• Heather Young and Julia Claiborne Johnson on the Challenges of Writing a Second Book

    Heather Young is the author of The Lost Girls, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel and won the Strand Literary Critics’ Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, The Distant Dead, was published on June 9. She lives in Mill Valley, California.

    Julia Claiborne Johnson’s novel, Be Frank With Me, a national bestseller, was a finalist for the American Booksellers Association’s Best Debut of 2017 and, as read by Tavia Gilbert, won the Audio Publishers Association’s Audie Award for Best Female Narrator. Julia lives in Los Angeles, and her second novel, Better Luck Next Time, will be published in January 2021.


    JULIA CLAIBORNE JOHNSON: Heather, you and I met at a literary festival as newbies, hit it off instantly, then realized we shared the same wonderful editor! In other words, we were the perfect pity-partners for the truly hellish experience of writing our second novels. A funny coincidence that we only just discovered — and further evidence that we were meant to be friends — our seconds are both set in within miles of each other in Nevada. How did this happen? From the lushness of Northern Minnesota in your first novel, The Lost Girls, to the high desert? What happened there?

    HEATHER YOUNG: It was kind of an accident, which is probably the source of about half of my writerly inspirations. I moved to California in 1991, but for years all I knew about Nevada was that Las Vegas was in it somewhere and it had a lot of sand. Then my parents retired to Boise, and twice a year my husband and I piled our kids into our car and drove across Nevada to visit them. My family hated that drive, but I loved it. All that open space, the sameness of it, the muted colors — it has a quiet, ancient beauty that’s unexpectedly soothing. And it’s so empty. I didn’t think anybody lived there at all until the day the pumps at our usual gas station pit stop were broken and we had to drive off the interstate to the little town of Lovelock. This town has no business being out in the desert 100 miles from anywhere, but there it sits, and its existence said a lot to me about people, and how they’ll put down roots in the most unlikely of places. I knew I had to set my next book there.

    What about you? What drew you to Nevada?

    During the Depression my father worked as a “cowboy” at a divorce ranch outside of Reno. Back then, Nevada was where everybody who was anybody went for a “quickie” divorce. You had to live in the state for the six weeks leading up to it, and somebody got the bright idea of replacing struggling cattle ranches with dude ranches that catered to the rich women looking to get unhitched. The cowboys on staff weren’t cowboys so much as handsome young men who worked the ranch and, most importantly, were on hand to escort the ladies on trail rides, squire them around town, and sometimes offer them a shoulder to cry on. I used to think everybody had heard of this, because I had. Guess what? No. So, fertile territory for a novel.

    I’m one of those who had no idea these places existed, and it’s a wonderful little pocket of history to set a story in.

    What’s funny to me is how different our books are, even though they both unfurl within shouting distance of each other, albeit 80 years apart. I’d have two words from your Kirkus Review tattooed on my arm if those words been pinned to a novel I wrote: crushingly beautiful. Wow! Mine’s much lighter, though there’s some heartbreak in it, too. Even if a divorce is for the best, it isn’t fun.

    Every good book needs a little heartbreak.

    Yours definitely has its share. And it makes me wonder about your past life. Were you a math major? An anthropologist before you started writing books, or a drug dealer in Nevada? I ask this because your evocation of all those life choices all seemed so real.

    None of those things, I swear! I’m terrible at math, and even worse at selling drugs. Anthropology, though, has been a passion of mine since I was a kid. I find the relics of past people both tantalizing and heartbreaking. Their tools and fire pits are the only legacy they leave behind, and that legacy is so faint as to seem meaningless to some. But each of their lives was as rich and individual as ours are today. The only difference between ours and theirs is that theirs have been forgotten. That’s another reason the setting of this book appealed to me — it has a long history of human habitation, dating back to the very first people to come over from Asia 15,000 years ago. I tried to bring some of the weight of that past to bear, to show that although human lives are small when measured against the vastness of time, there is a universality in the human experience that connects people even across many millennia.

    I totally get that. Another way our books overlap — loosely — is Pyramid Lake, which is an hour or so outside of Reno and was originally part of the same enormous, ancient inland sea that plays such a big part in your book. I could not get over how primordial that place seemed. Neither could my characters. In fact, my favorite chapter to write in Better Luck Next Time was the one set there. One of my characters says to another, “If you told me time began here, I’d believe you.” Her friend replies, “It just did.” It blew my mind, imagining all the various peoples over the millennia stumbling onto it and thinking, “Here’s a lot of water and plenty of fish. This is nice. We could live here.”

    Did you have a favorite chapter of The Distant Dead to write? Which one was the most difficult?

    The first and last chapters were my favorites. The first chapter is a prologue, and it takes place at the end of the Paleolithic era, when a young boy walks into a cave seeking enlightenment and the courage to become a man among his people. The last chapter has echoes of that prologue, and I loved how it brought so many of the book’s themes to what I hope is a satisfying close.

    As for the most difficult, there’s a chapter toward the end where a crisis that’s been building for most of the book finally comes to a head. There’s mortal peril, secrets are revealed, and lives are forever changed. It has a ton of moving pieces, in other words, and I rewrote it dozens of times before the rhythm felt right. I definitely find writing the quieter, more thematic chapters easier than the action-packed ones.

    I loved the way your narrative built and built to that scene, and the way I had no idea how in the heck you were going to pull everything together. Nothing so dramatic happens in my book, though there is a small mystery to be resolved in the last chapter. That chapter came very close to killing me. I wrote it so many times, and in so many different ways. Characters lived, but in the next go-round, they died! People who were the engines of denouement in one version didn’t exist in the next! After I turned in what I didn’t realize at the time was my final revision, I sat at my kitchen table, weeping, because I was so sure I’d have to do it again and I didn’t feel like I had it in me.

    Second books are hard, aren’t they? Our editor, Kate Nintzel, was hugely supportive, though. She told me second books are the hardest, and I believe her. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t sure I could do it again. My first book took seven years to write, and by the time it came out it had been almost a decade since I’d started it. I had to begin a book again, then get to the midpoint, then end it, and all those were things I’d done so long ago that I couldn’t actually remember how to do them. Combine that with the pressure of a deadline, and it was kind of soul-crushing, really. I gained 20 pounds. I was cranky. I ruined one, possibly two, family Christmases. I missed my deadline by a year and a half. Then came the revisions, but for me the revision part isn’t nearly as hard as the creation part. Once someone I trust tells me all the things that are wrong with a story, fixing them feels manageable. Thank God for Kate.

    What did you think was the hardest thing about writing your second book?

    Kate said the same thing to me, and I found every part of mine hard. Be Frank With Me took five years to write. I worked so hard on it, and even so it seemed almost — accidental. By that I mean all the elements came together like magic. My history of writing fashion. My vast knowledge of trivia, born of all the millions of magazine articles I’ve written. My love of eccentric characters and silly jokes. The fact that I live in Los Angeles now, have watched more than my share of old movies, and know way too much about the Hollywood of yesteryear. My children were around the same age Frank was, and I found raising them somewhat terrifying in ways I couldn’t have predicted. All of this was great novel-writing fodder. I didn’t see how all the elements of a story could come together like that again.

    What made it even harder for me was having a publisher and the people who’d read and loved Frank, who were ready to read my next book yesterday and had certain expectations about what that would be.

    I was stunned that anyone outside my family even read The Lost Girls, much less liked it. When I was writing The Distant Dead the pressure of that audience became immense. What writing this second novel has taught me is how to let that go as much as possible. It gets harder as the publication date gets closer, though.

    What about characters? Did you have a favorite character to write?

    Sal. He’s a sixth grade boy who lives on the fringes of society, an outcast who yearns for human connection. He has a rich internal life, full of imagination and empathy, and when he finally finds someone to share this with, it has, unfortunately, tragic consequences. I love to write about characters at that outer edge of childhood. The things that happen at that age cast long shadows, even in an ordinary life, so when you throw in a murder and some very dark secrets it gets really yeasty from a storytelling perspective.

    Be Frank With Me also has a young boy at the center of the story. I loved Frank, and how his matter-of-fact, analytical mind masked a lonely, fragile, and loving heart. I’ve always wondered: did he spring fully formed from your mind to the page, or did you get to know him slowly, over time?

    Poor, sweet Frank. He’s nine years old in the book because at that age he’s just at the cusp of not caring, and caring way too deeply what the other kids think about him. When I worked at magazines in New York, I loved the people in the fashion department, certifiable geniuses of chic. I wanted to be them! Everybody did! But they must have suffered such tortures in middle school. It’s not easy being one-in-a-million when you’re nine years old, even if it makes you once you’re an adult. So I imagined my boy as one of those fashion people, but as a kid. I’d also just reread To Kill a Mockingbird, and it dawned on me that Boo Radley must have been on the autism spectrum. As a mother, it struck me how much easier it would be to write a character like that than to raise him. So Frank is kind of an homage to all those children — and adults — who have something special that the rest of the world just doesn’t get.

    Are there books that have been a big influence on you as a writer? Any on this book in particular?

    Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is my idea of the perfect novel. I’ll never write a book as exquisitely constructed, or with such gorgeously simple prose, but the way she sets the story in the quiet paces of an outwardly ordinary life is something I do aspire to. For plotting, Tana French and Louise Penny are the gold standard. While I don’t write police procedurals, my books do involve violent death and the search for answers, so I look to those two as I try to adopt some of the structures of the mystery genre in my novels.

    How do you typically get your book ideas? Do you start with a character, or a place, or a theme and then go from there? Or is it more often something external, like a story in the news, that gets your imagination firing?

    With me it’s where I am in my life. During Frank, I had grade-school age children. For this next book I was talking to a friend who, like me, had been happily married for decades. “You know,” she said, “Whether you have a happy life or not depends on who you marry more than anything else.” Truer words never spoken. I’d had an unsuccessful first marriage, as did my father. So you can see why I fell to thinking about that episode from my father’s past. If not for divorce, I wouldn’t be here, and my children wouldn’t, either.

    How about you? And do you have the idea for your next novel yet? (If you do, I hate you.)

    Well, yes, I do. But put away your knives, because it’s not so much a story idea as it is a setting. That’s how my generative process works, I’m learning. First, I find the place, then, I find the story. My next book will be set in a small Iowa town during World War II. I haven’t written a single word of it, but will get started this summer. That’s when I’ll find out if Kate’s really right about second books being the hardest of all.


    Portrait of Heather Young courtesy of Jaydee Jordan. Portrait of Julia Claiborne Johnson courtesy of Christa Parravani.