The announcement of the Award came at the end of June. The Award will be awarded on Thursday at the National Book Awards in Washington.
It was a surprise to me when the Award was announced in late June. When the shortlist was posted neither of the sponsors, the University of Alabama and the ABA (American Bar Association) Journal set out when the winner would be revealed. Last year it was not until the actual presentation of the Award. I am writing to the University expressing my concerns over a process that does not reflect a major award.
I had not thought about the first reaction of several publications to the announcement being that Johnson is both the first female winner and the first African American winner. With the subject about the origins of the American civil rights movement it had an appropriate theme for the dual firsts of Johnson.
Johnson had previously published four books of historical romance under the name of Deborah Jones.
With regard to the book there is a fine interview in Chatelaine magazine with the author. In that interview she discusses research for the book:
I live in Mississippi which is a state of great storytellers. Everybody seems to know everything about their own family back through the generations – and, if you’ve been around awhile, they probably know a great deal about your family as well. And Mississippians are friendly folk, willing to sit and talk awhile, so I found myself with a treasure of great tales – some of them tall one – to weave in. all of this great collective record keeping has also led to the development of some wonderful collections at my own library in Columbus, Mississippi and at the state archives in Jackson. In addition, I knew a fair amount about Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund before I started – both he and it were icons in my family – but I fleshed this out with some very interesting research into both the fund’s early development and Justice Marshall’s role in this and his particular cases during those fledgling years. I ended up learning quite a lot. In fact, the challenge became stopping the research so I could get on with the writing.
Johnson indicates in the interview it took her about 3 years to write the book. She also addressed challenges in writing the book:
Q: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
And the easiest?
A. The hardest aspect was not to stereotype, i.e. not to make all the blacks saints or martyrs and all the whites monsters. This could be quite easy to do when you are dealing with a place like Mississippi in 1946 and especially when you are writing about something as heinous as what happened to Joe Howard. But aren’t stereotypes – and the resultant fear they engender – rooting the problem? So I wanted to steer as clear as I could of them. The easiest part by far was coming up with the title, The Secret of Magic. I actually had this before anything else which, for me, is not usually the case.
In a further interview at the Anita Loves Books blog Johnson spoke about the setting of the book:
I asked Deborah how she ended up in Mississippi and why she writes about the South. Her son was coming to the US for college, and likely wouldn’t return to Europe. She spent many years in Italy. While not raised in the literal south, she speaks of being raised in a Southern attitude, a world of yes mams and no mams and a Southern Sensibility. Deborah took a job sight unseen and when she writes of the south she says it’s like coming home.
What was most notable to me was that the Award was given this year to a writer who is not a prominent writer of legal fiction or a well known lawyer. The first three authors to win the Award had been John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Paul Goldstein.