When local author Julia Claiborne Johnson wanted to start her second novel, she decided she needed an impetus. “What am I going to do to get myself in the mood to write?” she wondered, deciding that “I’m not gonna cut my hair till I’m done!” When she put pen to paper she sported a short bob; when she finished writing three years later, she could practically sit on her mane.
The resulting book, “Better Luck Next Time,” is a fictional account of the real Reno divorce camps which flourished in the 1930s and ‘40s. Women of means from across the country would vacation on a western-style ranch while establishing the six-week residency required to obtain a quickie divorce.
Johnson’s book explores friendship, love, disappointment and the relationship the women had with the “cowboys” hired to keep them entertained at divorce camp. This is a subject Johnson knows something about because her father had briefly worked as a “cowboy” when he was 19 years old. “He had that job during the Depression. By the time I realized how interesting that was, he had Alzheimers,” Johnson recounts. So she sought details from her brother, who knew that their dad had worked in construction before getting “this cowboy job to dance with the ladies and be charming.”
The book had a very buzzy January debut, given the popularity of her first novel, “Be Frank with Me,” and having received a starred review in “Publisher’s Weekly.” It was a Barnes & Noble NationalBook Club choice and made Amazon’s top 10 fiction list. Chevalier’s Books sponsored a zoom book talk with the author, and sales are such that Johnson has had to return to the store to sign more books.
Approximately three weeks after publication, Johnson and her husband Chris Marcil both got very good news. He was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for writing FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” and Johnson learned that “Better Luck Next Time,” debuted at number nine on the “Los Angeles Times” Feb. 6 best-seller list. Better luck, indeed.
The Tennessee native and Hancock Park resident built her career in the literary world, but it wasn’t until she was 50 that she wrote her first novel, “Be Frank with Me,” about a writer with an autistic child. The story was inspired when she reread “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which her daughter was assigned at school, hoping they would have fascinating mother-daughter discussions about the novel. That didn’t happen, but Johnson realized that character Boo Radley was probably on the spectrum, and that set her off on the novelist’s path.
After leaving the family farm, where, she claims, “My best friend growing up was a pony,” Johnson attended the University of Virginia and studied creative writing at Boston University. That led to a jump into the Manhattan magazine scene where she worked for “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle.” For the latter, she culled through unsolicited fiction submissions to find the jewels worth publishing. “I had to read 10,000 manuscripts to find 12 to publish,” Johnson opined.
She met her comedy-writer husband Chris while in New York, and they moved to Los Angeles for his television opportunities. Johnson intended to find work here, but after years of trying without success to start a family back East, she got pregnant the very day they landed in our city. That changed everything, especially when their son Will, now 23, was quickly followed by daughter Coco, 21.
Johnson tried her hand at writing a screenplay and other speculative projects, and she enjoyed motherhood and neighborhood involvements. She participated in activities of the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society, the Hancock Park Garden Club, the Ebell of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Tennis Club, until she became consumed with writing her first book. When she writes, she explains, “I can’t do anything else.” Johnson continues, “Sad, but for me, I have to cut off the outside world.” Johnson maintains her tennis club membership, however, so she can go to their gym. As she explains, “The only thing I allow myself is to work out or I will drop dead!”
Speaking with the cleverly comedic Johnson is akin to playing a professional tennis match. Her thoughts lob from one subject to another, and the listener must run to stay in the game. After talking about the five-year journey to complete her first book, she detours to mention that she got lung disease from the peacocks on her childhood farm. She praises her supportive posse of women writers in the neighborhood and her pandemic project to paint the stair risers in her home. She discusses her luck in having novelist Ann Patchett’s agent accept her within a week of typing “The End” on her first manuscript, then veers to reveal what a bad swimmer she is and how she burst into tears in the cracker aisle when she found out her second novel sold. Along the way, Johnson peppers her conversation and emails with accolades for her husband, attesting to the fact that “He is divine in every way. And he cooks!” and “He’s naturally fabulous. I got lucky.” As she says, “Welcome to the free association that is my brain.”
This verbal agility is a hallmark of her writing, as well, which several reviewers compared to the smart rapid-fire dialogue in a Frank Capra film.
Writing is a complex process. It took Johnson three years to get her first novel in shape to submit to an agent, and then two years of rewrites before it sold. “Better Luck Next Time” took three passes before publication. But the agony is worth it. “The fun about writing novels,” Johnson concludes, “is you go to readings [or virtual gatherings] and people are excited to see you. ‘It’s you!’ they cry.” She adds, “This is what it’s like to be prom queen!”