Julia Claiborne Johnson worked at Mademoiselle magazine before marrying and moving to Los Angeles, where she lives with her comedy writer husband, Chris Marcil, and their two children.
BE FRANK WITH ME is your first novel. Tell us something about how you came to write it at this stage in your life.
Julia Claiborne Johnson: If you're asking me why it took me fifty years to decide to write a novel, I'll tell you this - I was a late bloomer in every way imaginable. I never had a boyfriend until I was in my twenties, didn't have a decent job until I was pushing thirty, didn't have children until I was almost forty and had almost no common sense whatsoever until sometime after that. Though I had made my living as a writer for most of my life, I didn't try my hand at a novel before because I didn't think I had a story to tell that anybody would be interested in reading.
JCJ: I got old. I had children. Those two things may not be unrelated. By the time I topped fifty, my perspective on everything changed. For example: When my daughter was in the 6th grade, she read To Kill a Mockingbird for school. She lost her copy almost immediately, so I had to buy a second one to make the first one turn up. I hadn't read that book since I was around her age, so when the other copy resurfaced, I read it. Oh, I thought this time around, Boo Radley has some form of autism. When I read the same book almost forty years ago, I just thought Boo was weird. Because nobody knew better in those days.
In that moment, a lot of things clicked into place for me. I went to school with a monosyllabic loner named Edgar who combed his hair straight down across his forehead and wore the same bright yellow polyester plaid sport coat to school every day. Edgar, I realize now, must have been on the spectrum. Who knew? Poor Edgar was pursued and tormented for being different, not by me; but I never stuck up for him, either. I can remember wondering what kind of mother let her son go out into the world in that stupid jacket every day. Now I know the jacket probably wasn't negotiable. Edgar's mother was doing the best she could. She had to pick her battles, just like me and every other mother on earth, but on an epic scale. I imagine she lay awake every night, wondering where she’d gone wrong with Edgar, worrying herself sick about what would become of her child. It hurts me to think about that now. Though I might have argued with you about this in my twenties, I have come to know that there's no heartbreak like the kind that comes seeing your children suffer. If I'd maimed only a few of the people I wanted to for causing either of my babies a moment's unhappiness, I'd be in prison for life.
For some time after I finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I couldn't stop thinking about Harper Lee and Boo. One afternoon I was walking down my block, turning all of it over in my head again, and I thought, I bet it was hard for Harper Lee to write Boo's character, but not as hard as it was for Edgar's mother to raise him.
By the time I walked up my front steps, a novel I wanted to read had unspooled itself, beginning to end. The irritating thing about wanting to read it was that I'd have to write it first. Even more annoying, the beginning-to-end I ended up with wasn't exactly what I'd imagined when I started. I wish I could tell you it didn't take me much longer to write my novel than it did for me to think the thing up, but I would be lying. That sucker took me six years to wrestle down onto the page.
In your book, Frank is never given any kind of diagnosis. Is that on purpose?
JCJ: Look, all of us are puzzles. I grew up in the South, and there are more nuts in my family that you'd find in a holiday box of pecan brittle. Then I lived in New York City for more than a decade, a place that's Mecca for the willfully eccentric. In California, I came to know lots of adults who couldn't tell you the color of my eyes if their lives depended on it, who recoiled if you touched them or went on a little too long about their pet obsessions. Vintage breadboxes, anybody? But these were people who had brilliant careers anyway.
That's why I didn't want to stick a pin in Frank and say, Here's what's going on with him. The end. I wanted Frank to represent all the brilliant oddballs, real and fictional, diagnosed and undiagnosed.
Talk to us about Frank's outfits.
JCJ: When I was young I worked as a fashion writer for magazines in New York. You wouldn't know it to look at me - then as now, I looked like somebody who dressed in the dark from a random pile of clothes on my bedroom floor. I was awestruck by the people in the fashion department. So what if some of them couldn't spell the same word the same way three times in the same sentence? They looked amazing. What they did with clothes and accessories was nothing short of brilliant. From them, I learned a valuable lesson: Academic achievement is not the only benchmark of genius. In fact, it's about as common as hen's teeth, and almost as interesting.
I suppose I could have made Frank a math whiz or a pint-sized expert on the Punic Wars, but it seemed more fun to give him sartorial flair - a look that Alice describes as "a peacock in a barnyard full of chickens" - to establish him as a kid apart from all the typical grade-schoolers on a California playground. So I dressed Frank as if he found his outfits in a pile of clothes on the dressing room floor at Brooks Brothers. Back in my fashion-magazine days, our offices were over their flagship store in midtown, so I knew that old-school haberdashery look inside out. That became Frank's Fred Astaire aesthetic.
One last thing I ought to mention: On our first big family trip to Manhattan, my own seven-year-old son begged me to buy him a tiny three-piece pin-striped suit he unearthed in a kid's store around the corner from our hotel. Forget surfers. My little Californian saw all those men striding through midtown in their closed-toed shoes and beautiful wool suits as titans, girded for battle. He wanted to be one of them. That tiny three-piece ensemble turns up in Frank's story as the E.F. Hutton suit.
How did you come up with the ideas for the characters?
JCJ: Well, Mimi had to be a writer, since the whole idea was showing how much harder it is to live a situation you've only imagined before. I decided she'd written a book based on her eccentric brother who she'd turned her back on when they were young because she didn't feel like her brother was her responsibility. Then I gave her a son of her own, one with similar issues. She couldn't abandon her son because he was all hers and she was all he had.
From there, I needed to introduce an outsider who'd gradually unravel everybody else's story. Hence Alice. I made her like a younger version of Mimi as a source of conflict. I have found in life there is nothing more annoying than seeing your worst qualities mirrored in other people. Those are the people you can't help despising, no matter how hard you try to cut them slack. My daughter explained those two another way: "Alice is nice you, and Mimi is mean you." I prefer thinking of them as energetic me and exhausted me, but my daughter has a point.
After that, I wanted somebody to be the rock in the sea of crazy, so that character became Mr. Vargas. Then I needed somebody to guide Alice through the shoals of the glass house and the Dream House, so Xander was born. In my mind, Xander is twinned with Frank. Frank has too much knowledge and very little savoir faire; Xander is too handsome and too charming and too willing to skate by on that. Xander has squandered his talents; Frank may never figure out how to put his to good use. Either outcome is heartbreaking to me.
What were you thinking of when you had Mimi move into a glass house?
JCJ: If you want a literal answer, when I came up with Mimi's house, I was thinking of the Stahl house in Los Angeles. In the end, Mimi's house didn't look much like that one - hers is stone out front but transparent from every other angle. But LA is full of all these amazing glass houses - between all the pricey hillside and oceanfront real estate, there are lots of views to maximize. But a glass house, when you're obsessed with privacy? Madness, with a heaping side of hubris. Mimi's so caught up in the trappings of success that she doesn't stop to think, Hey, those views go both ways. Of course, by the time Alice is on the scene, every window in the house has floor-to-ceiling curtains.
On the heavy-handed metaphorical level, I confess: I liked the idea of a house that lets you see inside a life more than you might otherwise, the way a book reveals what's going on in a writer's mind.
Los Angeles seems like the sixth major character in your book. Do you feel that way, too?
JCJ: I do. I've lived here longer than I've lived anyplace else - almost twenty years now - so on a practical level, it made sense to set Frank's story here. But it's more than that. Hollywood is the font of so much happiness in Frank's life. It's his Harvard and Yale and Oxford University all rolled into one. He uses them to learn how to be in a world where he feels shunned for his gifts. Movies are full of people who "know how to act." Every time he watches a film, Frank gets a master class in the mannerisms of the actors pretending to be real people. Their conversations always play out the same way so there are never any surprises. This is enormously comforting to somebody like Frank, who goes through real life feeling like he never has his end of the script.
But I also think Los Angeles is just the sort of place Frank would pick to live in when he has to live someplace outside his head. Los Angeles is as varied and boundless as Frank's imagination. Think about almost any place on earth, and the chances are pretty good that you can find some facsimile of it within a day's drive of LA. A desert or a jungle, snow-capped mountains, the ocean, fake New York or Italy or Paris or Bavaria or the surface of the moon. That's what drew movie people here in the first place. That, and the fact that, Thomas Edison would send out flunkies to bust up your cameras if you tried to set up shop on the East Coast in violation of one of his thousand or so movie patents.
Why did you tell the story from Alice's point of view? Why not Mimi's, or Xander's or Frank's?
JCJ: Alice is the narrator because it is Alice who undergoes the most change in the "now" of the story. She arrives full of that Pollyanna attitude of hers, confident she'll do a great job, with cheerfulness, efficiency and self-control. By the time she goes back to New York, she sees what an unpredictable mess life is. Her time in California has taught her that you can't always control your elemental temper, children or other people any more than anybody controls an earthquake, floods or fire.
Why tell your story almost entirely in flashblacks?
JCJ: I'm not a deep thinker. I like my stories big. Tell me a big explosion of some kind is coming down the road, and I'm in.