Diane Johnson is perhaps most widely known for her witty and knowing takes on Franco-American relations. Her best-selling Le Divorce cast a comedic and insightful eye on the romantic dalliances (and divergences) between Parisian and U.S. natives, became a film starring Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson and was followed by two more French-tinged crowd-pleasers: Le Mariage and L’Affaire. Johnson knows of what she speaks, since for the past 10 years she’s divided her time between Paris and San Francisco.
But Gallic-Golden Gate discordance can take one only so far. Come October, Johnson broadens her horizon to provide an equally adept take on Muslim-British encounters with Lulu in Marrakech (Dutton), her first piece of fiction in five years. And, again, she’s writing from experience—she wrote Persian Nights after a 1979 trip to Iran with her medical professor husband, John, and that, along with time spent in Cairo in the early Nineties, has continued to inform her interest in Islam.
Set in Morocco, as its title suggests, the book follows Lulu Sawyer, an American CIA agent deployed to the North African country to hole up with a British beau, Ian Drumm, while investigating financial trails from charities to Islamic terrorist groups. Once there, she finds herself immersed in a social world in which British, American and Middle Eastern wealth and behavioral mores collide.
For Lulu, Johnson, 74, visited Morocco and drew on the exploits of a family friend who’d been a CIA spy in the Fifties and Sixties—not, as one might think, a certain American female agent. “It didn’t come from Valerie Plame,” says Johnson. “In a way my heart sank when she surfaced. I thought, oh, no. Because I was already under way with the book.”
But Johnson need not have worried, for Lulu is not a stereotypical spy. More Ingrid Bergman in Notorious than James Bond’s stoic female counterpart, she proves an intelligent but humorously flawed character who finds herself navigating a seemingly unknowable foreign terrain.
Certainly the latter experience is one with which Johnson is familiar, having lived in England and China, in addition to her current Parisian residence. Born in a small Illinois town, she was instilled with a love of travel by her father, who served in Italy during World War I.
“He was an Iowa farm boy who enlisted with his horse,” explains Johnson, whose favorite childhood book was, tellingly, Around the World With Bob and Betty. “He saw Venice there and never got over it. He just thought that was the most wonderful experience of his life.”
It wasn’t until graduate school that Johnson was able to fulfill her wanderlust, however. After attending Stephens College in Missouri, she was earning her Ph.D. in English Literature at UCLA when she decided to live abroad.
“I was divorced. I had four little children and I got a Woodrow Wilson grant, so I took the children to London and began to write my dissertation,” recalls Johnson, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize twice. “I can still remember stepping off the plane and finding myself in England. I was just tremendously moved.”
The impact of foreign soil clearly stuck. Except for an early stint in Hollywood (she wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining after the director chose to adapt Stephen King’s book over her own, The Shadow Knows), Johnson has spent most of her adult life abroad—and inevitably writing about her experiences. And even after 10 years leading a binational life, she says she is still a victim of culture shock herself.
“When I get home from France for the year, for about two weeks everyone says, ‘Oh you look so française!’ I suppose it’s that I’m wearing French clothes,” says Johnson. “Then after two weeks, it goes away.”