North Carolina native Todd Johnson discusses his debut novel, The Sweet By and By, with author Karen Spears Zacharias. Johnson’s novel about the interactions of five delightfully mule-headed women is written with a tender touch and a sharp eye.
Q: Your debut novel, The Sweet By and By, is about the interactions of five women – older women mostly. What is it about women over 50 that captures your fancy?
A: To tell the truth, I never thought about it that way when I was writing the book. Two of the women in The Sweet By and By are certainly elderly; the others we meet at different times in their lives ranging from youth to middle age. But maybe there is something magnetic about “femmes d’une certaine age,” at least the ones I know. They don’t care so much anymore about what the world tells them they should be just because they were born women. And they’ve seen enough of life to laugh at it. So there’s freedom in that.
Q: You’re already an accomplished soul, having received a nomination for your work as a producer of the Broadway production of The Color Purple. What compelled you to write a novel for pity’s sake? Certainly it wasn’t the money. Do tell. Was it a promise you made to Mama or perhaps a vow to the devil?
A: If I were to make a pact with the Devil, it would have to be a lot more lucrative than anything I’ve done so far in my career. And I think it should also include a guarantee against weight gain in middle age. Then we might have something to talk about. Until then, I’m going to offer a cliché: I followed my heart. Sorry, but it’s the truth.
Q: I love Mister Benny, the doll that Bernice just can’t seem to part with. Most girls have had a doll like that at one time or another in their lives. How did you, a Yale educated man, come up with this notion that your character ought to have this raggedy doll she can’t let go of?
A: I love Mister Benny too. I came up with him in a moment of pure childlike daydreaming, but the idea really isn’t far-fetched. When I visited my grandmothers in nursing homes many years ago, I remember seeing exactly that kind of object attachment in some of the residents. The “why” of it is complex. But the effect on the person is what interests me — a calming influence, a connection of sorts in a world of loneliness, the projection of emotions onto an inanimate object that in itself somehow keeps those same emotions alive in the individual. For Bernice, it may or may not be about her deceased son, Wade, depending on her interior state. Her behavior is only part of the picture.
Q: Your style reminds me a great deal of novelist Michael Morris. Morris wrote A Slow Way Home and A Place Called Wiregrass. Are you familiar with his work? Who are some of your favorite novelists and why?
A: Michael Morris is a wonderful writer; I could only be flattered by that comparison. I have more favorite authors than I could name. One of the first who comes to mind is Reynolds Price. I’ve always been drawn to his writing of families – what it means to be born into one and the associated obligations or lack thereof. I also love Dickens for his characters and sense of humor. Virginia Woolf for her brilliant writing of the space between actions and words. And of course Eudora Welty. I read “Why I Live at the P.O.” in junior high school, and it’s still one of the funniest and most touching stories I can think of.
Q: You embodied the aging Margaret with a great deal of dignity and clarity of mind and spirit. I couldn’t help but feel that she must have been modeled after someone you were very close to. Why did you craft her as you did?
A: Some people have asked whether Margaret was one of my grandmothers, but the answer is no. That said, both of my grandmothers did spend time in nursing homes near the end of their lives, one when she was in her nineties, and the other, while still a relatively young woman in her 60s, but very ill and no longer able to live alone. So watching both of them struggle to adjust to that environment and then ultimately decline with time clearly helped me write Margaret more honestly than I ever could have otherwise. I’ve gotten letters from readers who tell me that Margaret helps them feel better about what their own paths might hold. That’s an incredible gift to me.
Q: This is a novel that is character-driven, not plot-driven. Such novels can be a hard-sell. Tell us how you went about pitching this novel. Did you face any rejections? If so, how’d you come up with the gumption to press onward?
A: I’m sure what you’re pointing out is true. The most I can tell you is that I didn’t think about selling the novel until it was time to sell it. Until then, I focused on writing the story that meant something to me. There’s no other way in my opinion. I was very fortunate to find an agent early on who shared my passion, and soon thereafter, several publishers who felt the same. Of course my agent had a sense as to which editors might share her enthusiasm; that’s her job as well as her expertise. But don’t get me wrong –having come from a background in music and theatre, I’ve heard “no” a lot more often than I’ve heard “yes.” I’m sure it will always be that way. The question is what you do with the “no” – or what the “no” does with you. Then you pick up and go on from there, that’s it.
Q: You write with such vivid, rich descriptions. I’m thinking of candy hearts inscribed with “Massage my feet” and labeling carnations the trailer park of flowers. Did these treasures just pop up while writing or did you collect them on index cards over a period of time in anticipation of this?
A: I’m not an index card keeper. I’m easily overwhelmed by too many little scraps of paper. Like Flannery O’Connor, about every two months, I turn into someone crazy and throw away all the paper I can get my hands on. Including bank statements if I’m not careful. I do carry around a small leather notebook though. Unfortunately, what ends up in it is neither very inspired nor inspiring. Most of the time, there are lists of things like: “Call exterminator.” “Dump on Monday.” “Dog food.” Not really so unlike my Valentine messages when you think about it. Things both necessary and important.
Q: What difficulties did using the setting of a nursing home pose?
A: A nursing home is not a cheerful place – no surprise there. Nor is it the land of Facebook “status updates.” My challenge was to find a way to care about characters in a setting in which nothing much happens to distinguish one day from the next. I chose to use holidays on the calendar as a loose structural arc – in a nursing home, those are the times when there may be guests or some sort of special acknowledgment. The routine is broken, so there’s a window for something new. Soon it became clear to me that the book wasn’t about a nursing home at all, but the associations of five women who would have never come together apart from that setting. Those unlikely contacts and the resulting friendships change their lives. When that happens, the nursing home itself fades.
Q: Lorraine’s recitation of Miss Margaret’s fading is so on-point, it’s painful to read. Was it as painful to write?
A: It was one of the hardest parts of the book for me. I haven’t lived anything remotely close to that experience. So I sat at my desk, scribbling and scratching out, trying to let myself feel everything the two of them might be feeling or imagining, not to mention articulating. I cried more times than I can remember with absolutely no idea where I was headed.
Q: Each of the women have a flash of smart-ass attitude in their approach to life. Do you think southern women in particular steel themselves with humor?
A: Thank God for people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and not only in the South. That’s why the women of The Sweet By and By can sling attitude at each other the way they do. It’s affectionate, and underneath, there’s also something self-effacing, even at its most sarcastic. One thing these women are NOT is cynical. Cynicism bores me. I think about 1/3 of a teaspoon is plenty for most recipes.
Q: What next?
A: I’m working on it. It’s Southern. Hopefully funny. And probably sad too. I usually don’t take much of one without a little bit of the other. That’s all I can tell you now or else I may need to revisit that pact with the Devil.