and following his stories and fiction through the years, it has shown gargantuan growth. He isn't a smart aleck, but he's ambitious and talented and it is paying off. I'm using one of his stories in a graduate seminar this winter.”

Johnson and Carlson developed such a close relationship over the years that Carlson performed the ceremony when Johnson married his wife in 2000. “He followed me, and I followed him,” Johnson said of his mentor.

Johnson, who went on to earn his doctoral degree from the University of Florida and now is the Senior Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, said he knew of the Whiting Writers’ Awards because one of his friends had won one last year.

But he never dreamed he’d hear his own named called. “You don’t enter or apply. You don’t even know you’ve been nominated. It’s all private. They won’t reveal anything,” he said.

Johnson dared to hope when he received a cryptic e-mail saying, simply, “Call us tomorrow.”

“I was worried,” he admitted. “Maybe I’d dinged the door of a writing donor. I didn’t want to let myself think that it would be actually winning this prestigious prize.”

The Whiting Awards were presented during a ceremony in New York City, attended by “a who’s who of the publishing world,” Johnson said. “Margaret Atwood gave a heartfelt talk. It was an utterly amazing event.”

In addition to his book of short stories, “Emporium,” and his first novel, “Parasites Like Us,” Johnson has had stories published in magazines such as Esquire, Harper’s and the Paris Review. He won a California New Book Award and a Discover a Great New Writer Award from Barnes and Noble for “Parasites Like Us,” published in 2003.

“Parasites Like Us” is the story of Hank Hannah, an anthropology professor at a small college in South Dakota. Hannah’s specialty is the Clovis people, the first humans to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia approximately 12,000 years ago.

Hannah’s life story is interwoven with the story of extinction, and is written as a record for future anthropologists to study. As the Clovis eradicated 35 species of large mammals with a spear point they invented, so did modern man wreak havoc with his world, bringing it to a new point of destruction.

“Parasites Like Us” is part romance, part mystery, part allegory reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and part horror. Johnson places artifacts along the way as both symbols and markers to the road ahead. A rose-quartz Clovis spearpoint, ancient popcorn sealed in a ball, boxes of research notes, a Corvette and a beautiful Russian scientist all are key elements of the tightly woven story.

It’s a book that’s hopeful, but not yet optimistic. The reader will be kept guessing until the very last page. It is, as Carlson would say, a story that is “warm as life and clogged full of convincing detail.”