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The Secret of Magic

A young, black veteran returns from WWII to his Mississippi home only to be brutally murdered by white men for refusing to give up his seat on a bus. Deborah’s Johnson’s latest book, The Secret of Magic, unfolds as the NAACP sends Regina Robichard to investigate.

Deborah Johnson was born in Missouri, grew up in Nebraska, attended college and lived in San Francisco before moving to Rome, Italy. While in Rome, Johnson worked as a translator and an editor of doctoral theses and at Vatican Radio. She also wrote–and wrote and wrote.  Her novel, The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for fiction, was published by Harper/Collins in 2008.  By then, she had returned to the U.S. to work for a small private foundation in Mississippi.  Johnson says she came to Mississippi (sight unseen and with a fair number of prejudices against it) but she has actually come to like it.  Her novel, The Secret of Magic, was published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in January of this year.

LitVote:  What was your inspiration for writing, The Secret of Magic?

 Deborah: I’ve always been very interested in WW II and its eventual impact on Civil Rights, and not just in the United States.  I once had a marvelous history professor, a nun, who said the images that came out of Nuremburg, the unbelievable inhumanity in them, were felt physically by most people when they were published. She remembered the nausea as a very real thing even when I met her many years after the fact. She was not at all excusing herself for not being more aware earlier, or for not speaking up, but she did say that those pictures completely changed her life and her commitment to social change.  The end of that war seemed to activate a chain reaction of sorts.  Gandhi came first, then Martin Luther King and the move for African American civil rights here in this country, the Woman’s Movement after that, Cesar Chavez and the farm workers…right down to the present day and the LGBT victories.  All of these battles since 1945 have been hard fought and the victories have built on each other.  I’m fascinated by that.  And also by the fact that my grandfather served in that war and fought hard for democracy during a time when he was effectively denied the right to vote in his own state back here in the United States.

LitVote: Again and again, readers and reviewers say how well you captured the era, the fictional, small town of Revere, MS and the people who lived in it. What kind of research did you do before you began writing?

Deborah:  I actually live in northeast Mississippi so the Mississippi part of the research was fairly easy.  Of course the archives are great, both at the state and local levels, because people take their history seriously in the South. Folks here know their own story and they know the story of most on their neighbors and they love to talk.  So I picked up a lot just going out to dinner and listening up when people told me things.  I still think that’s one of the best ways to get a feel for a place and the folks who live there or have lived there.  I’ve also listened to my family—to my grandmother and other and aunts and cousins (the men in that generation didn’t talk much).  That helped.  The real research was done on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers who worked with him there.  Lots of books were read.  Lots of notes taken on their cases.  I was fascinated by this—and very grateful for all they were able to accomplish and for their heroism.

LitVote:  Your book is about racism in the old South. Was it difficult for you to write about the injustices that were part of everyday life in the 1940s and 50s?

Deborah:  I wouldn’t say it was difficult for me to write about the injustices of the 1940s and 1950s.  I knew I had to write the book and so I had to write about both the outrageous and the subtle forms of discrimination that were prevalent then.  It did make me angry though to read through what was going on back then and I had to be very careful of that anger.  First, I didn’t want to be dismissed as just another “angry black person” writing about things that had happened “a thousand years ago”.  On the other hand I did not want to continue the stereotype of all white Mississippians as either members of some Klan like organization or sympathetic with its aims or afraid to speak up against them. I live in Mississippi. I could see the complexities of this evolving situation.  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed in presenting The Secret of Magic is how many white women have said they identified with Regina Robichard and how many blacks have said that Anna Dale Buchanan was a hero.  Both these characters are based on real people who lived through that time and had an impact on it.

LitVote:  The Secret of Magic is a book-within-a-book.  It is very difficult to do well, which you did. Why did you choose that technique?

Deborah:  The book within the book technique grew as a natural outcome of the growth of the story.  I wanted to show the intimacy of Southern life; the fact that in the South blacks and whites many times actually knew each other, which was very different from life lived in the North.  The way to do this seemed to be through these children growing up together, playing together through the summer—and then going off to segregated schools in the fall.  It is amazing to me now that this was just taken for granted.  The book within the book, written by M.P. Calhoun, was also meant to illustrate her own, largely subconscious, revolt against the status quo.

LitVote: The end of your book is not a neatly tied-up package as is often the case. Does that mean there’s a sequel to your book?

Deborah:  Do real life stories tie up neatly at the end? I don’t think so.  As with my earlier point about one civil rights movement forming the foundation of those that follow it, I think the points made in The Secret of Magic will just flow on and on…but I have no plans to organize them into a sequel to the novel.  Maybe someday but not now.

LitVote:  You lived in Rome, Italy for many years. Did living abroad influenced your writing?

Deborah:  I think living abroad for as many years as I did made me into a writer—something I’d always wanted to be.  In order to survive in a new place especially when you don’t know the language (as I did not when I first moved to Italy) you are forced to open your eyes and observe.  You learn to really listen to people or else you’re not able to understand them.  And you immediately learn that people do not all think like you, that they do not act like you, and that the way you’ve been taught to solve problems is not the only way that problems can be solved. Of course we all know this in theory but actually living it is something else.  I recommend that, when possible, all writers spend time in a place that’s not their own—even if that place is only as far removed as Nebraska (I grew up in Nebraska).

LitVote:  I love the cover on The Secret of Magic. What advice do you have for first time authors when selecting a book cover?

Deborah:  Thanks so much for liking my cover but I had nothing to do with choosing it—nor did I have in my earlier cover with The Air Between Us, which was brought out by another publisher, HarperCollins.  Amy Einhorn/Putnam came up with the cover for The Secret of Magic.  I just said, “Wow! I love this!” which is pretty much how I think it generally goes.

Lit Vote:  Surprisingly, your next book is about ghosts. Can you tell us a little about it?

Deborah:  I am presently working on a classic ghost story.  It’s set in contemporary Mississippi but it’s, I hope, a true gothic.  No blood or gore—but scarier still for the lack of these.


Author Mary Yuhas, has over 85,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

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