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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Last Day on the Cape: So Many Towns and Bookstores, So Little Time

I think of myself as at least a tad bit worldly and well-traveled. So it came as a surprise to learn that Cape Cod is not one town. It is many towns, separated at the farthest ends by a two-hour drive.

This would have been good to know, as I’d allotted one day to visit Cape Cod’s indie bookstores. I’d have to forgo Wellfleet and Provincetown, and stretch just as far as Chatham and Brewster.

In my defense, this was an easy mistake to make. I’m an L.A. kid, descended from Eastern European Jews who did not build houses on the Cape in the 1900’s to pass down to me. (And those Cape Cod t-shirts do give off the “it’s-one-place” impression.) For me, summer meant day camps called Cali Camp and Tumbleweeds, and sleep away camps were in Malibu and Big Bear. Family weekends might be on Catalina or Coronado Island, not Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (yes, I’ve now learned the difference between them, too).

So we picked two stores, in Chatham and Brewster, and set out toward Chatham first. We missed a turn and ended up rerouted north. No problem! We’d go first to Brewster. Except we missed the road to Brewster, which forced us to backtrack through a town we hadn’t planned to visit, Orleans. Great news. Orleans has two bookstores.

Picture perfect Main Street Books in Orleans

Main Street Books in Orleans.

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Erin, Lady, and Matt at Booksmith Musicsmith in Orleans.

That was my favorite wrong turn of the trip. (The kids kept playing Go Fish in the minivan. Seen one indie bookstore, seen ’em all, I guess.)

Go Fish.

Go Fish.

We finally arrived at Brewster Bookstore. It was packed with customers, and its summer event schedule was packed, too, with 8 author events in July, and 7 in August, including Alice Hoffman.

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Books and your local lawyer all at one place.

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

After lunch, we headed to Chatham, whose Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore plans a drool-worthy summer of author literary events. Walking in, we were greeted by a vision fitting the final stop: on the front table of the store, Shelter Us shared space with Harper Lee and Anthony Doerr. Be still my heart.

This is a "pinch me" moment.

A “pinch me” moment at Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore in Chatham, Mass.

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Nina and store owner Joanne took a moment away from helping their many customers to pose with Shelter Us.

My family left while I signed books (please go get one from this wonderful store, or order online if you want a signed copy) — and I found them at the ice cream store discussing the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. (True story.)

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We had completed the task. After another hour’s ride, back in our rented house, the kids wanted nothing more than to be left alone to (and with) their own devices. But it was our last night on Cape Cod, the sun had come out, and we were going to get some fresh air or else. We had to scream to get them out the door, and it was worth it.

We swam (even me). We played soccer (even me). We felt the delicious breath of salt air on our skin. We looked over a landscape so different from our California beaches, vibrant green marshes growing out of the sand, inlets of saltwater stretching toward scrub pines. I felt the tiniest bit more familiar with this place called Cape Cod, knowing well I had only scratched its surface.

(And still knowing nothing about that other exotic, mysterious-to-me place known as: The Hamptons.)

A Fleeting Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard

The seagulls accompanied us to Martha’s Vineyard, flying alongside the ferry as it cut through waters like F-15’s guiding in Air Force One. (Or waiting for dropped potato chips.) Our children did not accompany us. They boycotted the Martha’s Vineyard excursion (and its miles of bike riding) in favor of “rest” at home today (aka watching a Harry Potter Marathon). Knowing they would be in J.K. Rowling’s good care, we acquiesced.

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The last time we left our kids alone watching Harry Potter was 4 years ago. We were at a rented cottage in New Hampshire, and we were only 20 yards away on the dock looking at stars. In the quiet night, we heard blood-curdling screams. We ran to the house, and through tears the kids explained that a giant snake in the movie had leaped out, causing them to jump and knock heads, the source of the screaming.

Much has changed since then. They are now old enough for us to say, “Yes, you may stay home. Here’s money, here’s a map of the 1-mile walk to get food and play mini-golf. We’ll see you in six hours.” This is a happy example of “time passing” — it can be a good thing, a fact I don’t admit to often enough.

In Martha’s Vineyard, we rode bikes six miles along an ocean trail to Edgartown, where we ate lobster and drank local blueberry beer.

There was also this

There was also this, the  “Best Bloody Mary Evah.” A meal in itself.

In addition to lovely food and views, Edgartown was charming, historic, high end, busy, and surprising — I never expected to see a Charles Bukowski poem welcoming shoppers into a preppy store.

Bukowski's reach is far.

Bukowski’s reach is far.

Another fun fact about Edgartown: When I first walked into Edgartown Books, a dozen people were lined up patiently waiting to buy their summer reading from booksellers May and Ann. This was a town to return to.

Busy busy Edgartown Books!

Busy busy Edgartown Books!

May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) in front of the stairway to Edgartown Books' second story.

May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) by the stairway to Edgartown Books’ second story.

Then it was time to return. We rode seven miles to the town of Vineyard Haven, and said hello to the good people of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore before rushing to the dock for the five o’clock ferry.

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Booksellers were so busy helping so many customers at Bunch of Grapes, it was impossible to take a photo with them. Good problem.

We queued up with the other cyclists, and sat on the top deck, accompanied back by the seagulls. This time they were hand fed by some passengers.

Made it in the nick of time!

Made it in the nick of time!

During our fleeting visit to Cape Cod, and today Martha’s Vineyard, I am trying to digest these places. I listen and watch, and fill in the blanks with conjecture: there are locals, there are summer people, there are regular weekenders, and there are folks like us — one-off visitors seeking a glimpse of the myth of The Cape, with less than a day to give the Vineyard.

After the ferry delivers us, we return to the rented house in New Seabury and all is well. Harry Potter has commanded the day. Mystery still abounds, there is much still unexplained, and that’s okay. The last installment is coming.

“Beautiful, Hopeful, Gorgeous…” OMG!

It is with humble gratitude (and a helluva a lot of glee!) that I share a review by my fellow novelist, Lorraine Devon Wilke. Check her out, too!

What a beautiful, heartrending, ultimately hopeful story this is! I absolutely loved this book by Laura Nicole Diamond; it is gorgeously written, deeply felt, and set with such detail of character, plot, and emotion that a narrative about motherhood, loss, and the meaning of life becomes a true page-turner.

Told from the point of view of Sarah, a former attorney and married mother of two boys who has lost her six-week-old daughter to crib death, we follow her tumultuous trajectory through grief, self-examination, and a fascination with, and compulsion to help, a young homeless mother she stumbles upon in downtown Los Angeles. Distanced from her husband by a mix of his work demands and her own emotional turmoil, Sarah finds herself so drawn to the young woman that she takes some dubious risks, and makes some questionable choices, that not only cause her to question her own motives, but put her marriage and the life she’s attempted to rebuild in serious jeopardy. How she struggles to resolve each layer and nuance of this tsunami of issues becomes the churning center of Shelter Us.

As a native of Los Angeles, I particularly enjoyed the specificity of her “place,” picturing each turn of the road and image up ahead! As a mother, I reveled in her absolutely spot-on descriptions of the many elements of “mother love,” that powerful emotional world of indescribable, passionate love and never-ending need and frustration. Her illuminations on loss and grief will, no doubt, resonate deeply with anyone who’s lost someone they loved, particularly a young child to unexpected death. In fact, every element of this story rang true and deep, with its resolution built on compassion, forgiveness, and love the most salient of its themes.

A deeply satisfying read that I heartily recommend, I will be sure to follow this writer to whatever is next. 

Launch Day

For almost a year, today’s date, June 8, 2015, has glimmered impossibly in the future: my first novel’s Publication Date. It has the same magical qualities as a baby’s due date.

And, practically speaking, it is almost as reliable a metric for when your baby or book will arrive.*  Stores have been selling Shelter Us for a couple weeks, Amazon has been shipping it, and friends and family who have read it and liked it have told me so. (I’m not keeping a list, ahem.)

Still, I’m human, and humans love to infuse meaning into 24 hour periods — like birthdays, anniversaries, and the 4th of July. I can’t let this date pass without a little huzzah. Besides, seeing as I’ve been talking and talking and talking about this book (I’m so sorry) for so long, the least I could do is share some Launch day trivia with you.

Here’s a glimpse of the glamorous life of a newly published novelist:

  • Wake up foggy-headed and remember that you’re supposed to pick up your eldest child from a sleepover in twenty minutes.
  • Send newsletter announcing Launch Day, asking everyone to please read your book. Again.
  • Throw on sneakers and sweatshirt, lick finger to wipe mascara from under eyelids (why does it never come off all the way?) in case there’s an earthquake and you have to get out of the car.
  • Check e-mail, read a new review!
  • Bring child home, make him breakfast and a sack lunch for camp. Take to camp.
  • Come home. Wash dishes.
  • Do a radio interview! (…while sitting in a closet, because this is the day tree trimmers came.)
  • Closet 1Take child shopping for shorts and bathing suit for camp.
  • Come home. Wash dishes. Again.
  • Let your kids break into the cookies you bought for tomorrow’s Launch Party.
  • Remember to thank your spouse for being unconditionally supportive and amazing, including that last text that dinner is almost ready.
  • Pinch yourself that people are reading your book, and even if you never write another word, this is enough.

There you have June 8, 2015, a big day, and also just a Monday, drizzled with bursts of excitement and the mundane. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any better than this.

 

*Side note: Only 5% of babies are born on their due dates. My second baby was one of those!