Poet of the Fallen World

How an S.F. theater troupe helped turn a reclusive novelist into a full-fledged playwright

"That's right, you home-schooled your kids, didn't you?" says Cullinan.

"Yeah. It's the best thing. Public school's like a prison." (Johnson published a Newsweek article in favor of home-schooling a few years back.)

Hovering nearby is Sean San José, a lean, 30-odd-year-old actor with penetrating black eyes and a Latino curl in his voice. He's been a devoted advocate of Johnson's writing since somebody gave him Angels to read, years ago, and he remembers the first time he called Johnson at home to invite him out to San Francisco.

Dave Eggers (left) interviews Denis Johnson at a 
Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts benefit.
Leslie Linnebur
Dave Eggers (left) interviews Denis Johnson at a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts benefit.
Michael Torres, Brian Keith Russell, and Delia 
MacDougall in Johnson's Soul of a Whore.
Jeff Fohl
Michael Torres, Brian Keith Russell, and Delia MacDougall in Johnson's Soul of a Whore.

"We got him on the phone, and I said, 'Would you come out? We're gonna do some stories of yours.' He said, 'Yeah, that sounds great. Oh -- wait. I'm lookin' at a note here in front of the phone that says, Do not make agreements on the phone. I can't do it, I'm sorry.'" San José laughs.

"It's true," says Johnson. "There's a big sign by the phone that says, 'No agreements over the telephone.'"

"And I think that was probably in Cindy Lee's handwriting," says San José.

Johnson gives his third wife credit for creating the structure at home that allows him to work so freely. He says he dictated the first two Cassandra plays into a tape recorder while he sat in the bathtub. "I would hear people talking, and I'd get down what they said. In the tub." Soul of a Whore was different: For one thing, he wrote it in blank verse. "I'd actually go to this coffee shop in Austin, where I was living, and I'd get this Writer's Chai -- it's called Writer's Chai," laughs Johnson. "It was in a bookstore, like in a Borders Books, and I'd get the Writer's Chai --"

"It works!" says San José.

"That's right. I should tell 'em that."

"You could advertise! Jesus!" San José laughs.

"Yeah," says Johnson. "So anyway, the process was like writing a poem, rather than writing prose."

Soul of a Whore doesn't sound like a poem onstage: The metrical structure stays in the background, a bit like Johnson's religion. Versifying simply compresses the language, forcing the actors to think hard about the rhythm of each line. A Greyhound clerk in the play says, "All I know/ Is what the TV wants for me to know,/ Like all Americans everywhere. That girl/ Was sort of innocent, too -- I mean, the years/ Of booze and dope had bleached her brain to white." When Johnson reads this passage aloud, none of the line breaks is noticeable, but the language rolls with a dangerous cadence. He says the trick to writing a play in verse is never to fall for the idea that you're writing poetry: "Because you're not. You're writing dialogue."

His artistic career may seem to have come full circle -- from verse to novels to short stories to plays, and then back to verse -- but the truth is that Johnson still works in every form. He's just finished a story, and he's at work on a novel, too. But he likes playwriting because, he says, "It's easier." Novels ask a writer to be set designer, prop master, playwright, actor, and director all in one. Plays aren't as complicated.

"To write," I suggest. "Not to produce."

Johnson smiles. Then he compares the process of producing a play to driving via armed jeep through the countryside of Liberia, something he's experienced. After that first thwarted Esquireassignment to the Philippines in 1988, he managed to start a career in adventure journalism, and for about 10 years explored some of the most violent places on Earth, including Liberia during its early civil war and Iraq during Desert Storm. He figured writing plays would be a sort of vacation from all that. He was wrong.

"There was a production of Shoppers in New York [last year]," says Johnson, discussing his 2002 play Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, "and one of the actors was reading this thing that I wrote about Liberia. He said, 'This is unbelievable, what you went through.' And I honestly told him, 'You know what? It was not quite as bad as what we went through here. A little less than this. Some of the most hellacious stuff that I've gone through has been around theater productions. It's like jumpin' off into a waterfall."

But he likes that, right?

"Well, I wouldn't go back to Iraq now. Somebody'd chop my head off, I'm sure," he says. "I'm just too old -- and yeah, I like what I'm doing."

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