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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Print Excerpt

"Did her mother hate it?"

"I don't think her mother ever saw it," Mr. Vargas said. He stroked the stubble on his chin and looked out the window. "Listen, don't tell Mimi any of that business about your mother. She has a complicated relationship with her fans. And her mom. I think there are times when she wishes she'd never written that novel. Which reminds me. Did I tell you Mimi has a kid now? Named Frank. First I've heard of him. Imagine that."

In the foreword of the latest edition of Pitched that I bought at the airport bookstore to reread on the plane to California, scholars floated many theories about what had silenced one of the premiere voices of this or any generation. M. M. Banning hated writing. Loved writing, but hated critics. Felt suffocated by her sudden, outsized fame and wanted no more of it. Had stored up a trove of manuscripts to be published after her death, when she'd be past caring what any-body else thought about her. Hadn't written the book in the first place—that it had been a sort of long-form suicide note penned by her brilliant, dead brother.

A mystery kid she was raising on her own? Not a one had volunteered that.

I bought a notebook at the airport bookstore, too. There wasn't much of a selection there, so I'd been stuck with a pink one with a unicorn on its cover and a pack of crayons Velcroed to its side. I left the crayons on the seat beside me in the airport departure lounge for some kid to find. "Who is Frank?" I inked across the top of its first page while I waited for my plane.

For that matter, who was M. M. Banning? Her name was as much a fiction as her book, Mr. Vargas told me. The publisher had decided the name she came equipped with, Mimi Gillespie, lacked gravitas. So she invented "M. M. Banning," a name of indeterminate gender better suited to a bank president than a college dropout. Once the book was published and became a hit, Mimi Gillespie was as good as dead. Except to Mr. Vargas, who remembered how she was before she was famous.

M. M. Banning lived in Bel Air, in the kind of place I'd only seen before in magazines — stone facade framed by palm trees to the street, all glass everywhere else. It wasn't the kind of house I'd think of buying if I happened to be a celebrity obsessed with privacy. I wondered if M. M. Banning woke up some mornings wondering how on earth she'd ended up there.

According to Mr. Vargas, ending up in Los Angeles had never been part of the plan. When she was twenty-two, he told me, Mimi had left New York to oversee her book's adaptation into a movie. "I'll just be gone a few months," she said.

Everything had gone well at first. The film version of Pitched won an armload of Academy Awards, one of them for the screenplay she'd worked on as a consultant. Mimi attended the ceremony on the arm of the up-and-coming actor who played The Pitcher, an exquisite cipher named Hanes Fuller, who appeared on-screen shirtless more often than not. The press called them "today's alternate-universe Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe" because she wore glasses and cardigans and was stunningly average-looking, while he always seemed to have his chest hanging out.

At twenty-three, she'd married the movie star. By twenty-five, they'd divorced. Instead of coming back to New York, she'd moved to the glass house and disappeared inside. Or tried to. Before she'd unpacked her boxes, M. M. Banning's more fanatical devotees had tracked her down and pressed their faces against the glass to peer inside. I've read your book. I feel your pain. Come out and play.

M. M. Banning put up a stucco wall iced with razor wire to keep her public at bay. Fans and the occasional photographer still lurked outside its perimeter hoping — what? That the reclusive novelist would come out to pose for the literary equivalent of a photograph of a yeti? That one day she'd be lonely enough to invite a lurker inside and they'd become best friends forever?

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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