Leaving no depths unexplored

For the famed author of ‘Middle Passage,’ the passion to learn is as timeless as the stories he explores.

Any one of Charles Johnson’s accomplishments might make a career.

The Seattle author, who speaks at the Playhouse on Sept. 12, has published books, stories, essays, screenplays, reviews. He is expert in the Chinese martial art Choyli Fut; a scholar versed in phenomenology, Buddhism and Sanskrit; a visual artist who has published more than a thousand political cartoons.

His dramas have aired on PBS; his novel “Middle Passage” won the 1990 National Book Award; he has been a Guggenheim Fellow; received a MacArthur “genius” award; and been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Johnson might be intimidating – if he weren’t so charming.

He might be fenced in by his own formidable resume – if he didn’t stay supple, vaulting over the familiar to tackle the untried.

His upcoming talk on “What Makes an Enduring Story?” is a case in point.

“I’ve never given this lecture before,” Johnson said. “This is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I’m pulling 20, 30 years of notes together. I’ve never addressed storytelling from this angle.”

“I want to know why some stories last and others don’t,” he said. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ goes back to the Greeks. And what about Faust? By the time Goethe gets to it, the story has a lot of palm oil and sweat on it.

“There are a lot of people who want to write, but many don’t have a story to tell,” he said. “I think the journeyman writer who publishes a book a year is admirable – but I’m interested in the writer who publishes one book, but that book is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

The writer speaks with the genuine enthusiasm of someone who proposes to learn as much from the experience as he may impart.

Island author David Guterson – a former student of Johnson, then head of the University of Washington’s creative writing program – expects his former professor to impart a great deal.

“I know from having been his student that Charles Johnson is a riveting speaker and an incredibly charismatic presence,” Guterson said.

Terra incognita

Besides teaching fiction at the UW, Johnson – who just published “Turning the Wheel,” a book of essays on Buddhism – says he’s considering making time to produce a book of cartoons that dovetail with Oprah Winfrey’s book club.

What he doesn’t have time for are ideological straightjackets, or anyone else’s dicta about his work.

Resistant to politically correct prescriptions for black authors, Johnson writes from any perspective that furthers the tale.

His newest short story, “The Queen and the Philosopher” unfolds the death of Descartes in the court of Queen Christina, and is told from the point of view of Descartes’ German valet.

“All my life I’ve had to fight for my individual vision,” Johnson said. “People tend to be territorial about meaning. They want things to mean a certain thing: ‘This is the way things need to be seen.’

“But most of what we know is very provisional and subject to change the next moment.”

Johnson makes writing a phenomenological exercise, insisting on the specificity of each scene, character, exchange, image.

His ideal artist might well resemble the Allmuseri tribesmen he depicts in “Middle Passage”:

“A people so incapable of abstraction that no two instances of ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ were the same for them, this hot porridge today being so specific, unique, and bound to the present that it had only a nominal resemblance to the hot porridge of yesterday.”

Johnson calls art “medicine for the corruption of consciousness” that should lead both writer and readership to examine every premise.

“I want my lecture to be thought-provoking,” he said. “When you create you have to ask yourself, ‘what is creativity, what is art?’

“I think about that every day.”

* * * * *

Charles Johnson speaks on “What Makes an Enduring Story?” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Playhouse. The lecture is co-sponsored by Field’s End, the Bainbridge writers’ community affiliated with the Bainbridge Library, and the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council as a benefit for Field’s End.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 seniors and students, at Eagle Harbor Books, Vern’s Winslow Drug and online at

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