Few novelists in the U.S. write about Franco-American relations with the skill, grace and wit of former Berkeley resident Diane Johnson.
The author of Le Divorce, the co-scripter of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and a best-selling memoirist with Flyover Lives, Johnson spent many years splitting time between Paris and San Francisco with her late husband John F. Murray, retired San Francisco General Hospital chief pulmonary and critical care surgeon. Murray died from complications of COVID-19 in Paris, March 2020.
Johnson has published a new novel of transatlantic love in Lorna Mott Comes Home, available June 29 from Knopf.
Often compared to Henry James, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, Johnson has perfected the comedy of manners in her novels. Book critic Regan McMahon explains, “Like Henry James, Diane Johnson observes the French with an outsider’s eye, but as a longtime half-time ex-pat has an insider’s knowledge of everything from French eating and romantic proclivities to the intricacies of French inheritance laws. Like James, she’s made a career of contrasting American and European cultures through her characters, in her case layering delicious asides with the skill of a Parisian pastry chef.”
Set in the midst of the Great Recession, Lorna Mott follows its sixty-ish title character as she abandons her philandering French husband, whose affairs have become too embarrassing for the tiny ancestral village in which they live. As she attempts to restart her career as an art historian in San Francisco, Lorna re-acquaints herself with her scattered children and grandchildren, who include a son fresh out of a coma and missing somewhere in Asia, a daughter with seemingly bottomless money issues, and a pregnant, diabetic, 15-year-old granddaughter who wants to keep the baby.
“One of my interests in writing the book was to see if I could write a novel in which the main character is a middle-aged woman,” Johnson said. “Typically, it’s a young heroine that gets all the attention. I wanted to see if I could make a main character who was not an ingenue. So I did, and that’s Lorna.”
“Like Henry James, Diane Johnson observes the French with an outsider’s eye, but as a longtime half-time ex-pat has an insider’s knowledge of everything from French eating and romantic proclivities to the intricacies of French inheritance laws.”
Johnson, nee Diane Lain, 87, grew up in Moline, Illinois, and attended Stephens College in Missouri. During her sophomore year, she participated in a month-long editorial internship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Sylvia Plath, the author of The Bell Jar, was a fellow intern.
“The month in New York was my first meeting with a literary world where people lived by writing and were serious, even fierce, Sylvie Plath above all, Johnson wrote. “She was Literature up a notch from anything that had occurred to me.”
Dropping out of Stephens, she married UCLA medical student B. Lamar Johnson, Jr. and quickly gave birth to four children, publishing her first novel, Fair Game, in 1965, having collected only two rejections. She later divorced Johnson and married John Murray.
Johnson and Murray moved to Berkeley in 1968, settling on The Uplands in the Claremont/Elmwood area. While Murray worked at UCSF and San Francisco General as a doctor and professor, Johnson became a professor at UC Davis, specializing in Victorian literature.
After she published the novel The Shadow Knows in 1974, Johnson was contacted by Stanley Kubrick, who wanted her assistance in adapting Stephen King’s “The Shining” for the screen. The movie remains a classic, and Johnson received more screenwriting assignments in its wake, but it is the only one of her screenplays to be produced. Johnson was able, however, to work with some of Hollywood’s top talents, including Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”), “Volker Schlondorff (“Das Boot”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”).
Asked how Kubrick, the director of “Dr. Strangelove” and “A Clockwork Orange,” might view current politics, Johnson said, “He was kind of right-wing, actually, in a paranoid way. He would have his guns lined up and be prepared to defend events like January 6.”
Johnson has written more than a dozen books, three of which (Lesser Lives, Lying Low, Le Divorce) have been nominated for the National Book Award and two of which (Terrorists and Novelists, Persian Nights) have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. A Pulitzer finalist behind Toni Morrison and Beloved, Johnson acknowledged “that was certainly good. . . but I started to think of myself as always a bridesmaid.”
Johnson and Murray lived in Berkeley for 25 years and then moved to San Francisco, “because my husband had just absolutely had it with the commute” to San Francisco General.
“I loved leafy Berkeley,” Johnson said. “My big garden and beautiful house, the proximity of College Avenue, and so on.”
By the time they left, Johnson said she “was sort of fed up with Berkeley. It was very self-satisfied. There was sort of complacent hypocrisy about all this ‘political correctness,’ and I liked the diversity and messiness of San Francisco.”
With both fiction and nonfiction, Johnson had been prolific during her years in Berkeley. In addition to her novels, she wrote the definitive biography of Dashiell Hammett, contributed regularly to the New York Review of Books and collected travel essays in Natural Opium.
After Murray retired from UCSF in 1994, the couple moved to Paris, although they kept an apartment in San Francisco and a house at Lake Tahoe. They would come back to the U.S. every summer.
Murray was internationally known for his research and clinical work on lungs and pulmonary disease, according to his obituary on Berkeleyside. During his 23-year tenure at the pulmonary and critical care division at UC San Francisco, he helped carve out the study and treatment of lung disease as a distinct field. He also created the hospital’s first intensive care unit.
It’s no surprise that physicians feature in Johnson’s fiction, perhaps most notably in Health and Happiness, set in a fictitious San Francisco hospital called “Alta Buena.”
When the couple moved part-time to Paris, Johnson had the opportunity to explore intercultural relations between Americans and French, resulting in the three highly acclaimed novels, Le Divorce (1997), Le Mariage (2000) and L’Affaire (2003). Le Divorce was turned into a Merchant and Ivory film released in 2003.
Johnson’s book previous to Lorna Mott was a memoir, Flyover Lives, which explored not only her own life but that of her pioneer ancestors who crossed half the continent to settle in Ohio.
“That was fun because it gave me a chance to research my family. Everyone likes to do a little genealogy. I learned about my family and about American history. I hadn’t known that Abraham Lincoln had come to my great-grandparents’ wedding, for example.”
Her latest novel allows Johnson to play to her strengths, focusing on family politics and social manners with a cast of articulate white people. At first, Lorna is a fish out of water, but by the end of the book, she has a better sense of her strengths and her true self.
The new novel connects to the previous L’Affaire through the character of Amy, Lorna’s ex-husband’s much younger and much, much wealthier wife. Her fortune made in Silicon Valley, Amy is the mother of Gilda, the teen whose pregnancy brings together disparate characters at the climax of the novel.
“The interest for me was the relationship between Gilda and the other children. More specifically, how the other grown children would feel about Gilda, their father’s new child with all her money.”
Although there are misunderstandings and long-simmering resentments, the characters in Lorna Mott are mostly an agreeable bunch. “I ended up liking them all. I’m not very good at villains,” Johnson said. “In this novel, more than any of the others, I sort of like everybody. I didn’t wish to punish them.”
Johnson employs a distinctive point-of-view in Lorna Mott, not quite omniscient, but able to dip in and out of her characters’ thoughts.
“Henry James would say that the disadvantage of it is you get a more intense and intimate portrait by sticking with one consciousness,” Johnson explained. “That is true, undoubtedly. But the advantages of semi-omniscient – granting yourself the ability to go in and out of everyone’s head – it gives you that freedom, the ability to contrast what Person A is thinking with what Person B is thinking, The reader can know both of those, and enjoy the misunderstanding or see what two characters are like.”
Asked to comment on how her writing has changed over the years, Johnson replied, “I don’t think it has. I know more surely how to set up a novel or what the drawbacks of point-of-view choices are. But writing itself? I’ve seen things that I wrote in high school, and I seem to have the same voice, as far as I can tell.”
Continuing her eclectic career, Johnson is now working on historical writing focused on anti-slavery movements of the early 19th century.
Going forward, Johnson suggested she may continue to split time between California and France.
“One consideration is I have a really nice apartment in Paris, and in San Francisco, I only have a rental. And now it would be impossible to get back into the housing market in San Francisco. Or Berkeley, for that matter.”