Monday, January 4, 2021

"Better Luck Next Time"

Julia Claiborne Johnson is the author of the bestselling Be Frank with Me, a finalist for the American Bookseller’s Association Best Debut Novel Award. She grew up on a farm in Tennessee before moving to New York City, where she worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines. She now lives in Los Angeles with her comedy-writer husband and their two children.

Johnson applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Better Luck Next Time, and reported the following:
From page 69:
"Oh?" Nina asked. "How was it?"

"Not bad. considering most of the students are there to study mining," I said. "The costumes were the best part, I thought. Showed real imagination. Bottom's in particular."

Nina said, "Let's drive around some before we go back to the ranch. Show me where this college is, Ward. I never went to college. Maybe I should enroll there since I'm about to become a citizen of Nevada again. Maybe if I had a university degree people would treat me with the respect I probably don't deserve."
Though it is only a few short paragraphs, page 69 is important to the novel. Bottom’s costume, which at this point is in the collection of a college theater department, is not only a jumping-off place for all the hijinks that will follow but the source of my favorite joke in the whole novel (see page 201). The costume’s head starts as a sight gag, turns into an integral plot device and finally becomes a heartbreaking metaphor.

The whole idea of that costume’s role in my book was born of the fact that my son played Bottom in his high school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream. I couldn’t stop thinking about the papier mâché donkey head he wore when he played it. Then it struck me that were was something very Midsummers Night about a novel set on a Reno divorce ranch, a place where rich ladies—like our Nina, in this passage— once went in droves for an idyllic (or as idyllic-as-possible, under the circumstances) time away from their real, unhappy lives. When my novel is set, in the summer of 1938, six weeks of living in Nevada, and voilà! You were a legal resident of the state. Next stop, one of Reno’s famous “quickie” divorces. Free as a bird. Ready to try your luck again, if you so desired. Many did.

So it made perfect sense to me that, during the lean years of the Depression, a canny businessman would roll into Reno, snap up a failed cattle ranch, have a Hollywood set designer make it over into a movie-magazine version of the Old West and staff the place with handsome young ranch hands like cowboys straight out of Central Casting to lure the rich and often-married set. Hence the ranch in my novel, the Flying Leap. And my narrator, Ward? He's one of the cowboys, a young and handsome formerly-rich college boy from Tennessee, now fallen on hard times and surrounded by rich women with broken hearts. A novel inspired, in fact, by my own father, who had a job like this during the Depression. But that’s another story.
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--Marshal Zeringue