'Celebrate the ordinary people'
'BOOB Girls' author travels from Omaha to discuss books, body parts, beauty
September 9, 2013
Author Joy Johnson poses on the back of her truck with her dog, Barney, for
a calendar modeling
older women she is
She's tall, cute and 75.
That's how Joy Johnson, a novelist living in Omaha, Neb., describes herself. She brought that attitude to Carroll Public Library Friday evening to give older women a message: They are beautiful.
Her books, five so far in a series called "The BOOB Girls" - that stands for Burned Out Old Broads - chronicle the later lives of several widows who live together in a retirement community, become friends and have adventures many wouldn't put past the 70-plus crowd.
Through her books and presentations, Johnson seeks to change the image older women have of themselves, as well as the way others see them.
The most common compliment older women receive, Johnson said, is "You look nice."
"And what they mean is, your clothes are on pretty well and your hair looks OK," she said. "The next time someone says to you, 'You look nice,' say, 'Thank you. I feel pretty.'"
One practical application, she said, is having makeup and clothing designers target older women - not 50-year-olds, whom Johnson described as babies - but women in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
"We let ourselves go, partly because no one is saying, 'You are beautiful, and you'd be even more beautiful if you used our lipstick,'" she said.
Her audience Friday evening was mainly older women, more than 50 of them. They crowded into the library's main area and gossiped and giggled, snacking on popcorn and drinking wine or soft drinks while waiting for Johnson to speak.
She's the third author to speak at Carroll Public Library this year, said Kelly Fischbach, the library's director.
Since the library started offering the "BOOB Girls" books last winter, they've been regularly checked out, she said.
"I think they're fun," she said. "She writes about gals that are widows, and what it's like to be a widow at that age; she makes it lighthearted but understands how important it is to have friends when you're at that point in your life."
Several members of a book club at the library in Lohrville traveled to Carroll to see the author speak, Fischbach said.
Much of Johnson's hour-long presentation was centered on her characters. Johnson was comfortable speaking of them, slipping into different accents and mannerisms as she described them.
Their stories are centered around a universal truth, she said: Women, especially older women, are different.
"We can be 100 years old, and we'll still have girlfriends," she said. "Men aren't like that. Men don't have boyfriends - if they do have boyfriends, they usually have really nice condos that are very well decorated."
Although the characters continue through each book, every one has a different theme.
The third, "Sandhills and Shadows," is the most serious, she said, with one reviewer saying, "This is quite good. It's almost literature."
The fourth, "Murder at Meadow Lakes," introduces a vampire. His name is Gary because, Johnson said, what self-respecting vampire would have a name like that?
Enter Gary, who is old and has dentures. His girlfriend was turned into a vampire at the same time as him, and because of the particular time of the month she was bitten, she is bloated for all eternity, so on top of being old, Gary is also brokenhearted.
"I think old women should have a vampire," she said. "They're always young, and they always bite young girls who are a size 2. We deserve a vampire."
Johnson's talk was frank, open and funny; laughter filled the library several times as she talked about tattoos, sagging body parts and male genitalia.
In addition to describing her books and characters, Johnson touched on her own life and experiences, including having cancer years ago.
Her OB-GYN at the time was young, male and attractive; he could have called himself the "world's cutest menopausal specialist," she said. At one point, while he was conducting a test, he proclaimed, "Fantastic!"
Johnson's response: "Young man, do you realize what it means to a lady my age to have a handsome young man look between her legs and say 'fantastic?'"
The author is working on a new project, a soon-to-be-released "BOOB Girls" calendar featuring older women as models. The calendar spans 18 months because so many women volunteered to model. Johnson appears in the calendar, sitting in the back of her truck, wrapped in a blanket and posing with her dog.
"We are carefully covered but exposed," she said. "Beautiful, beautiful older women."
Johnson is not new to writing. She and her husband founded a nonprofit grief resource organization, The Centering Corporation, in 1978. Together, they wrote many books on grief for various audiences, such as children or parents who have lost a child.
She started writing the "BOOB Girls" novels after she retired to see if she could and as a gift for friends, never expecting them to get much attention. She said fan mail always surprises and touches her.
One day, she received a note that said, "Thank you for writing this delightful book." It was signed, "Phyllis Diller."
Johnson immediately wrote back, sending some of the grief materials from Centering Corporation to tell Diller more about her background and asking the actress and comedienne if she would be willing to endorse the books.
Diller responded with a directive to use the quote, "The BOOB Girls are the GOOD Girls" - it's on every cover - and also thanked Johnson for sending the grief materials.
Johnson was surprised at the latter.
"Not everyone says that," she said. "We still don't do grief well in this country."
Research showed her that Diller had six children, three who died before her and one who is schizophrenic.
"If anyone knows about grief, she does," Johnson said.
Laughter permeated much of Johnson's talk, but she closed on a serious note.
Although, she said, she doesn't speak on grief much anymore after her retirement from The Centering Corporation, Johnson presented a poignant retelling of the story of Robert Foster, the Secret Service agent who for several blocks walked beside a limousine during John F. Kennedy's funeral, holding the hand of the president's young daughter, Caroline Kennedy, through the window.
Everyone in that room, Johnson said, has been or will be either the recipient of such an action or the person reaching out a hand.
After her presentation, Johnson talked with many of the women who had attended, signing books for those who purchased them. She joked with many of them - asking their age, greeting one with "Hey, pretty lady," calling the younger ones "BOOB Girls in training," complimenting them on their appearance.
Her 6-year-old Bernese mountain dog, Barney, was also in attendance, accepting pats from strangers, although most of the time he preferred to remain flopped over on the floor.
Karen Schouten, 66, of Carroll, attended the event on a whim with a friend. She found out Friday evening that she'd won a drawing after reading more than 2,500 pages as part of the library's first adult summer-reading program and said the news was topped off with an enjoyable presentation from Johnson.
"I thought it was delightful," she said. "She was very entertaining."
Schouten, who agrees with Johnson's assertion that older women are beautiful, read the first "BOOB Girls" book Sunday and is working on the second now. She said she can relate to the subject matter because she is helping her deceased husband's family relocate his mother to a nursing home.
"This lady is 101 years old, and I just think we don't celebrate the ordinary people of life enough," she said.
Johnson was as at ease talking one on one with the women as she was standing in front of them as a group and ignoring the podium that had been set up for her.
She joked with one woman about an event based on her books held at a Presbyterian church.
"They had two big signs by the door, and all it said was "BOOB Girls here," she said.
"Gotta love the Presbyterians."