Local author releases debut novel about life as a teenager in Marin County

Alicia Vargelis

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Marin County native Lindsey Lee Johnson discussed her highly acclaimed debut novel, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” at Book Passage’s author event on Jan. 20. The event was attended by Marin community members, Johnson’s family, students of Tamalpais High School and readers who wanted to receive a signed copy from the author.

Johnson’s fictional book is set in Mill Valley, Marin County and is written from the perspectives of a teacher and several teenagers as the high school students deal with the social and academic pressures from the environment they grow up in. The book begins with an eighth grade boy’s suicide after he is bullied on social media, an event that haunts the characters and causes pivotal relationships and identities to change.

“I’ve read this book in and out, especially preparing for this event, and there aren’t many novels out there that capture the modern day high school experience as well as this one does,” said Garrett Omi, host of the Book Passage event. “What this book does is provide perspective for not only just the Marin community, but people everywhere in America that are ignorant or unaware of the repercussions that technology advancements are playing a role in raising kids today.”

Being a Marin County native gave Lindsey Johnson a unique perspective after she returned home.

Throughout the event, Johnson took the audience through a slideshow in which she delved into the methodology required to write the novel and how she found inspiration for the main characters.

After growing up in Marin County and attending Tam, Johnson attended University of California, Davis and received her master of professional writing degree from University of Southern California. After teaching writing at USC as a graduate student, Johnson returned home when she was 28 and tutored students at Sage Educators in Marin on and off for four years.

“I had the experience of coming back to my hometown and seeing it with fresh eyes and then working with kids who were exactly where I had been 10 years before,” Johnson said. “All these memories came back to me. I had a cool experience of seeing [Marin] from both an insider and outsider view.”

It was while she was tutoring students that Johnson decided to write her novel, in order to shine light on the many struggles Marin County teenagers face.

“I know this place like you can only know a place you grew up in, but it’s a little confusing when you become a teenager because I remember feeling like there wasn’t a lot of room for me in Marin. There weren’t a lot of places where teenagers were welcome,”  Johnson said.“I think it’s a hard in-between time anyways, and being a teenager in a place where everything is kind of perfect and most people are exceptional, it puts a lot of pressure on you.”Johnson saw how many students she tutored were struggling and working hard to meet the expectations that come from living in a privileged community like Marin.  

“I think when the outside world looks at privileged Marin kids, society at large tends to judge them and that bothers me,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really nice to have money when you’re growing up, it’s really nice to grow up in a place that has Redwood trees and the beach. I mean it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t necessarily make you happy. It’s not enough, and I think that growing up is hard and teenagers are kids, and kids deserve empathy regardless of whether they drive a BMW or not.”

Johnson anticipates that her novel will be controversial and that Marin County parents may not like the content they read about their children.

“I tried to write things as I saw them, not as I wish they were,” Johnson said. “I think that the truth is hard to see and to read sometimes, especially when it involves kids. People are very emotional and sensitive about their kids, as they should be. I hope very much that teenagers in Marin like the book and feel like their voices are represented and that they have been respected and treated well in the book.”

Omi also believes the book will raise awareness of the struggles teenagers face in Marin County.

“I believe it will do a good job of covering the many unheard voices of adolescents that deserve to be heard that aren’t heard for the sake of age,” Omi said.

Lindsey Johnson talks with two Tamalpais High School students about her novel.

Johnson talks with two Tamalpais High School students about her novel.

Mill Valley School Board member Robin Moses attended the event because she has two children who attended Tam and to support Johnson. Moses hopes that the book will give her daughters an understanding that high school doesn’t define who you will be.

At the author event, Johnson discussed how she related most with the character Dave Chu, who was always anxious and attempting to please his parents throughout the novel. The crowd cheered and clapped often, and the guest turnout was much larger than Book Passage expected.

Book Passage employee Sam Barry explained that in the planning process that the bookstore goes through for each author event, the store is typically contacted by either publishers or self-promoted authors. Once contacted, the bookstore starts planning for the event typically six months ahead and assigns an event host.

Book Passage then orders the author’s books from a warehouse and plays the “guessing game” for how many books they will sell at the event. The bookstore promotes the event through Facebook and puts it in their newsletter, which is physically mailed to 40,000 people and is emailed to 15,000 people, according to Barry.

Omi said he was pleased to see so many community members at the event despite the bad weather.

“It’s really great to see it all come together,” Omi said. “I think that if not a great debut novel release, this event is a wonderful community gathering which is so necessary.”