The Root Interview: Charles Johnson

The author, scholar and MacArthur “genius” winner charts a new course in post-academic life.

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Charles Johnson walks into the Faire Gallery & Café on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, deceptively low-key for one of America’s pre-eminent men of letters. At the cozy café, owned by his daughter, Elisheba, Johnson asks for “my usual,” a large cup of coffee with two Splendas. It’s a good place from which to look at his adopted city, and to consider the culture and the kindred people whose literary exploration by the author and scholar has lifted him to great heights.

For four decades, Johnson has wrestled with subtleties and nuances of the African-American experience in novels, essays, reviews and screenplays that have ventured outside the comfortable frames of much of contemporary black writing. For much of that time, he’s also been a professor in the English department at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Johnson, 61, retired from the university in August, the recipient of a shower of new accolades (previous ones have included the coveted MacArthur “genius” grant in 1998). He’s now preparing the next act in a crowded life and career, not a time to rest on his considerable laurels, but to build on them.

There’s a new book on philosophy co-written by Johnson and Marymount philosophy professor Michael Boylan. And Johnson’s celebrated novel Middle Passage is on its way to a transformation into a graphic novel from DC Comics; the author said film director Reginald Hudlin and award-winning artist Denys Cowan are working from a Johnson screenplay of the novel, which won the National Book Award in 1990.

One of his bigger, more tantalizing challenges may be writing a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man— unwieldy, impressionistic, imagistic and one of the Everests of American literature. Johnson is breaking ground on what could be a production for Intiman Theatre’s “American Cycle” series tentatively set for 2011.

And Johnson, the intellectual, observes the challenges facing fiction in general, and black literary fiction in particular, in an era of salacious potboilers and thug-life tracts—as well as the rising impact of the Internet and its potential for changing the popular relationship with the printed word.

Johnson’s allegiance to Ellison as mentor and touchstone is a long one. In Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ellison, the author noted that when Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award, “his acceptance speech seemed to be one long tribute to Ralph. Johnson’s gesture moved Ralph almost to tears.”

For David Remnick of The New Yorker, writing in a tribute piece after Ellison’s death in 1994, Invisible Man is “one of the ur-texts for a loose coalition of black American intellectuals who represent an integrationist vision of the country’s history and culture.” Naming names, Remnick included Johnson in that coalition.

With literally dozens of books and hundreds of reviews, essays and short stories; sprinting from fiction to nonfiction, from theater to film, Johnson has displayed breathtaking scope in a body of work by turns scholarly and streetwise.

In Seattle, the city that still resonates for him 33 years after he moved there to pursue his career, the author sat for an interview: