Describe your latest book.
My debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
, tells the story of a group of privileged Northern California teens who are all linked by their culpability in a middle school tragedy that impacts them in subtle and significant ways.
There’s gifted student Abigail, who first appears to have her priorities perfectly in line but then makes a risky move by entering into an inappropriate relationship. Damon hides feelings of inadequacy beneath a dangerous, juvenile-delinquent façade, and Nick, among the class’s smartest students, is known among his peers as a brilliant scam artist and treats school as “one long practical joke.” And Calista, forever changed by her central role in the tragedy, joins a hippie-stoner crew, skips class, and buries herself in poetry.
Woven throughout these and other teens’ perspectives is an adult point of view — Molly Nicoll, an idealistic teacher, striving to connect with students who are only a few years younger than she. With this novel, I hope to strip away the high school stereotypes and to invite adult literary readers to empathize with the contemporary teenage experience by viewing it from the inside out.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House
, which tells the story of a doll family that comes to life. There was a section that described the dolls’ owners, two little girls, restoring the antique dollhouse, right down to replacing the tiny embroidered cushions on the tiny dining chairs. This was the section I read again and again, fantasizing about a dollhouse of my own. Of course, when I reread Godden’s book as an adult, I realized how much more was going on in those pages: the doll family is a motley crew of rescued and rehabilitated dolls who strive to find a sense of safety and belonging together. The doll father, Mr. Plantaganet, is described this way when he is first found in the trash: “He did not seem to belong to anyone. His eyes were full of dust.” Are there sadder lines in all of fiction?
When did you know you were a writer?
I don’t remember not knowing. My father is a writer, and he recognized and encouraged my writing early on. I have elementary school questionnaires on which I emphatically declared, at seven or eight, that I would be an author and teach creative writing. In sixth grade, I wrote a letter to author Lois Duncan
after having been inspired by her autobiography. I know what the letter says because I never had the courage to mail it. I wrote: “I had almost given up at writing interesting stuff. All my stories seem to be the same. But after reading your book, I feel not ready to give it up, but to keep trying, instead.” I’m still trying.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have a lovely office upstairs in my home, with a big desk, an inspiration board, and abundant natural light. Naturally, I avoid this perfect workspace at all costs — except to edit. The real down-and-dirty work of writing is done at Panera Bakery-Café, the smell of which, for better or worse, is inextricably linked to my writing process. I like the anonymity of the place, the white noise, the imagined social pressure to accomplish something. And they have a soda machine. That helps.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Books? Quiet? Good posture? I’ll tell you what I don’t
care about that everyone else does: food. I can’t think of anything more boring than talking about what restaurant to go to for dinner. This has been a real problem in my social life.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m not sure “embarrassed” is the right word, but I feel a little uneasy discussing my longtime love for Gone With the Wind
, given its racist elements. It is in many ways a problematic text and disturbing to read. But I can’t deny that Scarlett O’Hara made a deep impression on me. I read the book first when I was 10, then again at 11 and 12 and 13. When I was an ambitious and somewhat awkward tweenager, Scarlett provided an example of how to forge one’s way in the world without worrying about what other people think. While other ladies in the book worry about their modesty, Scarlett does what needs doing and calls out other characters’ hypocrisy. In my mind, she’s a feminist hero.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Everyone has read Jennifer Egan
by now, haven’t they? I hope so. I started with Look at Me
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
This I should probably not advertise, but I have a small Barbie collection that I refuse to give up. Each doll relates to me or to something that I love: Frank Sinatra Barbie, Betty Draper Barbie, cheerleader Barbie, Norwegian Barbie. I began collecting them in high school, and they’ve never come out of their boxes. I adore them. My husband finds it all very strange.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
For about five minutes, I was a fashion assistant at a luxury magazine in Los Angeles. This was an unpaid position, which I took because I wanted to spend time at the magazine and because I really liked the paid fashion assistant, who asked for my help. There was a very bizarre moment when I found myself trying to physically put clothes on actress Alexis Bledel, whom I loved from Gilmore Girls
but was terrified to speak to. A short time after that, I sat in the front row of a fashion show at LA Fashion Week, completely out of place in my Banana Republic outfit, and looked around and thought, What am I doing here?
I quit shortly after. The fashion world was not my world. But it was interesting. It stoked an interest in celebrity culture and image-making that continues to influence my work.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Not exactly, but I have always loved attending readings and panels. I have been that one person in the audience sitting with the author’s mother. I just love being around writers. And before I was published, it was helpful to be reminded that writing fiction professionally was an actual thing that real people did, not some weird fantasy I was clinging to.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific.” – Virginia Woolf
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
I have one in mind, but it’s the direct source of the title of my debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
, so I won’t spoil things here.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
I do have one recurring dream: I am back at my old high school, trying to get onto the cheerleading squad again. And all the other girls are sneering at me, saying, “What are you doing here? You’re 35
.” I actually did cheerlead in high school, and loved it. These dreams make me a little melancholy.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
“Between you and I.” Somehow, all the world’s reality stars have been convinced that “I” is the more intelligent version of “me” and must be used in all circumstances. The only thing I hate more is the rampant abuse of the word “myself” as a way to sound fancy: “Myself and John went to the party.” “She confronted John and myself.” No.
Do you have any phobias?
I will run screaming from the room at the mere suggestion of a rodent. This may be a post-traumatic issue related to the summer I lived in New York City and my sublet apartment was infested. Soon after the morning I woke to find mice crawling around in my T-shirt pile and then ran to Central Park in my Disneyland pajamas, sobbing to my mother on a cell phone, I fled to California.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
When I’m feeling stressed, I watch YouTube videos of people doing the KonMari Method
, the “Japanese art of decluttering,” in their homes. I will become completely absorbed in a stranger’s weekend closet-cleanout. I also like the videos of people cleaning. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was growing up, my parents would always tell me, “Figure it out.” Whenever I wanted help with something, from opening a package to finding my first job, their answer was, “Figure it out.” It made me crazy. Of course, now I realize that life — not to mention, novel-writing — is basically one long exercise in “Figure it out.”
Write a question of your own, then answer it.
“Tell us about your cat.” His name is Beauregard, and he is a gentleman.
My Five Favorite Books in High School:
People often ask me what to give teenagers to make them read. This is a hard question for me, first because Young Adult did not really exist as a genre when I was in high school, and second because if The Hunger Games
had existed then, I probably wouldn’t have read it. (I have read it as an adult, by the way, and liked it very much.) At 17, I was weird. I was a literary snob of the highest order. So here is a list that is probably unhelpful, though true.
by Charlotte Brontë
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
by Toni Morrison
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
by Susan Orlean
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Lindsey Lee Johnson
is the author of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
. She holds a master of professional writing degree from the University of Southern California and a BA in English from the University of California at Davis. She has served as a tutor and mentor at a private learning center, where her focus has been teaching writing to teenagers. Born and raised in Marin County, she now lives with her husband in Los Angeles.