Alaya Dawn Johnson has a new young adult science fiction novel out from Scholastic/Arthur Levine titled Summer Prince, set in future Brazil that’s an awesome read. As a child, her father introduced her to Joao Gilberto and Brazilian bossa nova, a music for which this host also has great passion. She later traveled to Brazil with her sister and cousin. A Columbia University graduate with a degree in East Asian languages and cultures, she lives in New York City. She’s authored the vampire series Zephyr Hollis set in 1920s NYC, The Spirit Binders fantasy series and Twisted Journeys graphic novels. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies like Zombies v. Unicorns, Welcome to Bordertown, Year’s Best Science Fiction 11,and Year’s Best Fantasy 6. She’s also had stories in Asimov’s and Fantasy magazines. She can be found on Twitter as @alayadj, on Facebook or at her website AlayaDawnJohnson.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
Alaya Dawn Johnson: Diana Wynne Jones was my gateway drug. Hexwood and The Homeward Bounders forever. Besides Jones, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite writers on earth, and had a huge influence on young me. Also, Ursula Le Guin for how she changed my view of the possibilities of science fiction.
ADJ: I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I figured out what novels were. Many aborted novels before I finished my first at sixteen.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
ADJ: Lots of trial and error at first. I read a ton and wrote many short stories. Committed fanfic. When I started college, I joined online writing groups. I also read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Reni Browne and Dave King. It’s the best writing advice book I’ve ever encountered. I read it three times and each time improved my fiction.
ADJ: I always wrote both. I like both forms a great deal. Though these days novels take most of my time. My first pro sale was to Strange Horizons in 2004–it was basically my first short story sale of all.
SFFWRTCHT: Your first novel was Racing The Dark. Where’d the idea for your Spirit Binders series come from?
ADJ: All my ideas come from so many places. Some elements: Crayon Shin-Chan (the anime), hints of Polynesian and Japanese cultures,wanting an epic fantasy series with brown people, and using gods as a vehicle to explore human-induced environmental damage.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take to write? aka How long do novels typically take?
ADJ: Racing the Dark took a year (started it studying abroad in Japan). But editing it took at least two years. Most of my novels take a year.
SFFWRTCHT: Lana, a teenage girl on a nameless backwater island, finds an ominous blood-red jewel that marks her as someone with power setting in motion events that drive her away from her family and into an apprenticeship with a mysterious one-armed witch. Which came first: world, plot, or character?
ADJ: The idea of a family displaced was my seedling. I knew they were leaving an island. Then came the worldbuilding. Lana lives in an archipelago where humans control their environment by imprisoning elemental spirits. But some of the spirits are trying to break free, a struggle that destroys Lana’s home and starts her adventures.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about how magic works in that universe.
ADJ: Many readers comment on how grim those books are, and mostly that’s because of the magic system. You get powers from binding spirits, and they can only be bound with sacrifices. Painful, unpleasant sacrifices. Which is sort of grim, but means the narrative has a lot of tension.
SFFWRTCHT: Are you an outliner or a pantser? Did you follow the surprising ride or have it planned?
ADJ: I like surprises, but need to do some planning. I tend to scribble notes for the next 20k words farther than I have written. As I close in, I continue to change the notes. So at the beginning, I won’t necessarily know the end, but by the 3/4th point, I do. But by “notes” I mean illegible scribbles across several moleskins…
ADJ: Spirit Binders have crossover appeal, but they’re fundamentally epic fantasy and were published as adult. So Summer Prince is my first book in the YA section of the store.
SFFWRTCHT: June Costa’s art may make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him but June sees a fellow artist and as they collaborate, like everyone else, she falls in love. Their work adds fuel to a growing rebellion against govt limits on new tech. But like all Summer Kings Enki is destined to die. Let’s talk about Summer Prince. You started writing it on a train? Where’d the idea come from? on train hunting ideas?
ADJ: The train ride was my way to get away and write something different. The idea came from having a lot of Amtrak points, honestly. I love to travel. I like how it gets you outside of your routine ways of thinking and being. It’s a good way to write, too. But you should have seen the look my midwestern housewife seat mate gave me when she read what I was typing next to her!
SFFWRTCHT: What’s a Summer King?
ADJ: The Summer King is an old mythological idea that you can see in many different cultures–from the Mexicans to the Celts. The idea of young man becomes a king for a year and at the end of that year is sacrificed for the good of the community. So I took that mythological idea and put it in a SFnal context of a city building itself in the aftermath of an apocalypse.
ADJ: Palmares Tres is a matriarchal city built on the coast of the modern state of Bahia in the aftermath of a global apocalypse. It’s a giant pyramid, with the rulers living at the top and the poorest residents at the bottom in a district called the verde.
SFFWRTCHT: FYI Bahia is a Northeastern coastal state with heavy influences from Africans brought as ex-slaves on culture & religion. And they move around via lifts of a sort?
ADJ: Yes, the pyramid is hollow and constructed of mini-pyramids, whose trusses are hollow and filled with transport tubes.
SFFWRTCHT: Is this a standalone or is there a series planned here?
ADJ: This is a standalone. I really wanted to tell a complete story after writing so many series novels.
SFFWRTCHT: I really enjoyed how you wove in cultural elements, including your own love of bossa nova, the class struggle, etc. Obviously you have a passion for the setting which you incorporated well into the book. How much research did you do?
ADJ: I read a lot of books, particularly about the history of the African diaspora in Brazil. Also got advice from my sister, who studied in Brazil and knew many sources. And sent it to Brazilian writers for help.
ADJ: I tend to write short stories in intense bursts. Whereas with novels I try to pace myself. Short stories feel similar though.
SFFWRTCHT: Does your writing process differ from short stories to novels?
ADJ: I used to be the writer who would languish for weeks and then write 10k words in an exhausting fugue state. Really draining. So for The Summer Prince and other books I tried to set myself a very low minimum word count. 500 words a day. Takes just as long, but now I’m less twitchy about the process. My writing time is afternoons and evenings.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
ADJ: I love Scrivener. I bought a mac just so I could use it. I like having my research right there with my words. And I love music while writing. My Summer Prince soundtrack was a lot of Chico Buarque, Joao Gilberto, Jorge Ben and others.
SFFWRTCHT: I love bossa nova and those are some greats. Many Americans don’t realize how huge its influence has been on Western music, especially jazz and pop. What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
ADJ: Best: Finish the story. Edit until you can’t look at it anymore. Do it again. Worst: Write 2000 words a day. I loved the autobiography of King’s On Writing, but his writing advice stressed me out for years.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
ADJ: I’m writing a YA novel loosely based on my experiences at a DC private school (except this time with a global flu pandemic). I’m a third generation DC native. And New York City transplant.