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.
I’m sick today, but well enough to write. In fact, I particularly wanted to write to see whether being sick helps keep my
occasional ceaseless perfectionism in check. Indeed, it does, although maybe a bit too much. The end result was an exploratory exercise, wherein I write in a slow circle around a subject and learn a lot about it as a result. These aren’t usually suited for inclusion in the book, but they give me a good view of what I might write that would be. It’s like a spyglass fashioned of words; I can see where I need to go, off in the distance.
Anyway, by nice coincidence, today Ellen Kushner’s Twitter feed had a link to a blog post by Terri Windling: When Every Day is Judgment Day. She intersperses her own and others’ thoughts on perfectionism with pictures of a lovely dog. That’s win-win, as far as I’m concerned. And don’t neglect to listen to the song at the end, which is worth the price of admission all on its own.
I know it’s not winter everywhere now. My sister, who spent a couple years in Australia, never fails to chide me for being northern-hemisphere-centric. This song, however, is about summer, and if you could use a little bit of warmth right now, this is for you:
It’s an ancient and famous Irish song, and the title as given means “Summer, Summer.” It is more commonly named after its refrain, “Thugamar Féin An Samhradh Linn,” which means “We bring the summer with us.” The song is traditionally sung upon Lá Bealtaine (Beltaine) in May to mark the beginning of summer, but I actually think it works well as a winter song in this wistful rendition. Summer seems more remembered than present here.
We bring the summer with us. We have to, in wintertime.
I listened to it this morning as I wrote before the sun came up. I half wonder whether this might be my new Iarla song for the next novel. I’ve had go-to Iarla songs for each book — “A Nest of Stars” for Seraphina, “Glistening Fields” and “Foxlight” for Shadow Scale (which was such a perilous book it needed two).
This song is so simple that it’s a particularly good introduction to Iarla’s voice. What amazes me is the control he has, the precision and deliberateness of it. The voice is an instrument, as surely as the piano or fiddle, and there are years of training and practice behind every ornament. It’s very nuanced singing, very controlled, and yet it’s not stiff or obscuring. He’s so skilled that he makes it seem like there’s no artifice at all, only transparent, honest emotion.
I’ve learned a lot about writing voice from listening to him, as unexpected as that sounds. I’ve learned that I have all the tools I need at my disposal; that I can choose which ones to use, depending what I want to create; that there are times to hold back and times to fling everything open; and that you should always know more than you show.
Writers — singers, artists, all — bring the summer with us in full knowledge that somewhere else it’s winter. We don’t forget, but make sure each echoes into the other, wistfulness and warmth all intertwined.
Made it through November unscathed!
Well, no, not entirely. But it was a better November than some I’ve had, despite the fact that our apartment suffered a major flood from above. Flooding sucks, although I’m sure it’s better than fire. It may even be better than famine, but it’s still a giant pain in the rear. I’m tempted to say, “It’s just stuff,” which is an attitude I try to have about my belongings in general, but in this case it’s not just stuff — or not primarily stuff. It’s time and space, and stress and uncertainty, all of which turn out to be ten times the headache “stuff” ever was.
I hate not knowing how long we’re going to be living like this. I hate not being able to plan.
I don’t quite understand it, but somehow I was still able to work. In spite of all this stress and nonsense, I got 30K words written. It’s not quite NaNoWriMo speed, but I think it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten (especially in darkest November). In a way, writing was the one thing that didn’t seem to be floating away, a little island among whirlpools and eddies.
I’m hoping it continues, that this stream of words will keep sweeping me along. I know, I know, I’ve just transformed writing from a welcome island into the stream itself. For my next trick, I’ll turn it into a marmot.
But my point is: it’s December. We made it, darlings. November, mon ennemi, adieu.
If you haven’t seen the We Need Diverse Books funding campaign yet, please go check it out, and I hope you will be inspired to contribute. They’re more than halfway to their goal, but there’s still plenty of time for you to get in on the action.
While we’re on the subject, here’s an article on “The Thorny Issue of Race,” intended specifically for NaNoWriMo participants, but useful for anyone interested in writing stories incorporating different races, ethnicities, and cultures.
(Another bit of silly filking for your amusement)
You can write if you want to,
You can leave your words behind.
Jot ’em, ripe or green,
By hand or by machine,
And everything will work out fine.
You can write where you want to,
Someplace where they will never find,
Or teach yourself to fly
And write it in the sky,
And leave your critics far behind.
You can write, you can write,
It’s ok if you look like a fright
(Just look at me, now)
You can write, you can write,
Dawn or dusk, noonday or night,
It’s safe to write!
You can write what you want to,
If you don’t, nobody will.
You can coin new words
And make ’em all absurd
And then laugh like a burzbagill!
You can write if you want to,
You can read your words aloud,
You can hold it all in
Or whisper to the wind,
In any case you should be proud.
You can write, you can write,
Ponderous or silly and light
(Just look at me, now!)
You can write, you can write,
I struggle, but it’s well worth the fight.
It’s safe to write.
Because it seems not to have Februaried on this blog. Hm. Extraordinary.
I’m not really here. Or more accurately: I am here but briefly, giving myself a break from writing. As if blogging weren’t writing.
I hit my Jan. 31st deadline hard, with a hammer, and then I was tired. I rested for a couple-or-three weeks, until my editor started slipping me revisions again. They’re GOOD revisions, and I can’t underscore what a relief that is. However, that means I am in the throes of work again, at least until early May.
I have precious little extra brainspace for blogging right now. However, be not dismayed! I am working, and working HAPPILY, which is pretty much the most wonderful news I could possibly have.
The real reason I’m popping in today is because I ran across two blog posts recently that struck me as important: Myra McEntire’s The Shame of Depression, and Libba Bray’s Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land. Both are about writers dealing with depression (as you might have gleaned from the first title, at least), and they are honest, heartfelt, and powerful.
I went through a depression writing this sequel. I’d love to say, “But now I’m over it, forever and ever, ta-DAA!” but depression teaches you not to make those kinds of grandiose promises. There’s always the chance it’s going to pop back up, like a horror movie villain, no matter how thoroughly you stabbed it in the chest. I think I can safely say, “I’m doing very well, I find joy in writing again, and may the beast stay in remission, touch wood.”
I’m seeing depressed writers everywhere – on Twitter, on blogs, through the grapevine. I don’t know whether some critical mass has been reached, where people finally feel safe admitting it, or if I’m attuned to it because of my own experience, or if now is a particularly stressful time to be a writer. Maybe it’s all three, in varying degrees. But I hope these writers are seeing it too, and taking some comfort in the not-aloneness. I wish I could reach through the computer and give everyone a hug.
For me, depression didn’t manifest as sadness so much as incapacity. I felt incapable. Stupid. Muted. I was half convinced I had early-onset Alzheimer’s, or perhaps, like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, I was waning into dullness after a flash of false brilliance. What ability I’d possessed had clearly been ephemeral.
My advice is to be as honest as you can about it, with everyone you love and work with. People care about you; it’s ok to let them. It’s ok to take the time you need to take care of yourself.
My favourite quote from Bray’s post is, “I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it. I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me.” If you can write, do it. There was a while where I couldn’t, however, where writing WAS the source of stress, but it was still art that helped dig me out of that hole. I joined a second choir and sang my way out. If writing is too hard right now, don’t panic. It won’t always be. There may be some other art form that suits you better these days, something no one’s demanding you be good at.
All right, speaking of writing, I’d better get back to it. I’m EAGER to get back to it. When will you see me again? Who knows? It’ll be a nice surprise.