Interview with Diane JohnsonPosted by Goodreads on September 18, 2008
In her "little house on the Seine," novelist Diane Johnson lives and writes about American life in Paris. Her well-known expatriate trilogy, Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L'Affaire, is known for its social satire, comedy of manners, and wry perspective on Americans living abroad. Her newest novel, Lulu in Marrakech, is no digression from her signature style, but Johnson leaves France behind to investigate cultural conflict in post-9/11 Morocco. She talked with Goodreads about how she used her new setting to create comedy from the clash between East and West.
Goodreads: Your new book Lulu in Marrakech introduces Lulu Sawyer, a CIA agent that Goodreads member Anika describes as "James Bond meets Bridget Jones." What inspired this character and her story?
Diane Johnson: As usual with the plots of novels, it came from all directions. Lulu came from the idea that though there are women detectives, I hadn't met any female spies in fiction (I'm sure they exist), though I had read nonfictional accounts by women CIA agents. Also, I had a student who had been an FBI agent, and I had encouraged her to write about her adventures. The English lover came from someone I know. And too, I had often been asked what kind of life Isabel Walker of my novel Le Divorce led after the ending of the book, and I think it would be something like Lulu's. Strange to say, I was well on my way with Lulu before Valerie Plame's story came to light.
GR: Lulu moves to Morocco to investigate the flow of Western money to radical Islamic groups, using her romance with an Englishman as a cover. Early on, she admits, "I was a little frightened of Islam; after all that's happened, who isn't?" and soon adds, "After what we had seen in the Balkans, I wasn't reassured about Christians either." Given the complexity of the current political climate, did you set out to write a political novel?
DJ: Rather more directly than usual, though I think of all my novels — and maybe all novels — as political in some sense. My immediate interest was engaged by living part of the year in France, where there is a large Muslim population, and many harrowing newspaper stories of the things that happen to Muslim women, including honor killings, all forms of culture clash, issues around the headscarf, and so on.
GR: Why did you choose Morocco for your setting? Did you travel to Marrakech as part of your research?
DJ: Yes, very agreeably. Morocco is almost the last place Islam and the West coexist happily. It is to be hoped that this coexistence will work and prove that the two religions can get along side by side, as they have done in Egypt or Iran (two places I've lived), though in these latter places, and many others, Europeans have left, and signs of trouble are looming.
Also, I was interested in the Saharawi, the refugees in the Sahara, and also the rise of the "Al Quaeda in North Africa," as it recently began to call itself. It has already caused some bombings.
GR: Lulu in Marrakech is bound to be compared to your earlier work set in Iran, Persian Nights, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Is it a different experience to observe Islamic culture through the eyes of an American character living twenty years later?
DJ: We were in Iran at the time of the fall of the Shah, 1979, and observed firsthand the beginning of the revolution which has turned out to be very hard on Iranians. Back then, they were preoccupied with the oppressions of the Shah and had little suspicion of the repressions in store. It seems to me that the sanguine attitude of Europeans, who are still happily vacationing in North Africa and buying real estate, ignores some of the same warning signs of impending radicalization, in Morocco as in Algeria a few years ago. One of the earliest signs, oddly enough, is an increase in young women wearing the abaya or headscarf.
GR: Your previous books have focused on the clash of two Western cultures, American and French. Is there a separate set of challenges when writing about the clash of a Western culture and an Eastern one?
DJ: It was very challenging because it is farther from our own culture than French culture is, and more exotic, so that even though I have spent time in Islamic societies, there is much I don't understand. For this reason, I didn't allow myself to depict the inner thoughts of the Muslim characters, for example, but only to put down what they say. That was the reason the story had to be told from the point of view of someone who hasn't much acquaintance with Islam — Lulu is in the same position as the author. Of course, I also did a lot of reading. Lulu did too, ostensibly, but hers is a resolutely American character (such as mine, I suppose), and I tried to capture the strengths and limitations of that. I supppose that's really the subject as Lulu interacts with both Europeans and Moroccans.
GR: Your books always include an element of humor. What is your approach to writing comedy? Is it possible to try to be funny — or is it simply the manner in which you observe the world?
DJ: I do think books should be funny as well as sad or touching or whatever. They should be like life, a mixture of moods, but I have a feeling that if my books are funny, it's just part and parcel of the way I see things, which makes me a novelist in the comic, not the tragic tradition. All the novelists I most admire are in the comic tradition, come to think of it.
GR: In addition to your long career as a novelist, you have also delved into literary criticism, travel writing, and even biography. Is there a genre of writing that you have not explored that you would like to try?
DJ: Not really. That is, I've never written poetry, but I'm not inclined to either. I have written some screenplays and a stage play, and I'd like to do some more of it. At the moment I'm writing some criticism for the New York Review of Books. I love writing essays. I suppose all opinionated people do.
GR: You are perhaps best known for your trilogy of Americans in France — Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L'Affaire. Do you have any plans to write about France again? Do you now spend more time in Paris than in San Francisco?
DJ: I probably will write about France again, just because I do live there half the time, or a little more than half.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
DJ: I don't think I have any unusual writing habits, unless you count writing at the gym. I don't have a writing room in San Francisco, but my gym has a coffee room with two cubicles. I go there, write, work out and take the bus home mid-afternoon. In Paris, I do have a writing room, and a little house on the Seine, and the apartment of my son when he isn't using it — lots of options. I believe it is important for women writers to get out of the house, just as it would be for a male writer who was, say, an insurance executive, to get out of the office to do his writing.
GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
DJ: In order to be perfectly truthful, I went and looked on my nightstand. Here is what I am reading:
Alexander Waugh, Fathers and Sons (a biography of his father and grandfather Evelyn Waugh)
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (I read this or some other Trollope novel every year)
Georges Simenon, La Nuit du Carrefour (to keep up my French painlessly)
Andrea Camilleri, The Terra-Cotta Dog (In English, naturally. An Italian friend says Camilleri is a must.)
As you gather, I like Trollope, Austen, James, English novels in general, or novels I've already read, and nonfiction. I adore books about political scandal.