Denis Johnson

This article is about the American writer. For the UK inventor, see Denis Johnson (inventor). For others with similar names, see Dennis Johnson (disambiguation).
Denis Johnson
Born (1949-07-01) July 1, 1949
Munich, West Germany
Occupation Novelist, poet, playwright
Nationality American
Period 1969–present
Genre Fiction, non-fiction
Notable works Angels
Jesus' Son
Train Dreams
Tree of Smoke

Denis Hale Johnson (born July 1, 1949) is an American writer best known for his short story collection Jesus' Son (1992) and his novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the National Book Award for Fiction. He also writes plays, poetry and non-fiction.

Early years

Johnson was born in 1949 in Munich, West Germany. Growing up, he also lived in the Philippines, Japan, and the suburbs of Washington.[1] His father worked for the State Department as a liaison between the USIA and the CIA.[2][3] He holds a BA in English and an MFA degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he has also returned to teach.[1] While at the Writers' Workshop, he took classes from Raymond Carver.[4]


Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19.[1] He earned a measure of acclaim with the publication of his first novel, Angels, in 1983.[3] He came to prominence in 1992 with the short story collection Jesus' Son, which included vignettes originally published in The New Yorker.[3] He has said the collection was inspired by Isaac Babel’s short story collection Red Cavalry.[2] In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, it was voted one of the best works of American fiction published in the last 25 years.[5] It was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup. Johnson has a cameo role in the film as a man who has been stabbed in the eye by his wife.[6]

Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction[7] and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[8] It takes place during the Vietnam War, spanning the years 1963-70, with a coda set in 1983. In the novel, we learn the history of Bill Houston, a main character in Johnson’s first novel Angels, which is set in the early 1980s.[9]

Train Dreams, originally published as a story in The Paris Review in 2002, was published as a novella in 2012 and was a finalist for that year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, for the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer board did not award a prize for fiction that year.[10]

Johnson's plays have been produced in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Seattle.[11][12][13] He is the Resident Playwright of Campo Santo, the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.[14] In 2006 and 2007, Johnson held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.[15]

Johnson's latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, which he has called a "literary thriller" set in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Congo, was published on November 4, 2014.[16][17]

Personal life

Johnson is twice divorced and lives with his third wife, Cindy Lee, in Phoenix, Arizona and northern Idaho.[4] He has three children, two of whom he homeschooled; in October 1997 he wrote an article for the website Salon in defense of homeschooling.[18]

For most of his twenties, Johnson was addicted to drugs and alcohol and did not do much writing. In 1978 he moved back to his parents’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to sober up and find direction. He stopped drinking alcohol in 1978, and quit recreational drugs in 1983.[1]





Short story collections

Poetry collections






  1. 1 2 3 4 Jesse McKinley, "A Prodigal Son Turned Novelist Turns Playwright", The New York Times, June 16, 2002.
  2. 1 2 Barbara Chai, "Denis Johnson: The Gregarious Recluse", The Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2012.
  3. 1 2 3 David Amsden, "Denis Johnson's Second Stage", New York, 2010.
  4. 1 2 Michael Scott Moore, "Poet of the Fallen World", SF Weekly, February 19, 2003.
  5. Dwight Gardner, "Inside the List", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
  6. "Author Denis Johnson's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center", Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, July 7, 2010.
  7. 1 2 Thompson, Bob (November 15, 2007). "Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke' Wins National Book Award". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
  8. 1 2 Ben Sisario, "Arts, Briefly: Channeling Noir, Dickens-Style," New York Times, June 11, 2008.
  9. Jim Lewis, "The Revelator", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
  10. 1 2 Michael Cunningham, "Letter From the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year", The New Yorker, July 9, 2012.
  11. Harvey, Dennis (September 5, 2000). "Review: 'Hellhound on my Trail'". PMC. Variety. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  12. Berson, Misha (March 22, 2005). "Novelist's play "Hellhound" thrives on whip-smart lingo". The Seattle Times Company. Seattle Times. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  13. Schmidt, Kate (September 12, 2002). "Theater People: Denis Johnson's shaggy hellhound". Sun-Times Media, LLC. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  14. Jillian Goodman, "No More Drama?", Slate, June 1, 2012.
  15. Mark Hendricks, "Former Mitte Chair Johnson wins National Book Award",, November 19, 2007.
  16. Deborah Treisman, "This Week in Fiction: Denis Johnson," The New Yorker, February 24, 2014.
  17. Joy Williams, "‘The Laughing Monsters,’ by Denis Johnson," New York Times, November 7, 2014.
  18. Denis Johnson, "School is Out", Salon, October 1, 1997.
  19. Alan Williamson, "Three Poets", New York Times, October 10, 1982.
  20. "The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volume 1", Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2001.
  21. Ricky Stein, "Denis Johnson to read from his works at the Blanton Auditorium", The Daily Texan, October 24, 2012.
  23. "Fiction Awards by Last Name," Lannan Foundation. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  24. "Past Winners: Aga Khan Prize," The Paris Review. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  25. "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
    (With interview, acceptance speech by Johnson, and essay by Matthew Pitt from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)

External links

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