Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Elizabeth Ridley, author of "Dear Mr. Carson"

I always knew that someday I would write a novel starring Johnny Carson. I first fell in love with the king of late-night TV in the autumn of 1972. I was six years old and had just started first grade. Because I was now officially a "student," my parents moved me into my own bedroom, complete with a wooden desk and a 13" black-and-white TV set with rabbit-ears antenna and a plastic knob for changing the channels.

I was supposed to go to bed after the Ten O'Clock News but my parents went to bed at nine, unaware that I was still up and waiting for the nightly news anchor to sign off. I would curl up beneath my covers, whisk the blanket to my chin and listen as Ed McMahon's booming baritone announced, "And now, heeeeeeeere's Johnny!"

I was in heaven. "Do Aunt Blabby, do Aunt Blabby," I would whisper, "or at least do 'Stump the Band.'" The multicolored curtain split and out stepped Johnny, tan and fit in a wide-lapeled suit and matching tie. As he plunged his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels and began joking about the day's events, I crossed my fingers that Joan Embery from the San Diego Zoo would be Johnny's special guest and that some small creature would pee on Johnny's head, creating a "moment" that would live in people's memories for years to come.

But being Johnny Carson's Number One Fan was not without its hazards, I soon learned. For example, right after I started my Johnny Carson scrapbook in 1972, Johnny divorced his second wife, Joanne, and married his third wife, Joanna. I dutifully removed all images of wife number two Joanne from my scrapbook, tracing her slim figure and lifting her out with an X-Acto knife, then pasting over the spot with photos of Ed McMahon.

I reserved a scrapbook page for Johnny's female friends and left the center spot for myself. I had a good image of Angie Dickinson and a lovely shot of Dyan Cannon that included the unremovable arm of Elliot Gould. Some day, Johnny, I'd think. Some day I'll meet you for real.

Johnny Carson influenced my life in many ways. While still in grade school I dreamed of attending the University of California-Los Angeles to become a movie director. UCLA was situated close to Johnny's Malibu mansion, where I pictured myself relaxing with Johnny, sipping dry martinis and entertaining friends like Michael Landon. I knew there was a more than 40-year age gap between Johnny and me, but I figured as long as I caught him between wives, we could make it work.

By 1979, at the age of 12, I was writing a feature film screenplay, "Girl on the Lam." "Girl on the Lam" was supposed to star Kristy McNichol as the plucky orphan Stormy Weathers and Robby Benson as her brain-tumor-stricken-gifted-painter boyfriend. A chubby kid in a polyester blouse and a bad home perm, I would nonetheless feed my rabbits, Abbott and Costello, while practicing my conversations with Johnny.

"Well John," I began, having noticed that Johnny's closest friends never called him "Johnny." "Well John, I had admired Kristy McNichol's work..." On talk shows it was always good to admire someone's work. "I had admired her work since the television series Family, and that's what inspired Girl on the Lam..."

My relationship with Johnny continued right up until that night he signed off for good in May 1992. Even then I hoped that he and I might meet some day and I could tell him how deeply he had influenced my life.

When Johnny Carson died in 2005 I was devastated, not just by his death, but by the sad fact that my fourth novel, Dear Mr. Carson, was still one year away from publication. Dear Mr. Carson, set in 1978, is the story of a 13-year-old Milwaukee girl who escapes from a summer "fat camp" and embarks on a cross-country odyssey to meet her idol, Johnny Carson.

Dear Mr. Carson isn't "young adult" fiction -- someone goofed and put the wrong genre on the book's back jacket! Dear Mr. Carson was actually written for grown-up readers who remember Johnny Carson, the 1970s, and the pain of being less than perfect. Best-selling authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jennifer Chiaverini have praised the book as "funny, compassionate, and graceful," and "a touching coming-of-age tale."

From the minute I got the long-dreamed-of call from The Permanent Press saying that they wanted to publish Dear Mr. Carson, I pictured myself hand-delivering a copy of the book to Johnny Carson. Oh Johnny, I thought when I learned of his death, If only you could have hung on for another 12 months, we could have met at your Malibu mansion and sipped dry martinis, and I could have finally told you everything.

Elizabeth Ridley is the author of four novels including .


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