How I Write

01.15.14

How I Write: Diane Johnson

Famous for her novels about Americans living and loving in Paris, Diane Johnson’s new book is about home: America. She talks to Noah Charney about her writing routine, the best advice she ever got, and life in Paris.

How did you first come to live in Paris?

I went to Paris as a trailing wife, when my husband John was doing medical research with a French colleague there. At first, I resisted, hoping for England, because I was and am a great Anglophile, and also I couldn’t speak French.

Which neighborhood in Paris is your personal favorite and why?

We lived for a number of years in the Fifth Arrondissement, and I think that’s still my favorite, for its vestiges of Roman and medieval Paris, present student life, little theaters and bookshops, foodie markets and all. Now I live in the Sixth, near the Seine, and that’s got some of the same charms, but the convenient butchers and little market are drowned in tourists (like us) or chased away by Prada and Dior. An amazing quartier is the 19th, which has some rough parts, but also streets and streets of twee little houses, the most beautiful park in Paris, the Butte Chaumont, views over the city, interesting modernist homes from the ‘thirties, ethnic restaurants—an area to discover.

Best boulangerie in Paris, and best inexpensive brasserie?

I’m indifferent to bread and really prefer the sourdough bread made in San Francisco; as to brasseries, there are lots, but lately, going to performances at the Theatre de Chatelet, we’ve taken to going to one called Zimmer, just to the right of it, which has great hamburgers and some charm too.

The French are notoriously xenophobic about foreign writers, and highly selective about which works they translate into French, much less embrace.  How do the French feel about your books?

Any comment I might make about this makes me sound like a raving paranoid: yes, they are xenophobic, so I really don’t know many French writers. Any, I should say. At the same time, I know I’ve been timid about trying to meet them. Most of my books have been translated, but when it came to Lulu in Marrakech, my last novel, about the American CIA and Islam, they declined in horror, and they won’t likely be interested in Flyover Lives, a new book coming out and is about small Illinois towns, and Americana generally.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I don’t think I have any habits, except the ones outlined above. Everything is each and every time a conscious effort: hang up your clothes, etc. Once, a friend made me go in and out of a door, each time putting my keys on the bureau in the hall, until I was programmed, so I do have that habit down pat.

Please recommend three books about Americans in Paris (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

Basically, I like books about exotic Parisian places or details of its history. For this, Brian N. Morton’s Americans in Paris is an indispensable and fascinating, door-to-door directory of which American lived where and something about why.

Next, David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, which tells us so much about what we have taken from France, beginning with our ancestors who went over to get their dresses and imbibe their ideas about freedom and Enlightenment.

And David Downie’s Paris, Paris, which isn’t per se about Americans, except for being an American’s explorations in hidden and unexpected places in Paris like the men’s toilet in the Place Madeleine, distinguished for its art nouveau tiles.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing beginsDo you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

The hardening of an idea into a plan for a novel is a vague process and hard to describe. You have to think of concrete details- who might be in this story, where will it take place? You might make notes. In my case, I like to map out as much as I know, and make up fancy, deconstructionism-inspired diagrams to analyze vectors of suspense or recurrences of comedy- all of which is an aspect of procrastination, and gets abandoned when I plunge into the actual writing.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

Very distinguished writing will make me read on beyond page one, even if nothing happens. Conversely, terrible writing on page one (the case with several exciting mega-bestsellers) renders something unreadable for me. Some people (some publishers, I’m told) reduce this process of judgment to the first paragraph, or even the first sentence. I think that’s harsh.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I climb up to my workroom, do my email, go back down for my coffee cup, go find the ink I’ve forgotten—usual forms of procrastination. I try to follow the Hemingway, or Anthony Trollope advice, and leave off in the middle of something, to ease the process of starting the next day. Nothing distinctive there—except maybe still using fountain pens. Oh, and yellow paper for early drafts, a must.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?  Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?  What is the view from your favorite work space?

Just that it’s small, and must have been a maid’s bedroom put in a sort of mezannine in our 17th century building. The stairs to it are steep, with enormous risers, each almost a foot high, so you have to climb. Once there, I have two windows looking our on our courtyard, and a radiator for coziness.

Describe your evening routine.

In the late afternoon, say 5:00, I begin to get hungry for American news and begin the process of trolling the TV for a glimmer of what the American congress is not doing now, or floods or anything. Maybe a cup of tea. Then, later, we go out (quite often) or I start thinking about dinner. We eat late, maybe 8:30 or 9. If nobody is with us, we might watch something arty—there are marvelous channels of opera or concerts—then go to bed and read. If my husband John is away, though, I catch up on American series like “Homeland” or “Breaking Bad” via DVD. He’s not much for TV.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Everything, really, from Jon Stewart to Wodehouse. I never did get Jerry Lewis, though. He’s a god in France.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The death of Anne Bronte, from Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. I used to read it to my classes, and never could get through it dry-eyed.

Do you have any superstitions?

I have superstitious reflexes, like not walking under ladders, or knocking on wood, but I probably don’t believe them. I have some fetish objects that I wear- an African one, a pre-Columbian one- and find them reassuring.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Mozart; I’m sure everyone says that, thinking of the great good to the world of all the music he didn’t live long enough to write.

What is your favorite snack?

Popcorn, or a disgusting French sour jellybean-like thing called Bubbliz.

What phrase do you over-use?

“I mean.” I hear it fly out of my mouth as if involuntarily.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

No, I’ve never felt that. I’ve always lived far from New York and haven’t had much sense of a literary world you can make it in or not. It’d be fun to live in New York—I’ve always longed to. When I say that, on visits, my friends always say something like, “oh, please, it’s such a drag here, you have no idea.” No one says, “poor you, living in faraway Paris.”

Come to think of it, there was a thrilling moment when into my mailbox in California came a letter saying I’d been awarded a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That was a powerful affirmation that thrilled me almost to tears.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

Very little. A good idea or a small paragraph.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Advice that was given me by Florence Ridley, a professor in graduate school: Stitch, stitch.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I don’t want the above on my tombstone, but I might needlepoint it for an inspiring cushion.

What is your next project?    

I’m writing a novel about someone who’s long been living abroad coming back to her native San Francisco.