Alaya Dawn Johnson is an American writer of speculative fiction. She has published six novels for adults and young adults, including The Summer Prince, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013, and Love Is the Drug, nominated for the Norton award. Her 2013 debut in the young adult fiction sector, the standalone novel The Summer Prince, is set on a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk Brazilian arcologyruled by a nanotech-empowered matriarchy. Love Is the Drug, her 2014 stand-alone young adult novel, is set in Washington, D.C. and follows a prep-school student whose memory loss may be connected to a burgeoning global influenza pandemic. Born in Washington, D.C., Alaya Dawn Johnson graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Languages and Cultures. Alaya Dawn Johnson lives, writes, cooks and eats in Mexico City. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Alaya Dawn Johnson.
How do you describe your occupation?
A writer, a novelist and lately a grad student.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
I tend to not have a very set routine, though I often wistfully imagine trying to keep one. Most days I wake up and do administrative and household chores, get to the coffee shop around 1 pm and work as long as I need to, some days, when I have a deadline coming up that means I can work until midnight (if it’s going to go that long, I go back home eventually). On non-deadline days I tend to work four to five hours on my writing before I run out of gas. Some days the administrative stuff gets out of hand and it eats up most of my time. I also like to travel and work in different places, preferably with minimal internet access.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I just finished The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin and I cannot wait to start The Stone Sky, the last book in the trilogy. I started the trilogy because it had won just about every major award in the field and I really enjoyed Jemisin’s other work—and wow, I was even more impressed than I expected to be. I’m totally riveted.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
When I was a kid my parents devised this ingenious scheme to induce me to read more, which combined my natural
greed uh, thriftiness with a genuine love of literature: they gave me a dollar for every book I completed. Eventually, they cottoned on to the fact that I loved books so much I’d read them anyway, but not before I made a few hundred dollars. The book that started it all was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which was wildly above my reading level as a five-year-old, but I was so fascinated by an old illustrated copy that someone had given me that I just kept reading it and looking up the words (imagine: ‘moor’ and ‘ayah’ and ‘viceroy’) and then re-reading it. By seven I think I more or less understood the book so I kept going with other weird classics of that era, like The Little Lame Prince by Miss Mulock. Yes, I also read The Berenstain Bears, but honestly, that was more for the dollar bills than the pleasure.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
In my youth, I was a page folder, but I have developed such an impressive collection of bookmarks over the years I’ve switched over entirely. Less harm to the books and I find my place more easily!
When did you fall in love with reading?
See my answer regarding The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett above. But honestly, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read. My mother taught me when I was two (I don’t know what she was thinking) and one of my earliest memories is the sheer joy of the first time I could read all of the words in the first reader by myself. I felt as though I had discovered magic.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Wow, the very first story…I remember getting an idea for a novel when I was around seven or eight and when I got tired of writing it down in a notebook I found (what I thought were) some old tapes that no one used and recorded myself speaking the rest of the story. It was a mystery novel about a child rock star whose private plane crashes onto a deserted island and there are shenanigans involving her sister. Think Lost meets Hannah Montana. In any case, I had forgotten all about the story when, months later, my father called me into his office. It turned out that I had recorded my story over one of his classical music tapes and he had been listening to Vivaldi when suddenly my story popped up. I was terrified but I’ll never forget how he smiled and told me the story was good and I should keep writing them.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
I actually found myself thinking the other day that I wished books like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy had existed when I was a teenager. I loved epic fantasy but I was so frustrated with its endemic lack of diversity and complex thought regarding its political systems (after my hundredth rodeo of supporting the ascendancy of the “rightful” king to the throne, it was hard for me not to think about the lives of all of those nameless serving wenches and what they wanted). So honestly, if I’d had Jemisin’s work back then to show me that another kind of storytelling was possible while still being recognizably within the genre, I think it would have opened up worlds for me sooner. As it was, I felt like I was alone in the wilderness for a while.
As for me at 25, that one is a little trickier. I remember reading Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner right around that time and it just gutted me in the best way. It was another one of those moments of realizing that another kind of storytelling was possible. The relaxed, fluid sexuality of her world and her characters, the impeccable manners fantasy that never descended into a facile saving-the-world narrative, a portrayal that was critical of the sexist norms of that fantasy world instead of passively mirroring them: I just fell in love with that book. So maybe I did get lucky enough to find the right book for me at that age?
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
I tend to develop ideas for a very long time before I feel comfortable writing them. When I skip this step, things tend to go badly so I’ve learned to trust myself about when I feel it’s ready. I’d say the shortest time I spend nurturing an idea (writing and developing it in various notebooks, researching, writing more, drawing maps and political hierarchies and timelines, researching, writing more) is a year, but I’m about to start work on a project I have been developing for ten years—in that case, I’ve even written sixty-thousand words on a draft that I’m just going to throw out and use as background for the real book. Once it feels that the idea is sufficiently complex and well-developed, and I have a solid plot arc for the novel, I start writing. I continually revise my plot arc as I’m going—it’s not exactly outlining, but I definitely have an idea of the thematic and character notes I need to hit in the upcoming scenes and generally speaking where things are heading. The first draft generally takes me a year but it can take more depending on what else I have going on. Then I revise it myself as extensively as I can before my agent and editor get a crack.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
For someone who wants to write speculative Young Adult fiction: Feed by M.T. Anderson (see M.T. Anderson’s reading list here). A brilliant gem of a novel, perfect characterization, Aristotelian tragedy, and incisive, prescient science fictional worldbuilding. It’s a wonder. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer was a book that got its hooks into me young and made me realize how very narrow the range of speculative futures that had been presented to me before really was. This was a future that centered on an African nation and an African culture, that played with storytelling techniques, that never once lost its mastery of language. It’s an older title but as far as I’m concerned genre-defining. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It wasn’t published as young adult since the category as it exists now is fairly new, but it is very much a coming-of-age tale in the same vein. Its depiction of a racist demagogue come to power in a time of great economic and environmental instability feels frighteningly relevant now, though it was published more than twenty years ago. Butler is a core read for any budding writer of speculative fiction, but this book particular helped set the stage for the modern YA dystopia even while it still feels fresher and more adventurous than most of its heirs.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I just bought a used copy of From Honey to Ashes by Claude Levi-Strauss. I have issues with some of his generalizations, but the method of analyzing mythological traditions that he developed in The Raw and the Cooked really impressed me in the end. Since I’m in the midst of writing my thesis on the symbolism of fermented food in prehispanic Mexican religious traditions, the theme of both of these books in his mythology series is pretty relevant to my interests. And in a weird way, this kind of dense theoretical reading can inform and deepen how I approach stuff in my fiction writing, so it all works out.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
I was going to say it was the immersive experience of being somewhere else and someone else for a while, but then I realized that the moment I most love is when you find yourself able to transcend both your own context and the context of the book and glimpse something that is true about them both. A great book doesn’t make me forget my life, it makes me understand it better.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Probably The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I know I am late to the party, but what an absolutely amazing wonder of a novel. Hilarious and tragic, brilliant characterization, clever pacing and narrative voice dynamics, and the footnotes just win the day. The kind of book that makes me grateful to be a reader in this modern age.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
Sunshine by Robin McKinley has always fascinated me. It’s one of those books that I’ve read so many times now, just a real comfort read for me, and I’m always intrigued by the stuff that she hints at: What did the magicians do during the war? How long can the tensions between fairies and humans and vampires hold? Who was her father anyway? I always feel like I’d love to dive into the novel and play detective/ historian.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
1) Read a great deal and read widely. Read non-fiction and fiction. Deliberately seek out a wide range of voices that are not like your own. Read books that make you uncomfortable. Slog through a few books you don’t like at all but everyone says are great. Read some more and analyze what works for you and what doesn’t. 2) Write a lot. I’m not saying this prescriptively, you can take days and weeks off, you can just wander around thinking about your work, and all of that is fine and good and helps you find your rhythm. But eventually, becoming a good writer requires a great deal of writing. And once you have finished a piece, go back to it after a while and revise it. Evaluate it the way you’ve been evaluating the books and stories you’ve been reading. Edit the hell out of it and then take what you’ve learned and write something else. Do that again. You never stop learning how to write, so what I think is most important at the beginning is developing the habits that help you learn how to learn.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
There are so many books whose impact on me has been huge. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett is one of the first that comes to mind. It completely blew open how I understood the story mechanics of romance, of melodrama, of the possibilities of historical fiction and historical research. In a very different way, Kindred by Octavia Butler showed me a path through to being a writer and telling stories that questioned power and traditional historical narratives.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
There’s a million but off the top of my head, books that I have adored in the recent past include A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Diana Wynne Jones, particularly Hexwood, Dogsbody and The Homeward Bounders, were foundational texts to me as a young child. In high school, I read the Vicky Bliss novels by Elizabeth Peters until the covers fell off, and they still delight upon my occasional re-read. Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, which taught me how the comic and tragic modes of writing are more closely aligned than I’d realized. Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay are master classes in historical fantasy and the surgical deployment of melodrama. I’m sure I’m forgetting something I’ll kick myself for, but that’s what I can think of right now.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I’m going through a bit of a phase of reading older books now, so I’m really looking forward to reading In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which sounds like it shares much of what I like about Raymond Chandler while being significantly more self-aware.
Image credit: Ismael Vásquez Bernabé