When Hollywood, trivia, fashion, and silly jokes go into martini shaker and produce a novel: an interview with Julia Clairborne Johnson

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Story By: Pinky Hossain

As I near the end of my fourth year, I am forced to contend with the repercussions of one of the most important decisions I have made thus far: being a creative writing major. Yes, it comes with its fair share of preconceived notions, like a future involving the barista, the cardboard box, the mother’s basement, and all the rest, but there is one thing that every writer will tell you: they are crazy about writing. That’s what I saw in Julia Clairborne Johnson, a UVA alumna who just published her new book, Be Frank with Me. She reaffirmed a lot of things about writing for me — how experience shapes your writing, how much toiling is involved in the writing process, and how money can’t be the reason that you write. As Julia put it, “Novelists don’t make a lot of money. Shocker, I know, glad you were sitting down.”

Julia was an English major who figured out pretty quickly that writing was easy for her. Writing stories on her mother’s typewriter since she was a little girl, Julia knew she was a writer from an early age. She took a lot of writing classes at UVA, back when the fiction concentration of the English major didn’t even exist (it’s only about three years old, actually). Her professors placed her in graduate-level English courses. After graduating from UVA, she wrote and worked for Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines, which are experiences that have influenced the descriptions of one of her more eccentrically dressed characters, Frank Banning. Now she lives in Los Angeles with her children and her comedy-writer husband. We spoke over Skype, and Julia, wearing round red-framed glasses, made me feel completely at ease. She was as funny and as down-to-earth as her novel.

Be Frank With Me was a delight to read. Mr. Vargas sends twenty-four-year-old Alice Whitley on a mission to take care of renowned author M.M., or Mimi, Banning’s ten-year-old child, Frank, while she writes a new novel. All of the characters had such a distinctive feel to them. Alice idealizes every new experience. M.M. Banning is a withered author, troubled that her book Pitched, which gained instant success, caused fans to stalk her in her glass home. From faking a seizure at school to setting part of their house on fire, the various characters go through antic after antic, growing with each other in the process. Clearly, Julia had put a lot of passion and effort into the novel. Frank’s sheer breadth of knowledge about old Hollywood and his quirky way of dressing had to have taken hours of thought and research. I was curious about this.

What kind of research did you undergo to write your novel?

Here’s where I’m outed as somebody who knows way too much trivia. Because I was a magazine writer, I had a lot of useless information. I had been a fashion writer, so fashionistas would come in and explain fashion to me. It made me think about how Frank could stand out – if he was flamboyant with his way of dressing, it could make him more of a target in school. It was so fun to write his clothes. My husband is also a comedy writer, and we’ve always loved humor. It’s fascinating how comedy works. I imagine lots of comedians don’t have good people skills, and when they were young they realized, “Oh if I make my bullies laugh they won’t beat me up.” That’s why Alice is trying to teach Frank jokes – as a survival mechanism.  

So I had a background in fashion and comedy. Plus, we live in Hollywood, so I know a lot of Hollywood trivia. Hollywood, trivia, fashion, and silly jokes. All of these things kind of went into a martini shaker and came out the way it was.

What I also enjoyed about Be Frank with Me was its strong female characters. The women in the novel –a mother who worked hard for her child, and a decisive young woman– carried the novel, while the men, save for Frank, were physically absent for the most part. Xander comes in later as the flaky, albeit attractive, handyman, but his character development seems to pale in comparison to Alice’s. While Alice learns from her strife, Xander leaves when situations get too tense. When asking Julia about the female dynamics in her novel, Julia commented that “girls just have it more together than guys do.” I wouldn’t disagree.

Naturally, I wondered:

What has your experience been like as a woman in the writing field?

I have the perfect story for you for this question. My husband is a comedy writer, as you know, and he’s the funniest man who’s ever lived. During a phone interview one time, this woman says, this female person, says to me: does your husband write your jokes? And I was like, what? With your lady mouth you’re  asking me this question? I think what you’re trying to ask me is if it helps that I live in a house where comedy is valued, but no he doesn’t write my jokes. That was so unbelievably galling to me.

Yes, that would have angered me too. But I admire Julia’s perseverance. She pointed out the value of actually finishing a novel. Having talent is half of it. You can have a wonderful creative talent, but it will mean nothing if you don’t do anything with it, says Julia.

“There are some writers that can’t write themselves out of a wet paper bag, and there are the people that can write some beautiful sentences that don’t have a story, and there are some that have a good story sense. To have someone that could do both, to have a good sense of story structure and that can write a good sentences is rare. When people come up to me and say, “I want to write a novel,” I always want to say, “Okay, well, why don’t you?” In some books I read I think ‘This book is terrible; how did it get published?,’ but then it dawned on me. They finished it. The ability to write a novel is almost as important as talent. The ability to finish something almost matters more than anything.”

As an aspiring writer, I had to ask flat out:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I was taught by Richard Yates who, when he was fourteen, retyped all of The Great Gatsby to internalize the rhythms of a novel. I thought, oh, that’s a brilliant idea. So I took my favorite novel, called Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and had a notebook and wrote down what happened on every page. It really helped me see how a story fit together. Why certain characters came when they did or why a point came before another.

The hardest part was getting an agent. Sweet mother of God, how was I going to get an agent? It took me three years to finish the novel and I finished it at eleven on a Wednesday night. Your inhibitions aren’t up like they are in the cold light of day, so I thought why not find out who Ann Patchett’s agent is and write her a letter, so she could take me as her client? If you ever have a cover letter that has even a glimmer of life in it, it would help. I had a teacher when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, so I asked him if he was willing to read a small part of my novel and write me a letter of recommendation because I had nothing. He said okay. I sent him chapter eight and he said, “Oh my god, Julia, it’s better than Dickens.” In my cover letter I wrote who I was and what the book was about, and Thursday, the next day, Ann Patchett’s agent had written me back. My advice for anyone writing is to find an agent who has had a client whom you admire.

I’m grateful for the time Julia offered me. Not only did I learn that there was once a time when you had to camp out all night in front of Lambeth to get a lottery ticket to live there, but Julia also offered wonderful practical writing suggestions. Finishing a novel being almost as important as a talent for writing, emulating another author’s style, contacting an author’s agent. I admired the way Julia talked about the characters in Be Frank with Me as well; they were alive, breathing beings because she spent so much time with them. Most of all, Julia showed me that authors pay attention. She had an acute sense of her experiences that culminated in her novel.