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.