When the author Denis Johnson died this past May, there was an outpouring of kind words and stirring remembrances from the literary world. The award-winning fiction writer, poet, and playwright, who schooled many contemporary writers during his years teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was, after all, considered a writer’s writer—or even, as Jeffrey Eugenides once proposed, a “writer’s writer’s writer.”
Yet for Sam Nicholson, Johnson’s editor at Random House, the author proved to be, in equal measure, something of an editor’s writer—a master at his craft who needed little editing, yet was open to whatever editing was needed.
Nicholson, 29, who edited Johnson’s forthcoming posthumous story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Random House, Jan. 2018), was quietly the driving factor behind the author’s move from his longtime fiction publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (With the exception of two novels published by HarperCollins, FSG has published all of Johnson’s fiction since 1991.) It was a union long in the making. Nicholson had called Johnson his favorite writer since high school, and after Nicholson began his career in publishing (in 2010, as Random House publisher Susan Kamil’s assistant), he started trying to get in touch with Johnson’s agent—not because he thought he would be able to work with Johnson, but simply because he hoped to meet him.
“His agent at the time was a guy named Bob Cornfield, and I could find very little information about him,” Nicholson said. “I couldn’t find any email address—I could only find a phone number.” Nicholson called the number every so often, but no one picked up.
Flash forward to 2014, when Nicholson was acquiring his own books for Little Random. He happened to run into literary agent Nicole Aragi at a Poets & Writers award ceremony at which she was honored.
“At this event, it listed Denis Johnson as one of Nicole’s clients,” Nicholson said. At the ceremony, he added, Aragi mentioned that Johnson had expressed interest in soon moving houses. “I went home and I wrote Nicole this 15-page letter about why Denis should move to us and how big of a fan I was. Then [Largesse of the Sea Maiden] went out, and we were lucky enough to acquire it. And just like that, I was the editor of my favorite writer in the world—something that doesn’t happen that often in publishing.”
Nicholson, who has edited books by top-shelf writers before (including the Nobel Prize–winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich) is, he said, “someone who does not get intimidated easily.” But working with Johnson—perhaps because he was a personal favorite, and perhaps because of his reputation—was a bit different.
“As far as the process goes, Denis probably had the best internal compass of any writer I’d ever seen,” Nicholson said. “With a lot of writers, you read them and you try to internalize the voice and understand the internal logic of the book, and then you try to help improve that book according to that internal logic. With Denis, that could be trickier than with other writers. He always used to say he just ‘listens to the music,’ and that’s what guides him. I would see an early draft of a story and it was a little like poetry—it was impressionistic, and I couldn’t quite tell where he was going. But over time, it would become more and more refined and sharp, and it was just fascinating to watch. I would have to just sit back and let him guide me, and I had to be willing to ride that wave.”
He added: “One reason Denis said he liked working with me was that he got to be admired by three generations. I think it gave him a real kick to be so admired by somebody of a younger generation, and I think I very much represented that for him. I learned all these lessons from Denis, from reading his work so closely and every once in awhile, with one of the rare comments I had, I would just be pointing out a lesson I learned from him—and he would always laugh about that.”
Nicholson sees the new book as something of a departure from and culmination of Johnson’s multiform talents. Though Johnson’s work has always been hard-hitting and unsparing in its reflections of a complicated world, in this collection—which is dedicated to three of the author’s childhood friends—he turned his eye, Nicholson said, from an “isolated struggle for individual meaning and transcendence” to “finding transcendence within a community and within friendship—even unlikely friendships.” And the stories are longer than the stories of his most famous collection, Jesus’ Son, but significantly shorter than his novels; at times, the prose reads like poetry and the dialogue like drama.
“A lot of people love Denis most for his short stories, and others love his novels, but he might have said he felt closest to his drama or poetry,” Nicholson said. “I think we’re only sort of beginning to understand how wide his talents were, and I think over time people will understand that more. These stories, because of their scope and focused theme, their large cast and dramatic elements, sort of unite the best elements of each genre he wrote in.”
The punch the collection packs is bittersweet for Nicholson, who, with Johnson, wrapped up the edits on the work just weeks before Johnson’s death. (A few specifics, like the interior design, were overseen by his widow, Cindy, although Johnson did live to approve the book’s cover.)
“When he died, it kind of felt like the adults had left the room,” Nicholson said. “In a lot of ways, Denis is sort of the last romantic, with a capital r, one of the last of that generation. I remember thinking that there were these writers who were real searchers for transcendence, who saw writing not as a career but as a way to avoid a career, and I think of Denis as being the most prominent, last member of that generation of writers—or that of that kind of writer. When he died, I felt that that had passed, a little bit.”