Today it is my pleasure and honour both to interview the witty and sagacious E. K. Johnston about her Morris-nominated novel, The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. As the previous dracographical Morris winner, it seemed logical that I should be the one to interview Ms. Johnston and put her feet to the (dragon) fire, as it were.
In fact, it’s not just dragons that we have in common. Owen, like Seraphina, is the story of a musician swept into a world she never expected to be a part of, it’s chock-a-block full of politics and intrigue, and by-golly if it isn’t the most Canadian thing I’ve read in a long time.
In fact, I have a little proposal to make. The next time you hear the words Canadian Literature, don’t think dismal, taciturn realism. Think dragons, music, and politics. Me and Kate have got a muscular new Canadian aesthetic happening here, a genre of our very own. Canadian Symphonic Draco-Politik. You heard it here first (and probably last).
Anyway, silliness aside (which is hard for me, you realize), here’s Owen‘s author herself, to let you know what’s what.
1) Sing to me of Canadicity! (Canaudacity?) Are you Canadian megafauna yourself, or are you an invasive species like me? I have to admit, I was loving all the Canadian references, and I can imagine it must be even more fun for South Ontario to see its place-names in print. What made you decide to set the novel there? Did you find that mythologizing Ontario has changed your experience of living there, or has it always been peopled by dragonslayers?
I was born in London…Ontario, and have called Canada home for most of my life (despite several escape attempts along the way). I actually attended “Trondheim” Secondary School, though only one of my teachers makes a direct cameo in the book. I decided to set the book in Southwestern Ontario because I wanted to write something as local as possible. I was more than a little scared that any editor who liked OWEN would ask me to move it to Indiana or something, but all Andrew Karre asked for was more hockey jokes and an explanation for how milk bags work. I always knew there were stories in Huron County (actually, a lot of them ended up in the book), but adding dragons to the mix was a lot of fun. It hasn’t really changed my experience of living here, but I’ve had more than a few people tell me that driving through Michigan makes them nervous now.
2) Dragons, as you might expect, are near and dear to my heart. Part of my fascination is their versatility, how they can range from violently animalistic to ancient and wise. Yours definitely fall toward the animalistic end of the spectrum. In fact, you repeatedly refer to them as “mindless,” which makes me think of zombies. What are the challenges, benefits, and allures of these kinds of relentless, “mindless” opponents? How deeply did you delve into the biology and ecology of such creatures, and what were some of the practical challenges (or absolute hilarious fun) of shoehorning them into world history?
To begin with, I made my dragons pure reptile because I wanted to set them apart as much as I could. I have read a lot of dragon books over the years, and one of my very first rule for OWEN was that there would be no riding, taming, training, talking to, etc with any of the dragons. Of course, then they didn’t have motives, so I had make them drug addicts, but that turned out okay in the end.
Putting them into history was a blast. Occasionally I got to use dragons that were already there (like with St. George and with Dracula), but the MOST fun was when I got to “three quarter” them in. My method was to make the first three quarters of any given sentence true (ie. Queen Victoria selected Ottawa’s location to protect our capital from the Americans…), and the last bit was the part I made up (ie. …and because it was far away from a Hatching ground). I stuck closer to history than I did to biology or ecology, because history is my strength.
3) The fact that your dragons are attracted to carbon emissions immediately puts the reader on the alert that this may be some kind of ecological fable, but it isn’t that simple. There’s politics here, as well as fame, the manipulation of perceptions, and the various uses of art. Which parts of the story came first, and how did they come to you? Did it take many drafts to develop the layers, or was it all there from the beginning?
The ecological bent came when my friend Colleen would not accept “Honour?” as the reason dragons could not be slayed with a cruise missile (if I had a nickel…), but the story was always going to be about fame. Originally, Owen was much closer to a garbage man than he was to a nation hero, but once I turned the dragons into flying meth labs, it became a bit more epic. Even so, all of that happened before I wrote anything down, so by the time I sketched out THE STORY OF LOTTIE, I already had environmentalism, fame, perception and story telling, and a healthy dose of politics worked into it. I tried to control myself while writing, because I didn’t think anyone would want to know most of the details I had come up with, but then Andrew asked for all the world-building chapters to be added, and it was like CHRISTMAS. So in a way, it was all there at the beginning. I just didn’t think anyone else would want to know all of it, so I didn’t write it down.
4) What has your journey to publication been like? Epic? Any dragons along the way? Was writing something you always dreamed of doing, or did you come to it by some circuitous route?
I wrote THE STORY OF OWEN for NaNoWriMo in 2011. I sold it to Andrew Karre via fill-in-the-blank query letter the following April, and got an agent at the same time. One time in 2009 I told a job interviewer that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was thirty, but I was kind of lying when I said it, because I was 25 and I always panicked when interviewers said things like “What is your five year goal?” My degrees are in Near Eastern Archaeology and Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Management, both of which involve a lot of writing. So I suppose I have always been a writer, I just never had any plans to become a writer (but I once read a book by David Eddings where he said that you just ARE a writer, so it’s possible that I reached a zen state on that matter at the ripe old age of 15.
5) Being a debut novelist must be, in some ways, like being a brand-new dragon slayer. There’s a certain amount of fame that comes with it, especially when you’re nominated for awards. Has it been anything like you imagined it would be? Has working on the sequel been a different experience than writing the first book? Do you ever wish you had your own bard?
Everything has been WAY BETTER than I imagined. Carrie Ryan does this thing at writing retreats where she asks questions in the evenings to promote professional discussion (and tears, if we’re being honest), and one of them is “What is your dream goal?”. I have been on several different writing retreats since OWEN sold, and I have had to make up new dream goalsbecause I have already met the first two. Absolutely nuts. And that’s before we take into account the support I’ve seen from my friends and family.
I was totally prepared to weather sturm und drang while writing Book 2, but I managed pretty well. I’ve always known how it went. I just thought no one would want to read it. 10+ years of writing fic online has given me a pretty thick skin. That said, I am quite pleased to have TWO of my own bards. They’re part time, and they live quite far away now, but they’re really good at making me sound cooler than I am.
Today’s Morris interview, Blythe Woolston (with special guest Carrie Mesrobian!) talks to Jessie Ann Foley about The Carnival at Bray. Go! Enjoy!
Coming up Thursday: my interview with E. K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen.
Coming even sooner than that: I update my appearances list — again! Part of my delay in posting is that it looks like my appearance in Toronto this week is not a public event, but a librarians’ conference. Not that we begrudge the librarians – of course not! – but I hate giving disappointing news to everyone else.
Similarly, my event in L.A. next week looks like it will be librarians and booksellers only. O Los Angeles friends, I am sad to tell you that! I will have to find my way back, in a more public capacity.
Next in our ongoing series of Morris finalist interviews, John Corey Whaley talks to Len Vlahos about his debut novel, The Scar Boys. Go forth, ye admirers of awesome, and check it out!
So I’ve been thinking how best to appreciate dragons today. If I were any kind of baker, I’d have made a cake, but since I’m a writer, I fear you’re going to have to settle for words. They’re less fattening, certainly, but maybe not quite as tasty.
Over at Suvudu, they’re celebrating by excerpting the first chapter of Shadow Scale. I know some of you are being patient and won’t go for that, since it will just leave you hungry for more (hm! Maybe words are tastier than I give them credit for). Your patience will soon be rewarded: less than two months to go. Still, even if you don’t care to read the excerpt, go give Suvudu a hug for me. I’m so grateful for their support and enthusiasm.
You can find lots of excellent pictures of dragons on Twitter by following #AppreciateADragonDay. The medieval manuscript art is my favourite, but there are also Komodo dragons, Smaug, Toothless, something for everyone. The good folks at Random House have also compiled a “Seraphina Playlist” of recent tunes:
(NB: “Cold War” was my suggestion; the rest were suggested by people more knowledgeable of recent music than I am. There will also be a playlist of songs I actually listened to while working.)
Updated to add: Here’s my playlist! It’s a more eccentric mixture, I’ll grant you that.
For my own part, I’m going to answer the question posed by my husband last night: Why dragons?
It’s a good question, and one that’s actually kind of difficult for me to answer because I started loving dragons when I was quite young, before I was able to articulate any kind of reason beyond the fact that they were powerful and super cool. Other supernatural creatures couldn’t compare, in fact I don’t think there’s a one that holds my interest like a dragon.
My earliest exposure to dragons — besides Andrew Lang’s fairy books, which surely had dragons in them, but I don’t remember the specifics — must have been C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I read at about age seven. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is turned into a dragon by his greed, and then in the book’s most vivid and memorable scene (to young me, anyway), Aslan peels off Eustace’s dragon skin and turns him human again. It’s a striking image and it underscores an important point about dragons: as much as we might wish to deny it, they’re a reflection of ourselves.
I think dragons combine two warring parts of our nature, the contradiction inherent in all of us, that we may be simultaneously monstrous and wise. Some depictions take both traits to extremes, while others lean more heavily toward the bestial or the godly. Smaug, I think, embodies both. The dragons of Pern, or of E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen veer toward the animalistic end of the spectrum (Owen, in particular, gives us dragons as a force of nature, as destructive – and brainy – as a hurricane). One of my favourite clever dragons is Vollys, from Two Princesses of Bamarre, who finds that vast intelligence can be unsatisfying without an audience.
That’s a lot of variation, right there, but that’s the beauty of the beast. There’s so much scope for interpretation and nuance. My own area of interest has been on the intersection of dragons and humanity — to what extent are we dragons and are dragons us? I do suspect (and honestly, this is NEW, the first time I’m thinking of this) that this interest might just be traceable to Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
Monster or Saint, creator or destroyer, bestial or transcendent, dragons — like the rest of us — are full of vibrant potential.
Foreign editions trickle back to me in their own time, with little rhyme or reason as far as I can tell. Yesterday I received one that looked like this:
I assumed, based on the alphabet, that this must be the Russian edition, but my husband (who is some kind of language-bot, or possibly a dragon) said, “Not so fast! It might be Bulgarian!”
It turns out he was right, this is the Bulgarian edition, but that begged the question: what does the Russian edition look like? I know there was one, but I don’t have a copy yet. A little digging (my dragon husband is also a Wizard of Googling) produced this result:
Nice, eh? It’s so much fun to see the kinds of cover art the book inspires. I should probably gather all these together on one page someday.
That’s right, folks. YALSA has just announced the 2015 Morris Award nominees, and they look like a lovely bunch of writers (and books). As is our ancient and venerable tradition, we previous Morris winners will be interviewing this new crop of fresh-faced youngsters in the weeks leading up to ALA Midwinter. Watch this space, darlings! I will be announcing the schedule as soon as I know it.
Congratulations to all the finalists!
Ahhhh… you know what I missed being able to do while I was working on the sequel? READ. Ye gods. I felt guilty any time I did, and even when I had time and leisure it was hard to really dig into anything. I just didn’t have the energy and mental resources to spare, so what I read slid off me, water off a duck’s back (the exception being non-fiction, which I would read because it was relevant).
Now I am afflicted with Cookie Monster Brain. I don’t merely want books, I want to eat them noisily and get crumbs all over everything. I want to take them apart and put them together in odd configurations, little Frankenbooks staggering about under their own power. I want to smash them together like stones and make tools, or music, or fire!
So I read V. – as I mentioned – but in the last couple weeks I have also read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (enjoyed the heck out of that), Raiders of the Nile by Stephen Saylor (I don’t like these young Gordianus prequel books as much as other books in the series; somehow Saylor has simplified the voice to reflect that he’s younger, but he’s also less interesting that way), and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (which I have decided perfectly encapsulates where Gaiman and I diverge, mythologically; I want to write a paper on this, or dissect it with a scalpel). I also have two manuscripts from friends to read, one of which is done, the other of which I need to start before my commentary becomes irrelevant. And then I just started The God Engines by John Scalzi, but I’m not far enough in to say much.
I know that doesn’t sound like very many books, but I am a SLOW READER, and for me it is a lot. Especially when you consider that for the last week I’ve been waking up at 5am thinking about literary criticism. Part of that is that it’s getting light very early now, but it’s also my brain going, “Hey. HEY! Remember that thing you read yesterday? Guess what guess what! I had some ideas about it.” And then off we go. My brain has to explain everything it thought while I was lazily sleeping, and then cross-reference all the other thoughts I’ve been having about anything and everything.
It is simultaneously annoying and glorious. I suspect my voraciousness right now is a symptom of just how gravely the well of my mind had run dry.
In other news, here’s my favourite song from choir this quarter, although this is not the arrangement we’re singing. It’s Owain Phyfe, though, so I couldn’t resist. I like his voice a lot.