The Pulitzer committee called the book “an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.”
Johnson spent several years researching the book, his third, reading historical accounts and propaganda about the isolated country. He also read personal narratives from the few people who have defected and managed to visit North Korea under a tightly controlled state-sponsored trip.
One of the things I discovered through my research is that most North Koreans can’t tell their story. It’s important for others to hear it, though.
In an interview with Stanford News, Johnson said he felt very fortunate to win the prize and hoped it would help shed light on the dire situation in North Korea.
“Through my research, I came to care very deeply about the people of North Korea,” Johnson said.
He said for so long people have thought of North Korea as a place of buffoonery or evil, and many people questioned why he chose the country as the setting for his novel.
“People thought I was crazy to be writing on North Korea. They said, ‘You’re just some dude in California!’ But one of the things I discovered through my research is that most North Koreans can’t tell their story. It’s important for others to hear it, though. So I had a sense of mission to speak about the topic,” Johnson said.
He said the story of North Korea is well-suited for fiction because most journalists and nonfiction writers can’t get facts verified there.
“It’s an unverifiable place,” Johnson said. “But to the fiction writer, the myth, the legend, the fables are all powerful tools to create a psychological portrait.”
Johnson praised Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and the university’s commitment to good writing.
“It’s just a place where storytelling is valued above all else,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have written the book without Stanford and its support of creative writing. From all parts of the university, the narrative is valued. I know it’s a place where people are excited about stories.”
Johnson, who came to Stanford in 1999, is the author of Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award. His books have been translated into 16 languages. He was also a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.
This quarter, Johnson is teaching Narrative and Narrative Theory, and earlier this year he taught a senior seminar, Historical Fiction.
“This is a wonderful recognition for a wonderful achievement,” Boland said. “And he has so many admirers and friends in this program who will be absolutely delighted and not at all surprised.”
To the fiction writer, the myth, the legend, the fables are all powerful tools to create a psychological portrait.
Johnson’s award comes after a year in which no prize was given in the fiction category. Last year’s absence in fiction angered many booksellers and publishers. It was the first time the fiction prize had not been awarded since 1977.
Previous authors who have won the distinguished fiction Pulitzer include Wallace Stegner, who founded Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, and N. Scott Momaday, a former faculty member of Stanford’s English Department.
Also honored with a Pulitzer Prize this year, in Poetry, for Stag’s Leap was Stanford alumna Sharon Olds, who graduated in 1964.
The Pulitzer committee described the work as “a book of unflinching poems on the author’s divorce that examine love, sorrow and the limits of self-knowledge.”