“Minor Characters” Author Joyce Johnson Remembers Life Among, and Apart From, the Beat Generation

In conversation with Joyce Johnson
Photo by Tramaine George
Joyce Johnson talks about coming of age as a writer in the 1950s and her long career supporting women in publishing.

Sixty years ago, uptown was the least likely place you’d find Joyce Johnson. She was fleeing her conservative 1950s upbringing and stultifying Barnard education for a downtown world, one filled with art, poetry, madness, and sex.

These days, Johnson, 81, spends most of her time in a cozy, plant-and-painting-filled apartment near Central Park West, the sounds of the city filtering through the open windows. A hefty stack of biographies lines the entryway—work. Johnson read them as judge of last year’s PEN award for biography. As the author of two memoirs, including “Minor Characters,” her most famous work, Johnson was disappointed by the workaday writing in most of the entries she read, describing it as “a way of getting from one big quote to the next big quote.”

Objectivity, she maintains, is impossible even within the so-called objective genres. “You’re drawn to a certain subject because of some affinity you feel. You’re drawn towards it psychologically.” That’s why, she says, “You can read many different biographies of the same person and they’ll all tell a somewhat different story.”

 
Johnson has found it hard to shake the labels of “beat chick” and, decades after the fact, “Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.”
 

In conversation, as well as in her writing, Johnson’s sharp memory serves her well. She still recalls the name of the tweedy Barnard professor who, with a few slashes of the pen, reduced to nothing the thoughts ventured by the “girls” in his class who fancied themselves writers. Another made them write essays in the manner of Francis Bacon and Michel de la Fontaine. “I don’t think that helped me,” she says wryly.

Johnson thus formed herself as a writer at a time when women were not encouraged to be artists, even (perhaps especially) within the liberating madness of the Beat movement. But Johnson has never been one to submit to the leanings of the crowd—any crowd. She once went head-to-head with Gloria Steinem on “Larry King Live” about a book she’d written, “What Lisa Knew,” investigating a famous case of child abuse and murder. And she’s forthright about her disillusionment with the publishing industry and media.

Johnson has found it hard to shake the labels of “beat chick” and, decades after the fact, “Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.” That only got worse when she decided to write a biography on Kerouac, believing she had an important new perspective to contribute from her archival research—namely the influence of his Franco-American background.

“At the time I got the most blatantly sexist reviews, really shockingly sexist reviews, I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Johnson says. This was in 2012, when she was 76. “It was a very ugly experience.”

These (all-male) critics went so far as to claim that she was still romantically obsessed with Kerouac—their “adolescent inspiration”—without duly acknowledging the scholarship behind her work. She says it was the first time she’d felt the “gratuitous nastiness” of the internet age: “I didn’t enjoy being published in this new period, the 21st century.”

While the public may have always aligned Johnson with Kerouac—it was naturally good for sales—she saw him as an important, but passing, part of her young life. Two more marriages, many more books, and a long career in publishing followed, during which time Johnson pioneered the voices of African American and female writers.

Johnson, who is currently working on a novel about a young woman working in that industry in the 1950s, began her career as a secretary to the editor-in-chief at William Morrow. “In those days, you came in as a secretary, and you could remain a secretary for many, many years, and every year you’d get another five bucks,” she laughs. “Salaries were low. There was the general idea that young women who came into the industry were there for a short time, because it wouldn’t be long until there would be the office shower.”

 
“But has it become my own madness not to have outgrown those years when the door first swung open on a world I never managed to explore as completely as I longed to?”
 

Unlike the marriage-and-motherhood-bound young women for whom work was an extended coming-out party, sitting pretty thanks to parental subsidies, Johnson lived hand-to-mouth in a manner today’s publishing interns may relate to. “It was not easy to get along on $50, $60 a week, even back then. The thing that made it possible was cheap rents. Lousy apartments, but at least they were cheap.”

Establishing her position by gamely taking home sacks of manuscripts to edit for free, she eventually advocated for the publishing of “Blues People” by LeRoi Jones (later to become Amiri Baraka). It was the first fruit of her effort to convince the company there was a market for books by black writers, as well as women. Her editors suggested she call up agents to solicit more books. “I took a big gulp and said, ‘I don’t think an agent would be very impressed having lunch with an editorial secretary.’” Thus Johnson became an editor.

She went on to work at Dial Press and McGraw Hill, each time leaving the former house for a bump in salary—at this point, she was supporting her son single-handedly. She retired as an executive editor at Dial. Among the roster of groundbreaking books she helped bring into the world were Ron Kovic’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” the first published memoir by a Vietnam veteran; Ann Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” also a memoir, by the civil rights activist; and Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy’s “Abortion Rap,” one of the first-ever books on the then-taboo subject.

Looking back on her coming-of-age 25 years hence at the end of “Minor Characters,” Johnson questions, “But has it become my own madness not to have outgrown those years when the door first swung open on a world I never managed to explore as completely as I longed to?” For all her experiences, Johnson knew when to put the brakes on, never diving heedlessly into a world of going “on the road” without money or losing herself in drugs beyond a few friendly dexies. Now, with canvasses on the walls, ferns on the sill, and a vase of bright yellow daffodils on the table, uptown is the perfect place to give us her version of those years—and all those that have followed.

Read “My Decors” a new essay by memoirist Joyce Johnson.