Born Diane Lain, April 28, 1934, in Moline, IL; daughter of Dolph and Frances (Elder) Lain; married B. Lamar Johnson Jr., July, 1953 (divorced); married John Frederic Murray (a professor of medicine), May 31, 1968; children: Kevin, Darcy, Amanda, Simon (from first marriage). Education: Attended Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1951–53, A.A. 1953; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, B.A., 1957; University of California, Los Angeles (Woodrow Wilson fellow), M.A., 1966, Ph.D., 1968.
Author. University of California at Davis, assistant professor, then professor of English, 1968–87; held Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Stipend from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1988–92. Contributor of essays and book reviews to periodicals, including the New York Times, New York Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post.
American Association of University Women fellowship, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977–78; Rosenthal Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1979; Strauss Living award, 1987; Los Angeles Times medal, 1994.
In an age when writers tend to be pigeonholed, Diane Johnson remains a difficult author to categorize. Perhaps best known as an essayist and biographer, she got her start as a novelist and continues to write successfully in this vein. She is a teacher and scholar with expertise in nineteenth–century literature, yet she also lent a hand in writing the screenplay for The Shining, a popular horror film. And while her initial focus was on women and their problems in society, she has since written sympathetically of a man who faced similar difficulties in Dashiell Hammett: A Life. Even her early works, which have been claimed as the province of feminists, were intended to cast a wider net, as Johnson explained to Susan Groag Bell in Women Writers of the West Coast: "The kinds of crises, the particular troubles that I assign to my women characters, these are not necessarily meant to be feminist complaints.… In my mind, they may be more metaphysical or general. That sounds awfully pretentious, but I guess what I mean is that I'm not trying to write manifestos about female independence, but human lives."
Like many artists, Johnson sees herself as a craftsperson whose work should be judged on its merits as literature, not—as is often the case with female writers—on moral or extraliterary grounds. In her Pulitzer Prize–nominated collection of book reviews and essays, Terrorists and Novelists, Johnson addresses the particular problems faced by female novelists, chiding those male critics who "have not learned to read books by women and imagine them all to be feminist polemics."
Johnson was born and raised in Moline, Illinois. The first child of middle–aged parents, she lived in the same house surrounded by neighboring aunts and uncles until she went away to college at 17. She described herself as a "puny, bookish little child, with thick glasses," and told Los Angeles Times reporter Beverly Beyette that she was "the kind of whom you say, 'Let's take her to the library on Saturday.' I was typecast, but I was a type." When she was 19, Johnson married her first husband, then a UCLA medical student, and relocated to the West Coast where she has remained.
Despite her long residence in California, Johnson told Women Writers' Bell that "a certain view of life, which I very much obtained from my Illinois childhood, does inform my work. In a couple of my books I have put a middle–western protagonist, always somebody who's displaced like I am, looking at the mess of today. This person remembers an orderly society from which subsequent events have seemed to depart." She maintains that it is the turmoil of modern society, rather than a personal preoccupation with disorder, that leads to the prevalence of violence in her books. "She is not sensational, sentimental, nor simple–minded," suggested Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction contributor Marjorie Ryan, who pointed out that Johnson writes in "the satiric–comic–realistic tradition, in a mode that may not appeal to readers nurtured on the personal, subjective, and doctrinaire."
In her early fiction, Fair Game, Loving Hands at Home, and Burning, Johnson employs "a comic tone" as well as "a central female character who is uncertain about how to conduct her life," according to Judith S. Baughman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook. In each of these novels, a woman who has ventured outside the boundaries of convention "has a shocking experience which sends her back inside, but only temporarily until another experience either sends her outside again or changes her whole perspective," Critique's Ryan explained.
Much criticism was leveled at Johnson's choice of subject. A Southern California story of disaster, Burning was viewed as a genre novel that had been approached in the same fashion many times before. Though Newsweek's Peter Prescott found Johnson "witty and serious," he contended that she "tries to be both at once and doesn't make it. Her book should have been either much funnier, or much grimmer or, failing that, she should have been much better."
Her competence established, Johnson began to attract more serious attention, and her fourth novel, The Shadow Knows, was widely reviewed. Originally set in Los Angeles, the story was relocated to Sacramento because, as the author explained to Women Writers' Bell, "I decided after the reception of Burning that Los Angeles was too loaded a place in the minds of readers." The novel takes its title from an old radio melodrama (which featured the line, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.") and focuses on one terror–filled week in the life of a young divorcée and mother of four, known simply as N. When someone slashes her tires, leaves a strangled cat on her doorstep, threatens her over the telephone, and beats up her babysitter in the basement laundry room, N. becomes convinced that she is marked for murder. But who is the assailant? Her spiteful former husband? The wife of her married lover? The psychotic woman who used to care for her children? Her jealous friend, Bess, who comes to visit with a hunting knife in her purse? Or, worst of all, is it some nameless stranger, an embodiment of evil she does not even know? N.'s attempt to identify her enemy, and her imaginary dialogue with the Famous Inspector she conjures up to help her, make up the heart of the book.
Writing in the New Statesman, A. S. Byatt described the novel as a "cunning cross between the intensely articulate plaint of the under–extended intelligent woman and a conventional mystery, shading into a psychological horror–story." Nation contributor Sandra M. Gilbert called it "a sort of bitter parody of a genre invented by nineteenth–century men: the detective novel." Some reviewers went so far as to suggest that N.'s problems are more imagined than real. "Understandably, N. would like to know who's doing all these bad things to her, if only to be sure that she's not making it all up," wrote Thomas R. Edwards in the New York Review of Books. "And since we also wonder if she may not be doing that, we share her desire for knowledge."
In her interview with Women Writers' Bell, Johnson asserted that such disbelief stems more from readers' biases than from the way the protagonist is portrayed. "There's [a] problem that comes from having as your central character a female person," said Johnson. "The male narrative voice is still accorded more authority. The female narrative voice is always questioned—is she crazy? Are the things she's saying a delusion, or reality?.… Nonetheless, I write about women of childbearing age, because I like to fly in the face of these prejudices and hope that I can make them authoritative and trustworthy reporters."
While women still figure prominently in Johnson's next novel, Lying Low, the focus shifted from psychological to political concerns and from one protagonist to several. The book, which covers four days in the lives of four characters who inhabit a boarding house in Orris, California, is a "mosaic–like juxtaposition of small paragraphs, each containing a short description, a bit of action, reflections of one of the principal characters, or a mixture of all three," according to Robert Towers in the New York Times Book Review. Praising its artful construction, elegant style, and delicate perceptions, Towers called Lying Low "a nearly flawless performance.…" The book was nominated for a National Book Award.
Johnson was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 novel, Persian Nights. This book chronicles the story of Chloe Fowler, a woman who accidentally finds herself traveling in Iran just prior to the revolution. Fowler is a physician's wife, and the couple looks forward to a trip to Iran where the husband will teach in a local hospital. Just before they arrive, he is called away on an emergency and Fowler decides to continue to Iran without him. Alone in a country where single women are suspect, she finds herself the target of government attention. Fowler tries to help a dissatisfied Iranian woman leave the country, and gets involved in several affairs, before she is forced to leave the country.
Critics noted Johnson's success in portraying an imperfect protagonist. Paul Gray of Time believed that "in creating such a selfish, flawed heroine, Johnson took a calculated risk: readers might not be able to see themselves and their prejudices through Chloe and make the appropriate adjustments toward the truth." However, he concluded that the book is "neither a bodice ripper nor a treatise on the Iranian revolution, but an intriguing compromise: an attempt to show major upheavals as a progress of small shocks."
In addition to novels, Johnson has written two biographies. Her portrait of the first Mrs. George Meredith, Lesser Lives: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, grew out of her doctoral dissertation. "In biographies of Meredith, there would always be this little paragraph about how he was first married to Mary Ellen Peacock who ran off and left him and then, of course, died, deserted and forlorn—like the woman in a Victorian story," Johnson told Bell. "I always thought, I bet there is her side of it too. This was when my own marriage was breaking up, and I was particularly interested in the woman's side of things."
Working from evidence she exhumed from letters and diaries, Johnson hypothesizes that the real Mary Ellen was a strong–willed, intelligent, free spirit, whose main sin was being out of step with her times. Raised by her father in the tradition of eighteenth–century individualism, she incited the wrath of her decidedly Victorian second husband, the famous novelist George Meredith, when she abandoned their loveless marriage to lead a life of her own. Lesser Lives received a National Book Award nomination.
Even when her subject is a contemporary figure, about whom concrete facts and anecdotes are readily available, Johnson prefers an artistic to an exhaustive approach. "A biography has a responsibility which is to present the facts and get all of them straight, so that people can get the basic outlines of a person's life," Johnson explained to Miriam Berkley in Publishers Weekly. "And then, I think, it has to have a point of view and a shape which has to come out of the biographer as artist. I guess I am arguing for the interpretive biography, you might call it an art biography, as opposed to a compendious presentation of a lot of facts."
Johnson's commitment to biography as art presented special challenges in her study of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and the writing of Dashiell Hammett: A Life. The first "authorized" Hammett biographer, Johnson had access to all his personal papers and the cooperation of his family and friends. But in exchange for these privileges, Hammett's executrix and long–time companion Lillian Hellman insisted that she be shown the final manuscript and be granted the right to decide whether or not the quoted material could stand.
"She set out to be pleasant and wonderful, then, when she stopped being wonderful, I stopped going to see her," Johnson told Beverly Beyette in the Los Angeles Times. The problem was one of vision: "She saw him very much as her guru, this wonderfully strong, terrifically honest, fabulously intelligent dream man. I saw him as an intelligent, troubled man, an alcoholic with terrible writer's block. She didn't like to think of his life having been painful, unsuccessful." Johnson eventually obtained Hellman's permission to use Hammett's letters in her own way. "She had to agree, I guess, that it was the best way of presenting Hammett," Johnson told Berkley. "He was a difficult man and not entirely sympathetic, but he was certainly at his most sympathetic in his own voice."
Johnson, a woman who has reluctantly traveled all over the globe with her second husband, a physician, published the autobiographical work, Natural Opium, in 1993. The book is narrated by D., a character conspicuously similar to Johnson, who travels the globe while her husband J., an expert in infectious diseases, conducts his research. Critics have praised the book for its realistic feel, writer's attention to detail, and humor and intelligence. "What Ms. Johnson describes is not merely what the place was like, but—far more interesting—what it was like to be there," claimed Roxana Robinson in the New York Times Book Review. A tragic sled ride following a dinner in Switzerland, ethical physicians being drawn into the heart of corruption, and trying to visit her children who live at opposite ends of the globe are some of the topics she explores; disaster and destruction are almost always the themes.
A pair of fin–de–siecle novels, 1997's Le Divorce and 2000's Le Mariage, lend a French flavor to Johnson's work. In the former, the action begins as Roxanne (Roxy) de Persand, a Californian living in Paris, is pregnant with her second child when she learns that her French husband is leaving the marriage. Roxy's tale is narrated by her younger sister, Isabel Walker, "a film–school dropout who is good at describing scenes but doesn't always catch on to what they're really about," as Christopher Lehmann–Haupt described her in a New York Times review.
Isabel's arrival in Paris to help see Roxy through her pregnancy and "le divorce" sets in motion the younger sister's quest to become more worldly. The author, said a Kirkus Reviews article, is noteworthy for "catching the class–bound, cool, utter self–assurance" of the upper–class French characters as well as the "determinedly frank, aggressive innocence of their American counterparts."
Following Le Divorce was Le Mariage, Johnson's second take on cross–cultural relations. The players this time include American journalist Tim Nolinger, engaged to Parisian Anne–Sophie d'Arget, who runs a whimsical boutique. The passionate young couple comes to grips with doubts as the wedding day draws nearer. Johnson counters their story with the tale of another Franco–American couple. This time glamorous Clara Holly, a former actress, realizes her longtime marriage to reclusive film director Serge Cray is on its last legs.
Clara takes in another American, the tourist Delia, who's had her passport stolen on her first day in Paris. The addition of the militant Delia to Clara and Serge's home life results in domestic confusion, political extremism, and even Y2K paranoia. Through it all, Johnson "sprinkles the novel with McGuffins as if they were spices," according to Cathleen Schine. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Schine added that "besides a murder, Le Mariage offers a medieval apocalyptic manuscript stolen from the Morgan Library just at the time Delia leaves the country, an apocalyptic right–wing extremist plot based in Oregon, and a dispute over bloods sports and French national monuments that threatens to turn into an international incident."
Schine admired the author's ability to integrate so many spins into one narrative: "More or less amusing on their own," she said, the plot points "blend together to create the satisfying aroma, if not the full flavor, of suspense. They also serve to bring Clara, Serge and Delia together with [Tim and Anne–Sophie]."
On August 8, 2003, Johnson's novel Le Divorce was adapted as a film by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory, directed by Ivory, and starred Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. The film was released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Later that year, the third novel in the trio with Le Divorce and Le Mariage—L'Affaire—was published. The novel was "about cultural misunderstandings and amorous entanglements," according to People's Francine Prose. Thomas Mallon of Atlantic Monthly declared that Johnson "has a lightness of touch that has nearly disappeared from literary fiction, comic or otherwise." The novel also echoed Johnson's uneasiness about the state of her home country's political views. Since she and her husband split their time between Paris, France, and San Francisco, California, she is very aware of the hard feelings other countries have toward the United States. "America knows its heart is pure and its intentions are good, and that ought to be enough, right? It seems to assume that the values of Western democracy are self–evident and that therefore people will eagerly embrace them—without any willingness to think about other traditions that are completely incompatible. People can't just peel off tradition like that. We all feel that they ought to, but of course they can't," Johnson told Sarah Lyall in Elle.
Fair Game, Harcourt, 1965.
Loving Hands at Home, Harcourt, 1968.
Burning, Harcourt, 1971.
The Shadow Knows, Knopf, 1974.
Lying Low, Knopf, 1978.
Persian Nights, Knopf, 1987.
Health and Happiness, Knopf, 1990.
Le Divorce, Dutton, 1997.
Le Mariage, Dutton, 2000.
L'Affaire, Dutton, 2003.
Lesser Lives: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, Knopf, 1973, published as The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, Heinemann (London), 1973.
Dashiell Hammett: A Life, Random House, 1983.
Also author of unproduced screenplays Grand Hotel, The Shadow Knows (based on her novel of the same title), and Hammett (based on her biography Dashiell Hammett: A Life).
(Author of preface) John Ruskin, King of the Golden River, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1976.
(Author of preface) Charles Dickens, A Holiday Romance, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1976.
(Author of preface) Tom Hood, Petsetilla's Posy, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1976.
(Author of preface) Margaret Gatty, Parables of Nature, Garland Publishing, 1976.
(Author of preface) George Sand, Mauprat, Da Capo Press (New York City), 1977.
(Author of preface) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, c. 1979.
Terrorists and Novelists (collected essays), Knopf, 1982.
(Author of preface) Josephine Herhst: Collected Works, 1990.
(Author of preface) Tales and Stories of E. A. Poe, Vintage, 1991.
Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales, Knopf, 1993.
Contributor of essays and book reviews to periodicals, including the New York Times, New York Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post.
Le Divorce was released by Merchant–Ivory Productions in 2003.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale, 1981.
Yalom, Marilyn, editor, Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, Capra, 1983.
Atlantic Monthly, October 2003, p. 124.
Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Volume 16, number 1, 1974.
Elle, October 2003, pp. 208–10.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1982; April 27, 1983.
Nation, June 14, 1975.
New Statesman, June 6, 1975.
Newsweek, December 23, 1974; May 5, 1975; October 16, 1978; October 17, 1983; March 30, 1987, p. 69.
New York Review of Books, February 20, 1975; May 25, 2000, p. 29.
New York Times, January 23, 1997; April 16, 1997; August 8, 2003.
New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1978; January 24, 1993, p. 8; February 2, 1997, p. 10; April 16, 2000, p. 8; April 16, 2000, p. 10.
People, October 27, 2003, p. 48.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 1983.
Time, March 23, 1987, p. 83.