Screenwriter Toni Ann Johnson Talks Black Lit and Hollywood

Author 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.

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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: At its core, the story deals with a mother and a daughter who can’t get along. Are their issues societal or personal? 

TAJ: I think they’re both. In a broad sense, the pressure for Serena to be a mother is coming out of the time/tradition she and her husband were raised in. But the issues Serena and her daughter have are also unique to them. It’s more complicated than they “can’t get along.”

I think there are more opportunities for women of color now than there were a couple of decades ago, I think it’s still, in general, a challenge. I’ve lost interest in the discussion about how hard things are.

Serena’s a narcissist and doesn’t recognize her error in putting her own emotional needs before her child’s. She’s been irreparably damaged during her own childhood, and unfortunately that mars her ability to be a loving mother. She hasn’t recovered from her own trauma.

I’m not sure it’s fair or accurate to say that Artie can’t get along with her mother. In childhood, she’s just reacting to Serena and trying to survive. When she’s older, she can’t “connect” with Serena, but that’s somewhat different from an inability to get along. She literally and figuratively can’t connect. Her stepmother prevents access, and then when she does see her, communicating is awkward. Later, she’s angry with her mother and wants revenge and, deep down, love, which can’t co-exist successfully.

EBONY: What advice do you have for younger women just starting out in their careers, re: conflicts between work and home? And what does your novel have to offer on the topic?

TAJ: My characters are flawed and obviously not meant to be role models. The book follows [two of] them trying not to be a mess and trying to clean up their messes. They are artists, and yes, they have domestic issues. That said, this isn’t a novel written with the intention to set an example of how to behave as a working woman/spouse and mother.

EBONY: You went to Hollywood in pursuit of an acting career. Despite the most recent success of Kerry Washington and Lupita Nyong’o, there aren’t many roles for women of African descent. From your perspective, how much or little has the town changed in terms of hiring women in front of and behind the camera? And when and why did you decide to become a writer?

TAJ: I was always a writer. I came to L.A. from New York in 1992 with a project in hand that I’d written. I began professional training as an actress at 14, a few years before I began writing. But then at age 17, I began NYU and studied writing as well as acting.

I began to focus more exclusively on writing when the play I wrote for myself to act in and brought with me to L.A., Gramercy Park Is Closed to the Public, got into the hands of a successful literary agent. The play went out to all the studios, and I immediately began working full-time as a screenwriter.

As an actor, I never had the experience of roles being easy to come by. When Hollywood offered me a screenwriting career I took it. It was the path of least resistance. While I think there are more opportunities for women and for women of color now than there were a couple of decades ago, I think it’s still, in general, a challenge. I’ve lost interest in the discussion about how hard things are.

EBONY: In a time where young people are studying code and learning to build apps, what can you say to artists about the validity of the studying art forms?

TAJ: The work of true artists is timeless. We enjoy art from 500, 100, even hundreds of years ago. Really good art doesn’t lose its value or validity. It may lose its relevance, it may fall in and out of favor. But good art will always be desirable, because it speaks to the soul.

The kid who’s passionately studying ballet or saxophone doesn’t need to hear a pep talk from me. If they’re artists, they know why they do it. I so appreciate the people writing code and creating apps. They’re awesome. In fact, they can help artists reach a wider audience.

EBONY: A good deal of the conflict in the book stems from commercial and modern concerns being imposed against the will of the artists. How do you feel about the way technology and money have changed the way you practice your art? Or has it?

TAJ: As artists, sometimes we have to do things for money in order to be able to do the things we really want to do. In 2014, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have made some money, I’m able to do the kind of work I want to do. And the mental and spiritual approach to the work hasn’t changed that much. But it’s a whole lot easier to make revisions on my computer than it was in 1991, when I wrote a play longhand and then had to type it on a typewriter. Rewriting has certainly become easier with technology.

EBONY: The book is sexy but not pornographic. Characters struggle with getting laid by the right people, and maintaining working relationships. Are you a skeptic, or does true love exist only in books and movies?

TAJ: I’m not skeptical about true love. I believe in it. My idea of what true love is has changed with time. It’s more than intense longing, deep emotional connection, and sexual passion. My dying father’s girlfriend took care of him and loved him madly even when he was unable to walk and was wearing an adult diaper. The willingness to change a grown man’s diaper is a kind of love that no one wants to see in movies.

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.