EBONY Interviews HUMANITAS Winner Toni Ann Johnson
Toni Ann Johnson is a writer for both film (Step Up 2: The Streets) and television (Ruby Bridges, The Courage to Love). The native New Yorker has taken a break from her screenwriting duties and authored Remedy for a Broken Angel—a rich, compelling debut novel that examines family, loyalty, honesty, sex and mental health. Johnson follows a mother and daughter through painful parallel experiences, with stops in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Bermuda, using jazz, film and photography as the backdrop.
Johnson recently spoke by phone in-between stops on her promotional book tour to discuss her thoughts on a wide range of topics, including her stunning page-turner.
EBONY: You open the novel in a vividly described, high-end, mental therapy clinic. Your late father was a therapist and a jazz fan. Did that give you a solid basis for researching those aspects of the book?
Toni Ann Johnson: It gave me a start. But my father was a psychologist and a psychoanalyst. He studied with Theodor Reik, a protégé of [Sigmund] Freud. The therapist in the novel is a psychiatrist. She prescribes medicine, which my father didn’t.
When I was a child, one of my father’s offices was in our home. During college, I lived in my father’s office near NYU. I knew his patients and his colleagues. I was immersed in the world and absorbed it. I’ve also been in therapy myself, several times, and that’s where more specific research took place.
My father did enjoy jazz, and all my life he had office apartments in Greenwich Village with proximity to several jazz clubs. The first was on Fifth Ave and 12th Street. Around the corner on University Place was a bar/restaurant called Bradley’s that also had live jazz. He took me there a lot. A few blocks away there was the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill, and close to that The Cookery, where Alberta Hunter performed.
EBONY: What’s your next book about? And tell us about the film projects that you’re working on.
TAJ: My next book is a collection of linked short stories based on my experience as a young woman of color from an upper-middle-class family growing up in a predominantly White, mostly working-class community in upstate New York. This was the ’70s, before The Cosby Show. Kids I grew up with, and even some teachers, didn’t have any exposure to African-Americans like my family. There were people who didn’t want me to attend their children’s parties. A teacher called me liar in front of my middle school English class when I said I’d been to Japan.
I couldn’t develop a healthy sense of self in that environment and recognized that at a very early age. It was miserable, but it led to the observation and introspection that helped me to develop as an artist, so I can appreciate it in hindsight.
I’m working on a web series for WIGS TV. I’m also working on another dance project with two of the producers I worked with on Save the Last Dance. I’m not able to discuss any details.