This week I’m delighted to introduce Julia Claiborne Johnson as my author in the spotlight. Julia’s debut novel the Los Angeles Times bestseller, Be Frank With Me, was one of my books of the year in 2016. You can read my review here.
Julia grew up on a farm in Tennessee in the southern part of the United States and so knows exactly what a peacock in a barnyard full of chickens looks like. After attending college in Virginia, she moved to New York City, where she worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before marrying her comedy-writer husband and moving to Los Angeles and having two children. Her best-selling debut, Be Frank with Me was tapped in February of 2016 for its monthly IndieNext honors, given to the most eagerly-anticipated novels by the American Bookseller’s Association, and was one of six finalists chosen by that organization for Debut of the Year. Frank was also selected by the American bookstore chain Books-a-Million as the President’s Pick for 2016, as a Best Book of February 2016 by Amazon, was a winner of the Audie Award for Best Female Narrator and was listed as one of the top 100 novels of 2016 by Goodreads.
Her mother is very proud.
So without further ado lets hear from Julia.
Which 5 pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
A piece by John Cage called 4’ 33. It’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Some people can listen to music when they write. I am not one of them. I wear big noise-cancelling earmuffs when I write, like the guys who have the flashlights and guide airplanes to their parking places, so I can hear myself think. Myself thinking sounds a lot like the ocean noise you hear in a conch shell when you hold it to your ear.
Ship in Rough Seas. It’s a white noise thing I listen to when I can’t take having my head squeezed in the vice of those earmuffs anymore. My next-door neighbor likes to talk on her phone on her back porch, and as much as I love eavesdropping she never says anything really interesting so I had to find a way to drown her out. The way the ship’s timbers creak in that white noise recording makes me feel better about the way my joints sound when I stand up—See? It could be worse! The one called Gentle Rain makes me need to go to the bathroom, so that one’s obviously out, and the huge cracks of thunder in Summer Thunderstorm startle me, even though anybody with any brains would know when they were coming after they’d heard the thing once or twice. Allow me to remind you of what it sounds like inside my brain: conch shell.
Walking on Sunshine, by Katrina and the Waves. There was a time when I loved nothing better than going to the beach. I can vividly remember lying on an Elvis beach towel spread on the sand in Southhampton, the American one, hearing that song coming from somebody’s boom box (A boom box! How’s that for dating myself?) and thinking the universe was playing that song for me. I had on a bikini, which seems unimaginable to me now, and when I got up off that beach towel, there were no Ships on Rough Seas sounds coming from my joints. Ah, youth.
Born in the USA. Because when that album was big I lived in New York and worked at a magazine, and we all had crushes on Bruce Springsteen. The day he married his first wife—what was her name again?—we were all so dejected. My boss came into our office and said that the guy who ran the newsstand where she bought her paper said every youngish woman who walked up to his newsstand that day stopped dead when she saw the headline and said, “Oh, no! Not Bruce!” It was a dark day for all of us. I like remembering that time now because of course none of us had any idea then of what a dark day was really like.
Rainbow Connection, Kermit the Frog. Years ago my children, who were still in grade school at the time and fought constantly, got together in secret and learned how to play this song—she on clarinet, he on keyboard—for my birthday. Now I can’t think about that song without my eyes filling with tears. Dang it. Now I have to go find a box of tissues.
Highlight 5 things (apart from family and friends) you’d find it hard to live without.
Sunscreen. I may not have mentioned, but I have red hair and freckles. I know, I know, I never should have laid out in the sun. Why didn’t I listen to my mother? A cosmic joke, I realize now, since I’ve ended up in Los Angeles and am harried by sunshine everywhere I go. I keep my dermatologist in business, harvesting all the hideous things that come as a result of lying in the sunshine in a bikini thirty years ago. Band-aids—I think you call them plasters—on the face in your fifties. It’s a hot look! You should try it! On the upside, I really love my dermatologist, and we never would have met and become friends if it weren’t for my misspent youth.
Naps. I do some of my best thinking lying prostrate with my eyes closed. If I should happen to fall asleep while I’m doing this, well, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Exercise. To keep from spreading from here to Cuba from sitting at a desk all day, I used to run seven miles three times a week. Then, surprise, surprise, I had knee surgery around the time my book came out. I can’t run like I used to, so now I swim at a pool at the end of my block. I never learned to swim, though, so I do it with a snorkel and a nose clip and flippers. The last couple of times I’ve gone there has been someone new in the lane next to mine, a woman my friend just this morning told me had recently joined our club. Diana Nyad. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She swam from Florida to Cuba, speaking of Cuba. So I’m in one lane with my nose clip and snorkel, and in the next lane, one of the greatest swimmers alive.
My waterproof Ipod. While I swim I listen to novels. I swim for what used to seem like a long time to me until I started sharing the pool with someone who has swum to Cuba. Anyway. It’s rare in life, or in my life anyway, to be someplace where I can “read” a book for an hour without a person or a chore that has to be taken care of calling out to me. So what a luxury to have that time where it’s just me and a book. Before I discovered the waterproof ipod, swimming was so boring it made me want to stab myself. Now I can hardly wait to swim. Also, it’s the pool is the one public place where you can sob brokenly while wearing goggles when a character you’ve fallen in love with dies. In a coffee shop, people would avert their eyes and edge away.
Snacks. I have them scheduled. One at 10:30, one at 3. At my house we call the components of this five-meal-a-day system breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, second lunch and dinner. If I’m not fed regularly I get cantankerous, which of course I never am otherwise.
Can you offer 5 pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Don’t worry so much. It’s a waste of time and energy, and worrying doesn’t change the outcome of anything.
Don’t envy other people their success. They probably go home at night and lie on a couch and cry through the evening news, thinking about what pathetic losers they are and what a mess the world is, just like you do.
Sleep more. That’s probably why you burst into tears at the drop of a hat, younger self. That’s why the building super, who lives next door, looks worried every time he sees you and says, “Are you okay?” Sure, you want to tell yourself the shallowness of your tears comes of being such a sensitive artiste, but honestly, you’re just tired.
Stay out of the sun, like your mother told you to. See above.
Don’t buy that skirt. I wasn’t really a spendthrift when I was younger, but there are still a couple of things I bought and never wore because I never got skinny enough to fit into it and the slightly-off color didn’t get better once I got it home. I still regret the money I wasted on these things. Thirty years later. Hmm. Maybe this one should be let go of your mistakes.
Tell us 5 things that most people don’t know about you.
I’m an inch shorter than I used to be. Even the people who’ve known me since I was in my twenties probably don’t notice, but I do.
I know how to string barbed wire. I grew up on a farm. I’ve also delivered colts and calves with my bare hands (now I think, ew) and know how to milk into a cat’s open mouth. Also into a bucket.
I would sell my soul to have straight hair.
I’ve been married more than once. Not a big deal these days, I know, but when I mentioned something about my first husband in front of my then-seven-year-old son, he was thunderstruck, and couldn’t wait for his father to get home so he could tell him. A fact which my husband knew, of course, but one I frequently forget. That’s how long ago it was.
One of my legs is shorter than the other. So one of my shoes is considerably taller than the other. No wonder the knee on that side gave out early. It had all that extra weight to drag around.
What are the first 5 things you’d have on your bucket list?
Go to Venice. When my son was really little we had a very narrow driveway that was almost impossible to back down without ripping a rearview mirror off the car. He was screaming, I was sweating, and suddenly I realized, “I will never see Venice.” I think that was my version of “Why did I have children?”
Have grandchildren. Now that my own children are almost grown, babies are looking pretty good to me. Just as long as I get to hold them, hand them back when I’ve had enough, and sleep through the night undisturbed. I realize now that’s why my own mother was always on me to have children. I’m sorry I kept her waiting so long, though I did offer more than once to have a couple in my twenties when I hadn’t been married even once yet. She said she could wait.
Pay two college tuitions. Now you know how old my children are.
Read all the books I want to read that I have stacked up around my house. Writing books is way more time consuming than I thought it would be, and it has really cut into my consumption of novels. See “waterproof ipod.”
Finish my second novel. There are days when I think doing that may kill me. But now whenever I have a brush with death—merging onto a Los Angeles freeway, for example, or suffering through a bumpy plane landing in Chicago—I think, but if I die I won’t have to finish my second novel and that really cheers me up. I’m a hundred pages in. Cross your fingers for me.
Thanks so much Julia for taking time out from book number two to join us – my fingers are firmly crossed. I think you’ll have plenty of people agreeing with item 4 on your bucket list, and we’ve all had that skirt/shirt/dress scenario.
o – 0 – o
I can’t urge you enough to get acquainted with Frank, he is “ the peacock in a barnyard full of chickens”.
Meet Frank – a modern nine-year-old boy with the wit of Noël Coward and the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star.
Meet Mimi Banning – a reclusive literary legend and mother to Frank. Mimi has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, keeping her secrets, hiding from the world. Until Alice.
Meet Alice – a level-headed young woman who finds herself thrust into the Banning household, charged with looking after Mimi’s unusual son. In so doing, Alice discovers a part of herself she never knew was missing.
Full of heart and humour, Be Frank With Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.
You can catch up with Julia via