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Hot 20: The Storyteller, Adam Johnson

"I love Fort Funston. God, that hypnotizing Pacific Ocean, where you feel like you can see to Japan, where you can see the 747s rise out of SFO, where you can see the freighters coming in from Hong Kong... I just love it."

Photograph by Zach Gross.

HOT. The word carries so many meanings: passionate, sizzling, trendy, intense, and yes, sexy. But for us, it signals our favorite month. Meet the 20 movers and shakers that have us fired up this year.

Adam Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

There hasn’t been a novel written in North Korea in 60 years. “In the worst of the Soviet days,” says Johnson, “there was an underground literary scene. Solzhenitsyn wrote in the gulag.” Oddly, though, there hadn’t been many novels written about North Korea either.

Until, that is, Johnson happened to read a history of the country. “This was 2004, a big year for books about North Korea. Most were political, economic, or military, though—what was missing was the human dimension.” Soon, he realized he’d actually been researching his next novel.

The hardest part? Nailing the details of life in the capital. “There are two North Koreas: the elite, who live in Pyongyang, and the other 20 million, who live like animals. People in the countryside defect, and they bring their stories with them. The elite, they don’t leave. That’s the black hole.”

When he’s not writing—next up, “a much different piece of fiction”—he commutes from Cole Valley to teach at Stanford, where he’s launched the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. “Comics are a great teaching tool and a form I find very disarming. A book like Maus can make me weep every time.”

Adam Johnson’s biggest (maybe only) epiphany

“Realizing I wanted to be a writer was actually a really clear moment for me, probably one of those few epiphanies I’ve ever had. I was an engineering major, I don’t know why—I was horrible at the math, and struggled through the physics—sometimes you can be so clueless about yourself.

I had a buddy, his name was Craig, and every semester I would go to him and I would say, ‘Craig, you gotta save me,’ because he knew all the easy-A classes—he was like some Yoda on the mountaintop. And he’d be like, ‘Dude, dude, dude … Jazz Appreciation.’ One semester, he was like, ‘Dude, creative writing—everyone gets an A.’ It was taught by a new professor, who was electric, named Ron Carlson. He’d just been hired, and he was a powerhouse teacher.

All my perceived flaws—that I was a daydreamer, that I was a liar, a chronic exaggerator, even though there was nothing to be gained by it—in a story, these were good things. These were valued things. I just knew that no matter what, I just wanted to have that stuff in my life.”