The Big Idea: Maureen Johnson

We’ve been talking about YA quite a lot here in Whateverland, and as coincidence has it, today’s Big Idea piece is from Maureen Johnson, who writes — can you guess? — young adult books. Her latest, Suite Scarlett, takes place in a fantastical land with strange creatures, but in this case the fantastical land is Manhattan, and the strange creatures are the Martin family and the guests who stay at their small, family-run hotel. Hey, YA: it’s not all unicorns and spaceships, pal. Sorry if I’ve been giving you that impression.

In this installment, Maureen Johnson talks about getting a Big Idea out of a Bad Idea, in a story that involves Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, indeed: Kurt Vonnegut. Let’s let our author go into the details. She tells it better.


My latest novel, Suite Scarlett, exists because I once allowed an eight-year-old to conduct a band in a musical production of Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic masterpiece Cat’s Cradle, with the author himself in the audience. Most sensible people would have stopped the moment they heard “musical” in connection with Cat’s Cradle and would therefore never have gotten as deep into the mess as I did. But if there is one principle I’ve come to embrace and even make Big Ideas out of, it’s this . . . occasionally, you must embrace the Bad Idea, if only to see how things pan out. Sensible Ideas will only get you so far in life. If you really want to get somewhere, Bad Ideas are the way. Every once in a while you just have to take a match to something and say, “I wonder what this does when it burns!”

But as to how I got into the Cat’s Cradle situation . . .

I went to graduate school to study theatrical dramaturgy and writing at Columbia University. I did it cheerfully, signing all my loans on the dotted line with a grim, manic determination, one after another, each one bigger than the last, in a manner in which I like to imagine would befit poor Giles Corey—the man pressed to death under stones during the Salem Witch Trials—who, when asked for a statement, would only say, “More weight.”

Most of the people I knew had no idea what theatrical dramaturgy was. I had only the faintest idea myself. Technically, I had been one for a Philadelphia theater company, and I had spent the majority of my time their breaking up fights, putting out (literal and figurative) fires, and finding lost cast members. Cat’s Cradle was my last show with the company, and was also (not surprisingly) the last production the company ever did.

It did not go well.

At the time, I was enthusiastic and gung-ho to do absolutely any show, anywhere, anytime. I was perfectly amenable to an all-singing, all-dancing apocalypse. Nevermind that the company was going bankrupt, that the playwright was a known liar and pervert, the cast was near mutiny, the script changed every other day, and the band regularly snuck off to get high on breaks. When the set designer failed to measure the stage—and the cat-cradle-like platforms he constructed himself—and the massive airplane wing he brought in for the dance number toppled over and fell into the orchestra pit . . . I happily joined the group who lifted it out and quietly snuck it down an alley, to leave it along with (what I image was) a very surprised Philadelphian’s garbage.

On the night that Kurt Vonnegut himself came to see the show, I found the stage manager rocking on the front steps of the theater, chain-smoking and mumbling “If just one more thing goes wrong . . .”

It was ten minutes later that I found the eight-year-old with the baton in his hand. He was the son of the bandleader. His father was stuck in traffic a hundred miles away, having incorrectly assumed that he could go to New York City and make it back to Philadelphia in one three-hour span that included rush hour. I was faced with a choice: tell the stage manager what was going on (and possibly witness an aneurism), or say that everyone was in place and let the show go on. I weighed the options, and decided to let the kid do it. Because when you get to a certain point, you simply have to deal with the hand life has dealt you and roll with it. The curtain must go up, and something must happen. You cannot wait around forever for perfect circumstances. You improvise. You deal.

On the back of that experience, I signed my life away and moved to New York to get myself some more. In short, it was all a fairly bad idea, made from the parts of lesser bad ideas. But I rolled many of those experiences and observations into a book. Or a series of books, actually, of which Suite Scarlett is the first.

Suite Scarlett is the story of the Martin family—the owners and operators of a much-distressed Art Deco hotel in New York City called the Hopewell that has lost money steadily since the 1970s. Everything is falling apart at the Hopewell Hotel—lives, futures, furniture. The family itself though, six in all, is quite strong. The story centers around fifteen year-old Scarlett who finds herself in a situation not unlike the ones I was often in, although much less willingly.

Scarlett’s older brother (and close friend) is Spencer, an out-of-work actor facing down a family deadline to get some kind of paid work or go to culinary school and give up all hopes of performing. Enter Mrs. Amberson, a former Broadway diva of the disco era and a woman of some means, who has come back to New York to make something. What, she has no idea. At first, she thinks it is a book, but she soon decides that it is a theater company, specifically the one that Spencer has just joined. It, too, is out of money and in need of a miracle. Mrs. Amberson shanghais Scarlett into becoming her assistant, dragging her into the theater world and taking over almost every aspect of her life.

This is not the Manhattan of Gossip Girl. Suite Scarlett isn’t about buying things or vying for position. I wanted to write about the New York I understood—the one where you make things, and the creative underclasses and the rich mingle, sometimes uneasily, sometimes very fruitfully. Scarlett soon learns the skill of making things up—solutions that have little to do with money, and everything to do with creativity and embracing the implausible and slightly insane. I think this is an especially important principle to introduce to today’s teens, some of whom may be laboring under the misapprehension that things in life are supposed to work in a certain way, that a series of standardized tests will lead to a life of perfect order—a life in which mistakes and risks are things to be feared and avoided.

I mean, take the case of the eight-year-old conductor. Letting him conduct the band was a terrible idea. As it turned out, no one could tell the difference between the band on that night and the band on any other night. Maybe it’s because they knew what they were doing. Or maybe it was because they were always playing while they were a little high and it all sounded the same. In the end, it really didn’t matter. The show on the stage was always a lot less interesting than the one I was living every day.

Before I go, I would also like to point out that the book features a performance of Hamlet on unicycles, which might possibly be of interest to some of you. You seem like the type. I mean, you guys like bacon on cats. And that, if nothing else, is an example of a Bad Idea becoming a Big Idea.

Visit Maureen John’s blog here. Also, because I find it extremely amusing, view this YouTube video from Maureen Johnson about five things you didn’t know about her, in which she simply doesn’t blink. Around minute three my eyes started watering for her.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Maureen Johnson”

  1. Yes, yes. I couldn’t agree more. The best ideas are the bad ideas. I like the cut of your jib, Ms. Johnson. Anyone can make a good idea sound good. It takes talent to run with a bad idea.

  2. Ok, I wanna know what Kurt Vonnegut thought of the show. Or did he just say “So it goes…”?

  3. While that particular theater story was a little extreme, my personal experiences (which are generally pretty mild) have included:
    Stapling things to the set half an hour before the audience sat down.
    Watching the band prove unable to play the finale after five tries during the final dress rehearsal (eventually the actors gave up and started singing unaccompanied).
    The actors refusing to conclude their warmup exercises in the face of increasingly frantic messages from the stage manager 15 minutes after the show was supposed to begin.
    A director who wanted an insignificant lighting effect that, for reasons of her refusal to listen to either the set designers or the lighting designer was impossible. She later came up with, and demanded, that her own workaround be used, and then complained about how the actors all appeared to be in shadow.

    This story is entirely plausible; you won’t find stranger people anywhere than those who choose to spend their days and nights in the theater, so whenever you see a polished, entertaining, exciting play, remember that whatever is going on backstage is almost certainly more interesting.

  4. I’ve been giving this to some of the YAs that hang around my branch for the last couple weeks. Snapped up and devoured. I plan to hoard it for myself this weekend.

  5. Ms. Maureen Johnson:

    As a theater junkie, I want to know more.

    As someone whose life has had implausible experiences (not in theater, oddly enough), I sympathize and laugh along with you.

    And this Big Idea rocks.

  6. I actually jousted on Unicycles once.
    Hamlet would be interesting on unicycles.
    I wonder where I can find/try out for a performance.

  7. I can’t believe nobody here on Scalzi’s blog has commented on the name Maureen Johnson.

    Back on topic, the book sounds interesting. And after watching the video, I think I have a crush.

  8. yes, maureen, what did vonnegut think of the show??

    lovely story, by the way. i believe every little bit of it.

  9. Yeah, somebody ought to ask her how Woodie is doing these days.

  10. If you think her Big Idea is good, you should read her take on Zac Efron’s hamster-eating habit.

    In sum: Maureen Johnson is teh awesome.

  11. John, will you be doing a post that links all the big idea posts together? (Or am I maybe stupidly missing some function that does that already?) Have you considered using tags for series of posts like this? It would be great to be able to access them all quickly. Great series.

  12. I had the impression that in book stores at least, YA is teen romance or other books specifically targeted to teen girls. Sci Fi/Fantasy has it own section.

  13. Big fan here. Loved Girl At Sea, Devilish and The Key to the Golden Firebird. I’ll be watching for this one, it looks like loads of fun.

    My personal favorite theater story was when I was doing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest years ago, in fact I was in the first trimester of what turned into my almost nineteen year old son Cullen.

    I played Candy Starr and the dude who played McMurphy was a real creep, invariably drunk for the performances and very free with his hands. Repeated talks from me, the stage manager and the director did no good.

    So one night I went out back behind the theater and chewed several raw garlic cloves, hiding out until it was time for my cue so he wouldn’t know what was coming.

    When I said my first line my breath was so strong he staggered back and when he had to kiss me he turned green. And I’m pleased to say it did the trick, he behaved himself after that.

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