Author brings humor balanced with gravitas to novel exploring love and friendship at a 'divorce ranch' – Harbor Light

Friday, September 24, 2021

Julia Claiborne Johnson is a returning presenter and author with the Habor Springs Festival of the Book. This year, she will also be joined by her husband, Chris Marcil, comedy and television writer. They will both be a part of various panels this weekend, September 24-25. (Courtesy photos)
In anticipation of this weekend’s Harbor Springs Festival of the Book, we have been sharing author interviews with some of the presenters leading up to the event.To read any interviews you may have missed in earlier issues, go to Search under Emily Meier’s byline. For more information on the Festival,
Julia Claiborne Johnson is the author of the bestselling book Be Frank with Me, a finalist for the American Bookseller’s Association Best Debut Novel Award. Her recent novel, Better Luck Next Time, explores divorce, disappointment, and the complexities of love and friendship at a Reno, Nevada “divorce ranch” in the 1930s. Inspired by her father’s brief real-life stint working on such a ranch, Johnson explores the lives of the characters who come to such a place and the “fake cowboys” who entertain the women with ranch experiences while they wait for their quickie divorces.
Johnson grew up on a farm in Tennessee before moving to New York City, where she worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines. She now lives in Los Angeles with her comedy-writer husband, Chris Marcil. Both Julia and Chris will be in town for the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book this weekend, September 24-25.
There’s just something about Julia Claiborne Johnson. I knew I would like her when, just before the designated time for our phone call, she messaged me to ask if I’d mind if she rode her exercise bike while we talked. Then she added, “promise, promise I won’t ride it vigorously enough to be panting”.
In lieu of a formal “hello”, she answered the phone with “I’m doing the Tour de France here while we talk.”
She then promised me that she’s easy to talk to and we could start anywhere.
“As someone who spends her days alone, well I do talk to my family but you know what I mean?” She said, “I’ll talk about anything. We can go back to kindergarten when someone in my class brought a spider monkey to school.”
And we’re off. But before we get to the book, we discuss spider monkey ownership and the time she walked home by herself from kindergarten.
“My mother was a doctor, so she was frequently incredibly late,” she said. “And what four year old wants to stick around with the teacher to clean up the blocks that were far more fun to dump all over the floor? So I decided to walk home by myself. From kindergarten.”
What may seem off topic, at first, is actually everything that inspires Johnson’s books.
Her father’s short stint at a Reno divorce ranch inspired the idea for this book. But the main character, Ward, is also inspired by her mother.
“Because my mother was a doctor, I have all this doctor background,” she said of creating the main character.
She recently wrote a heartbreakingly honest piece for NPR on her mother. She gets choked up when she talks about her. Her mother has suffered from terrible dementia for years now.
“It’s achingly sad to me that someone who’s been so integral in so many people’s lives, as a small town doctor, is just shuffled aside,” she said. “The idea that you could be so vital and then be this husk. So that was the gravitas that I knew was going into this book.”
Unlike her mother, however, the character Ward is physically frail instead of mentallly frail.
And while the book plays serious notes, it is also very funny and quick witted.
She refers to her writing as “all voice and throwaway jokes” and explains that writing this second book had its challenges when she deviated from her strengths.
“It’s a true tale of woe,” she said with a laugh she can now summon. “I’d written my first book in first person, so I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to write this one in third person’. I wrote half of the book and turned it in to my editor. And she said, ‘Oh I don’t know about this. You’re all voice and throwaway jokes and this third person is not serving you. I’m going to have to say No.’”
Did she have an inkling before this that the book wasn’t quite working?
“Oh yeah, of course,” she said. “But I thought, or hoped, maybe it was just me being self-critical.”
Her editor formally turned down the book but Johnson didn’t quit.
“Here’s the thing, what separates a writer from a failed writer is that you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going,” she said. “I knew there was a book in there. I just had to keep at it. So I started all over again. I wrote half of it again. Turned it in. I’d switched to first person. And my editor said, ‘Oh, I love the prologue but I hate the rest of it.’ But I also loved the prologue and hated the rest of it. So I knew she was right. She bought it at that point but didn’t pay much, as it was a pig and a poke. She didn’t know if I’d be able to do it. But it’s easier to start from six pages than to start from zero pages.”
Johnson rewrote the book, again. And this time her editor loved everything but the last chapter. So she rewrote it, “a million times.”
“I wrote it so many different ways that there are characters in some versions that don’t exist in later versions. I mean, people are alive in one version and dead in another,” she said. “It was crazy.”
The original last chapter is now included in the Barnes and Noble version of the book after it was chosen as one of their Books of the Month.
When asked about her writing process, Johnson admits she doesn’t begin with an outline but does outline once the book gets going. She has an extensive Post-It note system, which helps to keep track of everything from the first and last lines of each chapter to time lines and phases of the moon.
“I had a map of Reno and a chart of the phases of the moon for June and July of 1938. So many of my scenes happen at night,” she said. “I had to know what someone could see. I also have a big Post-It, one for each chapter, where I write down everything that happens in that chapter. It looks like R. Crumb with that teeny tiny handwriting.”
Johnson also keeps a notebook nearby, in which she keeps notes of interest from her research for the book.
“When I’m really writing, I go through and highlight everything I think could be useful,” she said. “Then I go through it again and write marginalia about the things that I think are really, really useful. It’s a whole system.”
She sends me a text while we’re talking with pictures of what this system of maps and Posti- Its looks like hanging in her office.
She explains the system further, now that I have a corresponding visual, and then laughs, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
She credits books with teaching her to write.
“When I was trying to teach myself how to write, Be Frank with Me, I read certain novels and wrote down everything that happened in them in a notebook, so I could see and internalize the rhythm of a novel.”
One novel she read for this writerly selfeducation was The Hunger Games.
“I initially read it because my neighbor is a teacher and wanted someone to talk to about it,” she said. “It’s excellently plotted and tight as a drum. All the chapters are about 10 pages, which I also thought was brilliant. You get to the end of a chapter, read the last line, and think ‘Oh I need to sleep but let’s just see how the next chapter starts’. And then you read the first line of the next chapter and think, ‘It’s only ten more pages’. And then it’s three in the morning and you’ve read the whole book.”
She stresses the importance of those first and last lines.
“I want a first line to be the kind of line that when a person walks into a bookstore, picks up the book, and reads the first page, they think, ‘Oh I need to keep reading this’.”
Johnson credits her time as an assistant to the fiction editor of Mademoiselle Magazine as helpful when it comes to first drafts.
“It was extremely useful to me because I had to read 10,000 manuscripts every year to get the 12 we could publish,” she said. “It really taught me that you have to grab people at the beginning. And if you write beautiful sentences that don’t stack up to anything, people are going to die of boredom, which is a frequent trap. It made me understand how important story is. I internalized all of that during that time.”
So how does she know when a story idea is book worthy?
“You don’t know,” she said. “That’s why I was having nightmares this summer and why I cried a lot.”
Johnson has started on what will be her third novel. But the initial days of writing and doubts kept her in a state of uncertainty.
“I started the third book and I’ve spent the whole summer waking up with these nightmares,” she said.
She explained that the nightmares consisted of her driving the wrong way up and down roads, or pulling into the wrong driveways. And all along, loved ones in the car with her were telling her that she was a failure and not good enough.
“I told my husband about these dreams and he said, ‘Your unconscious is extremely unsubtle’. But then it came. I had another night where I didn’t sleep at all. But then I woke up and wrote two chapters,” she said. “And then the next day I knew the whole story. It’s like when you fall in love and everything is great. I’m in that phase of writing the new novel now. So my poor husband has to listen to me in my excitement say, ‘Listen to this’ and ‘Here’s what happens’ and then and then. But meanwhile I have to listen to the plots of Beavis and Butt-Head.
“Welcome to marriage.”
Her husband, Chris Marcil, is an accomplished comedy writer who has written for television. Some of his more notable credits include, Beavis and Butt-head, NewsRadio, Frasier, How I Met Your Mother, and What We Do In The Shadows.
When asked what it’s like being married to another writer, Johnson has only positive things to say.
“It’s great,” she said. “He’s the funniest guy alive. We have this high level of banter. It’s just the way we talk to each other.We’ll see what the joke is and then see which one of us can get to it first. And while it’s not like he helps me write, he has honed my sense of humor in an excellent way. He doesn’t like to read fiction. He’s a nonfiction guy. He likes to read textbooks, these tomes. So he’ll read a manuscript once, when I’m completely finished with it. And he’s a good editor. He’s a delight. I really can’t think of anybody better to be in lockdown with.”
And here’s a thing about Julia Claiborne Johnson, her humor is balanced with the gravitas of life. Her humor lands because it’s earned.
She credits this to being older when she started writing.
“The nice thing about being older when you start is you have perspective,” she said. “And you understand what is really funny and what isn’t. And you understand what is tragic and what isn’t. And that’s why Ward (the main character in this new book) is an old guy telling this story. He’s able to reframe everything. It’s really an advantage.”
With age comes perspective, and with perspective comes a deeper wisdom and a greater sense of humor.
Before we hang up, I ask Johnson if she has anything she’d like readers to know.
“Yes,” she said, “please remind readers to review the books they love. In that way, they are really helping the writers they love. You think it doesn’t matter but it does. You don’t realize how powerful your voice is as a reader. It makes a difference. This is another reason I love book clubs. Book clubs are the engines that drive it all. I really love book clubs. It’s the only place I can go as an author and know all the right answers.”
I’m not sure if she rode her bike for the entire three hours of our phone call. But if she did, it only proves that The Tour de France is nothing in the face of writing another novel.
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