Adam Johnson won the 2013 Pultizer Prize for his bestselling novel, The Orphan Master's Son, set in the nightmare state of North Korea. This summer, he has come out with a collection of short stories, set in locales that range from California to East Germany to a techno-dreamlike South Korea.
It's called Fortune Smiles, and one of the most memorable stories features a UPS driver in a Louisiana ravaged by the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "After those hurricanes, I felt I wanted to capture through fiction what it was really like to not just lose the siding and roof of your house, but to see families who were torn apart," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I also heard about UPS drivers who were emergency service providers, basically, who knew their routes and kept working through the hurricanes and helped connect people because they knew everyone on their route. So I contacted UPS world headquarters, and I said, can I do drive-alongs with your riders to help research a story? And they overnighted me my brown uniform."
On his story "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," about a former Stasi guard and a prison-turned-memorial
The way Berlin is laid out, all of the guards and administrators and wardens who once lived in the neighborhood kept living in the neighborhood even after the GDR went down. So all of the children in Germany are forced to be bused to this memorial to experience the legacy of oppression while the oppressors live in the neighborhood. And when I was there, the man who curates the museum told me that the former warden walked his little dog around his old prison every morning. And for a fiction writer, something that's half-seen is what stimulates the imagination — and that notion, of a man who must circle the place that he's become known for, every morning, that is now serving the opposite purpose of what he designed it to be, was irresistible to me.
On the title story, about defectors encountering the free world after living in a totalitarian state
That was a real concern of mine, writing [previous book] The Orphan Master's Son: What was it like to be raised in such a controlling, totalitarian state. But one aspect the book didn't capture is not only what it's like to be raised there, but how do you encounter the free world? How do you make the transition to the world that we know? And I think that in my book The Orphan Master's Son, I inadvertently gave the impression all you have to do is get out of Korea and your life is great. But the truth is that defectors struggle a great deal to adjust to modern life.
On the idea that the short story is the hardest of all literary forms
I think the short story is a machine, and it has lots of gears that turn: Voice, style, architecture, chronology, scene selection. They all interplay and make a meaning-making machine that cranks out some understanding of the human condition. It happens quickly, it often happens outside the writer's control, but it's so powerful when it goes to work on a moment of human life. I think they're difficult, but they can be very perfect and powerful — I missed them, working on a novel for many years.