Mike Johnson’s fiction writing can be described as a characteristic mix of magic realism, science fiction and the gothic, while his poetry is distinctly lyrical. He has published numerous novels, novellas and books of poetry. He has been the recipient of awards, residencies and fellowships and has worked for many years as an academic and educator, particularly at The University of Auckland.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Johnson, Mike (1947– ), novelist and poet, was born in Christchurch, lived in Europe, Asia and Africa 1972–80, and settled on Waiheke Island in 1982. A graduate of the University of Canterbury, he was a teacher of English as a foreign language, secondary teacher, bookshop owner, then in 1986 became a creative writing tutor at the University of Auckland’s Department of Continuing Education. His first book publication was as co-author (with A.T. Johnson) of Dialogue, A Text for Senior English (1973). In the 1980s he began an impressive output of fiction and poetry. His prose can be described in terms of magic realism, though with a distinctive science fiction component, influenced by such US writers as Philip K. Dick and Barry M. Maltzberg, and with idiosyncratic Gothic elements. His novels are Lear—The Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon (1986), Anti Body Positive (1987), Foreigners: Three Novellas (1991), Lethal Dose (1991) and Dumb Show (1996). By contrast, his poetry is minimalist with flashes of lyricism, formerly in the style of Robert Creeley and translations of Chinese poets, though increasingly in the elusive manner of Pablo Neruda. His collections are The Palanquin Ropes (1983), From a Woman in Mount Eden Prison and Drawing Lessons (1984), Standing Wave (1985) and Treasure Hunt (1996). He was writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury in 1987.
Mike Johnson reveals that he has been writing since childhood - a childhood spent in Canterbury, New Zealand. For a number of years, he lived with his family in a small rural town. His father owned the general store and Johnson often went out on delivery rounds with him to the remote, isolated farms. Here he became familiar with the rugged, mountainous landscape and the vast, empty spaces which feature in his novel Dumb Show.
Following his graduation from the University of Canterbury with a degree in Political Science, he travelled in Europe and North Africa for nearly a decade. Returning to New Zealand in the late 70s, Johnson began writing seriously. For a time he wrote only poetry which he regards as the most valuable training a writer can have.
Mike Johnson's first novel Lear - The Shakespeare Company plays Lear in Babylon was published in 1986. This was shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards of 1987 and judge Owen Marshall praised Johnson's originality. Landfall reviewer, David Dowling, describes Lear as 'one of the most remarkable NZ novels I have seen.' Since then Johnson has written three novels, as well as four books of poetry - the most recent being Treasure Hunt, and a collection of three novellas. His short stories have been anthologised in Australia and New Zealand.
Johnson began writing Dumb Show in 1990. 'I almost abandoned it several times but the characters just wouldn't go away. I do most of my writing in the morning between five and nine, and at times it was a bit like facing cold porridge; at others it just sang. There were times when I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with it.'
Johnson has dedicated Dumb Show 'To Canterbury, with love'. He is keen to live in the South again to explore his attachment to the landscape and the shape it has given his writing. He wonders whether there is indeed an evolving South Island literature and whether Dumb Show is part of this.
Johnson has won several Awards and Fellowships including the University of Canterbury Literary Fellowship in 1987. In 2002, he was awarded the Auckland University Literary Fellowship. He has worked for the last six years at Auckland University's Department of Continuing Education teaching Creative Writing.
The 1997 Buckland Memorial Literary Fund Award was awarded to Dumb Show.
The Buckland Award is given to the literary work for the year which is of the ''highest literary merit'. The judges for this award are designated to be either the Editor of the New Zealand Listener and the Professor of English at the University of Otago, or if not available, people of similar literary merit.
Dumb Show which Johnson describes as 'Kiwi Gothic' was published by Longacre Press in 1997 to much critical acclaim, being described as both a 'grand domestic comedy' and a 'dark and beautiful book ... (which) explores the landscape of dark and turbulent childhood'.
Counterpart (2001) 'uses standard science fiction ideas but develops them and explores them with the sensitivity and skills of a novelist at the peak of his confidence and power,' writes John Connor in the New Zealand Herald.
'It is science fiction but it is also a cautionary tale, a despairing plea to take better care of the Earth, an exploration of metaphysics and morality and a fast-paced, well-told, thrillingly good read.'
Stench (2004) begins beguilingly in a small New Zealand town, but soon deepens into a powerful tale of a whole community's descent into fear and frenzy. Stench is Johnson's eleventh published book. 'From book to book Mike Johnson keeps you guessing. What will he come up with next? With Stench he continues his career as one of the most innovative, original and fearless writers I know.' – Witi Ihimaera.
Johnson's novella 'Frames' appears in Nine New Zealand Novellas, edited by Peter Simpson (Reed, 2005). This is a companion volume to the best-selling Seven New Zealand Novellas. Johnson also contributed his short story 'The Wedding of Psyche' to Myth of the 21st Century (Reed, 2006).
Johnson's poetry collection, The vertical harp: selected poems of Li He (Titus Books, 2007), takes the work of Medieval Chinese poet Li He, who lived in the last brief flowering of the T'ang dynasty from 790-816. His evocations of the heavenly and the netherworlds are unique, possibly in the whole of the Chinese canon and are the source of his honourific title, 'the demon talented one'. Working from this fertile source, Johnson has produced a collection of poems that preserves the extravagant imagery of the originals, while allowing them to be read unfettered in contemporary English.
Johnson lives with his family on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Mike Johnson’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Mike Johnson on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry site
- Mike Johnson on the New Zealand Electronic Text site
Updated January 2017.