"The past is everywhere around us, and the forgotten is always underfoot,'' wrote Johnson in her book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, a nonfiction work that delves into the lives of archaeologists in places including Machu Picchu, a Caribbean slave plantation and Fishkill, N.Y. Johnson, 61, has worked for Esquire, Redbook and Outside magazines and was a staff writer for Life, where she wrote profiles and obituaries of celebrities, including Diana, Princess of Wales. She has also written two other books profiling particular professions: librarians in 2011 with This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All and obituary writers in 2007 with The Dead Beat. "All three books came from the same place, which is my interest in people talking about their work,'' said Johnson, who lives in the Hudson Valley. "I really loved Studs Terkel's Working and reading how deeply people got into their work and how it formed their perspective. It made an impression that stuck with me.''
What is on your nightstand?
I read things on my computer, I listen to audio books, and I read printed books, so first, I have Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, whom I love. Whatever she is thinking becomes a part of the book. In my reader I have Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn, which is also about the Revolutionary War. I'm about a third of the way through. It's fascinating.
What was the first Sarah Vowell book that you read?
Assassination Vacation was the first, and then I worked my way back. Partly Cloudy Patriot was also great. She's kind of addictive. She's got something similar to Ian Frazier, whom I also adore. They definitely deal with nonfiction, but they have fun with it.
I understand she's funny, but what makes her succeed?
There's no sentence in any of her books that could be written by anybody else. She really makes the book hers, and those are the kinds of books I'm interested in reading. There are a lot of people who can explain things really beautifully and you can sit around reading pure information and history done in a neutral way, but what I like is when somebody does all that work and then makes it special and unique and makes art out of it. Someone else who is a good example is Helen Macdonald and H Is for Hawk. She is a poet who writes prose. H Is for Hawk is fantastic. It's just like she had to write it. She herself is infused in every bit of that book, and it matters. It's not just an object on the shelf.
Any other books?
Euphoria by Lily King. It's about field anthropologists. And I've got The Life of Images by Charles Simic. He's a poet who is writing prose. And then there are two books coming out that I can't wait to read. One is Citizen Scientist by Mary Ellen Hannibal. It's very cool. It's about all these scientists. And (Tampa Bay Times staff writer) Craig Pittman's Oh, Florida!, about all the crazy things coming out of Florida. I follow him on Twitter and every time he tweets something that happened, a crazy thing in Florida, it amazes me. He could do a series of books like this.
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.