Authors interview Authors:
Diane Johnson is a pretty big deal as far as writers go. She’s the type of writer with multi-book contracts and movie deals, the type of writer whose work you likely own without perhaps knowing it. This is because Diane Johnson is a writer- that’s it, she writes. Writers who have reached her status are often celebrities in their own right- the kind of people you recognize sipping champagne with Lindsay Lohan in some very hip New York nightclub, shakily straddling their obligations of the pen with publicity. But Diane Johnson seems to shun that attention. She is a true academic parsing our profundity in life’s seemingly mundane social rituals. As she explains, she lives the life of a writer and not an artist. Her coterie of work, rather than a reflection of her life, stands alone and speaks all for itself.
I met Diane Johnson at Les Editeurs cafe, an old haunt of the Saint-Germain writers’ scene. She’s just finishing a Proust lesson with her tutor, in French of course.
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RG : What made you want to read Proust in French?
DJ : Everyone wants to read Proust, I think. You know, it’s very amusing. It’s such a wonderful view of 19th century France and since I’m interested in 19th century literature, generally, it’s just kind of an addition to my life.
RG : What is your background? I heard you went to UCLA- is living in LA what got involved in screen-writing?
DJ : I went to a woman’s college in the mid-West, Stephens College, and then I went to UCLA for grad school. I haven’t written many screenplays…only one that was made into a movie. It was Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
DJ : Stanley Kubrick was thinking of making this horror film of my novel the The Shadow Knows, and so we got acquainted while we were thinking that over, and then he decided to do the Stephen King [book] but he just asked me if I would [write the screenplay].
RG : Were you always a writer?
DJ : I started as a child.
RG : You have obviously published a lot- how did that whole process come about?
DJ : I was publishing already by the time I went to [graduate] school. I had married quite young and had little children. I was 19 [when I married] which was sort of the fashion in those days. So I had these four little children and I needed a reason to get out of the house. I took classes at UCLA, and if you take enough classes you get your PhD.
RG : And did you teach?
DJ : Yes, I taught at Davis for a bunch of years. I published a couple of novels [whilst there].
RG : And how old were you when you published your first piece?
DJ : I was about 28, I was maybe 28 when I wrote it… I can’t remember when it was published. So I was continuing my creative writing at the same time that I was in graduate school.
RG : A lot of life has to do with chance. I hadn’t pursued writing for a long time because I feared risking everything on chance. Do you think pursuing and succeeding at writing is a luck of the draw?
DJ : There is luck involved. In my case one of my professors at UCLA was a novelist so he knew an editor, and so on. For me, it was not a difficult process.
RG : Did you just get to work then?
DJ : Yes, it was more like that. I did have the good luck of having a professor who knew an editor he thought highly of and he just kind of sent this novel to this editor. So that was a ‘big break’. But after that, it was cumulative, just doing the work.
RG : After you published your first book, was there a lull until your next publication?
DJ : No, I was just writing the novels and having a literally life. Doing your work and publishing. I write for the New York Review of Books so that’s a sort of the critical side that I quite like.
RG : What have you critiqued lately?
DJ : I have two assignments at the moment- one of them is about [three] books about marriage. Elizabeth Gilbert is one of them- it’s her second book, I guess- and the other is Lori Gottlieb, and [the last] is about a sociologist or statistician of some kind with statistics on American marriage.
RG : I have to say, I’m not surprised that you were chosen to critique a handful of books about marriage. In you ‘trilogy’ [Le Divorce, Le Marriage, and L’Affaire] you paint a very complex picture of marriage. I found this interesting because you have been married for so long.
DJ : I would not have said that my books were about marriage at all- even when it is called Le Mariage… I think that one observes. The story in Le Divorce was a story I heard over and over again from other people about American girls who come to Paris, marry the Frenchman and either get dumped or break up for whatever reason and then they stay. And so that was kind of a universal story. But the things I write about I think about more as political: Americans abroad and what some of their assumptions are.
RG : Are we, as American women who move to Paris and fall in love with a Frenchman, doomed to repeat the same mistake?
DJ : I don’t think so. Sometimes it works out…my daughter however is still married to her French husband. They came here [to Paris] they lived together and they had kids and it seems pretty stable, I hope so. It’s lasted 20 years.
RG : So these books you’re critiquing…
DJ : So, I wanted to actually ask you about something: what really has surprised me about them is the huge change of sensibility since I was getting married and settling down. In, let us say, the ‘world–as-described-by- Betty-Friedan’, where women were expected to stay home and if they worked, they would just work until they got married, or that they would have some career but not really after they had children. It was more what we think of as ‘traditional’. And then with the sort of ‘empowerment of women’, women now expect to work…and not only to work, but they expect to have children [and] to have careers. But Lori Gottlieb presumes that women are now very fussy because they come from a position of strength, they have an agenda and if the guy doesn’t quite measure up to this they will move on.
DJ : It is. It created a stir. [However] what she is saying is nothing revolutionary: it’s ‘look around at the guy you have always liked that you’ve been coffee with for ten years. Yes, he’s losing his hair but why not look again?’
RG : The reason it caused such a stir, I think, is because she wasn’t just saying settle for whatever is around but rather look at the expectations you [as women today] have created. It’s not them, it’s us…
DJ : That’s Lori Gottlieb’s [idea], this idea of entitlement, but also self-regard. People have been taught to think well of themselves and to not sell themselves short, there’s a buzz-phrase which is escaping me. It’s not self-regard, it’s self-esteem, that’s it, that has gone too far and [consequently] people have unrealistic self-esteem. In fact they’re not seeing their own position…and then they’re 30 and their biological clocks are ticking and then they’re 40 and panicked and it has all these consequences that people haven’t thought through because they have unrealistic expectations.
RG : I’m curious where these expectations come from.
DJ : Well, me too because it is a great change in sensibility among women since my time in college.
RG : Sex and the City. They buy into the four single girls living in the city looking for love.
DJ : And having great clothes.
RG : If you ask young women today who is the male character on the show whom they prefer, they will almost always say Mr. Big. For me, he was the worst of the lot. If I met a guy like that on the streets, I would run.
DJ : What I’ve got to do is rent some DVDs of Sex And The City.
RG : I think you’ll better understand what these women want. They run after these aloof men in the hopes that one day, he will turn around and say…
DJ : It is you I always loved.
RG : Funnily enough, that’s actually how the series ended. When Mr. Big finally tells the protagonist Carrie: ‘you’re the one’.
DJ : That is so interesting.
RG : Unlike the tidy ending of Sex and the City episode, in your books, you do a really good job of laying out a story with seemingly disparate elements that always seem to come together in a unique way at the end. As a writer, do you start off with a plan?
DJ : I think as a writer it helps to have as much of a plan [as possible] so you start out with clarity. It’s going to change and you’re gong to make discoveries along the way and there will be a whole lot of changes… but to get yourself started and to know the basic thing, like the narrative, is important because otherwise you’ve got an infinity to work with in terms of subject. You should know your characters, where it’s set and you should know basically what its about, and then maybe there’s something else you want it to be about too, so… set up another kind of plot that’s going to elaborate about some other issue- some related issue.
RG : Do you draw this out?
DJ : I do because I like diagramming, so I try to make a little plan.
RG : Do you know all your characters ahead of time?
DJ : Yeah, pretty much. It helps to get them in place.
RG : You use a lot of recurring characters- do you have a favorite?
DJ : No…I usually like [all of] them. I bond with them and I don’t like to give them up- even the villains.
RG : Just to tie up some loose ends: may I ask what happened at the end of L’Affaire- why did Amy Hawkins (the book’s protagonist) suddenly disappear? She wasn’t done with her studies yet.
DJ : No, she wasn’t done with her studies yet, though she probably had to go back to her ‘real life’ and Paris had just been a fantasy. She’s got this on-going boyfriend that she’ll see, I think it does say they will meet over the years. I didn’t think that she should get married.
RG : So is this [Paris] a fantasy?
DJ : Being a dot com millionaireness is (smiling).
RG : One of the things I really like about L’Affaire is your discussion of French women and their toiletry rituals. Do you do perform ‘toiletry’ as described in the book.
DJ : I suppose the more I’m in France, the more I’m in French life. I don’t think I have any perfume with me [right now] but yes, it becomes the ambience of the zeitgeist.
I think, you get comfortable with your Americaness and you realize you’re not going to be French. But then you find a good balance of taking the best of both.
RG : Do you have French girlfriends?
RG : What do you find different about your friendships with French women and other women.
DJ : They are a little more guarded. And that may be just because they’re more used to competition between women rather than sisterhood.
RG : Why do you think they’re competing?
DJ : For male attention. I have this theory but I don’t know if it’s true because I don’t really know the details… but it’s true in both England and France that the divorce laws and basic protections for women are rather inferior to America. And so, still a great part of their [French women] security is related to their relationship to men. They pretty much have to get married or live together in some sort of [arrangement]. They don’t have security that we [American women] have, they don’t have jobs as high-ranking. [Ffor example] there are hardly any French female executives. They just don’t have as secure a place. I think that’s one of the things sort of in a transition now.
RG : And is that one of the reasons why the French women in your book seem as though they are settling- you often refer to them practical.
DJ : Yeah, I think so. See what you think as you get to know more French women.
RG : What are you working on now?
DJ : I’m working on a kind of a memoir collection; it’s stuff I’ve already written and someone said ‘you should really put that together’. So I started to put that together and I thought ‘well, this is really interesting to do’.
It’s a collection of short pieces that might be about different things like a Morgan car that I once had or a particular uncle or my mother’s hometown and I’m trying to make them fit together in a sort of way that will say something about the mid-West- which is where I grew up- and about the insularity of Americans.
RG : What do you mean by ‘insularity’?
DJ : Just the fact that most Americans- if you look at political movements in America, like the Tea Partyists- they are [comprised] generally [of] people who have never left America, who have no perspective of the world or how other societies might do things better. Trains, for example, that’s my example, in something I have written [about]. They are just very very ‘deleted’ and this is some of the [stuff behind the election of] George Bush- and that was a disaster for the country. So, without sticking to that point specifically, I’m trying to comment on the country.
RG : Do you see yourself as a writer more than an artist?
DJ : I’m a writer. If I understand the distinction, I consider what I do art, because I consider writing an art. I consider myself a professional writer… but it’s about the work. It’s not about living the life of an artist. And I agree that there are people who really want to live an artistic life maybe without doing the work. My concern is not with the artistic life.
RG : I keep hearing people critique my writing saying that there is a restraint. I wonder if I stopped living such a restrained life, would it be reflected in my work?
DJ : If [no restraint] means taking a lot of opium and having opium dreams, that is not good- it’s going to have the opposite effect on your writing. Losing restraint in your writing is something you will have to learn.
I consider for example that there is something restrained in my writing. But I could
say much more in my writing that I could say in person or in a social setting. In other words, you can learn to be self-revealing, or frank, or expressive in writing.
RG : How did you learn that?
DJ : You just get comfortable. First, there are these social restraints, and then you learn to be less inhibited and more expressive just by doing it and bearing it in mind as a goal. So I don’t think you have to wear bohemian clothes.
If you feel like doing that some times, good. But I don’t think its necessary. But if it is necessary then you’ll probably do it. But if it’s not you- you’re not going to pull it off anyway. If you really feel all that inside and you’ve been keeping it back, then you have to learn.
RG : Is that where your stories come from- a kind of internal bubbling that comes to the surface?
DJ : I don’t know where the impulse to write comes from, it comes from somewhere and writers all have it. People all have some urge for self-expression.
RG : So what’s next?
DJ : I’m going to write another novel, after I’m done with the [collection]…I think it’s going to be about an American going back to America, who has lived abroad for a long time and she goes back and finds that there are ‘girls with lists’ [there now].