Deborah Johnson on the real-life event that inspired her work

Our Book Club author shares her thoughts on stereotypes, incorporating fact into fiction and the true secret of magic.
By Laurie Grassi
Author Deborah Johnson The Secret of Magic Author Deborah Johnson; Photo, Birney Imes.

Q: You based The Secret of Magic on a real-life event; could you tell us more about that inspiration?

A: I still remember, many years later, the visceral reaction that I had when I read Isaac Woodard’s story for the first time. There was just something about it — the fact that this man, who had just spent 15 months fighting his way through the Philippine jungles for his country, was taken off a bus and beaten blind…The whole thing was stunning. Mr. Woodard reminded me very much of my grandfather and I knew I needed to write his story. This happened almost 70 years ago and it’s important to remember that many things have changed since then, but it is also important that what happened to Mr. Woodward not be forgotten.

Q: How did you go about incorporating fact into your fiction? For example, one of your characters, Thurgood Marshall, is a real-life person.

A: I majored in History, not English, in college, even though I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I love writing from a historical perspective. For instance, many of the lawyers who worked with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund went on to have astounding careers — Charles Hamilton Houston (who was the founding director) and Constance Baker Motley to name just two of them. Thurgood Marshall became the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court. These men — and women — became the inspiration for a whole generation of African American lawyers.

Q: Your earlier book, The Air Between Us, was set during the same time period. What is it about the civil rights era in particular that fascinates you?

A: Actually The Air Between Us takes place approximately 20 years after The Secret of Magic during what is traditionally thought of, in the United States, as the Civil Rights Era but I’ve always felt it should start a little earlier with the return of those World War Two GIs who had fought so bravely in a segregated army to guarantee the same freedom and rights for others that many of these soldiers did not enjoy at home.


Q: What research did you do for the book?

A: I live in Mississippi which is a state of great storytellers. Everybody seems to know everything about their own family back through the generations – and, if you’ve been around a while, they probably know a great deal about your family as well. And Mississippians are friendly folk, willing to sit and talk awhile, so I found myself with a treasure of great tales — some of them tall ones — to weave in. All of this great collective record keeping has also led to the development of some wonderful collections both at my own library in Columbus, Mississippi and at the state archives in Jackson. In addition, I knew a fair amount about Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund before I started — both he and it were icons in my family — but I fleshed this out with some very interesting research into both the fund’s early development and Justice Marshall’s role in this and his particular cases during those fledgling years. I ended up learning quite a lot. In fact, the challenge became stopping the research so I could get on with the writing.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel? And the easiest?

A: The hardest aspect was not to stereotype, i.e. not to make all the blacks saints or martyrs and all the whites monsters. This could be quite easy to do when you are dealing with a place like Mississippi in 1946 and especially when you are writing about something as heinous as what happened to Joe Howard. But aren’t stereotypes — and the resultant fear they engender — rooting the problem? So I wanted to steer as clear as I could of them. The easiest part by far was coming up with the title, The Secret of Magic. I actually had this before I had anything else which, for me, is not usually the case.

Q: Mary Pickett, a.k.a. M.P. Calhoun, is the person who in many ways ties everyone in the story together and is an interpreter, a teller of tales. She is a complex creation and her true motivations remain oblique. Was she difficult to write?


A: Mary Pickett Calhoun was the easiest character for me to write and she is still my favorite. I love her. She’s just so flawed and so human. I think she’s more like me than anyone else in the book. She’s also a lot like a good many of my closest friends — both black and white.

Q: Tell us something about the assumptions Regina makes, as well as those Mary Pickett makes, and how they battle against and/or for the social constructs that existed at the time.

A: Regina’s first assumption — that the author of something as meaningful to her as The Secret of Magic had to be a man and a father figure — presages all the assumptions she makes throughout the rest of the book. And they are many. At the beginning of Magic she categorizes just about everyone with whom she comes in contact — including both her mother and herself — but by the end of the novel this has changed. She has matured, softened and grown. Mary Pickett is 20 years older than Regina when Magic begins but she still has a firm sense of her world and her place in it — yet, she grows as well. It was interesting to me how both of these women, before they meet, just assume that the other — one an author, the other a lawyer — is a man.

Q: Do you think Mary Pickett really wants what happened to be revealed solely for the sake of Willie Willie or in terms of greater social justice? Or for the children they all once were?

A: Willie Willie represents childhood and innocence and history and love and a sense of place to Mary Pickett – powerful motivators indeed. I believe she acts less out of a sense of social justice in the abstract and more from a space of personal memory and need. I think Mary Pickett’s beginning motivation is to placate Willie Willie and keep him from doing what, at some level, she knows he eventually will do, which is revenge the murder of his son. I think she is shocked and perhaps outraged and even somewhat guilt-ridden about what happened to Joe Howard but Willie Willie is always first in her thought – just as Wynne Blodgett tells Regina that he is. I think that Mary Pickett powerfully demonstrates this at the end of the novel when she helps him to escape.


Q: There’s a sense of a fairy-tale existence (both that was lived by the children and that comes to be portrayed in M.P. Calhoun’s book) that is destroyed by the realities of the grown-up world. Is that also a dream of a future world in some ways?

A: I think on some level we all want to go back to the certainties that are intrinsically inherent in a fairy tale even if that fairy tale is violent and scary, as so many of them are. The one thing they all seem to have in common is that the innocent – as long as they are also the protagonists — are generally rewarded and some sort of wickedness is stopped. In that sense all fairy tales hold within them the promise of a better future world.

Q: Further to that, there are elements of the magical: Peach and her cottage in the forest, Joe Howard’s father, Willie Willie, and the forest itself. Why incorporate that element into what is essentially a book that is about such harsh realities? Or have I answered the question?

A: I think that the element of magic is essential to a story about harsh realities so you did answer your own question! Without hope, which I think of as the very essence of magic, how could we possibly be motivated to take the many times very difficult steps that move us forward?

Q: What does the forest represent?


A: In Magic, the forest represents life itself with all its beauty and its undergrowth and its hidden secrets and dangers to overcome, and its inexorable, seasonal regeneration. In the hill region of Mississippi, where I live, you see these great trees all around you, everywhere, grown up tall, even in the city, and you realize they’ve been there for centuries and witnessed a lot and withstood a lot and…well, they’re still there. This is a great comfort.

Q: Joe Howard is not only black but a soldier in uniform, which is important to his fate. Can you explain why?

A: Seeing a black man in a military uniform with medals and lieutenant’s bars on it could have been quite a shock for a spoiled white boy who had not gone out to fight himself. The South is still proud of its military heritage. If that white boy were Wynne Blodgett, he would have wanted to bring that black man down a peg. And he would not have expected his actions to have the consequences they did. Not in Mississippi. Not in 1946.

Q: You brilliantly portray how out of place Regina feels in the South, how uncertain she is with a different, unknown, set of rules from her native New York. Why was it important to expose her in that way? It’s incredibly frightening as a reader following her as she tries to navigate those situations.

A: Regina had to confront all of her own and others’ assumptions in order to learn to differentiate the false from the true. She also had to overcome her own fears — and not just her fears about Mississippi. There was also her own back story, the terrible thing that had happened to her father before she was born. And she did this! She didn’t run away; she didn’t try to dodge what was being presented to her. I am just so proud of Regina. I know she went on to become a wise and wonderful advocate and to lead a rewarding life.


Q: What do you hope readers come away with after reading The Secret of Magic?

A: I’d say a strong feeling of hope. It may sound corny but I really believe hope is the true secret of magic. If you don’t hope in something — what’s the point?

Q: How long did it take you to write The Secret of Magic?

A: It took about three years. For much of that time I was working with a truly gifted editor, Amy Einhorn. I have a great deal of respect for the editing process and for my editor. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a book just pop out of my head, full-blown like Minerva. Usually there’s a lot of work involved, and I appreciate the people who work it with me.

Q: What are you working on next?


A: I’m working on a classic ghost story. I live in a land of ghosts and legends – the hilly part of Mississippi that leads out from Alabama – but this particular tale will take place in the Delta in the ’20s and ’40s during the birth of the Blues. Many decisions were made at that time that still affect how things are today – ghosts really – and I want to explore these within the strict confines of genre fiction.

Q: What are some of your favourite books and authors and why?

A: Doing a list of favorite books is always hard because I read so much – there have been times when I seriously thought I was addicted – and so I’ve got through a lot of great books but I have a tendency to think of only the ones I’ve most recently read. I just finished Walter Mosley’s Devil in the Blue Dress and loved it all over again. I got Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret to read on the plane and it was a wonder. I was so engrossed, I almost missed my connection. I buy anything by Tana French and Kate Atkinson as soon as it’s out and read it immediately. I’m looking forward to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

As I am currently working on a ghost story, I’ve been reading a great many classics in that genre – M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Shirley Jackson. The Woman in White [by] and The Woman in Black [by] of course – and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which is a marvel. I’ve got John Boyne’s This House is Haunted on order. It’s supposed to be delicious!

If I had to say which book influenced me most, it would have to be one from my childhood – Pippi Longstocking, or something by Enid Blyton or even one of the little Golden Books my grandfather used to read to me. I can remember hugging so many of them close and thinking, “Gee, this is magic. I want to do this!”


Read the full book review and excerpt from The Secret of Magic here.

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