Be Frank With Me – out a few weeks ago and already gaining a legion of enthusiastic fans – tells the story of a single mother, her exceptional (and exceptionally difficult) son, and the babysitter who is plunked into their lives. They all have things to learn from each other, however reluctantly.
Mimi Banning is the single mother, a one-hit wonder whose first book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and topped the bestseller charts. She has since retreated into near-total seclusion in the hills of Los Angeles. When she loses all of her savings in a Ponzi scheme, she is forced to finish that elusive second novel, and her kind-hearted publisher sends her an assistant, Alice Whitley. Alice had expected to be helping Mimi with the book but instead gets handed the daily care of 9-year-old Frank. He seems to be “on the spectrum”: brilliant; a sharp dresser; obsessed with old movies; not really able to get along with the other fourth graders at school. This novel is at its best when it is Frank’s story. Frank shows us how to make peace with the world without giving up your essential self – the unusual and sometimes even slightly crazy things that make you you. Hold onto these parts of yourself, the book gently reminds us – and hold onto those you love.
Author Julia Johnson grew up in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and now calls Hollywood home. She’ll be at Parnassus on Monday night at 6:30 to read from her delightful novel.
She kindly agreed to answer a few questions in advance of her reading. She is even brave enough to answer the ultimate Bacon question: What is the meaning of life? (You’ll have to read to the end…)
Questions for Julia:
True or false: Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.
FALSE. The most depressing time is in the middle of the night, when you are suddenly wide-awake for no good reason. There you are, lying very still with your eyes closed, no distractions, desperate for sleep, trying not to think about how much you have to do the next day. Alone in a sea of darkness while the rest of your time zone snores the sleep of the innocent. Next thing you know your mind spirals into how little you’ve accomplished in your life every day up until then, all the things you should have done differently and all the ways you’ve let your family and humanity down. Nothing good comes of this kind of nocturnal soul-searching. It’s like that thing Fitzgerald said: “In the real dark heart of the soul it’s always three o’clock in the morning.”
What’s your favorite day of the week? Favorite weather?
When you work out of your home, like I do, you lose track of the days of the week. It’s one reason I subscribe to so many newspapers. I check one, Tuesday. Check another, yep, Tuesday all right. I check the third one just to be sure. Yes! Tuesday. Sometimes when I don’t have time to check the papers before I catapult from my house to run errands, I figure out it’s the weekend pretty quick because there’s so much traffic in the grocery store parking lot and all these people in front of me on the checkout line. Oh, Saturday, I realize. Dang. So, unlike most people, I prefer weekdays. Probably Tuesdays.
Weather? I live in Los Angeles. Please explain.
Are you a person who believes dreams really do come true? Have you ever had a dream come true?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had all my dreams come true. I have a wonderful husband, the funniest man alive, who I’ve been married to for 25 years. We have two children who are wonderful and generally pretty nice to me, even though I’m sure there are times they want to run screaming into the street every time I launch into some story they’ve heard a million times before. I have a house with a roof that doesn’t leak. Although you should probably check back with me on that if El Nino actually hits. The rain that falls during those storms is the forty-days-and-forty-nights kind. We lose power. The old-school phones go out. Roads flood. We have to find our rainboots. The right one and the left one. Dust them off, hope they don’t leak, either.
So, weather, yes. I have some dim memories of that, now that I think about it.
Favorite guilty pleasure?
Cookies. Movies in the middle of the day. Diet soda. I would say naps, but naps are an important part of my creative process. When I was writing my book, if I could swing it I tried to have one thirty-minute nap every day at two o’clock. You can’t imagine how many answers to narrative questions I’d been struggling with came to me during those naps. Your brain reshuffles the deck when you’re asleep, and voila! You wake up with the answers to the questions that had you stumped.
Most hated chore?
Unloading the dishwasher. It only takes five minutes to do, but I hate it. My husband hates it, too. Why? The dread is so much worse than the doing. But honestly, I’m no fan of housework. My sister-in law finds it soothing. I love being at her house. What an oasis of calm and order! But as nice as it is to visit that, I don’t come home itching dust my baseboards. I wish I did. I have always been famously untidy. I’m not as bad as I was when I was younger, living alone in New York. Back then, my bedroom looked like it had just been ransacked by thieves. My college friends found it hilarious that, for a while there, I worked at a magazine called Good Housekeeping.
What did you like to read growing up?
I read the usual stuff: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Bobbsey Twins. But what I remember loving most of all was P.G. Wodehouse. I think I read every one in the Argie Cooper Public Library in Shelbyville when I was in my early teens. After I discovered his books on the bottom shelf, there among the Ws, I’d lie on my stomach on the wall-to-wall carpet in front of them, counting the ones I hadn’t read yet and understanding for the first time what people mean when they say, “All good things must come to an end.” Wodehouse made me laugh so hard. His characters were more effervescent than a freshly-popped bottle of champagne.
Did you ever read books you weren’t supposed to?
I’m not sure what kind of book that would be. It wasn’t like they had a porn section at the Argie Cooper Library. My mother, who was a doctor, left a lot of graphic medical magazines lying around the house, but grisly nightmare-inducing stuff. Unless you enjoy looking at pictures of people’s faces rotting off, those were something no kid should read. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that, as an adult, I don’t like zombies. Too many bad memories of lunches ruined by Journal of the American Medical Association cover photos of necrotizing skin infections when you thought the magazine you’d picked up to flip through while you ate your grilled cheese sandwich was Seventeen.
If you could choose one word that you hope other people would use to describe you, what would it be? Okay, one word is too hard. How about three words?
Actually, one word people would use is easy. “Giddy.” The other two words I’d hope they’d use would be “hilarious” and “kind.”
What is your greatest virtue?
As a grown-up, I have to finish something I’ve started. It makes me feel sick to leave anything hanging. That’s probably why I never started a novel until this one. I didn’t feel like I had much to say that anybody would be interested in. Then I was walking down my block one day when I was fifty years old and the idea for the book I was supposed to write came to me. By the time I reached the corner, the whole story had unfurled itself for me, right down to the last line of it. Of course, I didn’t exactly know how I’d get to that last line, but I knew myself well enough by then to know I could count on myself to hang on until I did. Don’t think I assumed it was going to be any good; but you know, it turned out all right. Here we are, only six short years later, with my book in bookstores! It all seems so easy now!
For the record, that last line? The last line of the next-to-last chapter. The last line of the final chapter is really so much better. No flipping ahead, please. Earn it the hard way, like I did. It will only take you a tiny fraction of the time it took me to get there.
What is the most overrated virtue?
Tidiness. See above.
Do you have any vices, or even just annoying habits?
My vice is at the root of my annoying habit. I burp a lot. I like my water like my fiction, fizzy. There are repercussions.
What do you worry about or fear?
I try not to waste my time worrying about things I can’t control, or being afraid of things that might or might not happen. However, I do love dystopian novels. I’m like your grandmother with her soap operas. Why waste time worrying about your own problems when other people’s fictional ones are so much more fun to think about? See, things could be so much worse! If there were a section in a bookstore labeled “YA Comic Dystopia,” I’d camp out in front of that.
How do you relax?
I used to run seven miles 3 days a week, until I blew my knee out right before Thanksgiving and had to have surgery. Mind you, it wasn’t like running seven miles was relaxing while I was doing it; but afterward, once I got through groaning and had showered up, I felt great. You suffer to get the reward. This reminds me of the old joke about the Calvinist who falls down the stairs, then gets up, brushes himself off and says, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
What makes you happy?
I like to see people enjoying what they’re doing. In the movies, for example, I love actors like Channing Tatum or Chris Pratt, who are so filled with joy they almost can’t contain it. That’s why they’re stars! I like talking to my husband and his friends because so many of them are so unbelievably funny (they’re comedy writers) and they love making each other laugh. You can see a joke taking hold of them before it makes it all the way to their lips – their eyes sparkle as what they’re about to say bubbles up inside them in a way that’s delightful to behold.
Also snacks. Snack make me very happy. Getting in bed at night to go to sleep. Every night when I crawl in, right before I put my head down I say, “Hello, friends,” to my pillows. That’s how I know I’m middle-aged. I’m always tired.
Tell me a little about the journey from Shelbyville to Hollywood.
When I was a kid, we lived in the middle of town in a house that had a yard big enough, if you were the kind of person who didn’t care what the neighbors thought, to keep a couple of horses in it. We were probably the only family in America that turned the garage back into a stable. There was a cattle gap across our driveway that the horses jumped regularly so they could gallop through our neighborhood because they thought it was so much fun for us to chase them. Finally, my parents bought a farm outside town. My father took the backseat out of his car, rolled the windows down and stuffed my pony in there – we drove her out to her new unsuburban home with her head hanging out one window, and her tail out the other. I think my sister may have ridden the big horse out to the farm since we couldn’t wedge that one into the car and I don’t think she was quite old enough to drive. Once we lived on the farm, we lived on the farm. I never learned to ride a bike or swim, but I did know how to string barbed wire. Which is not half as much fun as it’s cracked up to be, which is no fun at all.
I went to college at the University of Virginia. I took a lot of writing classes there because writing was easier for me than, say, nuclear physics. By the time I was a senior I was taking graduate writing courses and holding my own, so I applied to an MFA program at Boston University. It snowed a lot there. In Boston I discovered, I hated two things: the cold, and D.H. Lawrence. I never wrote that final paper, never completed my degree – I’m still a credit short. Something unfinished! I try not to think about it.
A lot of my college friends had moved to New York, so I did, too. Thanks to a miracle and a friend who’d been in my graduate program, I got a job in the fiction department at Mademoiselle magazine. I realized there how tough it would be to write novel, so I became a magazine writer instead. I met my husband in New York. He was a temp when I met him, but I married him anyway because he was completely irresistible. Eventually he got a job writing for “Beavis and Butthead.” After that ended, he got offered a job on a great show in Hollywood called “NewsRadio.” I got pregnant the day we moved here. We had a son, and then a daughter. He got a job working on “Frasier,” which shot on the Paramount lot. I loved it there. That lot was all old Hollywood, all day long. I still miss that lot. Not least of all because he could walk there.
What is the meaning of life?
I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but if I were a tree, I’d be a jacaranda. Jacarandas have ferny leaves, a graceful shape and bloom purple in the spring. There’s no better time to be in Los Angeles than when the jacarandas are blooming.