Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist and essayist
April 28, 1934
Diane Johnson is a writer whose works bridge the gap between literary and popular fiction. Born Diane Lain in Moline, Illinois, she lived in the same house throughout her childhood. Her parents, Frances Elder Lain and Dolph Lain, always had books in their home and encouraged their daughter’s interest in making up “little stories” to tell. In one memorable incident from Diane’s childhood, her father, a high school principal, lost his job for revealing plagiarism by the superintendent of schools’s daughter. Despite this event, Johnson attributes her feeling that the world is orderly, or should be, to her stable childhood years. Many of her protagonists, who struggle to make sense of their world, share this worldview.
At age seventeen she enrolled in Stephens College, a two-year women’s college. At nineteen, however, she dropped out of Stephens to marry B. Lamar Johnson, Jr., a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and move to the West Coast with him. There, she worked to help put her husband through medical school, had four children, and attended classes, completing her bachelor’s degree and going on to obtain a Ph.D. in English. Her dissertation was on the poetry of George Meredith.
Johnson was not sure when, or why, she first decided to become a writer. During the busy years of taking classes and bringing up children, she started a novel. She had become friends with Alison Lurie, then also a beginning novelist. From Lurie, Johnson gained encouragement about writing and also mutual support in the form of baby-sitting exchanges and other practical help. The first novel that Johnson completed has not been published, but her second, Fair Game, found a publisher without difficulty. Johnson admitted she might not have stuck with writing novels if she had received repeated rejections, as many writers do.
Her first three novels, all set in California, deal satirically with elements of contemporary existence, each featuring a woman trying to cope with life outside the safe boundaries of her upbringing. Loving Hands at Home is set in a Mormon subculture and Burning in the zany world of New Age devotees. With The Shadow Knows, Johnson takes a grimmer look at the floundering woman theme. Published as the women’s movement flourished in the 1970’s, it is the most overtly feminist of Johnson’s work. The protagonist, a woman known only as N, spends a week of escalating terror, culminating in her rape. The plot is that of a thriller or mystery novel, but N’s doubts about her own perceptions give it a depth beyond the standard genre elements. This novel brought Johnson serious attention from reviewers and critics. Stanley Kubrick considered filming it, and her contacts with the director led to her assignment to write the screenplay for The Shining.
Meanwhile, much had happened in the rest of Johnson’s life. After her first marriage ended, she wed John Murray, a professor of medicine, in 1968. That year she also joined the faculty of the University of California, Davis. In addition to fiction, she wrote and published essays, book reviews, and two biographies: one, on the first Mrs. George Meredith, an offshoot of her dissertation project, and one of Dashiell Hammett, written with the active cooperation of playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime companion.
Johnson’s next three novels garnered more literary acclaim. Lying Low is another novel of psychological suspense; the other two give sharp insights into, respectively, Iran at the time of its revolution and the life of a big-city hospital. In 1988 Johnson was awarded a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living, which carries a $50,000 a year stipend to allow its recipient to concentrate on writing. Johnson had always felt a tug of time and attention between her teaching and her writing obligations; the award enabled her to devote herself full-time to the latter.
In the mid-1990’s, Johnson and her husband, who worked on African medical needs with a team of French doctors, started spending more than half of each year in France. Johnson said that arrangement made life and writing easier for her in several ways. In California she had disliked the daily necessity of driving a car and found that her not needing an automobile in France gave her more time for her work. Also, the Parisian winter reminded her of her Illinois childhood; she found it more bracing than California’s climate.
Diane Johnson often set her fiction where she was living at the time of writing. Her novels Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire are comedies of manners, contrasting French morals and mores with those of Americans. Johnson was surprised at the wide readership these novels drew. Her previous works garnered good reviews and several nominations for prestigious awards, but Le Divorce was Johnson’s first book that, as she said, someone whom she meets on an airplane is likely to have read. All three novels depict American expatriates living in Paris, where they experience frequent culture clashes with French acquaintances or intimates. Many such scenes are hilarious. Under the humor are more serious themes, such as how social norms affect human relationships and the eruption of violence in everyday life. Two of the books include a murder, but in neither is the whodunit aspect paramount.
Critics have noted how often Johnson, unlike some literary writers, includes violent events in her novels. Such events help her to examine character or the nature of evil and also function as pivot points for her plots. The two books set in France combine social commentary, vivid characters, and complex plots to appeal to both popular and literary audiences.