Excerpt from Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Be Frank With Me

by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson X
Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 304 pages

    Sep 2016, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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When Frank didn't respond I realized he'd fallen asleep. I was glad to see it. The ride would be long and he hardly slept, ever. He had to be exhausted. I know I was. Which wasn't going to make it easier to handle whatever we found once we got to the hospital. Frank's mother had been held there for three days of psychiatric observation after the fire.

Frank's mother was M. M. Banning, the famous literary recluse.

Long before she'd become famous or a recluse, Frank's mother or my boss, the nineteen-year-old version of M. M. Banning, a college dropout from Nowheresville, Alabama, wrote Pitched, a novel that won her a Pulitzer and a National Book Award by the time she turned twenty. It became the rare book — there must be only a handful — that still sells about a million copies a year, thirty years after its publication. Pitched revolved around a handsome, enigmatic, and unnamed baseball player who dazzled the world before going off his nut. It was short, simply written, and ended with someone dying, a magic combination that made it a fixture on every junior high school reading list in America. Over time the book became a touchstone for disaster, too, a handy symbol for anyone with a story about a failed athlete or other cursed soul. Toss a copy of Pitched on that character's bedside table and the audience knows to think uh-oh.

After Pitched, M. M. Banning never wrote another word as far as anybody knew.

Who Is Frank?
June 2009


"Mimi's prickly," Isaac Vargas told me when he asked if I'd go to California to work for M. M. Banning while she wrote her long- awaited second novel. I'd been his assistant for the past year at the publishing house in New York City that had brought out her literary blockbuster back in the late 1970s. As a junior editor, Mr. Vargas had pulled Pitched from a pile of unsolicited manuscripts and had been M. M. Banning's editor ever since. In theory, anyway, since there had been no more manuscripts to edit after that first one. Or even much communication between the two of them. When she'd called, Mr. Vargas hadn't talked to M. M. Banning since before I was born.

"Mimi's in a tight spot. She has to get this novel written, and she has to do it fast," he explained. She wanted an assistant to help her navigate computers and keep her household running until the book was finished. "She needs somebody smart and capable, someone we can trust. I thought of you, Alice."

It was a lot to take in. Pitched had been my mother's favorite book in the world. If I closed my eyes I could still see her girlhood copy of it. She'd handled that paperback so much its covers felt like they were made of cloth. Its yellowed pages had stiffened and were missing little triangles of paper that had gone brittle and broken off where she'd turned down corners. The blurb on the back cover read: A sensitive work of incredible insight, a writer of startling gifts. One of the premiere voices of this or any generation. An instant classic!

Underneath that was a photo of young M. M. Banning. Cropped carrot-red hair, big chocolate eyes behind heavy masculine glasses, wearing a cardigan sweater that engulfed her, looking more like a scrawny preteen boy in Dad's clothes than a young woman on the cusp of her twenties. My mother was such a fan that she stole her father's cardigans and glasses every Halloween in junior high so she could trick-or-treat as M. M. Banning. I think she would have dressed me in my father's sweaters and eyeglasses, too, except by junior high my father wasn't around for us to steal from.

"Ha!" Mr. Vargas said when I told him about my mother. "What's funny is that Mimi borrowed my glasses and sweater for that photo shoot because she didn't like anything the stylist brought for her to wear. She told the hair and makeup person to give her a crew cut. 'What you want is a pixie,' the woman told her. 'No. What I want is to look like a writer,' Mimi said. 'Not like some girl who got elected to homecoming court to make the prom queen look prettier.' When I told her I loved the photograph, Mimi said, 'You know who'll hate it? My mother. That's what I like best about it.' "

Excerpted from Be Frank With Me by Spencer Johnson. Copyright © 2016 by Spencer Johnson. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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