Publishing

From GSA to Gay Lit: Martha Johnson's Next Act


GSA Administrator-designate Martha Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, 2009

Photograph by Harry Hamburg/AP Photo

GSA Administrator-designate Martha Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, 2009

It’s been six months since the General Services Administration’s former director, Martha Johnson, resigned after news broke that the agency had laid out $823,000 in taxpayer funds for a Las Vegas conference that featured a clown, a mind reader, and $7,000 worth of sushi.

Johnson’s now eager to make headlines again and to tell America that you can have a life after government: as a novelist.

The downtime gave her time to wipe the dust off a book she’d started years ago on her morning commute from Annapolis to Washington. A tale of corruption in the corridors of power, you ask? Nope. Try the plight of being gay in small-town America.

In Our Midst takes place in a fictional Indiana town in 1990. A good, church-going teenager named Victor realizes he’s gay and thinks he may be the only male in the entire town who prefers boys to girls. At the same time, the town learns a long-buried secret about the sexuality of a hometown hero named Vaughan who’d died the very day he came home from the Korean War 40 years earlier. “It’s a really good plot, in other words,” Johnson says.

Johnson is not gay. Nor is she the parent of gay children. So where’d the idea come from? Years of serving in her Presbyterian church, watching it struggle with the issue of gay ordination in the 1990s, and realizing that sexuality just isn’t a big deal. The book is meant for a wide audience, including teens and adults, she says: “This is absolutely not Christian literature. Let’s be real clear about that.”

Johnson self-published the book on Sept. 17 via the indie distributor Smashwords (you can get the book here for $8.99) and says she hasn’t yet checked her sales figures. Mediabistro.com reports that In Our Midst was No. 5 on Smashwords’ bestseller list last week. Marketing is all a word-of-mouth effort at this point.

“I’m finding this to be a hoot,” she says. “It changes the subject. Here we are at the Stanford business school reunion [her husband's], they all know the story [about her resignation], they all say, ‘How are you? How are you?’ and I pull out my postcard and say, ‘I’m a published novelist!’ I’m taking major glee in that.”

With any luck, the next few trips Johnson takes will be specifically to market the book. Would the tour include a stop in Sin City? She laughs. “Well, you know, wherever there’s a market where they want to talk about these issues, I’d love to go.”

Hinman is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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