Author Interviews
11:26 am
Sat January 25, 2014

'Le Divorce' Author Finds Stories Closer To Home In 'Flyover'

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 8:31 am

For most of her readers, the American author Diane Johnson is wholly identified with France and especially Paris. She's the author of novels like L'Affaire, Le Marriage, and Le Divorce — the last of which was made into a film.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Johnson's new book is about her roots in the American Midwest. And not only her own roots, but the roots of a family tree going back two centuries, painstakingly reconstructed from a trove of diaries and letters passed on by her mother.

Johnson tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that it was a minor snub from a French friend to get her interested in her own, American history.

"She said, you Americans know nothing about your history, and you're so indifferent to it, no wonder you keep invading the wrong countries. And I was kind of stung by that."


Interview Highlights

On a literary great great grandmother

Thank heavens there was a little bit of a literary impulse — Catharine Anne Martin sat down and wrote her memoirs in 1876, but she was born in 1800, and she's about — roughly a contemporary, a little bit younger than Jane Austen. And in 1826, when she went to Illinois, that's about the same time that the girls in Pride and Prejudice were much more comfortably outfitted, and living a very different life than pioneer grandmothers on the American frontier, which was what Illinois was at that time.

On her earliest recorded forebear

I didn't know that it would go back that far, and I didn't know about the first forebear that all of these people claimed as their ancestor ... Rene Cosset, a Frenchman, must have been a French soldier, who enters history in 1711, and he was captured by the British, because it was the time of the Queen Anne's War. And he, Rene, who is by now in America called "Ranna," because they can't pronounce Rene, Ranna Cossitt is mustered, traded to the French, and Ranna enters history because he didn't want to be repatriated. He said, no thanks, I'd rather be a prisoner my whole life and remain in America. No one quite knows why.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

For most of her readers, the American author Diane Johnson is wholly identified with France and especially, Paris. She's the author of many novels, including "L'Affaire," "Le Marriage," "Le Divorce," the last of which was made into a film; not to mention her literary criticism and biographies. So it comes as something of a surprise that Johnson's new book is about her roots in the American Midwest.

But not only is this the Midwest of her own youth in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, but of her centuries-old family tree, based on the diaries of pioneer forebears who suffered excruciating hardships, as many American pioneers did. The book is called "Flyover Lives: A Memoir," and Diane Johnson joins me now. Welcome to the program. It's so nice to have you here in person.

DIANE JOHNSON: Thank you, Jacki. It's fun to be here.

LYDEN: So Diane Johnson, as a biographer, you've been curious about other people's lives - you know, just the most minute details - so I was a little surprised that it took a minor snub - minor - from a French friend of yours, sort of a joke, to dig into your own history. Can you tell us what happened in Provence?

JOHNSON: Yeas. Our friend, Torrez(ph), which was her real name - not the name I used in the book - was kind of condescending about America. So, she said you Americans know nothing about your history and you're so indifferent to it. No wonder you keep invading the wrong countries. And I was kind of stunned by that. I agree that there have been some mistakes about what countries to invade. But it prompted me to remember that I have some manuscripts and other papers bequeathed me by my mother in a drawer somewhere that I never bothered to look at. And these turned out to be diaries of great-great grandmothers and testimonials from their ancestors going back to the very end of the 18th century.

LYDEN: So, you start looking into this material. And I have to say, Diane Johnson, you are from Moline, Illinois. You have an incredible wealth of material. I mean, you just mentioned, you know, some things lying in a drawer. But your family had been in that part of the country since 1826. Tell us about Catharine Martin. I was fascinated by her. You pointed out that she was living around the time of Jane Austen, had a much harder time of it and in 1876 she writes about the previous century.

JOHNSON: Yes. Thank heavens it was a little bit of a literary impulse. Catharine Anne Martin sat down an wrote her memoirs in 1876. But she was born in 1800. And she's about roughly contemporary a little bit younger than Jane Austen. And in 1826, when she went to Illinois, that's about the same time that the girls in "Pride and Prejudice" were much more comfortably outfitted and living a very different life than pioneer grandmothers on the American frontier, which was what Illinois was at that time.

LYDEN: The other thing is that Catharine Anne Martin isn't the only forebear. You can go back much further than that. You have letters from her mother, this woman Anne, who's born in 1779 in Claremont, New Hampshire. I guess that most of us couldn't imagine having documents going back that far. And you had no idea?

JOHNSON: I really didn't. I didn't know that it would go back that far and I didn't know about the first forebear that all of these people claimed as their ancestor - and it's pretty well documented. Rene Cosset, a Frenchman, must have been a French soldier, who enters history in 1711, and he was captured by the British because it was the time of the Queen Anne's War. And he, Rene, who is by now in America called Ranna, because they can't pronounce Rene, Ranna Cossitt is mustered to be, traded to the French, and Ranna enters history because he didn't want to be repatriated. He said no thanks, I'd rather be a prisoner my whole life and remain in America. No one quite knows why, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Your parents never told you much or anything about these people?

JOHNSON: What they did tell me - and I tried to touch on this in the book - was about the tradition in the family of being descended from, you know, the King of France...

LYDEN: Ah, so you did have royalty.

JOHNSON: ...and everything else that. Oh, yes. And, of course, it does turn out that many Americans have some traditions, some family story about being descended from Mary Queen of Scots or the duke of something. So, where these tales creep in or how Americans early settlers tried to embroider of believed in these distinguished forebears or how they embellished their traditions is a pretty interesting thing in itself.

LYDEN: These noble lineages.

JOHNSON: Noble lineages, or splendid talents somewhere in the background.

LYDEN: Diane Johnson. Her memoir is called "Flyover Life." It's been a great pleasure speaking with you.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much, Jacki. It was a great pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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