Writer’s Life: Julia Claiborne Johnson

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When you meet Julia Claiborne Johnson (and I really hope you do), you will be instantly charmed. She is authentic, humble, and though she hates speaking in public, she pulls you in with her humor and vulnerability in a way that makes her unforgettable. The same can be said of her debut novel, BE FRANK WITH ME, which launches today.  If you are fortunate enough to attend a book event, please go. You’ll make her so happy, and you’ll be smiling all the way home, too. Meet Julia:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

What I have learned from parenting is that I know nothing, though I thought I knew everything. I mean, once you’ve been a kid, you think you understand exactly what it must be like to raise one. So I was an idiotically confident parent in my twenties, when I didn’t actually have any children. Flash forward to my forties, and having kids, and feeling absolutely incompetent when it came to raising them. That’s why there’s an older mother and a younger woman helping her temporarily parent the kid in my book. They’re the two versions of me as a parent, the idealist and the exhausted.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

My very favorite place to work in my house is our guest room. There’s a guest in it more often than there isn’t, but when it’s empty, man oh man, my whole family fights over it. For one thing, it has the most comfortable bed in the house. That’s my husband’s favorite place to work. For me, I like the desks. There are two of them—a big one where I can spread out papers, and a little one where I can put my computer. I sit at the little desk and look out my window at the fountain in our garden where the birds come to drink and bathe. I love it there. It’s also very tidy, because it’s the guest room, and all the furniture is nice, because it’s the guest room. It has its own bathroom. Sometimes I pretend it’s my studio apartment, and I live in it all alone, in Manhattan. I realize all this is crazy since there would be no birdbath outside my studio apartment in New York since when I was young and living by myself I always lived in some dangerous not-Manhattan neighborhood of New York and cried every night when I came home from work because I lived by myself and was sure I always would. No birds, no birdbaths, just stray cats fighting in the yard all night and waking me up so I could cry some more. That thing Fitzgerald said was right: “In the real dark heart of the soul it’s always three o’clock in the morning.”

If you had a motto, what would it be?

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” The thing I’m going to have engraved on my gravestone is “I had a coupon.”

Who inspires you?

You know who inspires me? This is a horrible thing to say, but it’s all the bullies and the popular mean girls in grade school, who laughed at me for being clumsy and chubby, for having to eat food that was different from everybody else in school (allergies) and who picked me last for every team and never invited me to slumber parties. I’ll show them! Clearly, in my heart I’m still nine years old. Some scars don’t heal, I guess.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I just read The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee. Guess what it’s about? Expatriates in Hong Kong. It was fascinating. Then I went back and read her first novel, The Piano Teacher. Also terrific. My favorite book on earth is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. I also love I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. And one of the best and most helpful books for me as a writer was the biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. I learned so much from that.

Julia Claiborne Johnson worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before marrying and moving to Los Angeles, where she lives with her comedy-writer husband and their two children. Connect with Julia on  Facebook and Twitter. See her Book video  or read an excerpt from Be Frank With Me.

BE FRANK WITH ME on Amazon or Indiebound  

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Philadelphia, Stories

When I was a student at Penn, most of my activities were limited to a square 1/2 mile of its West Philly campus — classes, rehearsals, libraries, parties. Occasionally I ventured downtown. There was the (impressive but ineffective) rally for Michael Dukakis in front of City Hall. There was my weekly SEPTA ride to an internship at the Women’s Law Project. And there was lovely, leafy Rittenhouse Square, an area I had no particular business in, but which appealed to my west coast eyes and ears with its older, sophisticated sensibility.

Flash forward (ahem) years to 2015, and I walked up to the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square to see its window filled with my first novel. BN Window

It’s hard to put that feeling into words. I’ll try, and then I’ll let the pictures tell the tale.

When I graduated from Penn and returned home to Los Angeles, I could not have known that some day I would marry a boy from Pennsylvania, that his family would become my extended family, and that they would be some of my biggest supporters. Time passes so swiftly that I can sometimes forget I’m not a “newcomer” still, that I’ve known them nearly 19 years.

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My Philadelphia PR team (and cousins) extraordinare, Sharla Feldscher of SFPR…

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…and PR maven and super cousin Hope Horwitz of SFPR.

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Happy happy joy joy.

Philadelphia book signing!

Suzanne Myers from Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Philadelphia joined us, accepting a donation to the agency from book sales that evening.

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Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, was in attendance!

I talked about the connections between Shelter Us and the values Jewish Family & Children’s Services represents, helping others, welcoming the stranger. One woman pointed out that being “a stranger” does not always refer to the stereotypical outsider I’d referred to — a homeless person, an immigrant — and that money can mask stranger status. She choked up. I did, too.

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I kinda see my Dad’s face in my expression.

At Q&A time, my son asked: “Did you ever have doubts about some of the things you included in the book?”

Yes, I answered. Doubt abounds. But when the time came to finish, I had to let it be. I hope I modeled something for him and his brother. To follow elusive dreams. To celebrate achievements. And to be grateful for the people who celebrate with you.

My favorite readers.

My favorite readers.

Thank you, thank you, one and all.

Humbly yours,

Laura/Mom.

Recommended Summer Reading: “a perfect book for the summer…more than fluff”

I woke up to a foreign sound in LA — rain. Normally I’m thrilled when we are doused. When a storm broke out last month, I ran out to greet the downpour, singing and dancing in the puddles. I have witnesses.

But today? The one day that I have been nagging everyone to go out and attend a book party? Really, rain?? Don’t you know how fragile we Angelinos are? What’s it going to take to get my peeps out to the bookstore tonight? Champagne, wine, festivities, cookies, and THIS REVIEW!

I was drawn to Shelter Us by Laura Nicole Diamond because I love family dramas. Sarah Shaw is the stay-at-home mom of 2, well 3 if you count her daughter that only lived a few short weeks. Though it has been a few years, Sarah has not been able to pull out of her grief and it is putting a strain on her marriage. But this isn’t the part that captured my attention. It was the homeless woman with a small child that captured mine and Sarah’s attention.

I knew how Sarah felt as she passed by the young woman. I so want to help someone who I see is in need. Sarah feels an extra attachment to the young woman because the death of her daughter. She can’t get the woman out of her mind. She must do something. Her greatest desire is to bring her home and give her shelter. Yet her husband isn’t keen on the idea obviously.

The story is told through the eyes of Sarah. A woman who cares deeply for her family, even the child who didn’t live to see her first birthday. However, it is the all consuming grief and guilt that keeps her from fully being in the moment with her family. It’s all she can do just to go through the motion. Until she meets Josie, the homeless mother. This may just be what Sarah needs to pull herself past her grief.

The story is so well told that you begin to think of Sarah as more than a character in a book. She could be the woman you see in the pick up line at preschool or the mother sitting on the park bench as her children play in the sand box.

Normally I would not think of a story like this as a summer read. I typically think of fun and fluff. Yet, I do think Shelter Us would be a perfect book for the summer. There are layers of emotional depth without being too heavy. There are enough sweet moments to balance out the grief and guilt. The writing also has a beauty to it that makes the story flow effortlessly.

If you are looking for more than fluff this summer, then I highly recommend Shelter Us by Laura Nicole Diamond.

I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight!

With deep appreciation to the reviewer and my community,

Laura