Contemporary Literature 45.2 (2004) vi, 189-217
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an interview with Diane Johnson
Conducted Carolyn A. Durham
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My interview with Diane Johnson took place on June 17, 2003, in the apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris where Johnson and her husband spendsix to eight months each year. From Johnson's living-room windows you can see the building where Edouard Manet was born. The hotel in which Luis Buñuel lived and Oscar Wilde died is just around the corner from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, located near the apartment. The entire neighborhood is crowded with art galleries, bookstores, and antique shops. A few blocks to the east lie the famous cafés of the boulevard St.-Germain-des-Près—the Deux Magots and the Flore, Johnson's favorite—both longtime havens for American as well as French and other European writers. Johnson often works in the library of the Institut de France, home to the forty literary immortels who make up France's celebrated Académie Française, which lies just west of her apartment, facing the Seine. Johnson, like many of the characters of her three most recent novels—Le Divorce (1997), Le Mariage (2000), and L'Affaire (2003)—lives in the cosmopolitan, artistic center of contemporary Paris. By chance, on the evening before the interview, she had attended a private screening of the film version of Le Divorce, also set on Paris's Left Bank. More importantly, two days earlier, she had hosted the closing reception for the international group of writers invited to participate in the first-ever literary festival organized by Shakespeare and Company. George Whitman's modern remake of the English-language bookstore founded in 1921 by Sylvia Beach continues to serve as an international crossroads [End Page 189] and a home base for what is now the third successive generation of American and British expatriate writers, who include Diane Johnson among their most prominent members.
Born in 1939 in Moline, Illinois, Johnson's adult life has been marked by the same international travel and foreign settings that inform her fiction, in which a sense of place—both literal and metaphoric—and the composition of space play particularly significant roles. In addition to her trilogy of novels set in France, Persian Nights, a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, is grounded in the time Johnson spent in Iran in the late 1970s. Her focus on an American woman's perception of the collapse of the Shah of Iran's regime foreshadows the cross-cultural dynamics of her most recent work and, in particular, the creation in L'Affaire of a central dramatic conflict that pits France against the United States and Western Europeans against American and English characters in ways that are clearly analogical to current events surrounding French opposition to the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Even in the six earlier novels set in the United States—Fair Game (1965); Loving Hands at Home (1968); Burning (1971); The Shadow Knows (1974); Lying Low (1978), the first of Johnson's books to be nominated for a National Book Award; and Health and Happiness (1990)—plots frequently focus on cultural conflict and the clash of different worlds as they bring together a diverse cast of seemingly incompatible characters.
If the psychological terror of The Shadow Knows comes closest to exemplifying Johnson's fondness as a reader for mystery and suspense, conventions and motifs borrowed from the detective novel structure much of her fiction, in which violence often erupts unexpectedly. As Johnson notes in this interview, L'Affaire is one of her rare works in which death occurs as the result of a natural catastrophe. Even such openly comic novels as Le Divorce and Le Mariage are rife with theft, kidnapping, attempted suicide, and murder. In 1983 the novelist wrote Dashiel Hammett: A Life, a biography of one of the masters of the detective genre. Johnson's long-standing interest in medicine and medical ethics as a result of her...