Author LISA JONES JOHNSON roared onto the mystery-thriller scene last year...a quiet roar that rolled up into something any lioness would envy! Now Lisa's blown up, and even folks outside of the mystery genre are abuzz. I met Lisa last year when I mc-ing a panel on which Lisa was a guest, and she wowed the crowd there at Borders!
Just some background. Lisa's a Harvard grad, former corporate attorney. Sound familiar? Such yearning and art in the minds of we shysters, eh? But Lisa's now a producer in Hollywood, helming ComedyexpressTV, a content provider of comedy talent and shows on cable and online. often she works with the venerable National Lampoon. All this and mom, a wife, and now, novelist. Lisa, welcome...
So let's start. Clive January as ghost-victim, and Bob Greene as medium-detective--what inspired you to create that plot device? I ask because outside of a very loose comparison to The Lovely Bones, this kind of extraordinary relationship is rare in detective/suspense fiction, and even rarer in African American fiction. Tell us little about that.
You're right, although when I was writing my novel I didn't think of it that way. What I was trying to do was to get in the head of the main people who were effected by the crime. Usually this is just the detective, but when you think about it, there's really no one who's more impacted by the crime then the person who's killed! Especially when they don't know who did it as was the case in A DEAD MAN SPEAKS, hence the title of the book. He's trying desperately to find out who killed him, thus "speaking" to the Detective and other characters who also show up throughout the book who may be able to help him solve his own murder. As it relates to African American fiction, I think it's a shame that we are pigeon holed into certain "African American" genres, like street lit or others that supposedly reflect the African American Experience. But in reality the "African American" experience is as diverse as the 30 million plus African Americans, so why shouldn't our literature reflect that. I guess this is my way of trying to inject some "diversity" in a generally non diverse literary environment. And when you see books like The Emperor of Ocean Park and The Known World selling the way they have, you realize that there's a real thirst out there for something different, outside of the acceptable boundaries for "African American" literature. The people have spoken, now if we can just get the publishers to realize that!
Stephen J. Cannell, writer/producer of several hit TV shows and a crime novelist in his own right,endorsed your book. Did that validate such a long road for you? Do you think you are growing as an author?
Having Stephen endorse my book, was a major watershed for me. Here's someone who's been one of the most successful writer/producer/creators of mainstream television and is also a best selling novelist himself who's saying your book is good. I couldn't ask for more. I do think that I'm growing as an author, only if based on the millions of times that I revised my book (and also my screenplays and everything else I've written!)!
So let's get to som juicy stuff. How did it feel when you got the news your work was nominated for an NAACP Image Award? Did you speak with the other nominees at the program's taping?
I was thrilled when I found out. It was a little unnerving because of course being in Hollywood, I knew when the press conference was being held to announce the nominees. So with some trepidation, I called the office and found out that I'd been nominated! It was particularly gratifying because it took seven years to get my book published and it was of course a small vindication for all of the rejection letters that I'd gotten from editors who just didn't "get it," particularly as you've mentioned the fact that it wasn''t what they'd expect from a murder mystery where one of the two main characters is African American. Do I sound annoyed?? I hope not! And yes I did speak with some of the other nominees who happened to be seated near me at the Award ceremony. It's always great meeting other authors.
Regarding crafting the book, you a female author, chose to write it in first person, with males as the main characters. Was that difficult?
Actually it wasn't. I'd been a screenwriter before so I was used to having to write in different gender voices and this story just semed to tell itself from a male perspective. In addiition, for some reason I seem to be able to get into the heads of my male characters, and (so I've been told) write in voices that are authentic to them. Also, I've always had a lot of guy friends who were just buddies so since we were just friends, I got a window into their world that most women wouldn't have if they were involved with them. I think that definitely helps when I'm writing male voices.
As African American writers we seem to also have the burden of giving a lesson on race as well as telling a story. What did you draw upon to tell Clive January's story--he a Wall Street shark who worked his way "up" from racism in the South, and making few friends doing it? Did you base the cop, Bob Greene, on any "real life" white people who struggle to understand us or our perspectives?
Clive's character is based on my experiences working on Wall Street and knowing the "archetype" (Black or white) of the type of person who's phenomenally successful but many times is not the nicest person, at least to the outside world. What I was really trying to do with Clive was to get the readers to look beyond the obvious, ie. rich S.O.B. and instead probe why he was like that and perhaps understand his pain and ultimately see him as any person who has good and bad. Detective Bob's character is not really based on anyone, but rather again living in NY and interacting with the panoply of people that you're forced to rub shoulders with there, some of their energy rubs off, which I guess is good if you're a writer. Some of his thoughts are things that I've heard people say or imply and when you add the class issue, ie. Detective Bob is working class and Clive at least in income is upper class, it only makes the bitterness of the "disenfranchised" white male that much greater. But ultimately what the book was really about was that despite the obvious differences between the two, they were really the same and in the end they both realize that, and consider each other brothers, albeit one dead and the other living. I've had a lot of people of both races tell me that the characters in many cases of a race not their own is more like someone that they know of their own race then they would ever have imagined. One white woman at a book club told me that her father was like Clive's father and her mother was like Clive's mother and so she a white woman totally identified with Clive's story and his struggle. On the Civil Rights aspect of the book, that just flowed naturally from working backwards from when the book started. I wanted to start the book during a time of great stress and upheaval on Wall Street and 1987 was the first really big crash in modern times. So working backwards, Clive being in his late thirties at that time would have to have grown up during segregation. That being said, one comment I get all the time, is how did you know in such detail about that period, because I wasn't born then and never experienced segregation first hand. I have to say that was the part of the book that just wrote itself almost as if someone came in and told me their story. Hmm. But don't know who.
You went from being an attorney to a television/internet exec/producer to an author. Tell us about the transitions, and how, if at all, these experiences enriched your writing?
That's a whole book in itself, suffice it to say, I never planned to be a writer. I thought I'd practice law make partner etc. etc. But when I started I realized that I really didn't enjoy the practice of law and felt this need to do something creative. That ultimately led through a very convoluted path to writing, first screenplays when I came to LA from NY and was a full time screenwriter for four years. Then followed a stint in the music business as an Executive Producer and record exec, and then ultimately back in TV, also as an executive. I guess I'm one of those split right brain/left brain people that go back and forth between the two worlds of crazy creative people and equally crazy in their own way "business" people, but usually staying in some form of the media business.
What new projects are you working on?
I'm starting to think about a second book in this series with some of the same characters. Detective Bob will be back, Clive has moved on but there's another equally troubled soul that Bob is working with now, surprise, surprise also a Black man. As in A Dead Man Speaks his journey tracks Bob's current challenges at that time and by solving the crime they both are able to close a loop in their lives, one living the other dead. I'm also working on some other non fiction writing projects that I can't discuss in detail now but soon!
Lisa, thanks. I hope folks will visit you online, and also for those in the "business," check out www.comedyexpresstv.com And Fanboys & girls, you can buy A DEAD MAN SPEAKS on Amazon through this blog, or at bookstores near you. Follow Lisa carefully, because we all will be hearing a lot more from her in the future--on the shelves, online and on the small screen.
Coming next-Tananarive Due & Cora Daniels!