UW News

May 28, 2020

Charles Johnson muses on ‘the art of living’ in new book ‘GRAND: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life’

UW News

Charles Johnson has written novels and short stories, screenplays, philosophical meditations and notes on the writing craft itself — but his latest book is something different, and very personal.

GRAND: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life” was published May 5 by Hanover Square Press. Small and 152 pages slim, the volume nonetheless is like a thoughtful tour of the author’s bookshelf.

In its pages, Johnson offers “what I hope are 10 fertile and essential ideas for the art of living to my grandson and those other children in his generation.” He writes that he offers the thoughts “tentatively and with great humility” — admitting that “grandfatherly advice is as plentiful as blackberries.”

Johnson is the Pollock professor of English at the UW, now emeritus. His 1990 novel “Middle Passage” won the National Book Award. This is his 25th book. UW Notebook connected with Johnson via email to ask a few questions about the new book.

How did this little book come about?

Charles Johnson: At the request of the editor of “3rd Act” magazine, a local publication for seniors, I published an essay titled “Advice to Emery” in their fall, 2018 issue. The response to this essay was strong so I pitched it as a book idea to one of my former editors at Scribner, John Glynn, who has his own imprint now, Hanover Square Press, at Harper Collins. John was enthusiastic about the book and did, I feel, a gorgeous job on its production. What I did was simply expand on the original essay’s 10 items of advice that I would offer to my grandson and his generation for a happy life.

Who is the book written for?

C.J.: The audience for “GRAND” is parents and grandparents, and probably any adult who might find the wisdom in the 10 items of advice interesting. And of course it’s for our grandchildren, too, when they’re old enough to read and understand its contents.

Your grandson, you write, will have the freedom to react to life as he wishes: “There is a time-honored word for this flexibility in life: jazz.” Why was that the perfect word?

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson

C.J.: Like me, the great jazz musician Herbie Hancock is a practicing Buddhist. I was delighted when he said in a 2007 interview for Beliefnet that, “The cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and the great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we’re nonjudgmental. If we let judgment get in the way of improvising, it always screws us up. So we take whatever happens and try to make it work…”

Of the “ideas for the art of living” that head each chapter, one inspires a laugh: “Open Mouth, Already a Mistake.” What’s the lesson there?

C.J.: The lesson is simply the advice that we find in much spiritual literature: Namely, that before we speak we should check what we are going to say at Three Gates. The Gates are questions. “Is it true?” “It is necessary?” to say at this time. And “Will it cause no harm?” If what we intend to say can pass this test, then for a Buddhist — or anyone — it would be what is called Right Speech.

“GRAND” is also out as an audiobook, read by actor Ron Butler. You’ve said you enjoy dramatically reading your writing to audiences. What was it like to hear another voice, narrating and interpreting your work?

C.J.: I don’t have the audiobook, but I recently did listen a little bit to Ron Butler reading from the book’s introduction on Amazon’s feature where you can listen to a sample of the text. I was impressed. Harper Collins sent me samples from four actors, and I selected Butler because I felt his voice, although not like my own, hit all the right notes with the right timbre, and made the writing come alive.

You write of seeking the beautiful amid impermanence and change. What are your thoughts in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

C.J.: I think we are going through a remarkably painful and challenging moment in modern history that has upended a way of life that we were used to. When I wrote “GRAND” last fall, we were not in the midst of a global pandemic. My 8-year-old grandson was not doing remote learning with his teachers. I was not going to the grocery store wearing a mask.

The advice about how to deal with change, loss and impermanence in the 10 items I compiled for my grandson is something we are right now experiencing palpably. The specter of death and disease, and our fragility as well as resilience as human beings is dramatically on display every day.

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