Interview: Author/Poet/Criminal Defense Lawyer Adam Johnson
It's one thing for a criminal defense lawyer to write some cheeky courtroom thriller as the vain calling card of a life well-litigated, but it's another thing entirely to beckon absolute risk the way Adam Johnson has done with his debut novel Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag (Prism Thread Books/Anxiety Press). Toggling between detailed confession and unrepentant declaration of hyper-hedonism, this maximalist masterpiece follows Goddard; an animated, eloquent fiend obsessed with his son's fiancee who will stop at nothing to possess her, whose lust eclipses into further scattershot acts of transgression that leave nothing to the imagination. CVGJ takes the vintage wickedness of Lautreamont's Maldoror, the intellectual perversions of Lolita, and the entitled nightmare of American Psycho to new heights of full-throttle negative energy. Yet, Johnson's debut novel isn't a mere vomit bucket of bad ideas—luckily, his prose is akin to elevated poetry, like his two essential volumes of verse—What Are You Doing Out Here Alone, Away From Everyone? (Hash Books) and White Paint Falling Through A Filtered Shaft (Anxiety Press)—released earlier this year.
CVGJ comes out swinging, keeps swinging, and dies swinging. It's a rogue debut worthy of praise, yet recently you insisted you're more of a reader, not a writer. Is this convenient armor in case the book is balked at or is this something deeper you insist on standing by long term?
I am a writer, in the sense that I wrote the book. But I am very much a reader, I think. It is not a strict dichotomy, since all writers are readers. The moment a reader takes up a pen, they are both writer and reader for all time. But there is not enough appreciation for the reader-as-artist. Good reading is an art form. I mean this sincerely: one could sit in a room of silence just reading and create art thereby. I like to view myself as a reader who writes during certain spells that set in outside of my control. I go for long periods not writing, and I am fine with that. The muse is out servicing other Johns. I know she will be back, and if not, I am grateful for our time together. If I never write again, I will be okay. And that’s not me resting on self-appointed laurels with regard to CVGJ. I truly mean it. There are rooms of books I haven’t read.
As a criminal defense lawyer—an occupation that likely eats all your time and psychic energy—how do you fit reading/writing in on top of raising a family? Is it a means to escape, a way to steal back that time? How essential has it been to write a singular character like Goddard from CVGJ, or this Larson guy from your poetry cycles? Goddard seems more of an abstract expression, an amalgamation of the entitled criminal mind personified who reflects back on society's hypocrisy, whereas Larson reminds me of a lot of real people I knew growing up who were in and out of the prison system.
It has been said that the Law is a jealous mistress. They have never viewed her alongside Literature. I don’t mean to sound moralistic, but I made a decision in life to raise my children with presence and devotion, even at the expense of not being the next TOP 100 INSANE-LAWYER-FREAK/MONEY-OVER-EVERYTHINIG-INCLUDING-ONE’S-SOUL type of precinct crawler who dies in harness. Criminal defense can be a spiritually hazardous profession. I protect myself with my family and friends, routines, simple joys, literature, and a desire to believe in God. In CVGJ, Goddard is a debased sum total. To borrow from the book, he is a jag spirit of the night, a dreaded bete noir, an insane “.M.” He is on the one hand definite and carefully drawn, but also a vast, chasmal passage through which the screams of mankind can, and do (I think), pass. It was important for me, and for the telling of the story, to create a definite person with indefinite possibility, and a chronic, nagging desire to reveal the darkness of human nature. Larson, on the other hand, is much more the tragedian. Larson is in the streets, sucking on car tailpipes. He has a heart of gold, but caves inevitably to vice, and barely knowns himself. In some ways, he is not unlike Herr Albin in The Magic Mountain. Or if that is not your cup of tea, think Rocco from The Boondock Saints. At one moment he is filling out an application to attend seminary, and at another, he is guzzling dextromethorphan and stomping out a dog. He is a walking contradiction, like all of us. His hypocrisy and his ill-defined contours are what make him universally likable. I have never had so much fun writing about a person as I have had with Larson. He is real to me. Goddard is an apparition.
One thing I loved about CVGJ is how much it wears its influences on its sleeve, even flipping the concept of influence on its head in a spirit of defiance—the book actually lays Nabokov/Bret Easton Ellis Easter eggs throughout before the reader has a chance to trace the roots, like you beat them to it. If someone said, "This book is just like Lolita," how would you correct them? Where do you see it in the lineage of classics like that or American Psycho?
If someone were to say “This book is just like Lolita,” I would ask them to hold hands and write them pretty cards. I have certainly been influenced by Nabokov, and Lolita was my entree to his work. A first experience with a writer has a certain significance. Had I read Despair first, I might view it as his best. I don’t think that’s the case, but the point is made. We are all operating on the shoulders of giants. If done well, I enjoy it when a writer reveals some of the authors he or she has read. Henry Miller did this, with naked vanity, but to great effect. Having things in common with another person induces a good feeling. Call it kinship if you will. There is beauty at the formation of kinship between the writer and the reader. It is a unique relationship, not like any other. I don’t mean deeper than any other, but singular. I like to know things about the person I am reading. It is not an imperative, but in some instances, it enhances the experience of reading. One other thing I will say on this topic is that this novel is not quite traditional, in that it plays with literary and cultural criticism in various ways that have nothing to do with the plot’s development. For example, one section of the book is written to address critics of the book in advance, with various alternate working titles revealed and plaintive defenses to accusations of Gongorism and other bullshit one expects from the Academy and their workshops. As to where I see this book in the lineage of classics: I don’t know. If there is one thing I know about art generally, wherever this book fits is not something I will know in my lifetime.
There were passages of this book that gobsmacked me even before it was released when you were just reading excerpts at Misery Loves Company. On one hand, I understand the manuscript had a hard life out there, but on the other, it was inspiring not only to see the village embrace it in advance but to see Jesse Hilson (author of Blood Trip) start Prism Thread Books just so the novel could see the light of day—to me, it had a punk DIY spirit in this respect. What could you add to the story of your story?
Misery Loves Company is, among other things, a wonderful testing ground. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read passages from the novel there. I wrote this novel between 2012 and 2014. I had no direction, no connections, and I had yet to discover the universe of small presses in operation. This was not long after Submishmash changed its name to Submittable, to give you an idea of the period. I was querying random agents by email that I found through Google, writing such things as, “By way of background, I am a criminal defense attorney and former Dairy Queen cashier.” I was unpolished, still am. I gave up. Then I began to revise some parts of the novel in 2016. In 2021, I joined Twitter in order to connect with some writers I had read. A whole new world opened up. This is not praise of Twitter, per se, but without it, I would not have discovered places like Misery Tourism, which led me to other people and presses. It was through Misery Loves Company that I met Jesse Hilson. We became friends, and we read each other’s work. I sent him CVGJ. He sent me Blood Trip. Later, in one of Jesse’s Substack pieces, he mentioned the prospect of starting a press, and discussed what kinds of books he envisioned publishing. He wrote that he would like to publish CVGJ, so I contacted him and said let’s do it. Without Jesse, this book would be lost to the black and silver crypt of a swivel USB drive. Jesse is golden.
CVGJ has a ranting, raving quality to it; a venting of absolute righteous panic where Goddard seems to know he is not long for the Earth or the absolute amoral freedom he's sought. In its 247 pages, there seems no stone unturned, no taboo undefiled. Was there a pressure to fit every thought into your debut novel, unsure if there'd be another?
The short answer is yes, I wanted to fit everything in. And it is a rant, you have me there. It has a bitching quality, despite its being dressed up in flowery robes of logorrhea, and some of them low-necked. Looking back on it, it's as if I wanted to tell most of the people on earth to go to hell while simultaneously pleading for their love. At the same time, I recognize a desire I had to impart what I know of human nature, to exhibit for the reader what darksome corners exist in the hearts of the modern American male, who is merely a contemporary representative of the violent, beastly animal whose nature has gone mostly unchanged since it began to walk upright. On this latter topic, I did not want to litigate the case half-way. I wanted all of the chilling cards in the deck to be placed on the table, face up. That said, there is no message to the book. It is not intended to be morally instructive, or illustrative of theory, philosophy, or anything of the like.
CVGJ is a harrowing read, but even when a debut novel is about kittens snuggling in a basket, an author's first book is terrifying regardless because they're no longer in charge of how readers will perceive it. If there's one thing you could impart to readers about CVGJ, what would you want to make sure they do not misunderstand?
I hear you. But it is nice to no longer be in charge. Aside from the rights associated with the copyright, I don’t feel like this book is really mine anymore. It is now the reader’s. One of the best poems I wrote I destroyed seconds after writing it. Nobody read it but me. But I knew it was there. I don’t even remember what the poem consisted of. I only have a memory of the feeling. I have more satisfaction from that poem than most of my published writing. I am very pleased with CVGJ. Whatever its reception, I am satisfied. To return to Nabokov for a moment, he and critic Lionell Trilling discussed Lolita on CBC-TV’s “Close Up” in 1958. The host, a Pierre Berton, confronted Nabokov with some of the critical reception that Lolita had received, to which Nabokov variously responded in terms of his intent and desire in creating the novel. One thing that has stuck with me is Trilling’s response. He said, “We can’t trust a creative writer to say what he has done. He can say what he meant to do. And even then we don’t have to believe him.” I have just gone back and rewatched the interview. In an earlier portion of it, Nabokov states that his intent in the book was not to touch hearts or affect minds. What he wanted was to “create that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.” I guess that is all I really want.
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