Good to Know
In our exclusive interview, Johnson shared some fun facts about herself:
"I worked for the UCLA library for a few months when I was 19 -- otherwise I never had a job until I became a professor, and I know people debate whether that is a job -- perhaps it's a privilege or a scam. So I'm not sure I've ever had a real job. My writing comes from life and from books, as everyone's does, and from my head. I try to nourish my head with art and wandering...."
"I am rather domestic and like to cook and sew, though not to do housework. And I love to ski. To wander around. To read. Am interested in animals and politics."
"I am always appalled when people send me books that they think I will like because of what the books I write are like. I almost always think they are too light and silly, and it rather hurts my feelings to see what people imagine. I don't really like to read novels -- I find it more amusing to write them to read them, but maybe this is only because reading them gets in the way of what I am trying to write. I am reading Max Weber at the moment, and some early Henry James -- The American. I am fond of a lot of people and try to make time to see them. Life seems to sweep by at such speed...."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Diane Johnson had to say:
Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. This very long doorstop of a novel has been on my night table for several years, very much beloved by a number of friends, but daunting in size; it ought to be a wonderful luxury to take on a long, sandy vacation.
The latest Henning Mankell mystery. There must be a mystery on every list, and these creepy, well-written works, set in Sweden, with a morose but attractive inspector, will fill the bill; I hope there will be a new one by this summer, because I've read them all up to here.
Claire Tomalin's Whitbread Prize-winning biography of Samuel Pepys. An interesting English eccentric, and an interesting period of English history.
Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey. Somehow I was away when this came out, and so I missed this work by the addicting author of Criminals, among other strange and wonderful novels.
Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, last year's National Book Award-winning novel.
Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life, a novel that I recommend to others because I admired it so much myself.
As every summer, Ruskin's Elements of Drawing, with the intention of following his precepts and learning to draw. Even if I don't, I enjoy Ruskin's tutelary, and sometime hectoring tone, and his analyses of art. So few discussions illuminate technique, and he directs the reader's attention to aspects of drawing that enhance one's future enjoyment of other people's drawing too.
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country. One of Wharton's most amusing works. Could she possibly be a satirist, at the least a comedienne of manners, misunderstood because of a couple of weepier novels? This, the story of Undine Spragg, has never seemed more topical. Do we Americans never learn anything?
Both volumes of the Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne by Helen Marx Books. These witty observations cover the French revolution, the Napoleanic period, happenings in France, England and Italy- the Comtesse gives a fascinating look at the early nineteenth century at the various courts she belonged to.
Any or all of the mordant Utopiana -- or anti-Utopian -- novels of J. G. Ballard.
In the summer of 2003, Diane Johnson took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite book, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
The Three Musketeers, or else The Count of Monte Cristo, two childhood passions that excited me about adventure, travel, history, and the possibilities of storytelling. These books were so far from my life in a small midwestern town and opened up the world.
What are your all-time favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?
The two childhood favorites mentioned above -- For the same reasons. Kafka's The Trial -- For its allusive and elusive allegory, and its modernity.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- For its brilliant form and enduring charm.
Brontë's Wuthering Heights -- For its power and strangeness and frank romanticism.
The Collected Stories of Thomas Mann -- For the great writing and powerful
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- For its American beauty and formal perfection.
A House in Order by Nigel Dennis -- A haunting allegory that has influenced my writing.
Passage to India by E. M. Forster -- For a tone I admire enormously.
The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutour -- Translated from the French, a tour de
force that any novelist must be in awe of.
Favorite films?The Shining
Operas -- especially all Strauss and Mozart operas, and, lately, Rossini, who fortunately wrote a whole ton of them.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It would be reading Habermas or someone like that I've been meaning to read, perhaps Walter Benjamin. I think it's fruitless for book clubs to read novels, where there are so many possible interpretations and quarrels -- though I'm happy when they read mine.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to get cookbooks, and I usually give some novel I've been enjoying myself; mysteries by Carl Hiaasen, say, or great cookbooks, most recently Patricia Wells's The Paris Cookbook, or Judy Rodgers's Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
The authors of the books mentioned above. Of contemporary writers, I'm a big admirer or Don DeLillo and Carol Shields, just to mention two whose books I've been reading this week.
What are you working on now?
The third novel of the French/American trilogy, of which Le Divorce and Le Mariage are two. This one is called L'Affaire and takes place mostly in a ski resort in the Alps.
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|Diane Johnson Home
Good to Know
|True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, 1972|
|Shadow Knows, 1974|
|Lying Low, 1979|
|Terrorists and Novelists, 1982|
|Dashiell Hammett: A Life, 1983|
|Persian Nights, 1987|
|Health and Happiness, 1991|
|Le Divorce, 1997|
|Le Mariage, 2000|