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Welcome to our series that brings you original content from individuals in the news. We’re calling it “From the Horse’s Mouth,” because these posts will let the authors speak for themselves. Not because they are horses.

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The award-winning author Denis Johnson has died at age 67. The “stylist of the world of soulful disaster” was known for writing prose, plays, and poetry that delved  into the dark corners of human life; his slim collection/creative writing program standby Jesus’ Son followed the lives of shiftless addicts, while his epic Tree of Smoke tackled the Vietnam War, winning the National Book Award in 2007.

Back in 1993, Johnson spoke with Eric Elshtain for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art about the role of religion in his work. Johnson said, “All books spring from the same impulse that the Bible was written from. There’s a tendency to elaborate, to add on to that particular novel.” He also said, while discussing the stories in Jesus’ Son:

I think the big question underneath any serious attempt at something, the big question is: “Of what does beauty consist?” What really is beauty?…I’m starting to feel like the answer is, and that beauty consists of; the truth of God comes through, transcendency comes through—and it can come through isopropyl soaks—a concern with things of this scope. I feel like I get set apart, or that I’m setting myself apart, because I want you to look … at this turd. If you look at this turd, smell this turd, it’s beautiful. And, well, then you’re psycho, or about to be, and you’re going to find yourself locked up. Well. Conrad said—have you read this thing that’s in the intro to the Nigger of Narcissus? It’s really beautiful. At the end of it he said what he wants to be seen is everything—that is how you get in touch with truth, manifold and electrifying truth. That’s what he sees his task as being, to register, in life, what’s true: true comes to mean everything.

Read the entire interview here.


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Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 18/19 (1993), pp. 105-114
Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art