It’s 1938 and Reno, Nevada, is the “divorce capital of the world.” It’s also home to The Flying Leap dude ranch, where women can stay for six weeks until they become residents and get a legal, no-questions-asked divorce. The ranch hands, it should be noted, resemble movie stars and are hired on a scale of how good they look shirtless in jeans and cowboy hats.
Ward Bennett, one year of Yale under his dusty belt, is laying low and earning money to send home to his parents who lost their fortune in the Depression. But when Nina, a frequent flyer of both airplanes and husbands, and Emily, shy and seeking refuge from a cheating husband and a teenage daughter, enter his stagecoach, the steady life he’s built turns upside down.
Other key figures include a horse named Dumpling and a paper mache donkey head: Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Better Luck Next Time is a delight. It breaks your heart, as the best stories do, but it’s suffused with such warmth and charm that it also puts it back together.
Thank you to Julia Claiborne Johnson for talking to me about the impulse to write novels so people will laugh at our jokes and about persevering until the story gets itself right. We even discovered that we’re both UVA alums, and we have matching hats: follow us on Instagram for hat content.
Sara Shukla: The idea for Better Luck Next Time came from your dad, who was an actual ranch hand on an actual divorce ranch in Nevada in the 1930s. But Ward is also inspired by your mother, who was a doctor in Tennessee. What was it like to channel pieces of them into a first-person narrator, someone who, in order to carry the novel, had to have his own life story as well?
Julia Claiborne Johnson: Well, my father was my jumping off place, but Ward is really my husband, the world’s funniest man, who is the nicest man also, and my mother, for her medical knowledge, because they’re both very kind and very empathetic.
The first version I wrote was in third person. I wrote half of it, I turned it in, and my editor said, “I don’t know. You’re all voice and throwaway jokes, and third person is not serving you. I’m going to have to say no.”
So, I threw it away, and I started again, and I wrote the second version — half the novel. I turned it in. And she said, “I love the prologue! I hate the rest of it.” I also loved the prologue and hated the rest of it, and I can’t remember what was different about it, so obviously it was forgettable. And it was months of writing, but I threw it away.
But, I had 6 pages to start from this time, versus zero, which is a lot easier. So, I wrote it again.
There’s a kindness from you as the author to each one of your characters — without being saccharine. Maybe it comes across that way because Ward is telling the story so many years later, but you’re the one writing it. [Related: I’d read an entire companion novel about Sam.] Do characters grow on you as you write, or do you have a sense of them first?
In that first version I sent my editor, the first half of the draft, Nina was the villain. My editor said, you know, Nina is the hero, and I went, “Oh yeah, she is the hero.” In my draft, Nina’s tender moments had come after the part I’d given to the editor, but that helped me make her work, cause I was like, she just likes to shock people, but she’s got a good heart.
When I was writing Frank [Be Frank With Me], my agent’s daughter came out here to live, and I said, “Let her live in my guest room for a little bit.” She stayed six months, because we loved her, and she laughed at my jokes. My friends and I were all in that period of our life when our children had nothing but contempt for us, and she dragged me into the hall one day and said, “Oh my god, I feel so bad about every time I was mean to my mother.” And that was really Nina’s thing. Portia, Emily’s daughter, helps Nina finally appreciate all the wrongs she did her own mother when she was that age.
We all love Ward, AKA “Cary Grant in cowboy boots,” and, of course, Emily and Nina. I expected them to be the stars for me. But can we talk about the Zeppelin? I think she was my favorite! Where did she come from?
Here’s the thing about the Zeppelin. My husband loved the Zeppelin most of all, and I said, well, it’s because she’s me. And that’s the right answer. And Nina is me, too — younger me. But, you know how when you meet somebody, and you think, ugh, I’m not gonna like this person. And then they grow on you.
Yes! That’s her.
That’s sort of the purpose of the Zeppelin. To “not judge a book by its cover” is a completely inane way to say it, but you don’t always appreciate people when you meet them for what they’re going to mean to you. And she just made me laugh so much. One of my favorite jokes in the book is when Nina says about her, “Sure, she’s buoyant, but what a gasbag. Don’t light a cigarette around her cause she might explode.” That made me laugh every time.
Also, Zep has the perspective of a life that she’s lived. She was like Nina at one point, and liked to shock people, and now she’s just tired (laughs). I needed to have a comic foil for Nina, too, but really the Zeppelin just made me really happy.
I read your acknowledgements, and you did a huge amount of research for this book. The story is so full of wit and charm and characters who could exist at any point in time but feel perfectly situated in this one. Was it hard to pivot from a vast amount of research to the narrative writing of the thing?
Part of that might be from having been a magazine writer for a long time, because when you come across something when you’re researching for a piece, you think, “Oh that’s interesting, I’m going to hang onto that.”
I have these notebooks, and I would write down everything I thought I might use and where I found it. By the end, I had a whole notebook. Then once I was ready to start writing, I would go through the notebook and highlight what I thought I might use. I’d keep winnowing stuff out, so that the stuff that seemed the most fascinating to me is what ended up in it, like a lot of the Reno history, and the Pony Express.
I read so many books. I read one book about the ‘30s, about a building on Fifth Avenue, and it was just about rich people who lived excessively in this fabulous apartment building. There was a woman who grew up on a Texas dirt farm, and she was very beautiful, and she just kept marrying successively wealthier husbands. She’d ditch ‘em and move on. So she was getting rid of one, and she went to a party — I think this happened in Reno — and she walks in wearing a pair of red shoes and nothing else, because she’s like, “They need to see the product.” And I think that’s the only thing I got out of that book, but I thought, yowza, I need to use that one.
A lot of the research I was sure would go in the book didn’t, in the end, and a lot of what’s in there is just stuff I knew from having grown up on a horse farm. But the research helps. Research is fun, because it’s like you’re doing work, but you’re really just reading.
Your narrative works so well though; it doesn’t feel research-y at all. It’s some kind of magic. Everything is just embedded in there.
Thank you, that’s the right answer.
I could talk funny novels all day. Can we? Your husband Chris Marcil is a comedy writer (ahem, Emmy-nominated script for “What We Do In The Shadows”), and I’m wondering if you guys are just throwing jokes all day, or if you’re actually very serious.
The dream would be to see someone reading your book and laughing. Chris does not like to read fiction, but he’s read each book I’ve written — he’ll read one version of it. He’ll be reading it, and I’ll hear him laugh, and I’ll be like, “What’d you laugh about?! What was it?”
And you know how, in the end of Better Luck Next Time, Ward talks about how it was so hard to make Sam laugh, so when you actually made him laugh, it was such a huge accomplishment? Chris is a tough laugh; he laughs like twice a year. He’ll say, “This is a really good joke,” but very dispassionately.
So it’s like an analysis, or a commentary.
It’s comedy writers: there’s a clockwork mechanism. In Frank, there’s a whole discussion of what makes you laugh. There’s expectation of what should be, and then what you say that is not that way, and because it creates this tension, it makes you laugh.
Chris also had a very wise thing he said the other day: “What makes things funny about people, or characters, is there’s how they are, and how they think they are. And when they don’t converge, therein lies your humor.”
So we’ve had a lot of very dispassionate discussions about humor in my house, and jokes. I was very lucky in my choice of husbands because I’ve honed my sense of humor on him. I’ve been trying to make him laugh for thirty years, and I’ve gotten maybe sixty laughs out of him. But it really helps! He and I will both recognize an opportunity for a joke, and we’re killing ourselves to be the first one to get to it.
For the book, every time I’d have a scene I was about to do, I’d think, okay, something like this has to happen, what could be the most mortifying way it could happen? I kept trying to think of ways I could escalate it.
Congrats on your debut, Be Frank With Me, being optioned for film! How does that work? How’s it going?
After I sent Better Luck Next Time to my editor, I had too much PTSD from the horror of writing that second novel to start a new one, so I thought, oh I’ll write Frank as a screenplay to distract myself, because I know that story.
So they optioned both my book and the screenplay, which was great, because, you know, an option and a subway token will get you downtown. Many things get options, few things get made, but it’s looking hopeful.
Julia Claiborne Johnson is the author of the bestselling novel Be Frank With Me, a finalist for the American Bookseller’s Association Best Debut Novel Award. She grew up on a farm in Tennessee before moving to New York City, where she worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines. She lives in Los Angeles with her comedy-writer husband and their two children.