A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah Johnson. The lovely Kelly Rudolph at Amy Einhorn/Putman arranged our phone call, and though Deborah was in a car en route to Jackson Mississippi, we had a great phone call!!
I just knew talking to her would be a great pleasure, and while the interview via email is effective, this was more fun for me. I loved Deborah’s book, and I wanted to tell her how much, and to really hear her thoughts on how it came to be.
This post won’t be like most author interview’s I’ve done, I’m just going to write about what we talked about. There will be no direct quotes, as I took notes while we talked, but I tried more to listen to her inflections and her feelings about what it took to create the people of Revere, MS, and the young woman I loved, Regina.
I asked Deborah which character came first, expecting it to be Joe Howard, and yet it was Mary Pickett Calhoun. She had wanted to write about the older white women in MS who had seen the changes in their life times. Many of these women have been an inspiration and very kind to Deborah as she moved to MS.
Deborah enjoyed the research on the book, Reggie’s room was a real place at the NAACP Legal Fund in New York, so many cases and letters were sent in. She loved creating Regina and the risk she was taking. She met a man on a flight once whose grandfather had been asked to give up a bus seat to a German POW, so set one part of Joe Howard’s dilemma. Though this was a time of racial unrest, Deborah always found one white person who would stand up and say it was wrong, research was very clear.
I asked Deborah how she ended up in Mississippi and why she writes about the South. Her son was coming to the US for college, and likely wouldn’t return to Europe. She spent many years in Italy. While not raised in the literal south, she speaks of being raised in a Southern attitude, a world of yes mams and no mams and a Southern Sensibility. Deborah took a job sight unseen and when she writes of the south she says it’s like coming home.
When I asked Deborah what she would like readers to take away from The Secret of Magic she told me she knows it was a dark time to write about. She hopes she left her story and the reader on a hopeful note. Things had changed, and continue to do so. She wanted to leave it with hopefulness in the future, the Civil Rights Movement. Thurgood Marshall has influenced an entire generation of young black lawyers.
Deborah is a morning writer, working well into most afternoons. Her office is “the mud room” and she writes on a table, and assured me the clutter is amazing. I asked her what her next book is about, and she shared that it’s a classic ghost story. Nothing bloody or violent. This book is also set in Revere MS, but present day. By the way, Revere is completely fictional, though folks she knows keep trying to tell her otherwise.
When asked about her passion, she told me her son is just that. She is crazy about him. He is completing his doctorate in music composition. Her other passion is sewing! She splurged on a new machine and she haunts sewing blogs in her spare time. As a child she wasn’t an outdoor camper type, so she attended a sewing camp one summer. While in Italy was studied a bit with some couture houses. I was surprised and curious about this creative art.
Deborah shared some favorite authors with me, but she didn’t want to leave anyone out! Richard Wright(Native Son), William Falkner(Light in August), Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and as a good student of the nuns, Flannery O’Connor. She also mentioned Dennis LeHane, a great Boston/Florida author.
Deborah and I talked for over 45 minutes, and it was so wonderful. I’m jealous of all of you that are able to go and hear her speak on her tour. We talked a little about her first book reading that night, and she asked me what passage I’d choose to read, and I was thrilled when she shared it was exactly what what she was reading. Those lucky book lovers were in for such a treat!!
Thank you again Deborah for your time and for the gift that is your writing. If you haven’t read my review please do, and then grab your own copy of The Secret of Magic.