Born in 1949, Johnson was a poet, novelist, and playwright whose work earned widespread critical praise. Jesus’ Son, which was published in 1992 and adapted into a 1999 film starring Billy Crudup, is widely considered a modern classic. In Johnson’s poetic prose, the linked stories follow characters who are lost, struggling with addiction and broken dreams, as they hit rock bottom and rise up again. The author himself struggled with addiction in the 1970s, but had been clean and sober since the 1980s.
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Johnson won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel, Tree of Smoke, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Writing for EW, author Stephen King named Tree of Smoke one of the most memorable books of that year. “Think you don’t need another long novel about Vietnam? Tired of novels that try to explain the ’60s?” King writes. “Johnson reinvents all that stuff in a long, mysterious, breathtakingly poetic story that turns out to be as much about the Iraq mess as about Nam.” Johnson’s 2012 novella Train Dreams was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist, though no Prize was awarded that year.
Son of a U.S. State Department employee, Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, and raised in Tokyo, Manila, and Washington, D.C. Eventually, he called Arizona and Idaho home.
The author earned his MFA from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, studying under the legendary writer Raymond Carver. Johnson rarely granted interviews, but, according to the AP, he told the New York Times in 1984: “My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by — in chronological order — Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot. Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write.”
Johnson’s last novel, The Laughing Monsters, was published in 2014.