Varian Johnson: The Facts Behind the Fiction

photo: Kenneth B. Gall

Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including the Jackson Greene adventures The Great Greene Heist and To Catch a Cheat. His newest work for young readers, The Parker Inheritance (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), comes out on March 27. He lives with his family near Austin, Tex.

The plot of The Parker Inheritance is driven by the discovery of a letter. In the era of text messages and Snapchat, why did you choose a letter as the catalyst for your story?

I have always treasured sending and receiving letters through the mail--there's something about the tactile nature of the paper that creates a more intimate, emotional feeling. I wanted Candice and Brandon to have a similar emotional connection. The letter has character and, in some ways, IS a character. I wanted readers to see the letter in the past--for them to have that experience with Abigail of handling something so new and fresh--and to then juxtapose that with Candice's discovery of the same letter, now old and faded and hidden away. 

Candice and Brandon are both avid readers, and you mention many beloved classics throughout the story. Were you an avid reader at their ages? How did you decide which books to mention in your story?

I have always loved reading. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include The Westing Game in the story, because it served as the initial inspiration for the book (and, later, a plot point). Many other children's classics, including Holes and When You Reach Me, popped up in the book during the drafting and revision process, but most were cut as they didn't serve enough purpose in the story. (But they're still great books!)

There's a tricky puzzle woven into the pages of The Parker Inheritance. How did you develop it?

I had the bones of the puzzle already worked out when I first began writing the novel, but the puzzle changed a lot as I completed the story. I found that the puzzle and the story influenced each other--often a new wrinkle in the story caused me to revise a clue, and vice versa. It was a very complicated process to find the balance between addressing the mysteries of the letter via flashback while maintaining the main narrative's forward momentum.

Your book does a marvelous job of explaining specific instances of racial injustice in the United States to middle grade readers. How did you negotiate writing honestly about the violence and inequality black Americans have faced, while still keeping the content accessible for eight- to 12-year-olds?

I decided early on that I was not going to sugarcoat the system of violence and injustice perpetrated toward blacks during the 1950s. I also knew that there were some scenes I could not show on the page. I tried to strike a balance with showing as much as possible, and then cutting away and hinting at certain things, leaving it to the readers' imagination to fill in the clues. Sadly, I think today's youth have seen more than enough in their brief lifetimes to adequately fill in those blanks.

Although this book is fiction, many of the situations in the story are based on things that really happened. What sort of research did you do to write this book? Where can young readers learn more about the real-life events that inspired your book?

I spent a lot of time in libraries, researching the real incidents and people that inspired the book. I also interviewed some of the elders from my hometown of Florence, S.C., to try to better understand life as a black teen in the 1950s. The author's note goes into more of the research that I did for the book, and provides a good jumping-off point for readers interested in the facts behind the fiction.

Librarians everywhere will rejoice when they read along with the real-life search strategies Candice and Brandon use to try to solve the puzzle. Do these details echo your own searches?

Candice and Brandon's strategies totally mimic the real-life sleuthing I did to create and "solve" the puzzle. I ran each of the web searches that they performed in order to see what popped up--to make sure that the answer to a clue wasn't revealed too quickly. I also spent a lot of time reading old newspapers from 1957 so I could confirm exactly what was printed about Althea Gibson and her historic win at Wimbledon. I even looked through old yearbooks from predominately black high schools to see how they were organized. In many ways, it was easy to write about the techniques that Candice and Brandon used for deciphering the letter, as I had performed that very same research to write the book. 

The fictional town of Lambert, S.C., has many ugly, racist secrets in its not-so-distant past. Do you hope your book will inspire young readers to unearth and confront the history of their own hometowns?

I believe it's always good for people to reexamine the history of their hometowns and communities. For instance, I think it's great that so many communities are reevaluating the need for Civil War monuments. It's one thing to remember the Civil War through books and museums and it's quite another to honor that history with schools and monuments named after "heroes" of the Confederacy.

After readers devour The Parker Inheritance, what do you recommend they read next?

Of course, The Westing Game is high on my list of what to read next. But other books that I would suggest include The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, Holes, March: Book 3 and When You Reach Me. --Stephanie Anderson


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