Maureen Johnson on her characters, reader expectations, and the zombie book she’d write

Maureen Johnson on her characters, reader expectations, and the zombie book she’d write

Welcome to Random Reads, wherein we talk to authors about the characters and stories that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand which ones we’ll ask them to talk about.

The author: Nobody who follows Maureen Johnson on Twitter will be surprised when they encounter one of her delightfully offbeat characters: a girl who lives in an old hotel, an eccentric aunt who goes swimming in a dumpster, a girl whose transformative event involves nearly choking to death on a piece of beef. Johnson has published 10 full-length young-adult books in the last decade and has built a formidable online following, the entirety of which howled in agony when they got to the cliffhanger in her latest book, The Madness Underneath.

Contains some spoilers on the first two books in the Shades Of London series. 

Mrs. Amberson, Suite Scarlett and Scarlett Fever (2008, 2010)
Aunt Peg, 13 Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue Envelope (2005, 2011)
Cousin Diane, The Shades Of London series (2011—present)

The A.V. Club: Anybody who follows you on Twitter can recognize you in characters like Rory, but you also write these colorful characters like Aunt Peg, Cousin Diane, and Mrs. Amberson. It’s easy to assume that a character like Rory, or maybe even Ginny, is drawn from yourself, but what about these supporting roles?  

Maureen Johnson: People are always like, “Which character is you?” And I’m like, “Well, none of them, I mean, they’re all characters.” But I guess if I’m closest to any of them, it’s Mrs. Amberson, who is this sort of wonderful, terrible person who comes bursting into your life and has a ton of terrible ideas that seem to work, which is something that I relate to. 

When I first moved to New York, I went to graduate school here, and I was accepted into two programs at once, so I started in a theater program and I finished in a writing program. I moved here and I dealt with theater people all the time. So I was very much in the circle of… My whole life was surrounded by actors and directors and playwrights and small-theater people and the crazy people who fund theater. And they all seem to be clinically insane. Mrs. Amberson comes directly—really, really directly—out of all my experiences working in Philadelphia and New York in theater. I guess I didn’t do it for that long, but I was in and out for about five or six years—enough to really meet the kind of people who fund projects. Or the kind of person who will be like, “I can fund your small troupe! I’m a complete weirdo! Come to my house! It’s full of strange works of art by people I knew 20 years ago!” You know, that sort of thing.

On things like Cousin Diane in Rory’s family, she’s actually loosely based on my own family and neighbors, who are actually much, much stranger than the people I ended up putting in the books. 

AVC: Is that even possible?

MJ: Yeah, I mean, the whole thing about Cousin Diane having two thousand angels in her house, it’s based on the fact that our neighbor at my parents’ house has about two thousand angels in his yard and his house—and is insane!—and recently came over because he didn’t like our trees because they were dropping leaves on his angels. He hired a crew of people to illegally come onto our property and chainsaw them all down. And that’s only one small section of a much, much longer story. So yeah, I kind of pick some of these things out of my life.

AVC: A lot of your really eccentric characters stay offscreen. We never meet Aunt Peg when she’s alive. We just sort of see the colorful path that she’s left everywhere. 

MJ: Yeah, I mean, by nature of the story, she has to stay offscreen; she’s passed away by the time the story starts, so that was always a function of her character. But again, she’s based on—I guess my own background in a lot of ways. Coming to New York when you’re completely broke and dealing with art people and theater people—she’s very much of the same kind of background. It’s a deep well to draw from. [Laughs.] You can keep pulling up buckets from it. You’re never really going to run out. 

Rory Deveraux, The Shades Of London series
Ginny Blackstone, 13 Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue Envelope
Scarlett Martin, Suite Scarlett and Scarlett Fever

AVC: Rory’s inner dialogue is probably the most recognizable as similar to your Twitter persona, though we see a little bit of that in Ginny and Scarlett, too.

MJ: Well, Ginny and Scarlett are written in third person, and a lot of stuff comes out in Scarlett between her and her brother—Scarlett is a little more the person who is the observer. I hate the phrase “you write what you know,” but I’ve spent a lot of time sitting to the side and watching other people—especially actors—and Scarlett is that person who’s watching all these things transpire and keeps a lot of it to herself. There’s no real opportunity for her to shout at herself on this matter, so she gets a lot of that out through dialogue. Ginny is very quiet in general, and awkward, which is how you feel a lot when you travel or when you end up somewhere new and unfamiliar: “I have no idea what I’m doing!” Whereas Rory will just talk and talk and talk, and I wanted a character who would just talk. She has no particular problem with that. She just starts going and just doesn’t stop. And that’s a trait I admire. 

AVC: It’s hard to imagine you like Scarlett, just sitting back and watching.

MJ: It’s my job! I was a dramaturge, so it was my job to—really, I dealt with a lot of crazy people. I put out fires—like, real, actual fires—and broke up actual fights and chased people down the street to get them to come back to the theater. That was my job. [Laughs.] I am personally actually pretty quiet a lot of times. I did a lot of writing this stuff down, and that’s really where I do a lot of my talking. But you observe a lot and you see a lot. It was amazing, some of the things I would see. “These are adults. These are actual adults and this is their actual job I’m watching. That director just told everybody to take off their pants. He is famous.” This was my actual job. 

AVC: He did what?

MJ: Yeah, a very famous director was once like, “Everybody take off your pants!” And all the actors had to take off their pants. And that was just another day. I witnessed all kinds of things. I took a lot of notes. It’s actually how I got into grad school—I just wrote and wrote and wrote and compiled it all and basically just sent it off as an application. And they’re like, “Accepted. We’ll take you.” [Laughs.]

Julianne “Jazza” Benton, The Name Of The Star and The Madness Underneath

AVC: Rory is assigned to live with Jazza, who’s so nice it hurts. She’s also a fully formed character in her own right—she’s more than just a foil to Rory, more than a “normal” to Rory’s “offbeat.”

MJ: She’s very much like somebody I met when I first went to England—I feel like there’s a certain kind of sanity that English people have. There’s something about this character that doesn’t go rambling into histrionics in the same way that Americans can. We’re loud, and their façade is a lot more pleasant and reserved. That was something I experience a lot, and I deal with a lot of English people. I’m always kind of surprised—like, when you come to my family’s house, it’s crazy. I’d go to houses in England and they’re like [Assumes British accent.], “Hello! Ah yes, here’s a drink, and come through.” It’s all very civilized, and everybody’s kind of talking about the same thing. And I’m just like, “How are you all so civilized? How is it all so… kind of nice and pleasant and… [Fake yells.] How do you work that out? What’s that about?” 

It’s not that all English people are nice and pleasant, but I think that Jazza reflects a certain type of English character that I find really appealing and lovely. I spent a junior year in England and our first week there, they were like—they had everybody sit in the hall, and they gave everybody a bottle of wine, and I was just like, “What?!” And everybody just sat and had a few glasses of wine, and I was just like, “Am I on Mars? What is happening?” Of course, by 2 in the morning, everybody is riding across the green in shopping carts, so it only lasts so long. 

Stephen Dene, The Name Of The Star and The Madness Underneath
Oliver Davies, The Last Little Blue Envelope

AVC: Talking about Shades Of London brings us to some of the mysterious men in your books, like Stephen. 

MJ: Poor Stephen.

AVC: Poor Stephen! Is he going to come back as a ghost?

MJ: I cannot confirm or deny that. I know, but I’m not going to tell anybody. All I can repeat, over and over again, is that there are two more books. In a lot of ways, I think people would actually be able to start with book three if they wanted and then go back and read books one and two. I deliberately I ended each one of them on something big. Deliberately, I put a bomb at the end of the books, that’s sort of how I thought about it. 

AVC: You definitely succeeded, especially with The Madness Underneath.

MJ: I refer to this one in my head as the Empire Strikes Back ending, which I don’t know if I should even say because I think it may spoil it for people who haven’t read it, but that was my idea—I always liked that they kind of dropped the bomb in the middle of that story. I always thought that was very strong. Poor Han Solo in his carbonite! But, yeah, I didn’t want it to be too comfortable. I have a lot of respect for stories that are a little bit ruthless. Whenever you think you know what’s going to happen, they just knock someone off or change something dramatically. I wanted to do that. And I wanted to see how people reacted. And people reacted by screaming at me for months and months. It was awesome. I love it. 

AVC: What’s the harshest comment you’ve gotten about the ending?

MJ: They’re all kind of wonderfully harsh. People are just like, “I start my day screaming at you.” That’s so great. Thank you! Thank you! That’s the nicest thing you can possibly say. 

AVC: Stephen is also a little reminiscent of Oliver from The Last Little Blue Envelope, men whose backgrounds you don’t really know much about—

MJ: They were developed very much in tandem. So I think that comes through. I got the idea for Shades Of London while I was doing work on Last Little Blue, and then I just started keeping parallel sets of notes, so they probably are related. If you look at the lineage in my brain, they come from a common source. I liked Oliver because he got beat up by everybody. Like, he’s the bad guy of the piece who just gets relentlessly beat up the entire book, which I thought was funny. I find that amusing. [Laughs.] Just beat ’em up. Worst bad guy ever. And Stephen is more—he has a much more troubling past. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s kind of dark, like his illness and his suicide attempt—he was in a hospital for a while getting treatment—and he’s pretty open about that. His background will come up more in books three and four. But that’s just part of his life, you know? That’s a functional part of his life. He’s a darker story than Oliver, who’s just—it’s a darker turn than what happens to Oliver. [Laughs.] But that is a function of the story as well. 

[pagebreak]

AVC: Poor Oliver. He had to walk through Amsterdam soaking wet.

MJ: Poor Oliver. Everybody makes fun of Oliver. But I like that. The constant mockery by Keith was fun. I thought I would get more abuse for that ending as well, but I was heartened that I didn’t. I think there’s this idea a lot of times in books that people have an expected ending. I guess [that was] borne out most recently and scarily by the whole Charlaine Harris thing, who was getting all this abuse over the end of True Blood [which is based on Harris’ Southern Vampire series]. Clearly people had expectations and she didn’t meet them, and I think a lot of times there are reader expectations of how it’s supposed to turn out. And I’m not someone who’s like, “I’ll tell you how it’s supposed to turn out!” A lot of people are like, “Oh, well they obviously get together in the end.” And I’m like, “Well, Ginny’s 17.”

AVC: There was a nice ambivalence at the end.

MJ: I mean, she’s 17. The chances that Keith would be the person she would meet and fall in love with for the rest of her life are not that great. I wanted to write a book in which you talk about the fact that sometimes? You don’t get together with that person. That’s part of life, too. It’s a totally acceptable part of life. It’s not always like, “You meet at 17 and you’re in love forever and that’s the perfect match, the perfect person!” No. Generally not the way it works. 

It sounds like I’m delivering a successive series of bummers to people. 

AVC: Well, you’re doing a great job of it.

MJ: Why, thank you! That’s my job. I’m very proud of that. 

AVC: What about the characters in your head? You mention them sometimes on Twitter.

MJ: [Laughs.] There are a lot of them. Most of them you will never see. There’s a whole cast of characters up there, and they’re much, much weirder than the ones in the books.

AVC: So you’re not going to talk about them?

MJ: Noooope. Well, let’s just say that I’m an only child, and you learn how to entertain yourself. And I’m good at that. 

AVC: When I was a kid, I used to make up these elaborate stories about how, when I’d eat macaroni and cheese, it would turn into mac ’n’ cheese people who would build these mac ’n’ cheese empires in my stomach.

MJ: Okay, then I understand you completely, because I used to do the exact same kind of thing. I had a lot of dreams—like, I had a lot of escape plans. That was usually my game. Like, if I was in the supermarket, I used to pretend that it was me, and all my class, like a team of us—sort of like The Hunger Games, but we lived in a supermarket—this would always be when I was shopping with my parents and was super-bored—and they would release the bad guy, who would chase us, and I would think of how to use everything in the supermarket as a weapon. Like, how we would trick him, and where we would hide, and how we would roll cans down the aisle to get away from him. Other uses for canned goods was a lot of what I was thinking about. 

I did a lot of swimming by myself. [Mimics parental voice.] “Go play in the pool, Maureen.” So I would play this race game where I was in the middle of the pool, and I’d imagine that the bad guy coming in had dumped a load of lobsters—which in my mind, could swim really fast—and I had to race out of the pool as quickly as possible to escape the lobsters. In my head, this was Lobster Race, and it was just something that I did, and I don’t think it occurred to me that kids were probably not playing Lobster Race all the time. But maybe they were, who knows? Usually when you think you’ve done something weird, and you think it’s just you, and it is NEVER JUST YOU. You are never alone in your little things that you think are so peculiar. That’s one of the great reassurances of growing up, I think: finding out that oh, well, we’re all doing these things we think are really strange. I just tend to be more public about it. 

AVC: What about @maureenjohnson?

MJ: Sure. You mean, is that a character?

AVC: Well, is she?

MJ: Nooo. That’s me. You can ask people who live with me or who deal with me on a daily basis, and they’ll say, “Nope, that’s about what you get.” Obviously I write stuff for a living so I’m aware of how what I’m saying might be perceived. I’m not saying that there’s not any kind of crafting, but there’s definitely no planning. There’s never strategy behind it, there’s never forethought—which is why when I screw up, I screw up in real time, and sometimes good things happen really fast, because I just kind of say something, and someone’s like, “Oh, we’ll raise money”—and things just happen. Like, Coverflip was an offhand remark that turned into a bigger project and it got a lot of coverage. 

AVC: You’ve been able to use Twitter for a lot of really good things—talking about suicide, and bullying, and being gay, finding homes for animals—

MJ: Yeah, anything with animals, I’m already on board. There’s no hesitation. I mouth off a lot about a lot of things, but I’ve sat on a lot of panels and [have been to a lot of] panels about social media, and I’ve complained about a lot. They tell you how to do it. And I’m like, “You don’t know how to do it. There’s no instructions!” I guess there are a few, but not really. So, I don’t really think you can do it wrong—not yet. That’s what’s so good about right now: It’s very Wild West-y, and there aren’t really any laws or rules, which means that you get really bad stuff sometimes, and you can make really grand, big mistakes from thousands of little tiny mistakes, or you can be annoying, or you can be repetitive, or you can be ineffectual—or you can make something great. You can be terrible one day and awesome the next. And it really doesn’t matter. You just do it. 

I do get bothered by people who try to make a buck off of aspiring writers. That is a pet peeve, because there are so many people that want to write and be published—two very different things—and there’s so many people out there with no experience and no real knowledge, selling themselves as experts. So many people are so hopeful and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll hire you, you know what you’re doing, I’ll listen to you,” and those kinds of abuses really get to me. So whenever I see someone who’s trying to tell people, to coach people, how to be on social media—there might be a few good ones out there, I don’t know, there probably are—it really gets to me in a way that I can barely explain. It is like nails down a chalkboard to me. I can’t even sit still, it bothers me so much. There are just certain things that press my buttons. And that’s one of them. 

AVC: And YA trendpieces in The Wall Street Journal?

MJ: Ohhhh God. Yeah, that’s another—it’s really easy to press my buttons with certain things. People know it, too. They’re like, “Here, Maureen, have a link.” And I’m like, “Auuuugh! Racist!” There’s a lot of bad reporting. Then you start looking, and there’s a lot of crappy reporting on everything. The pieces about YA are just part of the “we can sell pieces by scaring you into thinking that something bad is going to come for your children.” So instead of getting more readers, you get these people who are like, “Oh, it’s trying to poison kids.” We’ve got enough of a problem with book banning and challenges and general idiocy in this country that we really don’t need to fan those flames any more with bad reporting and dumb articles. 

AVC: Going back to real-life characters—whatever happened with 8A? Did you leave a note for the people in your old place?

MJ: No, I didn’t. I moved out, and 8A is a known issue. I wish I could really talk more about it. A lot of times I had to be really guarded about what I said about her, but it was all true. She was so crazy. [Laughs.] She’s kind of a classic New York character that you think only pops up in sitcoms. She was really there all the time and just screaming and shouting abuse and looking like a deranged character from a Seinfeld episode that never got recorded. She was always talking to the head of security about how she was reporting me for human rights violations and then coming to my door and screaming in my face about what a bitch I was, even when I wasn’t home. I was just like, “I literally have no idea what to do about this.” There’s someone who comes to my door all the time. In the end, I decided that I would sound much more crazy if I told the people [moving into my old apartment]—so I told the next door neighbor that if these people have problems, this is who you should tell them to go to at security. And now? MJ out. I’ve turned my back on all of it. She’s tormented everybody who’s lived there, so somebody else has walked into that, and I feel really bad for that person.

AVC: Will we see 8A in a book someday?

MJ: Well, it’s one of those things, that when it happens to you, you actually have to tone it down a little bit. That’s weirdly often true of a lot of stuff. And, I can’t diagnose her, but I would assume there were some mental issues there. Also, she was just a very unpleasant person. She is a certain type of New Yorker who is very entitled, like, [Assumes an unpleasant voice.] “I live here and therefore I will yell at you all I want! It is my privilege and right to scream at you day after day!” And I’m like, “Really? Is it? I was not aware of that.” In person, I back down pretty easily. If I think I’ve offended someone, I will be like, “I will come and clean your house. With my old toothbrush.” But if you get on my bad side, I will be like, “No no no. You have crossed a line. You have done a bad thing. [Assumes ghost voice.] Nooow I will haunt you relentlessly into the night.” Like an angry ghost! So… I have a line. Once you’ve crossed it with me, you’ve crossed into Crazy Town. Because I fight crazy with crazy. It’s not a great quality, but what can you do? 

AVC: When we spoke to Judy Blume recently, she called you subdued

MJ: [Meeting Judy Blume] was one of those stranger-than-fiction moments. Judy was just really open and kind of out there, and she was just like, “Oh, you guys should come to my house! Stay in my house! Here’s your room! I’m taking you to dinner now! Now I’m taking you to breakfast! Now I’m going to drive you around Key West in the Judymobile and take you to the theater I built!”—and it was amazing. It was like Charlie in the chocolate factory. Robin [Wasserman] and I just kept looking at each other, like, “Is this happening?” But she’s just very friendly and nice and open. She’s what you want her to be. She’s a dream. She’s so great. I mean, I also sense that you don’t mess with Judy. She has opinions on how things are supposed to be… but she’s Judy Blume, therefore she should be obeyed. 

AVC: Re-reading Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, it seems like it would appeal to a child looking for alternate uses for canned goods. 

MJ: I love it. See, it’s also why I love all those scenes in zombie movies. My favorite scenes are always where they go to the supermarket, the collection-gathering scenes, where they have to get resources. In The Hunger Games, too, when they had to run and figure out what resources to get—always my favorite part of the story. That’s like a whole book—basically just people running from danger and gathering up groceries. Maybe I should write that because I would enjoy it a lot. I’m not alone in this, that’s the thing. I think there’s a reason that scene is always in there. 

I have lot of zombie games and zombie board games, and you’d think I would be the sensible person playing those games, always collecting resources carefully and slowly. Nope. I’m the person who has one bullet and, like, a shiny watch, and I’m just running in like Leeroy Jenkins all the time, going, “Auugh, I’m gonna kill everyone!” and then I get killed and I get everyone around me killed and I do not learn from it. I do it every time. I just grab a chainsaw, and I start running. And people are like, “Oh, she’s going in.” And I’m like, “AUUGGGH!” I always rouse the zombies and send them out to everyone around me. Every time.