Writer Denis Johnson reads in Boise 

Idaho, for all its wonders, has never been known for its literary tradition. Ezra Pound was born here, Hemingway died here ... and that's about the extent of it. So it might come as a surprise to some that one of America's greatest living writers makes his home in our humble corner of the world.

Denis Johnson, National Book Award winner and literary icon, lives up north, somewhere between Bonners Ferry and the Canadian border. Johnson has always been something of a recluse; he rarely makes public appearances and refuses to do media interviews. He regularly turns down interview requests from the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times, but a few years ago when he came to Boise for one of those rare public appearances, he granted an in-depth interview to Boise State undergraduate literary magazine, cold-drill. He's that kind of guy.

Very little about Johnson is conventional, even down to his career path. He began as a poet, publishing his first book of poetry at age 19, but then went on to lose seven or eight years to alcohol and drug addiction.

"I went from prodigy to prodigal in a hurry," he said later.

He got himself clean and started writing novels such as Angels and The Stars at Noon, which were well-received critically, but weren't doing much for his bank account. Strapped, and owing back taxes, he dug up a bunch of old "memories" of his drug-addict days, and pitched them as a short story collection to his editor. The result was Jesus' Son, a literary sensation that would become one of the most influential books of the half-century and transform Johnson into a cult writer on par with Burroughs and Bukowski.

Most writers would have continued mining the vein that brought so much acclaim and success. Not Johnson. He went back to writing novels and took a turn at adventure journalism, which had him risking life and limb in war-ravaged locales like Somalia, Liberia and Afghanistan. Never one to stay on a single track, Johnson began writing plays, getting them produced in all the right places: San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Just when the playwriting thing seemed to be taking off, Johnson published his magnum opus, Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award and was hailed by critics as a masterpiece. At the awards ceremony in New York City, Johnson's wife, Cindy, had to accept the award on his behalf because he was off in Iraq doing more war-zone journalism—he's that kind of guy.

This week, Johnson is coming to Boise to make one of his rare public appearances: a reading sponsored by the Boise State MFA Reading Series and The Knitting Factory Concert House. All proceeds from tickets sales will go to Court Appointed Special Advocates, a program that matches volunteers with children who are abused, neglected or abandoned, the majority of whom are under the age of 6. On Sept. 30, you can see for yourself what kind of guy—and what a great writer—Denis Johnson truly is.

Tuesday, Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m., students $5 adv., $10 door; general $15 adv., $20 door. Knitting Factory Concert House, 416 S. 9th St., 208-367-1212. For advance tickets, contact jacobpowers@boisestate.edu or visit the Boise State English Department office, Boise State, Liberal Arts building, room 228.

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