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Interview: January 2010

January 2010

Maureen Johnson has followed up her 2008 novel SUITE SCARLETT with its newly released sequel, SCARLETT FEVER

In this interview with's Sally M. Tibbetts, Johnson explains how her personal experience working with actors in New York inspired protagonist Scarlett Martin's latest adventures. She also discusses some of the timely themes about fame explored in the story and how she turned to writing after working in theater for several years. SCARLETT FEVER, the second book in your Scarlett series, continues Scarlett Martin’s zany adventures. She is a very likable heroine, even as she handles some complex issues. From the way SUITE SCARLETT ended, it was easy to see that another book might be in the works. Did you originally plan this as a series, or did it just happen as you got into the character?

Maureen Johnson: Oh, it was always planned as a series, from day one.

TRC: Living abroad must have been a wonderful adventure for you, and it would seem to have definitely affected your writing. Your descriptions of the Hopewell Hotel are just great with the threadbare chairs and fading curtains. Except for the cold showers and lack of air conditioning, it sounds like a lot of fun. Would it be accurate to say that the Hopewell Hotel is another character in the book?

MJ: It’s definitely one of the characters. And I would happily live there.

TRC: Where did the character of Scarlett Martin come from, and has she evolved from your first concepts of her? Does she resemble you in any way?

MJ: I moved to New York City to go to graduate school for both writing and theatrical dramaturgy. Most people have no idea what theatrical dramaturgy is, so I’ll explain: a dramaturg works with the director, the actors, and (if applicable) the playwright. You’re a researcher, an editor, a sounding board, a fixer of problems --- the pencil head who sits in the corner and puts out the fires or breaks up fights (I have literally done both as a dramaturg --- three fires, one fistfight). So I came to the city and spent my first two or three years in theaters, usually on the side of the room with a notepad. I was the observer of the show. I was the one who, when the actors were learning physical comedy and how to walk into walls, had to watch them do the trick over and over and over. I put Scarlett in my position, because you see a lot of interesting things, hanging out with actors.

TRC: Scarlett definitely is maturing in this second book, but it does look like she’s in for a bumpy ride between Eric and Max. Can you share some of your inspirations for these characters? Is there one you especially enjoyed writing?

MJ: The second book deals with the question of fame, and if it’s a good thing to want when you’re 15 (if ever). This is hardly a new thing, wanting to be famous when you’re a teenager…but instant fame (reality TV, Internet fame, famous-for-doing-nothing fame) is kind of new. So there are two new characters who address this issue head-on: Chelsea, the 15-year-old Broadway star, and Max, her brother, who resents stage parenting and the quest for fame. Both Chelsea and Max seem to exist just to drive Scarlett insane. Scarlett has to work with Chelsea; she has to deal with someone who’s exactly her age who has a thriving stage career. Max is full of snark and rage, but he’s also pretty smart. Both were fun to write. Poor Scarlett, though. I don’t make things easy for her.

TRC: You mention several well-known authors in your acknowledgements at the end of SCARLETT FEVER. Are they personal friends and all part of a writer’s group?

MJ: Kind of both. Some of them are at my house now as I write this! A lot of people in Young Adult (YA) fiction in New York work and hang out together.

TRC: On your website, you say that you’ve written all your life. What led you to make that final decision to become a serious writer? Why did you decide to write for a teen audience?

MJ: I always thought I was a serious writer. But there’s a difference between being a writer --- having that be a part of your identity --- and going professional. You can’t do that last part until you’re ready, and that takes a long time. I only felt I was ready after I finished my MFA and had put myself through alot of writing. There’s this theory that it takes about seven years of constant work before you are even ready to start being good at something. So I was out of grad school, and I had been writing nonstop for a few years, and someone said, “Hey! You should try to write for YA!” And I said, “I can't do that. I went to school in a polyester gulag! They never let me out! What would I even talk about? To prove to you how bad I would be at that, I will do some writing and show you!” And from there, I got my first book deal.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

MJ: At this exact second (well, as soon as I’m done with this), I’m finishing up the sequel to 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES. That’s coming out sometime next spring. And then I am writing the first of a new series, which I am very excited about. I can’t say too much at this point but: London, murder, boarding schools, secret police, the supernatural…those are some words that apply!