A Natural Storyteller: Todd Johnson Discusses New Book Next Week at Bookshop
For Todd Johnson, growing up in a small town near Charlotte, every dinner table was a venue for storytelling.
"If you were funny enough, or interesting enough, or loud enough, you could stay at the grown-ups' table; otherwise, you were relegated to the kids' table in the kitchen," he says.
Once he got the hang of it, he was never asked to leave.
Decades later, Johnson is sitting at the grown-ups' table again, but now, instead of family, he's surrounded by best-selling authors like John Grogan, Ron Rash, and Adriana Trigiani. If his debut novel, "The Sweet By and By," is any predictor, Johnson will remain at the table for a long, long time.
"As soon as I finished the last page of Todd's novel," says Bobbie Bicket, owner of The Country Bookshop, in downtown Southern Pines, "I called his publisher to invite Todd to come to the shop to share his remarkable, beautifully written story. We couldn't be more delighted that he will be here Wednesday, April 15, at 4 p.m. No one should miss this opportunity to meet an exceptional literary talent."
"The Sweet By and By," the story of a group of unlikely friends -- two women living in a North Carolina nursing home and the three women who care for them, is already receiving rave reviews. It was immediately selected by Real Simple and Southern Living magazines as their pick for March.
The critic for Southern Living calls it "one of the most beautifully written books you'll ever read. The story plays like music in the heart." "Johnson realistically portrays the challenges the elderly face and captures the authentic voices of these five very different women. This is a novel not to be missed" (Las Vegas Review-Journal). "It does a fine job of illustrating the rich inner lives of those imprisoned by failing mental or physical health. Strongly recommended" (Library Journal). "Bittersweet and often humorousthe underlying message of the power of love and friendship resonates, as does its depiction of the way in which people leading unremarkable lives can have a tremendous impact on those around them" (Publishers Weekly).
Adriana Trigiani, who invited Johnson to join her for one of her tour events for her novel, "Very Valentine," says his book is a "heartfelt and stunning debut novel" that "paints a lush portrait of Southern life in vivid detail with clarity and wit. It's a genuine page-turner."
"The women of 'The Sweet By and By' have found a devoted muse in Todd Johnson," says Alice Walker. For Johnson, the artistic producer of the 2006 Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical, "The Color Purple," adapted from her novel, Walker's praise may mean the most to him.
Readers have also written to thank him for "writing such a compassionate book about a difficult time in life." Nurses have praised him for celebrating their work as caregivers for the elderly. "I've gotten letters from readers who tell me the characters help them feel better about what their own paths might hold. That's an incredible gift to me," Johnson says.
The five women in this character-driven novel are Margaret Clayton, whose will of iron never fails her even when her body does; grief-stricken Bernice Stokes who is rarely lucid but unfailingly optimistic; Lorraine, their churchgoing-God-questioning African-American nurse; Rhonda, a beautician who does the ladies' hair on her day off; and Lorraine's daughter, April, a single mother who puts herself through medical school.
"Lorraine is the kind of hero that no one will ever know about beyond those few whose lives she quietly touches," Johnson says. "Ordinary people doing great things, far from any spotlight."
Johnson says that when he first started writing, he imagined a Christmas party in a nursing home.
"The two things seemed so incongruous -- a relentlessly cheerful event literally forced upon a group of people who have to some degree been uprooted from everything they've known, and planted firmly, most often permanently, on the periphery of life," he says. "Not a very appealing picture. Until Margaret Clayton emerged, and even though she was old and frail, she was anything but depressing. She was funny. And observant. And angry. And as alive as anyone I've ever known. She hooked me. I knew I would keep writing for as long as she and the other women continued telling their stories."
The title, "The Sweet By and By," from an old hymn, is "a poetic vision of eternity where all shall be one," Johnson says. "But those same words have also been used over time to ignore, or worse, to justify present suffering in light of a reward in the Great Hereafter. So for me, the title is ironic, because in my novel, the 'sweet by and by' is now. Life is lived abundantly now, in the present. Even at the end of life."
Todd Johnson graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill ('82), and has a master's degree in religion from Yale Divinity School ('91). He was one of New York City's top session singers, working with Garth Brooks, Celine Dion, and Michael Bolton, among others.
The transplanted Southerner now lives in a 250-year-old home in Norfolk, the "Icebox of Connecticut."
For information, contact The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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