Updated: Apr 13
We recently had the pleasure of hosting Claudia Johnson on our Books Uncovered podcast, and what a delightful conversation it was! Claudia's passion for books and her insights into the world of fighting book bans and censorship was truly inspiring, and we were all left feeling energized and invigorated.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with these things, time flew by all too quickly, and there was simply not enough time to delve into everything we wanted to discuss. There were so many more topics we wanted to explore and so many more questions we wanted to ask.
But fear not, dear listeners and readers! We are continuing the conversation here on the blog, where we can take the time to delve into all the topics we didn't get a chance to cover on the podcast.
So please enjoy this continued conversation with Claudia Johnson...
What is your writing process? Do you always write at the same time of day, or have any rituals you adhere to?
I’m a fresh-air girl, so I write best outdoors or outdoors adjacent, which, during the years I fought book banning meant on the screen porch overlooking the 10-acre meadow at our farm outside Live Oak, Florida. But I’m also a Pisces, so now that I live in Virginia Beach, it means writing on my deck or my dining-room table overlooking the lake beyond my backyard, as I’m doing now. The water, breezes, and birdsong inspire me, but mostly it’s the water. As I say in the Introduction to Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, “I don’t know what it is about showers and baths that are conducive to insight, but the fact is well documented. Einstein reportedly claimed his greatest ideas occurred in the shower, and everyone knows about Archimedes.”
When I was raising children in Florida, the only time I could get any writing done was in the wee hours of the morning, before they woke up. And I still tend to write in the morning (as I’m doing now). But so much of my writing for the last 25 years has been collaborative—co-writing books and screenplays with my longtime writing partner, Matt Stevens (we tell the story of how started writing together in Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV). We discovered early on that we had very different circadian rhythms and must respect them—I’m a morning person and a drooling zombie by 10 p.m., and Matt is a night owl and thinks mornings are heinous—so we found the sweet spot that works for both of us—late morning to mid-afternoon.
My process of solo writing and co-writing with Matt is sprawling and messy, with a ton of noodling and pre-writing until a piece starts to gel. I (and Matt & I) know not to rush it. Then I (or Matt & I) start structuring whatever we’re writing. For our most recent screenplay, Santa Hood, our pre-writing file of character work and roughing out our structure was 300 pages, single-spaced. I’m not kidding. But that is our process, so we respect it as well. And each other. When I’m writing solo, I’ll write draft after draft after draft after draft until I’m happy with what I’ve written (for example my guest essay that Publishers Weekly just published (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/91910-a-veteran-of-the-book-banning-wars-on-the-importance-of-speaking-out.html). Then Matt, who is a Senior Copywriter at Mattel and also an actor, reads what I’ve written aloud to me and helps me polish the final draft. So even my solo writing is, in the final stages, collaborative.
You also write screenplays. How does that compare to writing narrative nonfiction?
As I mentioned above, the process of writing narrative non-fiction and screenplays is much the same—massive pre-writing/brainstorming about character and story (though in non-fiction I’m not creating the characters but need to faithfully render them on paper), roughing out the structure, then drafting and drafting and drafting and drafting until I (or Matt & I) are happy with the final draft.
Then, of course, there’s the screenplay Ruby that Matt & I wrote based on a non-fiction source—the documentary film I made about the most famous murder in Florida, The Other Side of Silence: The Untold Story of Ruby McCollum. Because I knew the story so well, I wrote the sprawling first draft—250 pages, twice the acceptable length for a feature screenplay—then Matt & I co-wrote the subsequent drafts until we had a final draft that is 127 pages. And to make the adaptation work for the screen, we had to dramatize the story, conflating some characters and adding others as well as essential scenes while still being faithful to the original, historical story in my documentary film.
What’s on your writing playlist?
For the time being, I want to write more essays like my recent “A Veteran of the Book-Banning Wars on the Importance of Speaking Out” in Publishers Weekly, that will, I fervently hope, inspire others to join the fight against book banning. After that, I’ll see where inspiration takes me. Again, trusting the process. Always, always trusting the process.
What should citizens concerned about censorship be looking for as we approach a new voting season?
Those of us concerned about censorship—and defeating it—must vote for candidates who are opposed to censorship and book banning and will fight for freedom of speech in our schools, libraries, communities, state, and nation. At the local level, this means voting for candidates running for school boards or superintendent who are opposed to book banning. On the state level, vote for candidates running for state government who fight for freedom of speech, especially governors who will defend students’ freedom to speak and read and receive information, protected by the First Amendment, instead of assaulting them as we’re seeing in Florida, Texas, and right here in Virginia. And vote for candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and, above all, the President, who will defend freedom of speech. So we concerned citizens must be well informed before voting in every election by consulting websites like progressivevotersguide.com to find out where candidates at every level on the ballot stand when it comes to such urgent and important issues like freedom of speech.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while writing about your experiences of fighting censorship?
Stifled Laughter only took me five months to write because I’d kept a meticulous journal during my five-year-long fight to reinstate banned classics in rural north Florida. The story, structure, and details were there for me to draw on, as well as the audio recordings of every school board meeting and court transcripts and every newspaper and magazine article published about my long fight against book banning. So thanks to my journaling (which also helped keep me sane during the long, challenging fight) and careful record keeping, writing the memoir was—unlike most things I write—silk off a spool, but only because I’d documented the story as it unfolded. Then the only challenge lay in selecting which scenes and details and dialogue to include that would “render the highest justice to the universe”—to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim—that I was writing about.
Writing guest essays and op-ed pieces can be very challenging because of the word limit of 800-1200 words (though, as the great folklorist Henry Glassie once told me when I railed against the ten-page limit Actors Theatre of Louisville imposed when they commissioned me to write a short play, “A true artist would welcome the limitations and transcend them.” I’ve never forgotten that challenge from him, and I accepted it and wrote a ten-page play, Propinquity, that ATL produced five different times—and received amazing reviews. So I always try to remember that when faced with the daunting challenge of writing anything with a limited word or page count. And, honestly, the more I cut down a piece, the better it gets. I cut my draft of the guest essay for Publishers Weekly in half and improved it immensely.
Finally, what message would you like readers to take away from Stifled Laughter?
When school or library books are threatened in the town or city where you live—and trust me, they will be, as they were in Lake City and Live Oak, Florida, in 1986 and 1991, and Virginia Beach in 2021—organize a grass-roots coalition of like-minded people opposed to book banning and show up and speak out. Together. In a unified voice. There is power and safety in numbers.
And as I say in my recent guest essay for Publishers Weekly, “If speaking out sounds too scary—and I know it can be—remember that it’s not just books under attack. It’s public education. And democracy itself. Then take a moment to contemplate what it will be like if our democracy is destroyed, and we no longer have the right to speak out. Then pick up your phone and start calling others opposed to book banning and ask them the question Susan Davis asked me [on March 10, 1986, in Lake City, Florida], ‘Well, what are we going to do?’”
Because, as I’ve learned over and over and over again in the book-banning wars, the answer to less speech is more.