Interview with Diane Johnson

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Interview with Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson is a novelist, essayist, and the author of 17 books, as well as several screenplays, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Her most recent book, Flyover Lives: A Memoir, tells her own story, beginning with her childhood in Moline, Illinois, as well as the stories of some of her pioneer ancestors. Back in Paris after a whirlwind book tour that took her to seven cities across the United States, the author of Le Divorce and Le Mariage, took the time to talk with BP writer Janet Hulstrand. JH: Are you still spending about half of your time in Paris and half in California? DJ: Yes, we’ve been doing that for about 15 years, so it’s quite a settled pattern by now. JH: What are some of the disadvantages and advantages of that life? DJ: Well, the disadvantage is the disruption—that’s really the only disadvantage.  And the advantages are all the advantages of France. All the cultural things to do, and the food, and the fact that Paris is a very livable, easy city. There’s good transportation, wonderful museums—it’s a very fine place to live. It’s not car-oriented. I’ve become a great enemy of the car. I’ve come to realize how much time we waste in America, just dealing with the car. Finding a parking place, or getting the engine fixed, or going to get gas, or whatever. So really you have more time for real life when you’re in Paris. Plus, Paris is so near other European places that traveling is much easier. JH: What do you miss most when you’re in one place or the other? DJ: When we’re in France we miss the feeling of American politics. It’s hard to get information about things unfolding, or anything that’s currently exciting about politics, or to have the chance to do anything. We are members of a political organization here for Americans, called Democrats Abroad, but we miss the American political action when we’re here. And when we’re there, I guess we sort of miss the information about France that’s hard to come by. About French politics, or what’s happening in Europe. Because it’s all kind of distant, and the coverage isn’t very good. There are a lot of great websites, of course. But one thing that would serve for everything is pretty hard to come by. Like a newspaper. JH: I’d like to ask you about “Flyover Lives,” because although it’s a memoir about growing up in the Midwest, or at least partly about that, the impetus for it really came from an incident that happened to you in France. Do you want to give the BP audience a little bit of context for how you came to write that book? DJ: I can retell the story that the book begins with. When John and I were on our way to Italy one summer, now some years ago, we stopped to visit some French friends. She was French, and her husband is an American military man. And when we got there we found that they had other houseguests, and the other people were retired American generals. The generals were there to look into their family trees in Europe. Somebody said, “It’s so unusual for Americans to care about their family trees, or even know anything about them.” That was the beginning of my thinking, “Well, wait a minute. It’s true that I don’t know too much, but I know that my mother has some documents in the drawer, I should really try to read that stuff sometime.” And then I did get around to reading some diaries of women—my great-great-great-grandmother, who was born during the American Revolution, and her daughter, who was born in 1800. I found that fascinating, the lives of these women back then, and luckily both of these women were articulate and had powers of reflection. And so I wanted to showcase them a little bit, even though there were plenty of boring parts, and I didn’t want to publish the whole thing. So that’s how it started, as a kind of showcase for my grandmothers’ diaries. And then it grew, because I started thinking about people nearer to me: my aunts, my grandparents, the Civil War, which was a part of their lives, just the general process of history and the things that have come down to us that form us as Americans now. The book is kind of a potpourri, it’s a patchwork quilt, in a way. In fact I thought about naming it something like “A Patchwork of Midwestern Memories,” and everyone screamed about how boring that sounded. JH: I’ll bet the word “Midwestern” alone is enough to scare some people away… DJ: …it would scare people right off. Yes. JH: So maybe this is a good time for me to ask you a question about the term “flyover country.” Do you think that term does justice to such a large and varied section of the country? DJ: It’s a valuable and very core part of the country that gets dismissed by people who live on the coasts. In fact they call it that: “the flyover.” JH: Right. So can you speak a little bit about that attitude…what about it? DJ: Well, since I left home as a late teenager I’ve lived on one or the other of the two coasts, and I’ve become aware of how really unaware people are, if they’ve never been there, of all the space in between. Other than the part, maybe, with cowboys. But they certainly don’t know, starting at about the Adirondacks, they don’t know anything in between. A few brave people I’ve met had driven across the country, usually as college students, and become aware of big it is and how flat, and how much they hated it. And apart from that, people just don’t know anything. They don’t know about the beauty of the Midwest, about the Mississippi, about the history, about how French it was, for one thing. All of the explorations along…

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Wanda Bouvier
    2018-05-08 18:17:30
    Wanda Bouvier
    Dear Ms. Hulstrand, Can you help me with advice to contact Diane JOHNSON in Paris. When I Lived in Paris we were very good friends and I’d like to reconnect with her at this time. Thank you Wanda Bouvier ?