"It was a terrible time for me,” author Lindsey Lee Johnson remembers. “Everything was just falling apart.” She’s talking about 2008, when her college teaching contract wasn’t renewed because of the economic crash, her boyfriend left and she could no longer afford the home she’d just bought.
To try to put the pieces back together, Johnson moved in with her parents in Marin County, California, and began tutoring high school students at a learning center.
Her first assignment was teaching SAT math, hardly her favorite subject, and her initial encounters with students were disappointing. “At first I just thought, oh my God, the way they talk, the constant foul language,” Johnson recalls. “It was loud, and I thought, why should I even be doing this? What happened to my life?”
Fortunately, what seemed like a catastrophe ultimately ended up being one of the happiest times in Johnson’s life. As she got to know the students, she enjoyed the new job, ended up marrying a fellow tutor and got the inspiration she needed to write her debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, a page-turning high school drama that’s being compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep.
Speaking by phone from her home near Los Angeles, Johnson says she didn’t read Prep or many other books about high school until after finishing her manuscript (at which time she found Prep to be “fabulous”).
“One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I saw a need for it,” she says. “I saw a place for a literary vision of contemporary high school and teenagers that was written for adults. I didn’t see much of that in bookstores.”
The seeds of Johnson’s story were sown as she spent hours listening to hundreds of teenage students. “The experience helped me out of my own head, to stop making everything about me, and actually invest my time in other people, just listening to these kids and really developing compassion and empathy for them—and remembering what it felt like when I was that age,” she says.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth follows an ensemble cast of characters, beginning with an incident in their eighth-grade year: A boy commits suicide after a love note he writes is revealed on Facebook, prompting merciless ridicule and bullying. The tragedy causes reverberations that linger throughout these characters’ high school years. Set in Marin County, the novel chronicles a wealthy world that Johnson knows intimately, although she fictionalized the high school she once attended. She based her characters on a variety of student archetypes, including Ryan the jock, Cally the hippie, Elisabeth the beautiful girl and Damon the delinquent, but with a twist.
Growing up, Johnson felt that such categories were too limiting, noting that she was both a cheerleader and a nerd. “For each character, I thought of the archetype, and then I gave them a problem,” she notes. Overachieving Abigail, for instance, suffers from loneliness and takes a particularly destructive path with a male teacher to solve her dilemma. “I remember that feeling of being a teenage girl and going through that awkward phase,” Johnson says, “and feeling unappealing and unattractive. You know, kind of unseen.”
Although Johnson didn’t have to contend with the pressures of social media during her high school years, she vividly remembers a spiral-bound notebook that she and her friends circulated, writing notes to and about one another. “I don’t remember what we wrote in these things,” she muses, “but I’m sure it wasn’t lovely and nice. I’m sure it was a lot of gossip.”
"I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching."
She adds: “The thing is, those notebooks were private, so their ability to hurt was limited. . . . I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching.”
Johnson acknowledges that several of her characters make what she calls “questionable decisions,” and those are the personalities that intrigue her. “As a writer I’m very interested in characters who are not obviously likable and who do things that make us cringe, because I’m interested in the psychology behind it—and in trying to find empathy even for people I don’t want to empathize with. I think that’s an important job that fiction does in our world.”
She quickly adds a crucial qualifier: “The kids in the book feel 100 percent real to me, but I don’t want people to think that these are real kids that I tutored.”
Their dilemmas feel authentic, including struggles with grades, dating, sex, drinking and drugs. And when Johnson finished writing these teenagers’ stories, she added yet another layer, inserting several chapters from the point of view of a newly hired young teacher, Molly Nicoll, who becomes overly invested in her students’ struggles.
“I empathize with Molly in particular,” Johnson says. “Being a young teacher is a struggle, especially when you’re not that much older than the students. You want to help them, but you have to walk the line of how invested and involved you get.”
Happily, Johnson’s own teaching and tutoring experiences were productive for both her and her students. “I’ve always wanted to be a novelist,” she says. She wrote her first book at age 24, but says it was so terrible that she “sat down and wrote another one.” The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is her first published novel, but her “fourth or fifth manuscript.”
“There’s no reason why I should have kept going,” she says with amusement, “except that it was the only thing that I cared about.”