‘ I GET TO WAKE UP EVERY DAY ANDWRITE!’
Novelist Erika Johansen talks to Shreeja Ravindranathan about her debut fantasy novel, its upcoming Hollywood adaptation, and the fact she can wholeheartedly say dreams really do come true...
There aren’t many of us who can lay claim to having our aspirations become a reality. But for debut novelist Erika Johansen, after the release of her first novel last month – a gripping postapocalyptic adventure fantasy
The Queen of the Tearling, the first in a trilogy – life is about living out her dreams. Literally.
The 36-year-old San Franciscan’s novel took form only after a vivid dream she had of a ship crossing an ocean while immigrating to new lands, “very Columbus-like,” as she cheekily puts it. It has brought her more good fortune than Christopher Columbus himself; right from brokering a seven-figure deal for her very first novel and the upcoming series, to being approached by Warner Bros for a silver screen adaptation helmed by Harry Potter producer David Heyman and starring Emma Watson as Kelsea, the 19-yearold eponymous Queen of the Tearling. The cover page blurb from the publishers succinctly sums up the novel as ‘ The Hunger Games meets The Game of
Thrones [GOT]’ with back-cover quotes from the likes of The New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver ( Delirium Trilogy) and Bernard Cornwell ( The Pagan Lord).
You’d expect a debut novelist (and former lawyer) to be pleased with such high-profile comparisons, but Johansen isn’t impressed. “Yes, it’s a cross between dystopian and fantasy fiction,” she says, referring to the cover lines. “I haven’t read any of the GOT books so I can’t comment on how apt it is. But I just wish there wasn’t the need to sum up a book in one sentence. If a book can be summed up in one sentence, I’d think it’s probably not worth reading.” She’s not worried her book will do badly though. In fact, she says The Queen of the
Tearling is “quite worth the read”. Johansen’s trope might be as old as the hills – a young monarch in exile returning to reclaim her throne. But this is where she smartly deploys a winning gambit: The Tearling is a dystopian medieval kingdom bereft of electricity, technology or infrastructure, situated in what is, startlingly, 24th-century America. Yes, it’s medieval by virtue of its lack of technology, but with the timeline in the future.
Following an unknown 21st century apocalyptic event called the Crossing (in an imitation of her dream), a band of British and American utopians sail to a new continent. Johansen’s rationale for such an outlandish setting? “I wanted my heroine to have access to humanity’s history to look back on
‘If an author has failed to entertain a reader they have failed at their most fundamental path’
actual events and make comparisons and draw perspectives from that.”
On her 19th birthday, Kelsea Raleigh, raised in exile by her foster parents, is brought back to her kingdom by the Queen’s guard to be crowned as the rightful ruler of The Tearling. But the expedition is fraught with adventure, magic and dangers – her uncle wants her throne; the malevolent Red Queen, sorceress-ruler of neighbouring nation Mortmesne, threatens invasion; and her subjects distrust her, especially the beguiling Robin Hood-esque outlaw, the Fetch, who could be friend or foe.
Striking a balance between entertainment while offering literary commentary was important to Johansen. “If an author has failed to entertain a reader they have failed at their most fundamental path,” she says. “You can write the best-written book in the world but if it’s dull it has failed.”
Stepping out of Swarthmore College in 2009 with a law degree in hand, the economic downturn killed Johansen’s chances of finding regular employment. She failed to land a job or traineeship in law, but took up odd jobs to keep herself afloat and money coming in. “At that point, with a bunch of student loan debts, you begin scrambling and take on any job you can,” the guarded author recalls, unwilling to divulge details of the odd jobs she did or the earlier hardships.
“At some point I pinned most of my hopes on this book that I started writing during my second year at school in 2007, and it worked out!”
Writing was always Johansen’s true calling, she believes, “I was writing since I was seven years old and planned to be a writer all along.”
Before going to college she acquired an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But the programme was biased towards literary fiction – a genre Johansen rarely enjoyed as a reader because of its concentrated focus on artistic prose and a cerebral tone. And she enjoyed it even less as a writer.
Her struggle with her first attempt at a novel shattered her confidence and saw the intelligent student change tracks to the world of law. Why the shift? “I always had a strong sense of justice and am very socially and politically aware,” she explains. “For a long time because I was terrible at writing literary fiction I assumed I was going to be terrible at all writing. But I eventually got back to my first love and started writing The Queen... after I had the dream.”
The potent, lingering dream, coupled with a stirring speech in 2007 by then senator Barack Obama, who came across as “a capable and inspiring leader” on television, led to her eureka moment of creating Kelsea and The Tearling, with Barack Obama’s dynamism and leadership ascribed to Kelsea. “My own politics for certain do bleed on to the page via Kelsea, as I’m writing about human beings and their conflicts.
“But it’s not that I sat down and said I’m going to write a political book,” she says.
Finishing the novel in 2011, Johansen then sent it to Dorian Karchmar, an agent she met at the workshop, and the rest is history.
True to her presidential inspiration Johansen’s plot (despite her assertions otherwise) is rife with political intrigue, reflective internal debates on socioeconomic policies, justice and humanity
and yes, magic, but her vehicle is Kelsea – a woman.
Was it important for her to write a female into the forefront of the story? “Well, I mean I find it almost impossible to write men as I don’t have any insight into the male mind,” she says. “So my main characters have always pretty much been women and I doubt that will ever change.”
Kelsea is consciously characterised as bookish, plain, round-faced and robust in response to Johansen’s frustration at the lack of female protagonists who bear a likeness to real women and the reality that all women aren’t exquisitely beautiful.
“The reason it’s reiterated is because from my own experience when you’re a teenage girl who’s not pretty, that fact is hammered into you every day,” she says. “You’re never allowed to forget it, particularly in American culture – it’s a hard thing to deal with and as an issue books decline to address this.” Her book therefore tackles the absurdity of the stereotype that princesses and plainness are mutually exclusive.
It’s a point Johansen cleverly and subtly makes. For example, Kelsea’s musings about her weight affecting the speed of her swordsmanship skills isn’t the usual burden princesses in storybooks face. That said, Kelsea’s lack of conventional beauty doesn’t control her destiny or what she can accomplish, and she asserts immense strength of character. “That’s the message I was trying to get across,” says Johansen.
But doesn’t this make her acquiescence in the casting of stunning, willowy Emma Watson as Kelsea a little odd? The author has her reasons. “There’s much more to Kelsea than her looks so it was an expendable aspect,” she says, adding she took a practical approach to her dealings with Hollywood.
“I knew when signing the contract that it was never going to be a plain actress for a project this big. So what mattered most to me is that they cast an actress who projected Kelsea’s intelligence and compassion and Emma does that.”
A coming-of-age story this novel is, but Johansen is emphatic that her trilogy does not fall into Young Adult territory. “I’ve never thought of it as YA fiction because Kelsea’s mind is an adult mind and the problems she faces are adult problems. This book is innocuous compared to what’s coming because I’ve never been willing to pull my punches in terms of [writing] content to satisfy an age group of readers.”
Johansen has encountered a varied range of readers at bookstores and meet-and-greets, where the response has mostly been “overwhelmingly positive”, and for the debutante novelist their goodwill is half the battle achieved. “I don’t care if half the world hates the book – that in itself is success to me. A lot of them actually told me that Kelsea is a heroine they’ve been looking for all their life.”
And it’s not just the ladies who feel they can relate to Kelsea. Male readers (men form more than 61 per cent of the fantasy and science fiction’s demographic) have warmed up to her quandaries and battles too. It’s a fact Johansen feels shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Women love fantasy fiction just as much as men do, but fantasy fiction isn’t serving [women] as well. With an interesting, relatable protagonist I don’t believe the gender alienates readers.”
‘Women love fantasy fiction as much as men, but fantasy fiction isn’t serving women as well’
Disrobed of her fantasy writer cloak, Johansen is a horror aficionado. She’s nonchalantly frank about fantasy not being her favourite genre to read. Honesty is an attribute Johansen cherishes, not just in Kelsea but in herself too, and (despite a noticeable lack of divulging details on her personal life), with her writing this honesty is evident in everything she says.
“I have about four fantasy authors I really like and beyond them I’ve read almost nothing,” she says. These authors gave her the details she needed to conjure up medieval themes as part of the backdrop of The Queen of
the Tearling. “I actually did no research into medieval times,” she confesses. “Anything in there that feels medieval is me cobbling together observations from a bunch of fiction books I’ve read for fun.” Think Frank Hubert’s Dune, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Terry Brooks’ Heritage of Shannara and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. She also adores the Harry Potter and
The Lord of The Rings series. But horror is her favourite genre. “I love Stephen King, Richard Matheson and HP Lovecraft,” she says. But she admits she “isn’t very good at writing it”.
There are moments of fear in her book. Meta-narrative scenes that describe the horrific idea of a world devoid of books: the new world suffers from a shortage of books, brought on by the popularity of electronic publishing and the resultant loss of hard copies.
“It’s my little hint that no matter what time period we’re in, now that we’ve invented the printing press and have the ability to have our words printed we should not let it die,” Johansen explains.
Not that eBooks are evil, she clarifies quickly. “I might be a bit of Luddite”, she jokes. “But I’m just not confident that electricity in general and electronics in general are always gonna be here for us, that they’re infallible. Not great for the trees, but…”
She credits her father, who like Kelsea’s foster parents educated her to become an intelligent, politically aware citizen, for nourishing her love of writing. It’s the only time the acutely private author, who still lives in San Francisco (where she was born and raised), discusses her family.
“He was reading to me long before I could even crawl,” she says. “And one of the greatest things he did as a parent is to tell me to go ahead and learn – even if there’s no job waiting for me at the end. Just to learn anyway.”
Considering that Johansen was a down-on-luck graduate plodding away at a novel with no guarantees, it’s no wonder she is happy her life eventually took a turn for the better.
Her voice cracks in gratitude when she says, “I might have looked like a failure to my father in secret, but he never made me feel that way.”
Things have never looked better for Johansen now she’s a full-time writer, with her book being sold in more than 20 countries worldwide. “I get to wake up every day and all I have to do is write!” she gushes. “I no longer stay awake at night figuring out how to pay my bills. It’s the greatest gift. It really is a dream come true!”
EmmaWatson is to play Kelsea in the movie adaptation