Interview: Maureen Johnson
Current Mood: geeky
Current Song: These Days by Jennifer Paige
Books. Intelligent humor. The Westing Game. The Great Gatsby. Freedom of speech. Cary Grant. Shiny objects. These are a few of Maureen Johnson's favorite things.
I share these interests. I also share Maureen's books with friends and customers on days that end in Y. When I had the opportunity to interview her, I took it. I ran with it. I jumped at the chance.
Then I stopped running and jumping, walked back home, wrapped my questions up into an oddly-shaped package, stuck a bow on top, and presented it to Maureen.
You've known since you were little that you wanted to be a writer. What was your first completed manuscript/novel as an adult?
Well, I wrote two books for practice. One was for a friend. The other lives in a drawer. They aren't for publication. They really were just exercises for me to try things out. I put myself through a kind of self-imposed writing boot camp when I graduated college, writing four to ten hours a day, usually when I was supposed to be doing something else. Like work.
Can, and have! That's where a lot of my time in college went.
Your first novel, The Key to the Golden Firebird, follows three sisters as they react to the loss of their father. As an only child, do you find it easy or difficult to write about families with multiple children?
I didn't find it all that difficult. I just based it on my relationships with friends and college roommates -- and simple observation. I guess the question really is: did I do it well? Only people with siblings can really answer that.
Your second novel, The Bermudez Triangle, includes my favorite of your characters, Parker. When populating your books with witty supporting characters, do you ever have to struggle with them, begging them not to overtake the story?
Parker would be hopelessly flattered by that. (Though Keith Dobson from 13 Little Blue Envelopes would take it as a matter of course, except he would clarify that he is a leading man.) I'm not quite sure what the answer to this is, except to say that the chatty ones are coming more and more to the forefront. Jane Jarvis [from Devilish] was my first first-person narrator, and I found it very easy just to let her go on and on and on. In fact, I cut tons from that book where Jane was just going on and on and on to no particular end. Suite Scarlett [to be released 2008] has a slightly more expanded cast, and most of them are talkers. It can be hard to balance the scenes when they just won't shut up, but I try.
You, like Parker, like shiny objects. So do I, and so did one of my cats, Hollywood.
It's just sensible to like shiny objects. And cats are ALWAYS sensible. This is why I have one as a lawyer. His name is C. Casto Fangola.
Your travels in Scotland led to the story of 13 Little Blue Envelopes. How did you come up with the idea of a traveling scavenger hunt perpetuated by letters from a dead aunt?
When I was growing up, The Westing Game was one of my favorite books. (Still is. See below.) I'd always wanted to do something that involved piecing together a puzzle like that. The first germ of the idea came from an editor. We were talking about what I should do for my next book. There would be 13 letters. But I had no idea what would be in them or how any of this would work. So from there, I spent weeks sitting at home on top of a massive map of Europe -- it's about eight feet wide. I crawled all over that thing, drawing lines, scrawling notes about what could be in each place.
The book changed dramatically as I worked on it. The letters built to a totally different conclusion. I started to feel after a while like I was on the same quest as Ginny -- that I would some day just be told what was in the thirteenth envelope. And one day, somewhere in the middle of what I think was the second draft, it hit me. Looking back at the various drafts, it's astonishing how much that book changed as time went on.
You dipped your toes in the fantasy genre with Devilish, which also had a basis in reality: your years at Catholic school. It also had lots of cupcakes. Would anyone or anything ever tempt you into making a Faustian deal? (Somehow, I think you'd have more fun being the tempter than the temptee.)
I think I could be tempted to do something quasi-evil for something quasi-worth it. For example, for permanent upgrades on Virgin Atlantic, I might consider publicly extolling the acting skills of David Hasselhoff. "The Hoff's got it," I would say, sipping a fruity drink while reclining on my flat bed seat. "He's the new Brando. And yes, I will have that manicure."
Girl At Sea is swimming into the hearts of readers. When did Clio's tale first come to mind?
I had two huge obsessions as a child. (Well, I had more than two, but these were big ones, and they were related.) They were: Pompeii and the Titanic. The Pompeii one came from a set of very old "Book of Knowledge," probably from around 1915 or 1920. It had been at my great-grandparents' house, and a few volumes of it ended up with us. I found an article in it about Pompeii. I read it over and over, committing the pictures to memory. I'm not sure where the Titanic thing really came from (this was long before the movie, or even before the ship was found). I read about it absolutely everywhere I could. Those were kind of the starting points. I starting piecing together a story about a shipwreck that involved finding one specific object, and spent months reading books on scuba diving, ancient Egypt, lost world theory, and maps (making, theft, collection).
While working on the book, I did two things to aid my research. One, I went to Pompeii, which was EXTREMELY exciting for me. (Nerd. I know. But then I came back and went to the Italian beach and had wine, so there you go.) I also took a scuba lesson. This was not something I was very happy about, as I have a very troubled relationship with the water. It is safe to say that I was the worst scuba student they ever had.
Have any pirates or jellyfish weighed in Girl at Sea?
No pirates have. I don't know about the jellyfish, because I am usually too busy running from them. I often joke about my fear of jellyfish, but I should come out and say that it is very, very real and not a joke at all.
Congratulations on your book deal with Scholastic. What are you working on now?
I'm thrilled about being at Scholastic, and have signed on for several books. Though I have been excited when working on all the books in the past . . . [this book] is really a big deal to me. The book is called Suite Scarlett. It's the story of a family (specifically, a girl named Scarlett who is a part of that family) who run a hotel in New York City. A guest named Mrs. Amberson has just arrived at the hotel. Mrs. Amberson was a Broadway diva in the 70s, and she's returned to New York to write her memoirs. What she does instead is hire (enslave) Scarlett. Soon, she fabulously hijacks everything in Scarlett's life, including her brother Spencer's play and her would-be boyfriend. I can't say much more (though there is a lot more to tell) as I'm rewriting it now, and things are in the process of changing.
What do you think of your shiny book covers? (Yes, we dare discuss the "headless girl" photo cover trend.)
I've gotten a lot of flak about the cover of 13 Little Blue Envelopes. I had nothing to do with it, but I understand the complaints.
The cover is really just the shiny thing that gets the reader's attention in the store. Think about it -- not that many people read as it is. And when you get in the store, you are literally faced with multiple thousands of choices, all of these carefully crafted pieces of art that are designed to entice you. They may have no relation to what's between the covers. They exist as a kind of "pick me! pick me!" device. None of it is arbitrary. Artists, marketing people, sales people . . . they all sit around for hours debating, designing, re-designing. The headless girl (or really, eyeless girl), I am told, is to give you the chance to use your imagination for the rest of the face.
That being said, I don't like the eyeless girl very much, and I never really felt like the picture was a good representation of Ginny. I appreciate the effort that went into making it, but the super-thin midriff shot wasn't really in keeping with the book's themes. I try to write about strong women, and that picture always just said to me, "I am thin, and I wear jeans. Behold, my abs." I would have preferred a different photo.
I'm glad to report that Scholastic has gotten me involved from the get-go with the cover of the new book. They agreed right away to no more eyeless photos. I've been looking at sketches for the cover, and they look fantastic. I've also had a hand in choosing models and talking about the pose, the outfit and the setting of the shoot, so that it reflects the description given in the book.
Note: The day after we posted this interview, Amazon revealed the cover of Suite Scarlett.
You are also a fan of classic film stars, such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Would you ever write a story set in the movie industry?
It's possible. There is a strong nod to that era in Suite Scarlett (though it takes place in the present). Also, I watched It Happened One Night when I started Girl At Sea, and I really took a page from that film -- the tone, the relationship. I like to think of it as the first YA archeological mystery-screwball comedy. I think this genre is going to go HUGE!
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
I have no idea, which is why I always avoid this question. There's no way to decide. How about I tell you the ten favorite books I can see here from my desk, right now? Because I keep some of the really good ones close by.
1. The Great Gatsby (possibly my favorite since the age of 15)
2. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (The first "real" book I remember reading, in a shortened edition for children--notable for its spectacular use of shiny things, including the shiny silver teapot in which Holmes sees Watson's reflection. I can still see where I was sitting when I read that and remember thinking that this Holmes guy was someone I was going to like.)
3. The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (Plus any and all Jeeves stories. This is just a very good one.)
4. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (and the follow-up, Around the World with Auntie Mame)
5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
6. Persuasion by Jane Austen
7. Yes . . . Harry Potter (By that I mean all the Harry Potter books. There is no book called Yes, Harry Potter! That sounds like a musical.)
8. Benchley at the Theater, a collection of Robert Benchley's theater criticism
9. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson
Many thanks to Maureen Johnson for talking with me.
This interview has been approved by Free Monkey.
Author Spotlight: Maureen Johnson
The Bermudez Triangle: Too Cool for School?
Book Review: Girl at Sea
Book Review: Suite Scarlett
Free Monkey World Tour: Girl Meets Monkey
Free Monkey World Tour: Take Your Monkey to Work Day
Today's WBBT Schedule
Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas
Micol Ostow at Shaken & Stirred
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland