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Michael Craft addresses readers at a previous book launch on the mezzanine of the Kenosha Public Museum.

‘Claire Gray’ talks about her author,
his new novel, and a book signing

Interview by Alice Anne Conner
The Kenosha News
February 27, 2004

Kenosha News writer Alice Anne Conner, having played the role of Claire Gray on stage, writes the following interview in the first person, reflecting her involvement with the character and the series based upon it.

At right, Alice Anne Conner as Claire and Dan Dane as Tanner in the 2003 production of “Photo Flash.”

As a rule, I don’t lust after younger men. I’m married to a guy my own age, have six grandchildren, and I’m well into my AARP years.
        But last fall I played the role of Claire Gray, the 54-year-old former Broadway director who has a 26-year-old lover in her new life as head of the theater department at an arts college in Palm Springs, California.
        The play was Photo Flash, written and directed by local novelist and man-about-town Michael Craft Johnson. More than 1,100 people saw the show over three weekends at Lakeside Players’ Rhode Opera House.
        On stage, my lover, Tanner, and I did a little innocent smooching in a couple of scenes, held hands, and mostly danced around the issue of sex. So imagine my surprise when, while reading Johnson’s latest Claire Gray novel, Desert Spring—the novelized version of Photo Flash—I came upon a scene with Claire and Tanner in a swimming pool.
        And they weren’t swimming, I can tell you that.
        “I would love to have been a fly on the wall when you read that scene,” Johnson said with a big laugh during an interview last week. “Obviously, we couldn’t put that scene in the play.”
        On Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Kenosha Public Museum, Johnson will talk about his latest novel, its relationship to the play, and the art of writing a murder mystery.
        Even though the book has different details—and more characters—than the play, they are essentially the same story: Teacher and director Claire Gray holds a cast party after her latest triumph. Suddenly, the body of a famous producer is discovered in her swimming pool, and Claire’s detection skills are once again called upon. Nobody—not even Claire’s closest friends and her young lover—is left off the suspect list.
        Johnson said he got the idea for writing two versions of the same story when researching the play Laura while writing the second Claire Gray novel, Desert Winter. Novelist and playwright Vera Caspary wrote the play, book, and screenplay of the classic murder mystery and made each telling unique.
        “I’ll just say this,” Johnson said with a smile. “If people liked the play, they’ll love the book.”
        Sunday’s book launching is his tenth. He’s written six in his Mark Manning series, stories that revolve around a gay journalist’s propensity for stumbling onto murders. This is the third in his Claire Gray series. “I intend to write one more Mark Manning book and at least one more in the Claire Gray series,” Johnson said.
        And yes, he’s considering writing another play. “A play is such a living, breathing thing,” he said, shaking his head. “I know I told Leon (his partner) to slap me if I ever again said anything about wanting to write another play, but once that bug has bit, it is with you for life.”
        Johnson has always loved the theater, and his time on stage goes back to high school in Elgin, Illinois. He is probably best known by Lakeside audiences for his marvelous portrayal of Salieri in the 1994 production of Amadeus.
        Johnson, who is vice president of communications at Leblanc Corporation, started his writing career with the publication of Rehearsing in 1993.
        At Sunday’s book launching, Johnson said he plans to read from Desert Spring as well as answer questions and sign books. Some of the members of the Photo Flash cast will also be at the event. And if you ask him nicely, he may even go into detail about how he gets his ideas for certain scenes in swimming pools.
        I’m prejudiced, of course. After walking miles and miles in Claire’s designer shoes, I grew to love her. She’s intelligent, independent almost to a fault, and deeply devoted to her friends. She’s also a sucker for romance. In fact, Claire and I have a lot in common, with one exception:
        I prefer my men with a few more miles on them.

Copyright 2004 by The Kenosha News, Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Reproduced with permission.

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