Sweet Hilarity: A Conversation With Author Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson

By Daniel Ford

The clock read 1 a.m. Only fifty pages remained in Julia Claiborne Johnson’s mesmerizing debut Be Frank With Me. My coffee had worn out and I was tempted to put my bookmark back to work.

The novel simply wouldn’t allow it. The story would break your heart one moment and then force it to take flight the next. Structured around a reclusive author, an insecure assistant, and an eccentric and immensely lovable 9-year-old, Be Frank With Me will move anyone who has ever been labeled “different” or “outsider.” I can’t remember the last time I had time to actually re-read a novel, but I have no doubt that I’ll pick this tale up again in the near future. 

Julia Claiborne Johnson was kind enough to talk to me about her secret weapon during the writing process and what inspired the wonderful characters in Be Frank With Me.    

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?

Julia Claiborne Johnson: I was always a writer. My mother had a typewriter that she must have used in college, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It was my main source of amusement when I was a kid. My hands must have been unusually strong for a grade-schooler because I wrote a lot of stories about my dolls on it. Sadly, lost to the sands of time.

For me, writing always came naturally. It was something I was born with, like having the naturally blonde straight hair like Alice, the narrator of my novel. I assumed that writing came easily to everybody else, too, and took it for granted. My English teacher told me when I was a freshman in high school that I’d be a writer, and I can remember thinking at the time, “Yes, yes, but will I ever be popular?” Not a chance of that for me then. But some of the girls who were the social superstars of my high school just came to my reading in Nashville, so I guess it all evens out in the end. If you’re willing to wait 40 years.

DF: Who were some of your early influences? 

JCJ: The novels of P. G. Wodehouse were the first serious books I loved. By “serious” I mean “books adults read” because honestly, those novels were the antithesis of serious. For some reason they had a lot of Wodehouse in the Shelbyville Public Library. They made me snort with laughter in middle school. In high school, I went for the usual stuff, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. More Fitzgerald because there was such an ache about him, but he was so charming and could be funny, too. Also, Fitzgerald was married to a Southern girl and I was a Southern girl. When I was fifteen I loved reading Zelda, that bio of his wife by Nancy Mitford. Not that I wanted to be Zelda. Being Zelda was interesting, but way too exhausting. In college I loved Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy and Robert Penn Warren. William Styron.

Beyond all that, I had a father who told amazing stories. On long car trips with my family, we children would hang over the back of the front seat, listening spellbound, while my mother drove. Which was good, because my father cared more about holding his audience than staying on his side of the road. Also, he was one of those “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” guys. That’s an excellent tradition to be raised in if you’re going to grow up to write fiction. 

DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, listen to music, etc.?

JCJ: I often work wearing those earmuffs the guys who use flashlights to direct airplanes into their parking spaces wear. Noise distracts me. So does music. I unplug the house phone and turn the ringer off on my cell. Chain myself to my chair. My husband started calling me “Iron Ass,” which, it seems, was Nixon’s nickname when he was in law school because he could sit in the library studying longer than his more charming and talented fellow students. So that’s my great skill—what I lack in genius I make up with in determination. 

Can I tell you about what turned out to be my real secret weapon? Naps. I tried to work a 30-minute one into each work day if I could because my unconscious was great at untangling knotty story threads while I slept. 

DF: I gladly lost a night of sleep finishing your utterly charming debut Be Frank With Me. What inspired this tale?

JCJ: Good, somebody else losing sleep from all the writing I did. That seems fair, since I spent so many years writing after I put my children to bed and walked around in a fog most days because of that. Really, though, that’s great to hear. I love finding books I can’t put down. I think that’s the highest compliment you can give a novel.

Here’s what got me started: When my daughter was in middle-school, she read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I hadn’t read since I was about thirteen. So I decided to reread it then. This time around, as the middle-aged parent of children in public school in the 21st century, it struck me that Boo Radley might have fallen somewhere on the autism spectrum. And that, moreover, characters like Boo had always existed in fiction; in the old days there were no handy label to slap on them to explain their behavior. My very next thought was, “Well, it’s a lot easier to write Boo Radley than is to raise him.” And with minutes, my whole story rolled itself out, because it was a story I wanted to read. An eccentric kid; his mother, who’d written that character and was now raising him; and a girl in her twenties who thought she knew everything about raising children because she’d never really been tested by a difficult child. I made a conscious choice not to say that Frank was on the spectrum. As helpful as labels can be, I thought labeling Frank would limit him, so I didn’t. I was writing a work of fiction about individuals in a difficult situation, not a psychology textbook.

DF: You introduce readers to one of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a long time. Frank, a 9-year-old boy who enjoys dressing and acting like classic movie stars, is the beating heart of the novel and is an absolute joy to read even when he’s forcing other characters to their breaking point. How did you get into his mindset in order to develop his character? How much of yourself ended up in Frank, as well as the rest of your characters?

JCJ: I think I’m more Mimi and Alice than Frank. My daughter, in fact, says Alice is “nice me” and Mimi is “mean me.” And that, moreover, she gets Mimi while her brother gets Alice. Sigh.

When I was thinking about how Frank was going to be, I decided early on that I didn’t want him to be some meek kid in the back row of his fourth grade class, dressed in Garanimals and doing quadratic equations while the rest of the class drilled on state capitals. I wanted people to be able to look at him and know right away that he was different. In my twenties, I’d worked as a writer in fashion magazines in New York City. Up until then, I was only familiar with the kind of academic achievement that gets rewarded in school. The good students got ahead, and the bad students got jobs at the chicken plant. But once I was working in magazines, I came up against visual genius for the first time. The fashion people were brilliant and amazing to look at, and, alas, often inarticulate. So what? You could see them coming from a mile away, and you knew right away that they were singular. It wasn’t like I people who passed me on the street saw me and thought, “Look at that girl. She can write.” So I decided to make Frank visually splendid, because honestly, there isn’t enough fabulousness in the world. Unfortunately, being fabulous at Frank’s age is the equivalent of wearing a bulls-eye for bullies on your chest to school every day.

As for the whole Old Hollywood business, I’ve lived in it for the past 20 years. My house used to belong to Oscar Hammerstein’s son, and the club at the end of my block is the one Groucho Marx wouldn’t belong to if it wanted him as a member. I can walk to Paramount studios, which is where Fred and Ginger filmed their movies. I love all that stuff. Can you blame me for putting it in my book when I’m surrounded by it every day?
DF: The novel explores themes dealing with not only the relationship children have with their parents and their peers, but also issues that creative people, particularly writers, grapple with on a daily basis. Did you set out to tackle those themes or did you discover them as you were telling this story?

JCJ: This novel was about outsiders from the get-go. I was the chubby, awkward Teacher’s Pet who got picked last for every team on the playground and never got invited to parties. My husband is a comedy writer, and listen, most comedy writers aren’t prom kings, either. When you’re a kid, it can be hard to grasp that the things that make you a success as an adult are the very things that make you a loser when you’re young. Would knowing that make things any less hard when you’re in grade school? Probably not. It’s hard to be different. That’s why Mimi has the list of all the people who never finished college or high school or grade school in her bedside table drawer. She just needed to keep reassuring herself that what was unique about Frank would make him a success in the world, if it didn’t kill him first the way it killed her brother.

DF: Your writing style in the novel is so witty and well honed. How did you develop your voice? Are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?

JCJ: I don’t pretend to be a brilliant prose stylist. If you’d met me, you’d know that Alice’s voice is more or less my voice. I talk the way she does. My husband always says that we’re raising our children to think it’s more important to be funny than to be good. Uh oh. He may be right about that. Just please don’t ask me if my husband helped me write my jokes. I’m always shocked when people ask me that. Surely they don’t mean to suggest that a woman can’t be funny on her own? I will say this, though: Living with a guy who is hilarious as my husband is has upped my game. Our house is a wit-friendly environment. We fell in love with each other because we crack each other up. And have, for the past twenty-five years.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

JCJ: I think I felt that way after I wrote the first chapter I put to paper. It’s Chapter 8, the one where Alice spends the night alone with Frank for the first time. In it you’ll find every mother’s fears of all the ways your kid could find to kill himself and others if you look away for even a minute. I had assumed I’d be a great mother, but I was completely unprepared that level of constant vigilance. It was exhausting. After I’d finished writing Chapter 8, I thought, “Hey, this could really be something.” That’s all that got me through the thousands of pages I wrote to get to the three hundred or so I ended up with. The belief that, if I could just get it right, people would want to read it. Why? Because I never got bored with the story myself. 

Here’s what was the most thrilling part of this whole experience for me. When I finished that first draft late one night after three years of sweating over it, I googled the name of my favorite author’s agent. (Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is my favorite book.) I found the agent’s name and sent an email to her fancy agency in New York. I didn’t think I’d hear from her for months, if ever. When I woke up, the agent had written me back to ask to see my manuscript. She took me on as a client a week later. I still had two years of revisions ahead of me, but I had an agent. I still can’t believe how lucky I was. The part I’d always assumed would be the hardest turned out to be the easiest of everything.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?

JCJ: I hope I will start writing my next book June or thereabouts. I have a couple of ideas that seem solid to me. I’ve spent the past few months reconnecting with friends and re-familiarizing myself with the world outside my office. Once I got going on it, I was so determined to finish Be Frank With Me that I wouldn’t socialize or answer the phone or emails or do anything I didn’t have to do to keep my family together. I’m so glad it worked out in the end because if it hadn’t it would have been so depressing to miss out on so much fun for so many years.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JCJ: Don’t talk about the book you’re going to write. Write it. 

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

JCJ: I grew up on a farm so I’ll be handy to have around when the zombies come. I know how to milk a cow and ride a horse and fish and string barbed wire. I don’t have the hand-eye coordination for a bow and arrow. I wish I did. I flunked archery at camp, despite wanting so desperately be good at it. Which is probably why I gave Frank that bow and arrow. 

To learn more about Julia Claiborne Johnson, like her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter @JuliaClaiborneJ.

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