I was born John Fenton Johnson in Kentucky hill country, ninth of nine children of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother who, searching for romance, converted to Catholicism. I grew up a crow’s mile from the Abbey of Gethsemani, some of whose monks crept from the monastery enclosure to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and eat my mother’s cooking and dance with her by the light of the moon. I am named after two of those monks — the best cook and the best dancer.
For as far back as anyone cares to remember my father’s family made whiskey and told stories. In 1971 a scholarship from Seagram, my father’s employer, plucked me up and set me down at Stanford University, an extraordinary choice I made partly from my determination not to be drafted for the Vietnam War and my hope that someone out West would provide guidance. I filed as a conscientious objector — with remarkable prescience my Kentucky draft board secretary told me, “Forget about a career in politics.” And so I set out to become a writer.
I believe in writing as a means of advancing truth and justice. I believe that truth resides not in facts but in the stories we assemble from them and that the best stories give voice to the most essential truths. I believe that each of us is called to a lifelong wrestling match with God and that God always wins but that our task is to put up a good fight.