The Secret of Deborah’s Magic

Deborah JohnsonStory William Browning
Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Deborah Johnson, the novelist, lives alone in an old brick apartment on Sixth Avenue North in Columbus. It is a quaint, second-floor place filled with books and family pictures. In the living room there is a large surrealist painting and no TV. Quiet is the word, and in the fall, on an overcast day, I paid Johnson a visit. She made sugar cookies.

I went to talk about her novel, The Secret Of Magic, which was published in January by Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

The story takes place in 1946. It features a female character not from the South who comes to Mississippi where, according to the book’s overview, “she must navigate the muddy waters of racism, relationships and her own tragic past.” A murder is what brings her south.

The novel is a work of fiction. But several pivot points in the narrative have roots in actual events. Because of this, during the writing, Johnson made many trips to the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library searching for facts. I asked why. She said it was important for her to get the details right. That could have been it. But Johnson is a shy, thoughtful woman, and she said something else, too.

We were sitting in her living room, few lights were on, and she said, “If you make a mistake, you’re going to take people out of the spell of the book.”

I looked across the darkened room at Johnson and caught sight, for a moment, of the strange intensity that drives the artist toward perfection. It is something I cannot forget.

The Secret Of Magic is Johnson’s second book. Her first was The Air Between Us, winner of the 2010 Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction.

Here are how the two books are similar: both take place in the fictional Mississippi town of Revere; both revolve around a death; both explore issues of race. Where this last overlap is concerned, though, Johnson had something to say regarding her new novel.

“It is about race,” she said. “But the main thing is the relationship between this young African-American woman and this middle-aged white woman from this aristocratic family — just their relationship.”

The young black woman is Regina Robichard, who works for Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Before serving on the nation’s highest court from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, Marshall worked as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He used the law to promote social justice, and he helped found the Legal Defense Fund. Robichard’s character is based on Constance Baker Motley, the first female lawyer Marshall hired at the Legal Defense Fund.

In the novel, a letter arrives at Regina’s office asking the NAACP to look into the murder of a black man who had just returned to America after serving in World War II. This incident has parallels to the real story of Isaac Woodard, a discharged black GI who, in 1946, was pulled off of a bus in South Carolina and beaten blind by a group of white police officers.

The person who wrote Regina the letter is M.P. Calhoun, a middle-aged white woman and reclusive author living in Revere. There are faint echoes here of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird. As a child, Regina had read Calhoun’s book, a fable featuring white and black children playing together in a magical forest, and she decides to pursue justice for the black man Calhoun wrote about in her letter.

According to the book’s overview, “Once down in Mississippi, Regina finds that nothing in the South is as it seems … The Secret Of Magic brilliantly explores the power of stories and those who tell them.”

Johnson is not from Mississippi. She moved here about a decade ago. I asked her if she could have written the novel without ever having moved to Mississippi.

“Well, I could have,” she said. “But would it have been correct? Everybody thinks they know Mississippi. It has its history. People have ideas about its history … the actual reality is different from the image.”

Deborah Johnson

Johnson strolls the gardens of Temple Heights, an antebellum home in Columbus, Miss.

Johnson took the long way to the Magnolia State. She grew up in Nebraska in a large, Catholic, African-American family. Her father was a surgeon. She attended private, all-girl schools and integrated each one. She told me she has always been aware of race.

After high school came college in San Francisco, where Johnson studied history and married. When her marriage ended (“It was amicable,” she said.), and she was looking for something fresh, she moved to Rome, Italy. She lived in an apartment there and studied language with the Pope’s top adviser on Latin. She stayed for 18 years.

Though her mother gave her a Smith-Corona typewriter when she was a child, it was not until Europe that Johnson began writing in earnest.
For a long time she could not envision ever leaving. Her only son was getting older stateside, though, and eventually she began itching to come back to America.

“So I started thinking, well, where would I go?” she said. “I took a look at my favorite books, and at that particular moment, they all happened to be by Southern authors.”

She toyed with moving to New Orleans, but a chance encounter with attorney Wilbur Colom led Johnson to a job as the head of the Colom Foundation, the charitable arm of Colom’s law firm in Columbus. She accepted. It was 2003. She had never been to the state, but she had heard stories of strife. Seen from a distance, the strife seemed centered on clashes between whites and blacks. After arriving, however, Johnson learned things were hardly that cut and dried.

“I remember moving here and the first thing I thought was, it couldn’t exactly be the way I thought it was because there was so much of a parity, numerically, between blacks and whites,” she said. “I mean, people rubbing up against each other all the time.”

She also noticed a kindness in everyone — poor and rich, black and white — that was at odds with the things she had heard. And people knew one another. And where their histories intertwined.

Johnson settled into life in Columbus. She made friendships. She soaked up the stories. Inspired, she began writing what would become The Secret Of Magicin a back bedroom of her apartment each morning before going to work at the foundation.

Portrait of Tallulah by Whitten Sabbatini

Deborah Johnson and her 3-year-old cat, Talullah, live in an apartment on Sixth Avenue North in Columbus. It is a quiet place filled with photos of family, stacks of well-worn books and antique furniture, and it is where The Secret of Magic was written.

On July 15, 2010, she got a phone call telling her that The Air Between Us was receiving the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction. Later that same morning she got another call, this one telling her that Amy Einhorn, the editor and publisher behind the 2009 best-selling book The Help, wanted to publish The Secret Of Magic. She was alone, and still in pink pajamas, and she danced a little.

Since then she has become a full-time writer. She is at work on another novel. It, too, is Mississippi-inspired: a ghost story involving a Delta blues artist.

The Secret Of Magic was published on Jan. 21, 2014. Reviews have been good and Johnson is taking part in publicity events from New York City to Oxford.

The Help was a blockbuster book that became a blockbuster movie. It is too early to gauge how far The Secret Of Magic will go. However, the book will undoubtedly supplement the South’s ongoing discussions on race, but with more nuance, more understanding, more empathy. It is a heavy topic here. How does Johnson, who has never owned a car and writes in quietness each morning, feel about her work sparking those discussions?

“It’s an important thing,” she said. “But I didn’t write it for that. I wrote it because I wanted to tell a story.”