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Remembering Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, former Iowa Writers' Workshop alumni and faculty member, and author of several works of fiction and poetry, including Jesus' Son, has died at the age of 67. 

He was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson’s work. He held a BA in English and an MFA degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he also returned to teach. 

Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19. He earned a measure of acclaim with the publication of his first novel, Angels, in 1983. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, Jesus’ Son was voted one of the best works of American fiction published in the last 25 years. It was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup.

Many of the scenes in Jesus’ Son take place at locations in Iowa City, such as Mercy Hospital, the Vine Restaurant and the Iowa River.

Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It takes place during the Vietnam War, spanning the years 1963-70, with a coda set in 1983. In the novel, we learn the history of Bill Houston, a main character in Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which is set in the early 1980s.

"A terrible loss," International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill said Thursday. "Denis worked at the International Writing Program for seven years, as an undergraduate and then as a student in the Workshop, and he was the first one to read at the University of Iowa after 9/11: a spellbinding writer whose poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays made all the difference."

The Writing University holds several recordings of Denis Johnson reading archives in Iowa City, spanning from the early 1990s to 2014. You can experience his unique and warm reading style by listening here:

Denis Johnson, Live from Prairie Lights, March 06, 2014
Denis Johnson reading, The University of Iowa, 2001
Denis Johnson reading, The University of Iowa, 1991



The Washington Post Writers' Workshop alumnus Denis Johnson, author of ‘Jesus’ Son,’ dead at 67

Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote Of The 'Painfully Beautiful,' Dies At 67