Kirk Wallace Johnson

Nonfiction Writer
“This American Life” Featured Author
Travels from: Los Angeles, CA

“Kirk is a heck of a great storyteller — and funny!” — Museum of Southwest Biology, Albuquerque, NM

Kirk Wallace Johnson is an author and screenwriter.  His books include The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf CoastThe Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyTo Be a Friend is Fatal: the Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.  He is also the creator of Drug Spies, a scripted series about pharmaceutical espionage.  He is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.

His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy, among others. Prior to founding the List Project, Johnson served in Iraq with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad and then Fallujah as the Agency’s first coordinator for reconstruction in the war-torn city.

He is a a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Wurlitzer Foundation.  Prior to his work in Iraq, he conducted research on political Islamism as a Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.  He received his BA from the University of Chicago in 2002. Born in West Chicago, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son, and daughter.

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The Fishermen And The Dragon

Viking |
Nonfiction

A gripping, twisting account of a small town set on fire by hatred, xenophobia, and ecological disaster—a story that weaves together corporate malfeasance, a battle over shrinking natural resources, a turning point in the modern white supremacist movement, and one woman’s relentless battle for environmental justice.

By the late 1970s, the fishermen of the Texas Gulf Coast were struggling. The bays that had sustained generations of shrimpers and crabbers before them were being poisoned by nearby petrochemical plants, oil spills, pesticides, and concrete.  But as their nets came up light, the white shrimpers could only see one culprit: the small but growing number of newly resettled Vietnamese refugees who had recently started fishing.

Turf was claimed.  Guns were flashed.  Threats were made.  After a white crabber was killed by a young Vietnamese refugee in self-defense, the situation became a tinderbox primed to explode, and the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan saw an opportunity to stoke the fishermen’s rage and prejudices.  At a massive Klan rally near Galveston Bay one night in 1981, he strode over to an old boat graffitied with the words U.S.S. VIET CONG, torch in hand, and issued a ninety-day deadline for the refugees to leave or else “it’s going to be a helluva lot more violent than Vietnam!”  The white fishermen roared as the boat burned, convinced that if they could drive these newcomers from the coast, everything would return to normal.

A shocking campaign of violence ensued, marked by burning crosses, conspiracy theories, death threats, torched boats, and heavily armed Klansmen patrolling Galveston Bay.  The Vietnamese were on the brink of fleeing, until a charismatic leader in their community, a highly decorated colonel, convinced them to stand their ground by entrusting their fate with the Constitution.

Drawing upon a trove of never-before-published material, including FBI and ATF records, unprecedented access to case files, and scores of firsthand interviews with Klansmen, shrimpers, law enforcement, environmental activists, lawyers, perpetrators and victims, Johnson uncovers secrets and secures confessions to crimes that went unsolved for more than forty years.  This explosive investigation of a forgotten story, years in the making, ultimately leads Johnson to the doorstep of the one woman who could see clearly enough to recognize the true threat to the bays—and who now represents the fishermen’s last hope.

The Feather Thief

Viking |
Nonfiction

As heard on NPR’s This American Life 

“Absorbing . . . Though it’s non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air

“One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever.” —Christian Science Monitor

A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the WoodsThe Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who’d risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness.

Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

To Be A Friend Is Fatal

Scribner |
Memoir
The “searing” (The New Yorker), “must read” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) memoir of “one of the few genuine heroes of America’s war in Iraq” (Dexter Filkins).

In January 2005 Kirk Johnson, then twenty-four, arrived in Baghdad as USAID’s (US Agency for International Development) only Arabic-speaking American employee. Despite his opposition to the war, Johnson felt called to civic duty and wanted to help rebuild Iraq. Working as the USAID’s first reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah, he traversed the city’s IED-strewn streets, working alongside idealistic Iraqi translators—young men and women sick of Saddam, filled with Hollywood slang, and enchanted by the idea of a peaceful, democratic Iraq. It was not to be. As sectarian violence escalated, Iraqis employed by the US coalition found themselves subject to a campaign of kidnapping, torture, and assassination.

On his first brief vacation, Johnson, swept into what doctors later described as a “fugue state,” crawled onto the ledge outside his hotel window and plunged off. He would spend the next year in an abyss of depression, surgery, and PTSD—crushed by having failed in Iraq. One day, Johnson received an email from an Iraqi friend, Yaghdan: People are trying to kill me and I need your help. That email launched Johnson’s now seven-year mission to get help from the US government for Yaghdan and thousands of abandoned Iraqis like him.

To Be a Friend Is Fatal is Kirk W. Johnson’s “truly incredible” (Ira Glass) portrait of the human rubble of war and his efforts to redeem a shameful chapter of American history. “It is difficult to imagine a book more urgent than this” (The Boston Globe).

 

https://www.indiebound.org/search/book?keys=author%3AJohnson%2C%20Kirk%20Wallace

The naturalists, scientists, and curators that protect records of the earth’s past for the future

Betrayed

The modern refugee crisis and the fate of Iraqis and Afghans that assisted the United States during the war

Kirk’s TV & Film Archives

Kirk’s Recent Writing

Upcoming Events

Honors, Awards & Recognition

IndieNext Pick
This American Life Featured Author
Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Longlisted Author

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