As I re-read Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Better Luck Next Time, to prepare to interview her, the name of one of the book’s characters, Emily Sommer, jumped out at me. The novel follows Emily’s six-week stay at the Flying Leap in 1938, a Reno dude ranch catering to women seeking to take advantage of the city’s lax divorce laws.
The fictional Emily shares a name with a real-life friend to both me and Julia — Emilie Sommer, a book buyer at East City Bookshop and the star of a previous What To Read If Q&A.
Julia confirmed the shared name wasn’t a coincidence. She named the characters in Better Luck Next Time after bookstore employees across the country. It’s one of the many delightful nuggets Julia shared during our interview (it turns out that her dad worked at a dude ranch for divorcées like the one in the book and there’s also a character in Frasier named after her).
Her books Better Luck Next Time and Be Frank With Me, about an eccentric Hollywood-obsessed 9 year-old, his babysitter and novelist mother, are warm, big-hearted, funny novels perfect for fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette or The Rosie Project.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your path to writing and publishing?
I wanted to be a writer as a kid, but I didn’t know what that meant. When I went to the University of Virginia, a professor encouraged me to take writing classes, but the most valuable thing that happened to me was that I worked for the fiction editor at Mademoiselle magazine. I read 10,000 manuscripts every year to find twelve we could publish.
It was such a lesson. If you can write a beautiful sentence, but you have no story, there is nothing more boring. You want to blow your brains out. If you don’t have a good story to tell, all the beautiful sentences in the world are completely worthless.
I became a magazine writer, and it was good. I was fast and I was able to make a living doing that. Then my husband, a TV writer, got a job and we moved out to the West Coast. I got pregnant and, I don’t know if you know this, but children don’t raise themselves.
When my daughter was ten, she had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school. I read it again. I was 50 at this point. It’s fascinating to go back and read the book you read when you were young. I was thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird walking down my block and thought, ‘Boo Radley must have been on the autism spectrum.’
My next thought was, ‘it would be a lot easier to write that character than raise him.’ That thought became my first novel, Be Frank With Me.
What’s your writing process like?
I don’t outline before I write a draft, but after. Behind me, you might see a large piece of cardboard, where I track the details of the book I’m working on.
It's hard to keep for me to keep track of what I've done, because there are a lot of pages and words in a book, so I write it out in six columns across the cardboard.
There are two columns for what my husband calls sequences, actions that happen across multiple chapters, like two characters becoming friends.
Then, there are two columns that are the first and last lines of every chapter because my evil plan is that you’re reading, it’s midnight and you finish a chapter, and you read the first line of the next chapter and then it’s 3 AM and you’ve read the whole the book.
And there are two columns down the middle that's every chapter distilled into one line. It helps for me to see how things are changing and moving along.
I also include relevant information to the book at the bottom. So, for Better Luck Next Time, I had maps of Reno and the phases of the moon in June and July in 1938 because so much of the book happens at night and I needed to know if the characters actually could see.
Neither of your books have a purely linear structure. How do you go about determining the right structure for a story?
For Be Frank With Me, I was very into what the first sentence was going to be because that’s how you decide if you’re going to buy it. I spent a month trying find something before I landed on “Because the station wagon blew up in the fire Frank and I took the bus to the hospital.” I thought people would read that and want to know what’s going to happen.
For Better Luck Next Time, I knew I wanted the frame to be a doctor telling a story. My mother is a doctor. She’s 92 and has delivered a million babies. I thought I’d have the main character be a doctor who had been sort of sidelined and reflecting on his life.
I originally wrote Better Luck Next Time in third person because I wrote Frank in first person. And it didn’t work. My editor said ‘You’re all voice and throw-away jokes. And third person doesn’t serve it well. I think I’m going to have to say no.’
I didn’t give up — I rewrote it, with the narrator speaking to another character. I gave my editor that version and she said she loved the prologue, but hated the rest of it. That time though, I had six pages to start from versus zero pages.
Any books you want to recommend?
I’m very big on The Guncle by Steven Rowley, who is my best writer friend. We have a similar sense of humor. After we met, I read Lily and The Octopus . There are a couple of jokes in there that are like jokes in Be Frank With Me. I read that and thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to be good friends.’
I’ll be back with my last issue of the year on Monday!
P.S. Happy Birthday to my brother!
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