Kathleen M. Rodgers is the author of the new novel Johnnie Come Lately. She also has written the novel The Final Salute, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Family Circle, Military Times, and Family: The Magazine for Military Families. She lives in Colleyville, Texas.
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Johnnie?
A: Johnnie Kitchen came to me years ago. When I say came to me, I didn’t know the full story. All I knew was there was this woman named Johnnie….I knew she was a survivor, and had dealt with an eating disorder.
I’m a recovered bulimic, and sometimes I’m so far on this side I forget…the hell of living life with an eating disorder. As Johnnie evolved, I knew I was not writing a novel about an eating disorder; it was a turnoff.
My biggest challenge with that aspect was to embed the bulimia into the narrative. There had to be other things going on. Every family has family secrets…
After writing The Final Salute, and I used to freelance for Military Times, I thought there was not going to be a military theme [in this book]. Then my son said I’m going to go into the Army.
That informed [the book]—I take my reality and my imagination and stir them into a big pot of stew. If you live in the South, it would be gumbo. But the more I got into it, I have a heart and passion for military themes that informed the book….
Q: Why did you decide to include letters Johnnie writes as part of the story, in addition to the third-person narration?
A: I love the letter format. I didn’t grow up keeping a diary—I had friends who kept them, with the cute little locks. There’s something about the letter for me. In the first novel, the way I handled the Persian Gulf War was all done in letters back and forth with the main characters.
In Johnnie Come Lately, actually some of the first ideas for Johnnie came to me in the first person, expressing herself through letters and journal entries—she was a closet writer….
The journal entries sometimes were what kept me going. I had no idea of how they were going to fit into the book. I would be writing, and then think, Oh my God, I knew where that journal entry is going to go!...
When Karen Carpenter died, I was still struggling with bulimia. My mother called me and said, did you know that Karen Carpenter died? It had a huge impact [even though] I wasn’t a huge fan.
But in the writing of Johnnie, I thought, Johnnie would have been 19. I want her to write a letter to Karen Carpenter after she dies. In the letter to Karen Carpenter, we learn a lot about Johnnie and her mother, and I also tried to show what an eating disorder is in other ways.
Q: How long did it take to write the book?
A: I started it in January 2007, in a writing class…I dabbled with it. I finished in March 2013. …It took that long because I’m slow, I don’t think in a linear way with anything I do. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and think I had the wrong character saying something in dialogue. The characters had to come alive in my heart before I could make them come alive for readers.
Q: Which authors have influenced you?
A: One author that always comes to mind is Mark Childress. I would call him a Southern writer. His first novel was Crazy in Alabama. My husband was an airline pilot and his captain [was Mark Childress’s brother]. I found his book and fell in love. He taught me that a novelist can write a really serious novel but can make it fun for the reader….
Another writer I love was Carol Shields. She taught me that as a novelist you can write about families and ordinary day-to-day life and take it to another level…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a sequel to Johnnie Come Lately, called Seven Wings to Glory. I’ve never written a sequel before—it’s all new, what to leave in and take out.
It takes place two years later, a few months after President Obama is in the White House. In Johnnie, Johnnie’s best friend is Whit, an African-American woman. Whit is going to have a bigger role in the sequel. I want to write in my own little way about racial injustice, racial unrest, things that still happen today.
Believe it or not, I’m going to have a military theme in there. Now that my son is back from Afghanistan, it’s going to be easier.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb